Braves Bid to Be a Team Worthy of Superstation

Times Staff Writer

In the best of all possible Brave new worlds, Bruce Sutter will save 50 games, one for each million dollars in his contract, Chuck Tanner’s happy talk will serve as sound track for a World Series highlight film, and Ted Turner will buy a ticket to the bleachers and stay there.

Nostalgia is in--Madonna plays Marilyn Monroe, Andy Griffith returns to Mayberry, and flag-waving is back in fashion.

What better time, then, to revive America’s Team, a.k.a. the Atlanta Braves, a cable-television extravaganza that enjoyed a limited run in 1982, when it won the West--the National League West, that is--and then faded out of America’s consciousness as quickly as another Georgia product, Jimmy Carter?


If the Braves were America’s Team in 1985, one wise guy said, then asparagus was America’s Vegetable.

Last April, the Braves took the fifth (place), and were never heard from thereafter.

They lost more games last season, 96, than in any season since 1977, when they went 61-101.

They finished 10th in the league in hitting and in one stretch went six days and 37 innings without scoring.

They were last in the league in pitching with a 4.19 earned-run average.

They ran the bases worse than anybody, getting caught on a ridiculous 42% of their stolen-base attempts.


And only the Dodgers made more errors.

Even with a prime-time star such as Dale Murphy (37 home runs, 111 runs batted in, .300 average), any other TV show would have gotten its cancellation notice long ago. But Ted Turner, owner of the Braves and owner of the station that sends the Braves to cable companies, is no ordinary TV mogul.

He is, as his biography states in the Braves’ media guide, “a modern-day hero among today’s masses.”

Turner also is more willing than most to go to extraordinary lengths to get what he wants. The Soviet Union won’t come to the Olympics? Fine, Turner organizes his own Goodwill Games.

The Braves need a relief pitcher? Turner writes out a check for free-agent Sutter that would impress Imelda Marcos.

The Braves need reorganization? Turner hires Bobby Cox, who had just come within a game of reaching the World Series, from the Toronto Blue Jays. As manager, Cox was fired once before by Turner. As general manager, Cox is given a guaranteed five-year, $1.8-million contract.

The Blue Jays, not at all happy to lose Cox, charge the Braves with tampering. The Braves, Toronto says, contacted Cox early last September while he still was very much in the Blue Jays’ employ. A grievance with the commissioner’s office is pending, but no one doubts that Cox is back home in Georgia to stay.

And finally, from Pittsburgh, Turner imports Tanner, who managed a last-place club but holds the distinction of being the winning manager in Turner’s only game as Brave manager, in 1977.

Tanner is the fourth Brave manager in three seasons.

Joe Torre, who took the Braves to the division title in 1982, was fired in 1984 after two straight second-place finishes. The rap on Torre was that he didn’t do enough to develop supposed prospects such as Brad Komminsk, Gerald Perry and Paul Zuvella. All three are back in the minors today. Torre is in a broadcast booth and collecting the last $225,000 of the money Turner owed him.

Torre, it was said, wasn’t enough of an organization man. So to replace him, Turner hired a career guy, Eddie Haas, who had been the insiders’ unanimous choice to replace Cox when he was let go after the ’81 season.

Seldom has a manager been more overmatched. Haas lasted 121 games, 71 of them losses.

“We were worried about his mental welfare,” Turner said in explaining Haas’ firing.

The health of the franchise might have had something to do with it, too. Haas became a roving batting instructor in the minor leagues, and coach Bobby Wine became interim manager.

Wine had some support from Brave players to be hired for this season, too, but Turner opted for Tanner.

And then, with his new management team in place, Turner vowed to stay out of the way.

“I might buy a ticket and sit in the bleachers this year,” he said.

Sure. Right next to George Steinbrenner.

Nobody said it would be easy, and through Atlanta’s first seven games, five of them losses, it has been anything but.

First, there is the matter of Sutter, who chose his first year with the Braves to:

--Have shoulder trouble and postseason surgery.

--Record just 23 saves, 22 fewer than he had in a record-breaking 1984 with the St. Louis Cardinals.

