The late, great Atlanta Braves announcer Ernie Johnson might have said it best.
“The greatest promotion in the world ... winning baseball,” Johnson said over and over again.
Johnson had been through the years of when former Braves owner Ted Turner had tried anything and everything to get people through the turnstiles at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. From camel races to one of the Flying Wallendas walking across the top of the field on a tightrope, Turner did all sorts of crazy stuff to try and fill the seats.
And it didn’t work. The only thing that did work was when the Braves won baseball games.
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The crowds these days at Turner Field remind many of the small gatherings we used to see in the 1970s and 1980s. In the background of the shots of the pitchers, we see empty sections. The Braves are so bad, the only way to get people to go now is to offer a clever bobblehead or a tempting postgame concert.
It would be great if there were particular star players you wanted to go see play. When the Braves arrived in Atlanta, Hank Aaron filled that bill. Then it was Dale Murphy in the 1980s. And in the 1990s, it was the future Hall of Fame pitchers.
Then Chipper Jones became a fan favorite. Fans wore Jones’ jersey to Turner Field, and many went specifically to see him play. But since Jones retired in 2012, the Braves have just not had that attraction. They’ve not had the draw, and now they’re not winning.
Last fall the Braves decided to not trade Freddie Freeman. They are rebuilding, but for some reason Freeman, whose contract will balloon from $12 million this year to $20 million annually next season for the next five seasons, was considered off limits.
Maybe it has something to do with the Braves moving into a new park in 2017. You can only imagine, as the front office was trying to rebuild the organization with trades of Andrelton Simmons and Shelby Miller, someone running in and saying, “If you trade everybody, who are we going to use to promote SunTrust Park?”
Pay attention next time you watch the Braves on TV. When they run a tease promoting something, check out which face you see. It’s Freeman, showing that some marketing wiz truly believed keeping him was key to getting people in the stands.
But this team is rebuilding. It needs assets. Freeman is not helping them win right now, despite his secondary job as the team’s personal billboard. And with all the losses piling up, fans aren’t running to Turner Field to see Freeman play.
That’s one reason the Braves should trade Freeman. His awful at bats this past week may contribute to the opinion. But it’s more about if this team is going to rebuild, it should go all the way. It should get as many quality pieces as possible. At this point, quantity is as important as quality, and trading veterans for a number of players could help tremendously.
The Braves did that perfectly when they dealt Shelby Miller in December. They took a middle-rotation starting pitcher and got a starting outfielder (Ender Inciarte), a future starting pitcher (Aaron Blair) and a potential starting shortstop (Dansby Swanson). It could turn out to be as good as that Doyle Alexander-for-John Smoltz trade made in 1987.
Think of the players the Braves could get if they traded Freeman, outfielder Nick Markakis and starting pitcher Julio Teheran. They have accumulated pitching, but more position players (particularly power hitters) are desperately needed. The draft in two weeks will help, as will the international signing period in July. But the trades made this summer will be the most important piece of the puzzle.
The Braves need more talent, a lot more talent, and the only way to get it is to trade their so-called star players. This is about winning, which is the only thing that will get people in SunTrust Park. At some point, the novelty of going to a new stadium will wear off, and there better be good players on the field to give fans reason to go.
The Braves should forget about holding on to players as marketing props. Freeman is not Chipper. He’s not that special. Instead, use Freeman to get more talent on this team so one day soon there will be a real reason to watch the Braves play.
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 www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.