Braves in better shape than 30 years ago

sports@macon.comFebruary 16, 2013 

Thirty years ago, the Atlanta Braves were in spring training hoping to start a season that would lead them a second straight playoff appearance.

The 1982 season had been magical. They won the first 13 games of the season to set a record. They held on to first place for most of the season, only to lose it to the Los Angeles Dodgers in August when they lost 19 of 21 games, and then the Braves won the division on the last day of the season.

But Atlanta had its questions going into 1983. The Braves had struck out on signing left-handed starting pitcher Floyd Bannister, the top offseason free agent. They resisted putting Bob Horner in a trade for a top starter, even though there were constant rumors they might trade the third baseman to the New York Yankees for ace Ron Guidry.

Atlanta had signed Pete Falcone from the Mets. He could either start or relieve. Plus, Dodgers lefty Terry Foster (who later that year would be dubbed ‘the fat tub of goo’ by David Letterman) was brought in to help in the bullpen.

It’s hard to believe now, but back then it was just difficult for the Braves to attract available pitchers. Most were hesitant to pitch at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, known as the Launching Pad, because of the ease with which hitters hit home runs.

The Braves had no trouble doing that. The lineup was in good shape. Horner was joined by 1982 NL MVP Dale Murphy. The two formed a great young duo. Then there were solid complementary players, like Chris Chambliss, Glenn Hubbard, Rafael Ramirez, Claudell Washington, Brett Butler and Bruce Benedict.

Don’t all those names make you think of TBS? You’d rush home and have dinner, watch the “Andy Griffith Show” and then watch America’s Team with Ernie, Pete and Skip calling the action.

It all came down to the pitching for Joe Torre’s Braves, and there were tons of questions. They had Phil Niekro, but he was 44 years old, and no one was sure how much he had left. But Niekro was the least of their trouble.

The two top starters behind Niekro in 1982, Bob Walk and Rick Mahler, had awful springs and were sent to the minors. They were replaced by Craig McMurtry, a rookie who had won 17 games the previous year in Triple-A, and Pascual Perez, who was more well-known for getting lost on I-285 in 1982 than his performance on the mound.

Luckily for Atlanta, McMurtry and Perez combined for 30 wins in 1983. But that was about it. Falcone, Rick Camp and Ken Dayley combined for 47 starts in the other two rotation spot, and the Braves were so desperate for starting pitching in midseason they panicked and traded the popular Butler in a deal for Len Barker.

There was a constant debate about whether or not the Braves should move Steve Bedrosian from the bullpen to the rotation. They decided against it, and even though two years later the man known as Bedrock was a starting pitcher, he had already found his niche as a reliever.

It’s hard to imagine a spring training with that much uncertainty. To think they went to West Palm Beach that February knowing only that Niekro was going to be in the rotation is almost absurd. But that’s about all they knew for sure 30 years ago.

There’s less stress this year in Atlanta’s camp. The questions are not as serious as seeking four starting pitchers. Instead, it’s more about finding the final reliever in the bullpen and the final player for the bench.

The 1983 Braves finished in second place, three games back of the Dodgers in the NL West. This year’s Braves are hoping to avoid a similar fate. If positive vibes in spring training mean anything, maybe Atlanta’s 2013 Braves can have a leg up on the team from 30 years ago.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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