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Remembering July 3, 1966 and two slams in the same game

July 4, 2016
James Atkins, II

Hugh Atkins

Can it really be 50 years since Tony Cloninger of that Atlanta Braves became the first player in the history of the National League to hit two grand slams in one game? It was quite an accomplishment, especially considering the fact that Cloninger was a pitcher.

Cloninger first came to the big leagues in 1961 and went 7-2 for the Milwaukee Braves. He steadily improved and won 19 games in 1964. His best season was 1965 when he won 24 games.

The Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966 and brought with them several brand name sluggers, including Henry Aaron, Ed Mathews, and Joe Torre. In the first game in Atlanta Braves’ history, Cloninger battled the hard-hitting Pittsburgh Pirates and pitched a 13-inning complete game. Willie Stargell hit a two-run homer in the top of the thirteenth and the Pirates won the game 3-2. Apparently, the marathon pitching performance took the life out of Cloninger’s pitching arm and he was never quite the same after that game.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Cloninger entered the 1966 season with one career home run, but on June 16 Cloninger clubbed two homers and drove in five runs against the New York Mets. This was the beginning of a hitting tear that would see him drive in 18 runs over the course of five games. Entering the game on July 3 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Cloninger was six for his last 16 with two home runs and nine runs batted in.

My brothers and I tuned into the late-night game from the West Coast on WSM AM 650 out of Nashville. The Braves knocked out Giants’ starter Joe Gibbon after only 2/3 of an inning. With two men on, Bob Priddy replaced Gibbon and promptly made things worse by walking Denis Menke. That brought Cloninger to the plate and he hit a 3-2 pitch over the center-field fence for a grand slam that gave the Braves a 7-0 lead.

In the fourth inning, Cloninger came to bat again with the bases loaded. Ray Sadecki, the Giants’ third pitcher of the evening, got ahead with a strike, but Cloninger blasted the next pitch deep to right-center field and his second grand slam of the game sailed into the night. Cloninger topped off his performance by driving in another run with a single in the eighth inning. In another oddity, Sadecki got in on the home-run act by hitting one of his own in the bottom of the fifth inning.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

While Cloninger was the first player in National League history to hit two grand slams in one game, four American Leaguers previously had done it–Tony Lazerri of the New York Yankees in 1936, Jim Tabor of the Boston Red Sox in 1939, Rudy York of the Red Sox in 1946, and Jim Gentile of the Baltimore Orioles in 1961.

Since Cloninger joined the exclusive group of sluggers to hit two grand slams in one game, eight more players joined the club: Jim Northrup of the Detroit Tigers in 1968; Frank Robinson of the Orioles in 1970; Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox in 1995; Chris Hoiles of the Orioles in 1998; Fernando Tatis of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999; Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox in 1999; Bill Mueller of the Red Sox in 2003; and Josh Willingham of the Washington Nationals in 2009.

Cloninger remained the sole National League batter with two grand slams in a game until Tatis did it; and Tatis went one better by hitting both of his slams in the same inning. Mueller, a switch hitter, hit one slam as a right-handed batter and one as a lefty; he also hit a solo homer earlier in the game.

Cloninger hit one more home run in 1966, giving him five for the season; he also hit .234 with 23 runs batted in that year. The Braves traded him to the Cincinnati Reds in 1968; he hit two homers that season, one in 1969, and two more in 1970 to finish his career with 11 home runs. His career bating average was .192, which isn’t too bad for a pitcher.

Tony Cloninger finished his career with a 113-97 record as a pitcher. But because of one big night at the plate in July of 1966, he always will be remembered as a hitter.

(All statistics are from retrosheet.org)

Can’t anybody here play this game?

May 18, 2016
Unknown Braves Fan

Unknown Braves Fan

So the Braves fired manager Fredi Gonzalez. It seems a bit unfair for him to get the ax after upper management decimated the team in an effort to rebuild the farm system. I figured the Braves would at least let him oversee the disaster of this season, but now they have decided to bring Brian Snitker on board to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I’m not saying that Gonzalez ever was a good manager. The Braves should have fired him the first time he trotted out to home plate with a lineup card that had the pitcher batting eighth. (I don’t care if Tony La Russa used to do it, it’s still stupid.) Or maybe they should have fired him after the collapse of September 2011 when the team blew an eight-and-a-half-game lead in the Wild Card race. Or perhaps they should have fired him after the 2013 National League Division Series when he sat in the dugout in the bottom of the eighth inning of the deciding game and watched David Carpenter give up a two-run homer to Juan Uribe while a rested Craig Kimbrel stood watching from the bullpen mound. The Braves might have been justified in firing Gonzalez after their collapse in September 2014 when the team went 4-16 down the stretch.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

