There’s not a soul I know around
Everybody’s leaving town …
Good Time Charley’s Got the Blues
Danny O’Keefe 1971
Last Sunday was the most enjoyable day for this Atlanta Braves fan in quite a while.
Today gave me the blues.
Last Sunday, righty Greg Maddux, lefty Tom Glavine, and the skipper Bobby Cox headlined the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2014. In the idyllic (if mythical) birthplace of baseball at Cooperstown, the trio made witty speeches, basked in the tributes of former teammates and coaches, and became the first Braves from the glory days squads of the 1990s to earn plaques at the Hall.
Today, Pete Van Wieren died. “The Professor” formed one-third of an equally famous Braves triumvirate during his more than 30 years as an announcer with the franchise. Joining colleagues Skip Caray and Ernie Johnson in 1976, those voices of the Braves … the avuncular, easy-going Ernie, the acerbic, funny, and sarcastic Skip, and the studious Van Wieren played a huge role in making the Braves “America’s Team” with their broadcasts of games on Ted Turner’s satellite superstation (known first as WTCG … now as TBS).
Both events – the passing of the professor and the Hall induction ceremony – evoke memories of vastly different eras in Braves baseball history.
Pete Van Wieren joined the Braves announcing team before the 1976 season. For the decade prior (since the team arrived in Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966), the Braves had hovered as a decent franchise. They were not great certainly, but not terrible either.
Between 1966 and 1975 the team was a mere 20 games under .500 (795-815), averaging out to a seasonal record of 80-82. The Braves won a West division title in 1969. That was the first year the majors split the leagues into two divisions … and yes Atlanta was in the West. The ’69 team lost the league championship to the Miracle Mets, eventual World Series winners.
Pete joined Skip and Ernie (all true Braves fans felt we were on a first-name basis with them) in 1976. For the next 15 seasons we all got to watch a whole lot of bad baseball. From 1976 to 1990, the Braves won 1043 games and lost 1322, a whopping 279 games below .500. A typical season record was around 70-92. Yikes. The Braves did slip in a division championship in 1982, but fell to another team of soon-to-be World Series champions – the St. Louis Cardinals.
Baseball fans of a certain age probably knew the three Braves announcers better than most players from those 1976-1990 teams. In 1977, Turner began beaming Braves games across the nation (and really the globe I suppose) and fans from that pre-ESPN era got their baseball fix by watching the Braves. The only real competitor to their national popularity would have been the Cubs on WGN, but all those day games at Wrigley did not allow the working masses to tune in. So, the Braves were the team everybody got to see … no matter how bad they were.
Finally in the 1990s, things turned for the franchise and the new Hall of Fame gang helped lead the change.
Bobby Cox was the first of the newly enshrined trio to make a mark with the Braves.
Having managed the team from 1978-1981 (at his firing, Ted Turner famously remarked something to the effect that if he hadn’t just fired Cox, he’d be the kind of guy Turner would be looking to hire), Cox returned as General Manager in 1985 and helped build a farm system (along with the estimable Paul Snyder) that would supply the talent for a record-breaking run of success from 1991-2004.
Cox fired Russ Nixon and moved back to the dugout in June of 1990, just in time to see the maturation of a young left-handed pitcher named Tom Glavine. In the big leagues since 1987, but sporting a career record of only 33-41 at that time, Glavine won 20 games and the Cy Young Award in 1991. He was the ace of a staff that helped the Braves jump from the worst team in the league in 1990 to National League champions in 1991. The team lost a heart-breaking World Series in seven games to the Minnesota Twins, but the group started a streak of fourteen consecutive division championships (the 1994 season was never completed due to labor strife). Glavine would go on to win 303 games in his career.
In 1993 the game’s best pitcher joined the franchise. Greg Maddux cemented the Braves as a legitimate and perennial championship contender. His signing also solidified Atlanta as a potential destination of choice for big-name free agents. Maddux would go on to win 355 games in his career, four consecutive Cy Young Awards from 1992-1995, 18 Gold Glove awards, and become the premier control pitcher of his generation. He, Glavine, and John Smoltz formed the “Big Three” of the Braves pitching rotation, one of the finest starting staffs in the game’s history. Smoltz and third-baseman Chipper Jones will land in Cooperstown soon enough, giving the Braves of the 1990s and early 2000s five Hall of Famers.
When Glavine won the most important baseball game in Atlanta Braves history, pitching eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 Game Six victory over the fearsome lineup of the Cleveland Indians to clinch the 1995 World Series, the championship marked the seminal event for the Atlanta Braves and fans of the team.
Maddux, Glavine, Cox are gone to the Hall … Skip, Ernie, and Pete are gone but not forgotten.
They provided great memories, but now I feel like everybody’s leaving town.