Mom always said, "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Here, then, is our report on the state of professional sports in Atlanta.
First, traffic is no problem going to or coming from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for either football or baseball. You could steer with your feet. Another thing, you hardly ever have to stand in line to get a twist cone. And you almost always get to see the Braves come to bat the full nine times. Plus, it's usually so quiet at their games that you can finally hear what goes on in those mound meetings.
At Falcon games, the coaches' shirts are always nicely pressed. The front-row 50-yard-line seats are 54 yards from the sidelines, so the chances of a fan's sustaining an injury from an errant spiral are nil. Not only that, but in 23 years not one Atlanta squad car has been flipped over in jubilation. Finally, there are the Hawks, who, over the past few basketball seasons, have most certainly won more games than they've lost.
Mom, of course, would prefer that we not mention that of the 12 cities in the country with NFL, NBA and major league baseball franchises, only Atlanta has never stuck its nose inside a Super Bowl, World Series or NBA Finals, or even been within one win of doing so. Apparently, sports glory just changes planes in Atlanta. And why belabor the point that only three NFL cities—Tampa, Philadelphia and Atlanta—have put together five consecutive losing seasons, and only two in major league baseball—Seattle and Atlanta—have suffered the same ignominy?
Even the Hawks have not advanced beyond the final eight in the NBA playoffs since 1970.
Fall is glum in the Loss City of Atlanta. The Braves fall, then the leaves fall, then the Falcons fall. Not that there isn't fun to be had. The Braves are usually in the thick of the antipennant race. If they can keep it going this year, they will out-don't the Baltimore Orioles for the most losses in the majors. With their 102nd defeat, on Sunday, these Braves became the franchise's losingest team since 1935.
The Falcons, the worst team in the NFL last year, are making a strong bid to defend, despite beating the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago for the first time in five years. Last week they returned to form with a 26-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The 1-3 Falcons have already lost to last season's second-worst team, the Detroit Lions. The scary part of that defeat is that Detroit defensive end Eric Williams guaranteed the win. When Detroit guarantees it will beat you, you're remarkably beatable.
Even more depressing to Atlantans, the next week the Falcons lost to the one team they used to count on whipping, the New Orleans Saints. Even if everybody beat up the smallest kid on the block, that kid could always beat up his dog. Now the dog has won the last three meetings.
Seriously, how would you feel? The Miami Dolphins and the Falcons both entered the NFL in 1966. Miami has won its division 12 times; Atlanta has won its once. The Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966, three years before the Kansas City Royals joined the majors. The Royals, who unlike the Braves were starting from scratch, have reached the playoffs six times and the World Series twice; the Braves have made the playoffs twice and have yet to win a postseason game.
At least the Hawks are trying to turn their backs on the city's losing tradition. Last season they were one win away—at home, no less—from going to the NBA semifinals, and they've signed Moses Malone to get them over the hump this year. The NHL's Atlanta Flames flickered for a while, but they moved to Calgary and became winners. O.K., O.K., Atlanta won a North American Soccer League championship in 1968. But the Falcons and the Braves carry on in their yearly Pillsbury Lose-Off.
Recently, the losing has taken on a certain, er, quality. We're not talking just bad. We re talking nose clothespins. Last year the Falcons finished last in the NFL in both offense and defense. The Braves were the first National League club this year to commit 100 errors. The '87 Falcons were also last in takeaway-giveaway ratio, sacks, points scored and first downs. This year the Braves are last in ERA, shutouts and saves. The Falcons lost six fumbles in their first two games this year. The Braves set a league record this season by losing their first 10 games.
Even the silver linings turn rusty. The Braves' Gerald Perry, among the league leaders in batting, became the first player this season to get the coveted Triple Frown by reaching double figures in errors, times caught stealing and times grounded into double plays. In one stretch of eight at bats. Dale Murphy struck out seven times. Dale Murphy!
The locals are positively yawn-struck by it all. The Braves will be outdrawn by the Buffalo Bisons of the Triple A American Association. In August the Braves began selling $1 tickets in hopes of not becoming the first club since 1985 to draw fewer than a million fans. Last year the Falcons had their lowest attendance average ever. 23,727. That figure was, of course, the worst in the league. At one Falcon game last season there were more no-shows (18,382) than shows (15,909), causing hot dogs to implode.
Then again, if your team played at Fulton County Stadium, you might choose to clean your rain gutters rather than take in a game. The infield is so bad that Manny Trillo, then of the Philadelphia Phillies, once took infield practice wearing a football helmet. Some teams refuse to take infield there at all. The bathrooms are filthy, the seats are impossibly far away from the action, the paint is peeling, and the surrounding neighborhood is a great place to contribute credit cards to the local youth.
Visiting fans don't know that. Three weeks ago, the Falcons-Saints game in Atlanta drew nearly as many Saints fans as Falcon fans. In fact, New Orleans linebacker Pat Swilling was seen gyrating his arm to incite Saints fans to higher decibel levels. That's believed to be the first time in NFL history that a player used a road crowd to his favor. "I was disgusted," said a Falcon fan on a radio talk show afterward. "We got shouted down in our own stadium! Said Falcon offensive tackle Mike Kenn, "That's the first time I've played at home to a bipartisan crowd."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard calls Atlanta Losersville, but nobody is sure why this city's teams have become so woeful. Why should one hamlet be so allergic to sports greatness? What are the odds of getting bopped in the nose for 23 straight years? Theories flow like bourbon and ginger:
1) The Blame It On Hassell Brown theory. Hassell Brown, a vendor, sings the national anthem for all three teams. Could it be a plot? Could Brown be sneaking in subliminal stuff like, "What so proudly we failed"?