So if the Braves stuck with Gonzalez when they actually had a chance to win, why are they firing him now when upper management knew 2016 was going to be a terrible season? It’s not like the Braves gave Gonzalez the 1927 Yankees to work with this season. They were 9-28 under Gonzalez; that’s a .243 winning percentage. Heck, at that rate they will have to improve their play to even be the 1962 Mets. At least Gonzalez and the Braves set the bar for success really low for Snitker.

But the current plight of the Braves has nothing to do with the competence, or incompetence, of their manager. I could give you some numbers that show that the Braves’ offense has been really bad, their defense is fairly lousy, and their bullpen is not very good. I also could give you some numbers that show their starting pitching actually hasn’t been that bad. But a really telling statistic to look at that demonstrates just how weak the Braves have been this season is their home run total.

Through 37 games under Gonzalez, the Braves had but 11 home runs as a team. The Philadelphia Phillies have the next-lowest total of home runs for a team this year with 29. Four players have more home runs individually at this point in the season than the Braves have as a team and seven more have just as many.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

In Gonzalez’s last game as manager, Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson each hit their first home runs of the season, doubling the number of players on the Braves’ current roster who had homered this year. That’s right. As of May 17 the Braves had but four players on their roster who had hit a home run this season. In addition to Francoeur and Johnson, Freddie Freeman had six home runs and rookie Mallex Smith had one. Drew Stubbs and Adonis Garcia each hit homers this season, but the Braves released Stubbs on May 3 and sent Garcia to the minors on May 7.

The Mets have two pitchers on their roster who have homered this season. One of them, Noah Syndergaard, hit two in one game and the other one, Bartolo Colon, is 42 years old and shaped like Baloo (the Phil Harris version) from The Jungle Book.

The 1962 Mets hit 139 home runs, led by Frank Thomas with 34. The 2016 Braves are on pace to hit around 48 homers as a team. I know hitting home runs doesn’t automatically make a team good, but a team that has virtually no power cannot be competitive. The Braves sent Gonzalez into battle this season with no ammunition and then fired him when he got routed.

It’s painful enough to try to follow a team with a .243 winning percentage, but the lack of power from the Braves adds insult to injury. The Braves stormed into Atlanta in 1966 and established themselves as a power-hitting team. Led by Henry Aaron (44), Joe Torre (36), Felipe Alou (31), and Mack Jones (23), the 1966 Braves pounded 207 home runs.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

I don’t want to sound greedy by wishing for the likes of Aaron, Torre, Alou, and Jones; at this point I’d settle for the power of Gary Geiger with his four homers in 1966 or Mike de la Hoz who, with his two home runs that year, suddenly looks like a slugger. Heck, give me Tony Cloninger, a pitcher for goodness sake, who hit five home runs in 1966.

Both the 2016 Braves and the 1962 Mets started their seasons with nine straight losses. The 1962 New York Mets were an expansion team, so they have an excuse for getting out of the gate slowly and finishing at 40-120. (One game ended in a tie and they did not make up one rainout.) The Braves are rationalizing their poor record by reminding anyone still willing to listen that they are rebuilding. The firing of Gonzalez means they are still in the demolition phase of the project.

I realize the rebuilding process can be painful for the fans. The Braves claim to be doing the same thing the Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals did to make their teams strong. It appears that the Braves now have a farm system stocked with prime prospects. But the Braves’ performance in the early part of this season points to a bigger issue. It may be time for Major League Baseball to step in with some incentives to make sure its teams are at least trying to be competitive. Maybe a team should drop a slot in the amateur draft for each game over 100 they lose. After all, a team doesn’t have to be all that good to avoid losing 100 games.

When new manager, Brian Snitker, trotted out to home plate with his first lineup card, he had pitcher, Aaron Blair, batting eighth and center fielder, Mallex Smith, batting ninth.

Buckle up, Braves fans. We’re in for a bumpy ride this summer. It’s only the middle of May and we’re reduced to hoping the team can win more games than the 1962 Mets. And maybe Fredi Gonzalez should be grateful that he won’t be along for the ride.

