At 8:15 a.m. on Tuesday of last week, Ernie Whitt entered a Brave new world. The veteran catcher, the last of the original Toronto Blue Jays, had been acquired over the winter by Atlanta, and as he got out of his car in the parking lot at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium, his head was swimming. "It was like the first day of school," he says. "All these uncertainties. Names to attach to faces. A different coaching staff. A different pitching staff. A new uniform. A new league. And I had to become accustomed to all that in just three weeks."
Thus preoccupied, Whitt walked into the clubhouse—and was told he was in the wrong place. "I showed up where the minor leaguers dress," says Whitt. "They gave me directions to the major league clubhouse. Not a good start."
Whitt was not alone last week; nearly everyone in baseball was feeling a little lost. Spring training was starting a month late because of the owners' lockout of the camps and the torturous labor negotiations, and teams were faced with three weeks instead of the usual six to prepare for Opening Day. New arrivals like Whitt now have to play Getting to Know You at 45 rpm instead of the more natural 33‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬®. Players trying to win jobs have much shorter auditions. Overweight players have to trim the fat in a hurry. Pitching coaches have to figure out ways to get their pitchers enough work—but not too much too soon. Managers in tenuous positions may feel pressured to get up a full head of steam even with only two weeks of exhibition games. General managers wanting to make deals will have to wait and see.
Every team in baseball will feel the heat of the short spring, but no team in baseball has more to do in the next few weeks than the Braves. They are as good an example as there is to demonstrate the particular problems of spring training 1990. Over the winter, their leftfielder, Lonnie Smith, ate too much and inflated to the size of a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Three new players—Whitt, first baseman Nick Esasky and third baseman Jim Presley—were acquired from the American League in the off-season, and they will have to adjust to a new team and a new league. With Jeff Blauser replacing Andres Thomas at shortstop, second baseman Jeff Tread-way has to adjust to three new partners in the infield. Reliever Mike Stanton has to convince the club that he can be the closer before general manager Bobby Cox goes out and trades for one. Pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton has to rein in his young and eager arms, and the Braves have to resist the temptation to bring up their lefthanded sensation, Steve Avery. And all of this will have to be resolved over the course of 15 scheduled exhibition games instead of the usual 30.
April 1, 1990
Presiding over this accelerated circus is manager Russ Nixon, a man whose job will be on the line if the Braves don't get off to a fast start. "Obviously, we would have preferred to have started in the middle of February rather than the middle of March," says Nixon. "But we have no choice."
Also beyond the Braves' control is their leftfielder's physique. The Lonnie Smith Weight Watch has been an ongoing concern in Atlanta ever since word got out in January that Smith, the team's 1989 MVP (.315 average, 21 homers, 25 stolen bases), had tipped the scales at 226, some 35 pounds over his playing weight and somewhat unseemly for a 5'9" ballplayer. The term "plate appearances" had taken on a whole new meaning for Smith. "I stopped smoking on December 3 and started snacking," says Smith, who had been a pack-a-day smoker. "Instead of playing winter ball, I sat around the house watching TV. The most exercise I got was walking around in shopping malls. I knew I was gaining weight, but I didn't know how much until I stepped on the scale one day and saw 225."
Batting coach Clarence Jones strongly suggested to Smith that he enroll in the Georgia Sports Institute, and he did, embarking on an aerobics program and a new diet. "Chicken and fish, no more fettuccine Alfredo," says Smith. "And lots of water—eight eight-ounce glasses a day."
Smith showed up for his first day of workouts last Thursday, and naturally the topic of the day was his size. To his credit, Smith was pretty up front about his weight gain—he was also out back and spilling over the sides. "I couldn't sleep last night," he said, "knowing everybody was gonna ask, 'How big is he?' "
He was pretty big, 209 pounds to be exact, but he said losing the extra weight "won't be a heavy problem," no pun intended. He did have a difficult time squeezing into his size 33 uniform pants. "I'm not gonna change the pants," he said, fingering a split seam on the inside of his thigh. "This way I'll know that the bigger they feel on me, the smaller I'm getting." He still has 15 pounds to lose in two weeks.
If Smith survives, he will be the only Brave playing the same position on Opening Day this year as last year. For a team like Atlanta, that's good news. The Braves have finished fifth or sixth in the National League West every year since 1985, averaging 96 losses a season. In the 1980s, only the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians lost more games. But over the last four years, Cox has replenished the farm system—the Braves' top three minor league clubs all played in league championship series last year—and in the off-season he sought to improve the major league club's offense with the three AL imports.
Switching leagues shouldn't be too difficult for Esasky, 30, who was signed as a free agent for $5.6 million over three years after last year's banner season (30 homers, 108 RBIs) with the Boston Red Sox. He spent the previous six seasons trying to persuade the Cincinnati Reds that he could be a regular, and in that time he hit .375 with 14 homers in 112 at bats against the Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. For several years he has lived in Marietta, Ga. "To tell you the truth," says Esasky, "I don't feel any pressure. I'm coming home."
Presley, 28, had become a nonperson, or rather non-third baseman, with the Mariners, and was elated by the trade to Atlanta (the Braves sent pitcher Gary Eave and minor league third baseman Ken Pennington to Seattle in return). But he doesn't know quite what to expect from National League pitchers, and the Braves will see only four other NL teams during spring training.
As Presley approached the batting cage the other day, a fan yelled, "Hey, Jim, you're gonna love it here. They throw fastballs in the National League, not that American League junk."
