ATLANTA BURNS. BRAVES ON THE WARPATH. SWEET GEORGIA BRAWN. JOSEPH AND HIS AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMTEAM. TORRE, TORRE, TORRE.
And that may be only the beginning, because the headlines won't stop until the Atlanta Braves do. They beat the Houston Astros 6-5 on Sunday for their 11th victory in a row to tie the modern major league out-of-the-gate record set by Oakland last season. It's only April, but pennant fever is rampant in Atlanta—a rabid crowd of 2,500 was at the airport Sunday night to welcome the Braves back from last week's road trip. It's only April, but most of the fans knew that the Braves were four games up on the San Diego Padres in the all-important loss column and five up in the not-so-important win column. It's only April, but the magic number is 148. BRAVES OFF TO TORRED START.
Yes, this is the same team that seemed forever doomed to be the turkey in the middle of the club sandwich that is the National League West. How the Braves got to be the toast of baseball is beyond everybody except themselves. They have a new manager, Joe Torre, and a new outfielder, Brett Butler, but otherwise the starting cast is pretty much the same one that finished fourth and fifth last season, TURNEROUND IN ATLANTA.
It may be only April, but on Sunday it seemed like October when the Braves started pouncing all over each other after defeating Houston in the Astrodome. Atlanta came from behind for the fourth time in five games as Dale Murphy tripled in two runs in the sixth and pinch hitter Biff Pocoroba doubled in the winning runs in the eighth. Rookie Joe Cowley started and was followed by relievers Larry McWilliams, Al Hrabosky and Rick Camp. After Camp retired Art Howe for the final out with the tying run on third, the Braves came streaming out of the dugout. "I tried to get them inside," said Torre. "It's a little early for that stuff. We should save some for October." When Torre got back to the clubhouse, there was a call waiting from Jimmy Carter, HAIL FROM FORMER CHIEF.
"We have a right to be excited," said First Baseman Chris Chambliss. "But we also have a long way to go."
The Braves' 2-1 victory over the Astros on Saturday had tied the NL mark held by the 1955 Dodgers and the 1962 Pirates. Choose your omen: Those Dodgers went on to win the pennant and the World Series; those Pirates finished fourth. With that victory, the Braves also surpassed the best start in the history of the franchise. The Boston Beaneaters, led by two Hall of Famers, 33-game winner John Clarkson and Catcher Mike (King) Kelly, won nine in a row to open the 1888 season—and also finished fourth. Phil Niekro didn't come up until September of that year.
"These guys really believe," says Niekro, who actually has been in the organization for only 24 years. "This team hasn't felt this good since we won the division in 1969, and even then we didn't feel like winners until three-quarters of the way through the season. These kids don't care what time of the year it is. They're beautiful to watch."
The Braves' early success is attributable partly to talent, partly to psychology and partly to dumb luck. They've gotten their share of the breaks during the streak, but the biggest break may have come back in October when Ted Turner, owner extraordinaire, ignored his staffs recommendation and chose Torre to be the manager, ANOTHER CAPTAIN OUTRAGEOUS DECISION.
John Mullen, the general manager, favored Eddie Haas, the Braves' Triple A Richmond manager, to replace Bobby Cox, and the four other top front-office people agreed. "Even Ted agreed," says Mullen, "but then he decided that with the team on television all the time, he needed a personality. Joe had played here, he was a former MVP and he could attract the attention of the New York media. Ted wanted him, and he's the boss; he's the one with the money. It couldn't have worked out better."
Hrabosky, the Hungarian mad about his lack of pitching time the last two years, was overjoyed when he heard Torre would be the manager. Says Hrabosky, "I told a club official over the winter, 'You may have hired him because of a TV decision, but you're going to be thankful you did.' I played with Joe in St. Louis, so I knew what kind of guy he is."
