"It's about time for us to do something," Braves Leftfielder Dale Murphy said recently. "We had a chance last year, but then something happened."
"We played bad."
So what else is new? Since 1975, Atlanta has never finished better than fourth in its division. Last year the Braves batted .243, next to last in the league. "We can win the division," insists steady First Baseman Chris Chambliss. "It isn't beyond the realm of possibility. We've got as much talent as the Dodgers." Actually, no.
The Braves tried during the off-season to get Phillie Shortstop Larry Bowa, but failed. So they're left once again with starter Rafael Ramirez, who committed a whopping 30 errors in 95 games last year while batting .218, and substitute Jerry Royster. "All we want at shortstop," says Manager Joe Torre, late of the Mets, "is somebody who can catch the ball." Overall, depth is shallow, as proved last June when the injury-bedeviled Braves lost three consecutive games to Montreal by a combined score of 30-3.
The pitching staff, however, includes some promising young prospects who helped give the team six shutouts in spring training. Big things are expected—and desperately needed—from Larry McWilliams and Steve Bedrosian, who were 13-10 and 10-10 at Richmond respectively. Also, everyone is trying hard to view Tommy Boggs's 3-13 record for the Braves last year as plain bad luck. But what about his 4.09 ERA?
Atlanta still has Phil Niekro who, at 43, was pitching knuckleballs before some of his teammates were born. Niekro was 7-7 last year and pulled a hamstring early this spring, though he says, "What really happened was my pacemaker stopped." General Manager John Mullen says, "We know that one of these years Niekro isn't going to be able to pitch." Relievers include Rick Camp (9-3, 17 saves, 1.78 ERA) and Al Hrabosky, who says, "As long as you're in the major leagues, you don't ever have to make an excuse. There has been too much dwelling on the negatives around here."
The club's star, Third Baseman Bob Horner, who led the team in homers (15) in 1981 for the fourth straight year, has fielded a negative or two in his time. "I'm frustrated with our team," he says. "Fourth place is not successful and fifth place is out of the question." Fourth and fifth is where the Braves finished in 1981's split season.
Understandably, interest in the Braves is lacking. Last year's average attendance was 10,927 per game, and the team is losing $3 million to $4 million a year. But Mullen says, "Atlanta is an instant success town. People will get excited and come out when we win a few days in a row." To this end, Torre says, "I told the players we're here to win the pennant." They'll probably give him the same answer the Mets did.
The Braves had nine different starting shortstops from 1973 through 1981—Marty Perez, Craig Robinson, Larvell Blanks, Darrell Chaney, Pat Rockett, Jerry Royster, Pepe Frias, Luis Gomez and Rafael Ramirez. Their collective batting average for those nine years was .245 and their average defensive ranking eighth. In the same period two NL teams had one regular shortstop.