(All statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)

Renato Nunez is in Nashville–for what could be a limited time only

May 10, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

Baseball fans in middle Tennessee have a great option for good baseball this summer. The Nashville Sounds, Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, have a really good team and they are loaded with fine young players. It’s worth a trip to Nashville to see Oakland’s third baseman of the future, Renato Nunez, alone.

According to the 2016 Sporting News Baseball Yearbook, Nunez is one of four of Oakland’s top ten prospects playing in Nashville this season. Shortstop, Chad Pinder is rated as Oakland’s third-best prospect; first baseman/outfielder, Matt Olson is eighth; starting pitcher, Dillon Overton is ninth; and Nunez, rounds out the list at number 10.

Nashville started the season with Oakland’s number-two prospect on their roster. Left-hander, Sean Manaea, quickly went 2-0 with a 1.50 earned run average in his first three starts so the Athletics called him up to the big club.

2013 Topps Renato Nunez

© T.C.G.

Of all of the prospects on the Nashville roster, Nunez is off to the best start. After a hot homestand that ended May 9, he is leading the team in hitting at .290 and in runs batted in with 16, and is tied with Max Muncy for the team lead in home runs with five.

Oakland signed Nunez as a non-drafted free agent out of Valencia, Carabobo, Venezuela when he was just 16 years old. The 6’ 1” right-handed hitter has shown power at every stop on his minor league tour. He hit 19 homers for Beloit in 2013 and followed that with 29 home runs for Stockton in 2014. At Double-A Midland last year, Nunez slammed 18 homers in just 93 games.

Nunez has a nice, compact swing that packs plenty of punch. And from what I’ve seen of him, he is patient at the plate. He is willing to take what the pitcher gives him and drive the ball to any part of the park.

Pinder is off to a bit of a slow start at the Triple-A level; he’s hitting .200 with a homer and nine RBIs. But Pinder was Oakland’s Minor League Player of the Year last year after hitting .317 with 15 home runs, and 86 RBIs for Midland, so fans in Nashville likely are going to see more production from him as the season goes forward.

Olson also is off to a slow start in Music City. He’s hitting just .167 with three homers and 10 RBIs; he also is striking out at an alarming rate. But two seasons ago, he slammed 37 home runs, so the potential is there for him to start driving the ball over the wall.

Overton, a 24-year-old lefty, has made five starts and his record stands at 1-3 with a 4.68 ERA; he also has given up 41 hits in 32 ⅔ innings. But Overton has 41 strikeouts with just five walks, so he is showing early signs of developing into a dominant starting pitcher.

Following minor league baseball really is all about watching the prospects. But if you like to see good baseball, the Sounds are delivering on that front, as well. A month into the season, they have been very competitive and easily could be better than their 14-17 record through games of May 9 indicates. And, of course, the Sounds play their home games in beautiful First Tennessee Park, so going to the games is a great all-around experience for the fans.

Chad Pinder, Matt Olson, and Dillon Overton may be a ways away from following Sean Manaea to Oakland; but if you want to get a glimpse of Renato Nunez, you might want to get down to First Tennessee Park during the next couple of homestands or you just might miss your chance.

(All statistics and biographical information in this article are from nashville.sounds.milb.com and Inside Pitch, the Official Game Day Publication of the Nashville Sounds.)

It’s Time to Ditch the DH

July 4, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

On April 6, 1973–a date which will live in infamy–Major League Baseball was suddenly and deliberately attacked by forces who wanted a more offensive game. That was the day Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees stepped to the plate as baseball’s first designated hitter. Baseball hasn’t quite been the same since. The DH initially was a malady suffered only in the American League; but like a slow-moving virus, it gradually has infected most other areas of the game.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

The DH appeared only in regular-season American League games until 1976 when MLB decided to allow it in World Series games played in American League parks. It took 16 years for the DH to rear its ugly head in an All-Star Game and by 2011 Major League Baseball decided to use the DH in the All-Star Game no matter the venue.

Interleague play, another abomination, started in 1997 and with it came the first DH to appear in a regular-season National League game. So what started out as an American League phenomenon is now practically ubiquitous.

Now that the DH is so firmly ensconced in the fabric of the game, there are those who want to deliver the final blow to baseball purists everywhere and have the DH now, the DH tomorrow, the DH forever in every ballpark, every night, in every league.

In the “Point After” feature of the May 11, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated, Michael Rosenberg attempts to make the case for “all DH, all the time.” But in attempting to tell us why baseball should use the DH universally, he actually gives some good reasons why such a change is a bad idea.