Besides being the originator of the 12-o'clock shadow, Torre had been the spectacularly unsuccessful manager of the New York Mets for 4½ years. "I learned some lessons," he says. In his keynote address to the Braves in spring training, he told them to run hard, play hard, have fun and see what happens. He also wanted them to get in the habit of winning ball games, so they won their first six, and 12 of 14. They finished the spring with the best record in baseball, 18-7. "Yes, we tried to win in spring training, but I never took a pitcher out of a game or pinch-hit for a guy in order to win," Torre says. "I just tried to instill a winning approach."
Torre's first priority was the much-maligned pitching staff, so he put his two former Met pitching coaches, Rube Walker and Bob Gibson, to work. "Rube taught them how to pitch," says Torre, "and Gibby taught them how to win." The pitchers and catchers sat through extensive meetings with the coaches. "More than anything else," says Gibson, "we tried to teach them to be aggressive out there. We wanted them to be on the offense instead of the defense, to challenge the batters. They had it backwards—they were trying to get hitters out on the inside of the plate, when really it's the inside pitch which is supposed to set up the outside pitch.
"Now I hear them telling each other the same things I was saying to them in spring training. I don't care if I don't get the credit, just as long as they do it."
The results have been astonishing. Through Sunday the staff ERA was 2.07. Rick Mahler, who never before had a shutout, had two already. Bob Walk, with two wins, had doubled his victory total of last year. Hard-luck Tommy Boggs was 1-0, which may not seem like much unless you realize he's 19-42 lifetime. And Niekro, the ace of the staff, is on the disabled list until at least April 23 because of sore ribs.
What's more, there's life in the bullpen. Cox had a tendency to rely too heavily on Camp, but Torre has already shown faith in Hrabosky and Gene Garber. He's been rewarded with six saves—three from Camp, two from Garber and one from Hrabosky. "What this pitching staff lacked was an identity," says Torre. "The staff hasn't had one since Spahn, Burdette and Buhl."
Torre also named Bob Horner captain, the team's first since Hank Aaron left in 1974. Although Torre says Horner earned the designation, this may also be a Wizard of Oz trick, imparting heart with a pocket watch. It worked for the Wizard, and it's worked for Torre. Horner has had three game-winning hits and is fielding third base with unaccustomed ease and skill.
The new face on the Braves belongs to the romantically named Butler. He's what they used to call cocky, but he's also fast and he gives the Braves their first legitimate centerfielder since, oh, Bill Bruton. Naturally he takes a lot of kidding in Atlanta about his name: "People are always asking me where Scarlett is, and when I steal a base, I'm 'gone with the wind.' I don't care. It's all hype." FRANKLY, BUTLER DOESN'T GIVE A DAMN.
Butler, who will carry a lot of offensive responsibility as the leadoff man, had stolen six bases and scored nine runs in the first 11 games. Batting behind him is Glenn Hubbard, a bearded dervish of a second baseman, who, like Butler, was an outstanding high school wrestler. Hubbard and Horner give the Braves the distinction of being the first team in major league history with two characters from Mother Goose in the same infield, HOT HORNER AT THE CORNER. HUBBARD'S CUPBOARD NO LONGER BARE.
The Braves have had a shortstop problem for most of their years in Atlanta. Last season it looked as if Rafael Ramirez was the latest problem; he hit only .218 and made 30 errors in just 95 games. The Braves nearly traded Boggs to the Phillies for Larry Bowa. "When we met just before spring training," says Mullen, "Ted said he thought we would stick with Rafael. We had said he could be our short-stop for the next 10 years, and we weren't going to let one year change that." Dal Maxvill, another new coach, worked hard with Ramirez, and so far he has made only two errors. Better still, he was batting .333 through Sunday.
The Braves have always had hitters, and that hasn't changed, what with Chambliss at first base and Claudell Washington and Murphy in the outfield. Murphy, who had four home runs and 12 RBIs, is playing his fifth position in his fifth year with the team. "I'd like to think of myself as versatile, but I suspect they're trying to keep me as far away from home plate as possible," says the former catcher-first baseman-center-fielder and recently leftfielder and right-fielder. The present catcher is Bruce Benedict, the only Brave named to last year's All-Star team.
