Throwing back to a strange Braves season

sports@macon.comMay 24, 2014 

Throwback Thursday has become a pretty interesting trend recently. People are putting old pictures on their social media pages that we’re supposed to be interested in, and for a society that seems to be always looking ahead, folks are now taking a good look back at the past.

Last Thursday, for some reason, I thought about an Atlanta Braves team from yesteryear. It’s not a team that won anything, so it’s before the run of division titles between 1991 and 2005. And it’s not a team that was awful, either, like so many were awhile back.

The 1984 Braves, from an unfathomable 30 years ago, were 80-82. They were supposed to be better, but subpar pitching and a major injury kept the Braves from doing anything special.

Atlanta had tried to sign star closer Rich Gossage the previous winter, but instead he signed with the San Diego Padres. That probably made the difference, as San Diego beat the Braves by 12 games to win the NL West.

The Braves had not made any improvements going into that season. A trade had been made late the previous season that they probably counted as a big move going into 1984. Do we really need to revisit the Len Barker trade? That’s what I’m talking about. You know the Barker trade, the equivalent of a four-letter word in Braves’ history. And no, I am not going to mention the players who went to Cleveland in the trade. It still hurts too much.

Phil Niekro had been released after the 1983 season. The Braves thought the addition of Barker and young pitcher Ken Dayley would be enough to replace the then 45-year-old Niekro. Little did they know that Niekro would go on to win 50 more games after being released. Barker became, well, Barker, which means a disappointment, while Dayley did so poorly in his first four starts of the season the team sent him back to Triple-A Richmond.

The rotation included the late Rick Mahler, who was pretty decent in hindsight, along with the late Pascual Perez, who had by then figured out where Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was. The pitching was actually not awful, it was just subpar. Atlanta finished sixth in the NL in ERA.

The issue was the lineup, which was expected to be the strength. Remember, this was a team that played in a bandbox stadium, where home runs flew out with regularity. The belief then was that good pitching would never work in that stadium, so there was not an emphasis on pitching like there is today. Instead, it was all about building a lineup that would score a lot of runs.

But an injury to slugging third baseman Bob Horner killed Atlanta’s chances. He had broken his navicular bone in his right wrist in August of the previous season, and then Horner broke it again diving for a ball in a game on May 29, 1984. Horner missed the rest of the season, and for all practical purposes, Atlanta’s season was over right then and there.

Horner and the beloved Dale Murphy formed a duo that perhaps exceeded some of the great slugging combos in Braves history. Those two were stars, mainly because of the tremendous explosion of Ted Turner’s SuperStation that zoomed the Braves into houses all over the country almost every night.

When Horner got hurt, the Braves turned to Randy Johnson -- not the big, tall left-handed pitcher, but a mediocre infielder who was so blah the Braves went out and traded for Ken Oberkfell, who might be the definition of a mediocre player.

Oberkfell wasn’t a power hitter, and he really didn’t make much of a difference. Chris Chambliss and Claudell Washington also spent time on the disabled list, and left field was not the same with Brett Butler in Cleveland. Yeah, I mentioned the payment for Barker, didn’t I? Not having Butler left a huge void in the leadoff spot, and a team that missed Horner’s home runs was not able to generate runs playing small ball, either.

There were other players, like Glenn Hubbard, Rafael Ramirez and Bruce Benedict. They were decent players but nothing special.

The highlight of the 1984 season was probably an event that propelled the Padres into the playoffs. On Aug. 12, the Braves and Padres had the best brawl in baseball history. Well, it was really four or five brawls. Go to the Internet and watch it. You will be entertained tremendously. Instead of the normal pushing and shoving of a baseball brawl, there were actually punches thrown.

The disappointing season cost manager Joe Torre his job. The Braves fired Torre the day after the season and replaced him with Eddie Haas, who was awful and didn’t even last the entire next season. Thankfully, the horrid 1985 season forced Turner to do something drastic. He brought back Bobby Cox, who was replaced by Torre as the manager after the 1981 season, as general manager. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Maybe if the Braves had signed Gossage, or if Horner would have stayed healthy, they would have had a better season 30 years ago. But the trials of that season perhaps became the springboard that made the franchise turn its fortunes around a few years later.

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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