Rosenberg’s starts out by saying, “The DH is a hot topic because Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles tendon running to first base on a pop-up….” Rosenberg then says, “The problem is not that pitchers get injured while hitting; they are far more likely to get injured while pitching.” On this point, I agree with him.

Then Rosenberg says that the problem with the current system is that it calls for two sets of rules, depending on which league the home team represents. He’s right, but eliminating the DH would solve this problem much more effectively.

It’s at this point that Rosenberg really goes off the rails. “The game of baseball is more interesting with a DH,” he says. To make his case, he concedes that the DH eliminates the double switch, but then asks, “What would you rather see: David Ortiz bat or Terry Collins scribble on his lineup card?” Obviously, Rosenberg doesn’t understand the double switch well enough to know that it involves a lot more than a manager making changes on a lineup card.

Another point Rosenberg makes is, “The DH allows the top starters to throw longer into games because their managers don’t pull them for pinch hitters.” So in the late innings of a close game with the DH, a manager doesn’t have to decide whether to bat for his pitcher or leave him in the game. In fact, with the DH, the manager doesn’t have to do much thinking at all. So if you don’t want to have to think–as a manager or as a fan–then “all DH, all the time” is the game for you.

In fact, I wonder whether anyone who prefers the game of baseball with the DH understands the Grand Old Game well enough to make an intelligent argument for why the DH should be used at all, much less “all the time.”

Orlando Cepeda: the Original DH

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

I remember one of the major selling points of the DH was that it would give aging stars with limited mobility a chance to stick around the game. Orlando Cepeda wrapped up the 1972 season with the Oakland Athletics on knees that were so rickety he barely could walk. The Athletics, whose owner, Charles Finley, was the leading proponent of the DH, released Cepeda on December 18, 1972. Less than a month later, the 24 owners voted to allow the American League to use a “designated pinch-hitter” for the pitchers. A week after the vote Cepeda latched on with the Boston Red Sox.

Cepeda had a decent season in the first year of the DH, batting .289 with 20 home runs and 86 runs batted in with Red Sox. It’s ironic that Finley had the prototypical DH on his roster while he was lobbying the other owners to adopt the DH, but released him just 24 days before the rules changed.

But things did not end well for Cepeda in Boston. The Red Sox quickly realized that Cepeda clogged up the base paths whenever he didn’t hit a homer so, despite his good numbers with the bat, they released him at the end of Spring Training in 1974. Pretty soon teams realized that having guys like Cepeda limp (or guys like Gates Brown waddle) to the plate four times a game wasn’t necessarily a good thing, so the completely immobile DH gradually fell by the wayside.

I’m hoping for the day when some player like Ron Blomberg descends into the dugout having made the last appearance as a designated hitter in baseball history.

(all statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)

Triple-A A’s in Music City

June 28, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

No, you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark. Or in the case of First Tennessee Park, home of the Nashville Sounds, the Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, you can’t beat fun at the new ballpark, either. Friday, June 19 was Star Wars Night and the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, were in town to take on the Sounds. Our son, Sean, and I got to the park early and settled in for a night of baseball that was to end with a fireworks show after the game.

Nashville came into the game struggling mightily. They closed out May and started June with eight straight wins and won 12 of 14 to pull within one game of .500 (28-29); but more recently the Sounds were losers of nine of their last 11 games and their record dropped to 30-38. The Sounds took the field decked out in special Darth Vader uniforms, hoping, perhaps, for a change of luck. Fans in attendance had the opportunity to bid on the jerseys during the game with proceeds going to the Nashville Sounds Foundation. Sean and I stopped by the booth and entered our bids before the first pitch.

The game turned out to be quite a pitcher’s dual with left-handers Brad Mills of Nashville and Buddy Bauman of Omaha trading zeros through the first four innings. Right-hander Matt Murray replaced Bauman in the bottom of the fifth and he and Mills pitched through the seventh inning with very little trouble.

Sean with his Star Wars team-signed jersey.

Sean with his Star Wars team-signed jersey.

While these pitchers were bobbing and weaving their way through the game, Sean was darting back to check on our bids on the jerseys every two innings. He hung around the tent through the bottom of the sixth and came back to his seat with a team-signed jersey.

Righty Dan Otero replaced Mills in the eighth inning and kept the shutout intact. Then it looked as though the Sounds were going to break through against Murray in the bottom of the inning. Joey Wendle led off with a double and after a groundout by Ryan Roberts, Omaha intentionally walked Jason Pridie. The strategy worked to perfection as Nate Frieman hit a hot smash right at the third baseman for a 5-4-3 double play.