When the Phillies won the world championship in 1980, Dallas Green had a lot of young players on the bench, and Torre has a lot on his. Say hello to Ken Smith, Randy Johnson, Larry Whisenton, Rufino Linares and Matt Sinatro. START SPREADING THE NEWS.
For the record, the streak started on Opening Day when Mahler beat San Diego 1-0 on a two-hitter as Hubbard drove in Butler for the only run. The Braves then took the Padres 6-4, as Murphy had a single, double and home run, and Garber saved for Walk. Murphy had another homer and two RBIs in a 6-2 victory over the Astros with Hrabosky getting the save for Boggs. Win No. 4, 8-6 over Houston, featured Butler's two RBIs and three runs and a great catch by Murphy to deny a home run. Mahler shut out the Astros 5-0 the next day as Murphy and Horner homered.
On to Cincinnati, where the Braves won 6-1 on homers by Horner and Chambliss and the pitching of Walk and Camp. Then Murphy hit a three-run homer, reserve Outfielder Linares went 4 for 4 and Garber pitched 3‚Öì scoreless innings in an 8-5 victory over the Reds. The streak grew to eight with a 5-2 win over the Reds as Benedict doubled in Linares for the tying run in the ninth and drew a walk to force in the winner in the 10th. Afterward, Torre held a meeting to tell the Braves they didn't play well. "Teams listen better after a win," he says.
The acid test came last Friday night. The Braves haven't played very well in the Astrodome in the past because the park discourages home runs. And in the fourth inning Mahler surrendered his first runs in 26‚Öì innings as the Astros went ahead 3-0. Through five, Nolan Ryan had given up only one hit and faced the minimum number of batters. "At that point we used to lay down and die," Hubbard said later. But now Benedict led off the sixth with a double, Ramirez walked and, after Pocoroba moved the runners up, Butler singled in two runs. Butler scored without a hit—on a stolen base, ground out and wild pitch. Murphy walked and Horner doubled him home. A throwing error gave the Braves their fifth run of the inning, and they went on to win 5-3, thanks to fine relief pitching by rookie Steve (Bedrock) Bedrosian and Camp.
One inning was all they needed on Saturday night, too. Horner's two-run double in the first off Joe Niekro staked the Braves to an early lead, and they hung on to beat the Astros 2-1. Incidentally, the victory prevented the Niekros from moving into second place on the all-time brother victory list behind Gaylord and Jim Perry. The aforementioned John Clarkson and his brothers Arthur and Walter are tied with the Niekros at 386. Walk started, but struggled with his control. WALK ON THE WILD SIDE.
Garber finally nailed down the victory with three innings of perfect relief. Horner also saved at least two runs with a diving stop at third. Afterward, Garber said, "What record?" He meant it. The Braves were happy about the winning streak, but they also seemed a little bewildered. It's happened so fast.
In the meantime, Atlanta was turning on, particularly to Ted's SuperStation. The bars were buzzing. Schools were letting students watch games on TV and listen on the radio. Acting ticket-sales director Andre DeLorenzo reported peddling about $40,000 worth of season tickets on Thursday alone. At least three radio stations were encouraging fans to come to the airport on Sunday night.
To cap off the madness, Bob Kelly, who, dressed as a monk, leads cheers atop the Braves dugout, named his son after Rick Camp. Kelly, who also owns the Pew & Brew in Marietta, christened his boy, born shortly after the Braves' eighth victory, Timothy Joseph Camp Kelly. "First time that ever happened to me," said Camp, "but who knows, if we keep this up, there'll be children named Brett Butler and Bob Horner and...."
"I hope we get this record stuff over soon," said Hrabosky, "so we can just start winning." BRAVES' NEW WORLD.