2) The Blame It On The Western Division theory. This one holds that despite being situated in the eastern time zone, the Falcons and Braves play in western divisions. Thus they travel farther than other teams in their divisions. When the Los Angeles Dodgers play the San Francisco Giants, it's a one-hour hop. When Atlanta plays them, it's a four-hour trip. The only successful team in Atlanta is the one in an eastern division, where it belongs: the Hawks.
3) The Blame It On The Owners Who Have As Much Of A Clue How To Run A Pro Sports Franchise As A Dog Has Of Rewiring A Lamp theory. We'll focus on this last hypothesis.
Ted Turner didn't know much about basketball when he bought the Hawks in 1976, and he has let general manager Stan Kasten run them unfettered. But Turner believed he knew baseball or, at any rate, loved it. So he tinkered with the Braves. Problem was, the Braves, playing as they do on Turner's TBS cable network, were a huge chunk of his programming. One time this season the Braves had a night game in St. Louis, flew home and played a 5:40 p.m. game in Atlanta the next day so that Turner could show Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in prime time—colorized, naturally. "We're like an Andy of Mayberry rerun." said one player. "They put us on anytime they want."
Turner seemed unable to decide whether the Braves were a baseball team or a TV show. When he fired manager Bobby Cox in 1981, Turner was a mixed-up man. "If I was looking for a new manager," he said that day, "Bobby Cox would be the first guy I'd look to."
Only now, after four straight cellar-scraping, scalp-pulling seasons, has Turner retrieved Cox, this time as general manager. In the manner of a gambler who asks his best friend to keep his money away from him, Turner told Cox, "Here, you run it." And he means it. Turner has attended only four games this season, leaving Cox to rebuild from the bottom up. Cox's last six trades have gotten him seven minor league players. The Braves are finally in it for the long haul, and nobody knows when the haul will arrive. Braves watchers believe it will be at least 1990, more likely 1992. But as manager Russ Nixon says, "God only knows how long it will be."
Some, however, exude hope. Says Grizzard, "All we need is a catcher, a power-hitting third baseman, five starting pitchers, two relievers and a base-stealing outfielder, and we're right back in this thing."
If Turner's fingerprints are all over the body of the Braves, Falcon owner Rankin Smith is still at the scene of the crime. And he has provided some of the most curious management the NFL has ever seen. He seems to want his team to win but can't get out of the way long enough to let somebody do it. Two years ago, for instance, he fired competent general manager Eddie LeBaron. That meant that the two most senior executives below Smith were his sons, Taylor and Rankin Jr., who had zip experience playing, coaching, managing or acquiring personnel. The Falcon players call the family "the Clampetts"—rich, good-hearted and inept.
The brothers fouled up the team's latest chance to hire a good coach. At the end of the 1986 season, the Smiths finally fired Dan Henning after four years of neither winning nor rebuilding. "Another Don Shula must be out there," said Papa Smith, and he dispatched his boys to find him. Dick Vermeil turned them down. UCLA's Terry Donahue was ready to take the job, but when some last-minute money talk stalled the negotiations, the brothers had to check with their father. Donahue had been told the club was run entirely by the sons and had never met the father. Whom would Donahue answer to, the boys or Jed? Donahue didn't need the aggravation.
Now it was March, and the Falcons still didn't have a coach. So whom did they hire? Why, Marion Campbell, a man they had pink-slipped in 1976 for going 6-19. This is the same Marion Campbell the Philadelphia Eagles axed in 1985 for going 17-29-1, the same one whose career NFL winning percentage of .297 is eight points lower than Hank Aaron's batting average. Shula he ain't.
Smith Sr. has never gotten this coaching thing right. One day in 1977 he interviewed both Dan Reeves and Bobby Beathard for the coaching and general manager jobs, respectively, and turned them both down. Reeves became coach of the Denver Broncos, Beathard, the general manager of the Washington Redskins. Together, their teams have been to five Super Bowls since then.
If the Falcons' history of picking coaches is dismal, consider their record on quarterbacks. Of 26 first-round choices since 1966—and when you're Atlanta, you get some blue-chip choices—the Falcons have come up with one good signal caller, Steve Bartkowski, drafted in 1975. They passed on Dan Marino in 1983 and Jim Everett in 1986, but the day their brains caught the early bus home was in 1984, when they passed not once, not twice, but three times on Boomer Esiason. Instead they took three Oklahoma defensive players, including a white cornerback, Scott Case. Hence, when Bartkowski was released midway through the following season, the Falcons were stuck with three years of Dave Archer and Scott Campbell. They have now resigned themselves to letting Chris Miller, who's in his second year, sink or swim.
"No question about it," says Taylor. "The problem the last 10 years has been our drafting. Not drafting a quarterback was a tremendous mistake."
Well, things are finally looking up a bit. Like Turner before them, the Smiths are at last realizing they need professional help. They've turned over all the major player decisions to Ken Herock, a former disciple of Al Davis. Now, if they would let him hire a coach....
How long before the Falcons get to the big dance? "We're looking at three to four years," says Taylor. "Anything before that would be a surprise."
So let's see: Braves fans are supposed to sit on their hands until 1992. Falcon fans are supposed to come to the park to enjoy the fresh air for "three to four years." Hmmmm. You think they could get away with that in New York? Hey, pal. Your getting out of this town alive in three or four years would be the surprise.
Now comes the news that Turner may sell the Braves if baseball gives him a league-wide TV package to air on his new TNT (Turner Network Television) system. And the Falcons are muttering about bolting for Jacksonville when their stadium lease runs out at the end of the 1990 season, unless Atlanta builds them a new dome downtown.