It was about this time that the night started getting a bit bizarre. The public address announcer let us know, that due to the possibility of high winds in the area, the Sounds were, regrettably, going to cancel the post-game fireworks show. “Booooooo!” went the crowd, but very few of the 10,542 fans decided to leave the scoreless game.

Otero wiggled out of some trouble of his own in the top of the ninth. Casey Kotchman led off with a single for Omaha and moved to second on a groundout by Moises Sierra. Sounds manager, Steve Scarsone, called for an intentional walk of Orlando Calixte to set up a double play. Dusty Coleman singled on a hard liner to left field, but Kotchman held at third, leaving the bases loaded. Scarsone’s strategy paid off when Niuman Romero dove to his left to stab Whit Merrifield’s smash up the middle and turned it into the old 6-4-3 double play. The crowd jumped to its feet to cheer the defensive play of the year thus far for the Sounds.

The Sounds had a great chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. Anthony Aliotti led off with a double that bounced over the left-field wall. Kent Matthes laid down a perfect bunt to move Aliotti to third with just one out. If Brian Anderson could put the ball in play on the ground or loft a fly ball of any depth to the outfield, the Sounds would win it 1-0; but Anderson struck out swinging. And then Romero did the same. It was extra innings at First Tennessee Park.

With the top of the 10th inning came the wind that the public address announcer had warned us about. Right-hander A.J. Alvarez replaced Otero and was immediately in the soup. Paulo Orlando singled to right and stole second base. Alvarez bore down and struck out Cheslor Cuthbert for the first out and then Scarsone went with his ninth-inning strategy and issued an intentional walk to Brett Eibner. But Alvarez uncorked a wild pitch and both runners moved up; he then walked Francisco Peña to reload the bases. Kotchman did for the Storm Chasers what Anderson couldn’t do for the Sounds; he lifted a fly ball into left field just deep enough to score Orlando and Omaha led 1-0.

Sierra reached on an infield single, but Eibner was out at the plate as he tried to come around and score from second on the play. The game moved on to the bottom of the 10th. And then the rain came. It started out as a steady drizzle that sent the fans in the lower seats rushing for the cover of the overhanging upper deck.

Craig Gentry led off with a single to left field, but was out trying to stretch it into a double; the rain came down harder. Wendle flied out to center; the rain came down even harder and the wind was blowing it sideways. Roberts lifted a routine fly to left field but neither Sierra nor Calixte, both looking up into the driving rain, could catch it; the ball dropped in for a double. And then the bottom dropped out and the umpires called for the tarp.

The grounds crew covers the infield at First Tennessee Park.

The grounds crew covers the infield at First Tennessee Park.

With the field covered and the rain blowing the crowd began to thin, but Sean and I decided we would wait it out. In about an hour the rain stopped and the grounds crew removed the tarp. Norm, our regular fan host, whipped out his ShamWow® and began to dry the seats down near the visitors dugout. Once he had a row dry, he motioned us down and Sean and I made like Bob Uecker and moved down to the front roooow.

The players from both teams emerged, took the field, and begin to limber up. Omaha manager, Brian Polberg looked into the crowd as he descended the dugout steps. Just before his head disappeared, he made eye contact with me. “Did you play here?” I asked him. He responded immediately. “Yes, in 1981 and 1982,” he said.

Polberg went on into the dugout and dropped off his managerial accoutrements and then popped back out onto the field. He went to the batter’s box and inspected the dirt. He slowly walked out to the pitcher’s mound and then consulted with the grounds crew. Once he was satisfied that the field was shaping up, he strolled down the right-field line to the bullpen, checked with his pitcher, and headed back to the dugout. When he was directly in front of the dugout, he turned toward me and said, “So, you remember those days, huh?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, “my parents had season tickets back then and we came out to the park a lot.”

“We had a great team back in the early 80s. We had Mattingly and McGee and several other great players.”

“Y’all were a fun team to watch. And I remember during the strike of ’81—“

“Yogi came down. You do remember that team, don’t you?’

“I remember Yogi coming down and Joe Pepitone, too. I actually talked to Pepitone one night.”

“Yeah, traveling with Pepitone was quite an adventure.”

“I bet it was.”

“I still stay in touch with several people in Nashville.”

“Really? I see Farrell Owens here fairly often.”

“Oh, yeah, Farrell usually drops by to see me every time I’m in town. He is a great guy.”

“Yes he is.”
“Good talking to you.”