--Give up a career-high 13 home runs in 88 innings, tying him with San Francisco’s Mark Davis for most home runs allowed by a National League reliever.

“I want to prove to people that Ted Turner did not sign another bum steer,” Sutter said last winter.

On Dec. 12, Sutter underwent an operation to relieve an entrapment in his right shoulder that was cutting off the blood flow in the shoulder.

“He’s the key to the whole thing,” Cox said this spring. “If he’s healthy--and we have no reason to believe he won’t be--then we’ll be all right.”

But Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda, for one, sensed that all was not right when Sutter pitched against the Dodgers in Florida. And so far this season, Sutter has hardly dissuaded the skeptics who suspect that his split-fingered fastball has split, perhaps for good.

Sutter’s first appearance came in the Braves’ second game, last Thursday against Montreal. The Braves were trailing, 3-1, and the Expos had two runners on base when Sutter entered. The first Montreal batter, rookie Andres Galarraga, hit Sutter’s second pitch for a three-run home run.

Three days later, Sutter came in with the Braves holding a two-run lead over Houston. He allowed a walk, a double and a single, and two runs scored.

Wednesday, against Cincinnati, Sutter faced seven batters and struck out five. But one, Dave Concepcion, hit a home run.

So, the line on Sutter reads: 5 innings pitched, 4 earned runs, 5 hits, 2 home runs, 7.20 ERA.

And while Sutter may be financially rich, this is not a pitching-rich team, especially after what has become known in Atlanta as the April Fools’ Day Massacre, when Cox and Tanner issued pink slips en masse to Pascual Perez, Len Barker, Rick Camp and Terry Forster.

Tanner would argue that the Braves hardly were loaded even before choosing to eat the remaining $2.7 million of Barker’s 5-year contract, $600,000 of Camp’s contract and about one-sixth of both Perez’s ($375,000) and Forster’s ($490,000) salaries.

“We didn’t exactly break up the ’27 Yankees,” he said, noting that those pitchers had a combined 9-31 record last season.

The decision was to go with Rick Mahler, who won almost as many games--17--as the rest of the starting staff--22--combined last season, and kids Zane Smith (25), Joey Johnson (24), Craig McMurtry (26), and David Palmer (28), a free-agent signee from Montreal.

“We knew what those other guys could do,” Tanner said at the time. “We think these guys can help.”

It won’t be the same ride without Perez, who became famous for getting lost on Atlanta’s freeways and circling the ballpark on a night he was supposed to pitch.

Perez also became famous for striking out a batter, then blowing imaginary smoke away from his trigger finger while dancing around the mound, his gold chains jumping.

He became notorious for his part in a beanball war with the San Diego Padres in 1984.

And he became undesirable after a drug arrest in the Dominican Republic and a 1-13 record last season.

Perez showed up late for training camp this spring but appeared to have won a job with a sharp outing against the Dodgers on March 16. But after that, he reportedly slipped into some old habits, arriving late for three meetings and missing a team bus.

The day before he was cut, Perez showed up, saying he had an upset stomach. Told to go see the trainer, he reportedly went home instead. He’s still there.

The Braves were ahead in six of their first seven games but won just twice. It would help if the middle men of the team’s order--Bob Horner, Terry Harper, and Ozzie Virgil--were hitting better than a combined 4 for 61.

Horner doesn’t have a hit yet--he’s 0 for 21--but is traditionally a slow starter. Take away his Aprils, in which he is batting .201, and his career average would climb from .279 to .290.

Virgil, obtained from the Philadelphia Phillies in a trade for Steve Bedrosian, was an All-Star last season and hit 19 home runs. In the “Launching Pad,” Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Virgil should become the first Brave catcher since Earl Williams in 1972 to hit as many as 10 home runs and drive in as many as 50 runs in a season.

The rest of the supporting cast is much the same as last season, and a good one. Murphy, of course, is in center, flanked by Harper in left and Claudell Washington in right. Horner is at first, Glenn Hubbard at second, Rafael Ramirez at short and Ken Oberkfell at third.

“With that lineup, you know the Braves are going to hit,” Dodger Bill Russell said.

But to be a ratings hit on Turner’s superstation, they need to win. Stay tuned.