"Who's that?" Presley asked.
"That's the Braves' advance scout," a writer told him, kidding. In a short spring, anything goes.
The spring may look shortest of all to Whitt, who has to find out what his young pitching staff can do and learn the strengths and weaknesses of NL hitters. At 37, Whitt has 11 years and 17 days of major league experience; Atlanta's top 10 pitchers have a total of 11 years and 97 days in the majors. (That's not counting Charlie Leibrandt, acquired from Kansas City but destined for the disabled list because of a rotator cuff injury.)
In his first few days in camp, Whitt tried to catch as many of the young pitchers as possible: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Pete Smith, Marty Clary, Derek Lilliquist, Joe Boever, Stanton. "Frankly, I had never heard of some of these guys," says Whitt. "But I am very impressed. Granted some guys look better when they're pitching batting practice behind a screen than they do in a game, but these are some of the best young arms I've ever seen."
The admiration is mutual. "I threw to him for the first time today," said Smoltz, "and already I know I'm going to be very comfortable with him behind the plate. You can just tell these things." Maybe so, but Smoltz, a starter, figures to work all of seven exhibition innings with Whitt before it starts to count.
Teams that begin the season with their infields essentially intact from last year will suffer little from the short spring. But when the Braves took infield practice last week, the choreography was all new. For instance, second baseman Treadway was learning how far first baseman Esasky can go to his right, so he'll know how far off second he has to play. Treadway was also getting accustomed to Presley's feed on the 5-4-3 double play, and to shortstop Blauser on the pivot. (In case you're wondering what happened to Andres Thomas, well, he's still with the Braves, although he is likely to be traded. Shortstops have hit .213 before, and shortstops have made 29 errors in a season before, but almost never has a shortstop done both in the same year, as Thomas did in '89.)
Do the Braves have any positions at which they are not looking to answer questions? Well, some observers might say Atlanta has identified its stopper. Stanton, a 22-year-old lefty, came up last August and saved seven games in eight opportunities, with batters hitting only .207 off him. Then again, 24 major league innings is not exactly conclusive. So Cox has been talking with the Red Sox about Lee Smith and with the Mariners about Mike Jackson. Cox is offering Lilliquist and Thomas, but both clubs want Kent Mercker, another of Atlanta's outstanding pitching prospects. A full spring training would have made Cox's decision much easier.
In the one department most clubs are worrying about the most. Atlanta is worrying the least: starting pitching. The only four Braves to report on the first day camps opened, March 19, were starters—Clary, Glavine, Lilliquist and Pete Smith—and they all threw exceptionally well. But their enthusiasm may work against them in this minicamp. "Fastball pitchers are very excitable," said Dal Canton last week. "I've already had to warn several of them to take it easy."
For now, the Braves are resisting the temptation to put Avery in the rotation. Because he worked out all spring in Atlanta's minor league camp, the 19-year-old Avery could go a full nine innings the first week of the regular season. "I really think every pitcher needs a full year at Triple A," says Dal Canton. "Even a pitcher as good as he is." In 36 minor league starts, Avery is 19-8 with a 1.94 ERA, 243 strikeouts and only 73 walks in 237 innings.
The man who could get hurt the most by the lockout is Nixon. A good April would take him off the hook—and if you judge a manager by his record, Nixon is on a big hook indeed. In his last four years as a manager, two with the Reds in '82 and '83, and two with the Braves, Nixon has presided over four last-place finishes. What's more, there is no shortage of candidates to replace him. In the Atlanta organization are four former big league managers: Bobby Wine, Frank Howard, Jimy Williams and Pat Corrales—not to mention Cox.
"I can't worry about failing," says Nixon. "My biggest concern is not Russ Nixon. It's the Atlanta Braves. We're about to become a very good baseball team, and I want to see this thing through."
A good start would also be important for the health of the franchise. From 1983 through '88, attendance in Atlanta plummeted from 2,119,935 to 848,089, and with the decreasing crowds has come increasing cynicism. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently invited its readers to submit slogans for the 1990 Braves, and some were less than flattering. Among the entries were:
•Braves Baseball—Anything for a Laugh
•Go Braves—And Take the Falcons with You
•Mathematical Elimination Fever—Catch It
•It Beats Getting Tattooed with a Jack-hammer, Unless It's a Doubleheader
•Atlanta Braves—Still in the Major Leagues
The Braves don't have a slogan this year, but they did acquire another Ernest besides Whitt: Jim Varney, the man behind the goofy Ernest character of TV and movies. For $115,000, or more than Hank Aaron earned with the Braves in 1969, Ernest will lend his corn ball humor to Atlanta's promotions. Hardly the image a team would want to project if it wants to be taken seriously—but you've got to start somewhere.
Says Braves president Stan Kasten, "A few years ago we were a last-place team with a barren farm system and the highest payroll in baseball. You almost have to try to do that. But now our farm system is producing all kinds of pitchers and catchers, our payroll is manageable, and we should jump a few places in the standings. Are we the team of the '90s? Well, even a huckster like me wouldn't go that far. But we are headed in the right direction. It would have been nice to have had six weeks to get that message out to the people."
Three weeks is not a lot of time to convince doubters, but even after three days Atlanta had one convert. "I can't believe this team lost 97 games last year," said Whitt. "A couple of days ago I was apprehensive. But now I'm very excited about being a Brave.
"I can also find my way around now."