Jason  Pridie grounds out to end the game.

The view from the front row as Jason Pridie grounds out to end the game.

Polberg dropped down out of sight and the Storm Chasers took the field, an hour and twenty-eight minutes after Roberts hit his rain-drenched double. Left-hander, Scott Alexander, came on to pitch for Omaha, needing only one out to end the game. Pridie stepped to the plate for Nashville, took a strike, and then swung and hit a broken-bat grounder to first base where Cuthbert fielded it cleanly and trotted to the bag to record the final out. So after waiting almost an hour and a half, it was all over on two pitches and the home team lost 1-0.

No, you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark.

Where Have All the Homers Gone?

June 7, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

There seems to be a power shortage in Atlanta. Through 55 games this season the Braves have only 37 home runs. Freddie Freeman leads the team with 10 and he hit five of those in the last eight games. Before Freeman’s power surge, Kelly Johnson led the Braves in homers with six and he hasn’t played a game since May 13. Only the lowly Philadelphia Phillies with 34 long balls have fewer home runs than do the Braves. At their current pace the Braves will finish the season with a paltry 110 home runs.

You had to figure power would be down in Atlanta this season after the Braves traded away their two biggest long-ball threats during the off-season. Justin Upton led the Braves in homers in each of the past two seasons with 29 last year and 27 in 2013. Evan Gattis hit 22 home runs last season and 21 in 2013 despite being a part-timer both seasons.

The good news is, the Braves are getting strong production from second baseman Jace Peterson, whom they obtained in the Upton deal and pitcher Mike Foltynewicz, whom they got in the Gattis trade. While I’m at it, I may as well mention that the Braves are feeling good about pitcher Shelby Miller, whom they got for Jason Heyward and his 11 home runs from last season. So a couple of seasons with fewer home runs may be a small price to pay if most of the prospects the Braves picked up turn into solid big league players.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Even if the Braves finish with around 110 home runs this year, they will hit quite a few more than they hit in 1968, their least-powerful season since moving to Atlanta in 1966. The ’68 Braves Bombers hit a grand total of 80 home runs; Henry Aaron led the team with 29. After Aaron, the totals drop off sharply. Felipe Alou and Joe Torre with 11 and 10 homers respectively were the only other players in double figures. The rest of the starting lineup combined hit just 16 home runs: Deron Johnson (8); Clete Boyer (4); Tito Francona (2); Felix Millan (1); and Sonny Jackson (1). Backup catcher Bob Tillman was a power threat with five home runs and Mike Lum came off the bench to hit three. Tommie Aaron, Wayne Causey, and Sandy Valdespino each hit a homer. The final three home runs came from the pitching staff; Phil Niekro hit two and Milt Pappas hit one.

Perhaps we should forgive the ‘68 Braves for their lack of power since that season is known as “The Year of the Pitcher.” The league average for home runs by a team was 89 and three other teams actually hit fewer homers than the Braves. The St. Louis Cardinals hit just 73 home runs but won the National League pennant and should have won the World Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers hit 67 home runs and the Houston Astros hit 66. Even without the long ball, the 1968 Braves still managed to finish the season at .500. It will be interesting to see if this year’s version of the Braves can pull off an  81-81 season.

In 1976 the Braves hit just 82 home runs and Jim Wynn led the team with 17; that’s the lowest total for a team leader since the Braves moved to Atlanta. Unless something drastic happens, Freeman should hit more than 17 home runs, but I’ll be surprised if any other player on the team hits over 20 this season.

Yes, Braves fans, power is in short supply this summer in Atlanta.

(all statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)

Play Ball!…And Be Quick About It

April 4, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

The new baseball season starts in just a few days and with it come new rules to speed up the game. For years now, many baseball officials and experts have had nothing better to worry about than whether a game lasts over three hours. Major League Baseball finally decided to take some action and, in the process, added some timers to the game that prided itself for years on being the only sport that didn’t have a clock.

I have to say I like some of the changes. Maybe that’s because my favorite change is not a change at all; Major League Baseball simply decided that the umpires are to enforce Rule 6.02(d), which requires batters to keep one foot in the batter’s box during the entire at-bat. I’ve long wished that someone would put an end to batters going on walkabout after every pitch. I don’t know when this custom began; I know when I first started following baseball Henry Aaron, Felipe Alou, and Rico Carty didn’t walk halfway to the on-deck circle between pitches. If they had, pitchers like Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, and Don Drysdale would have enforced Rule 6.02(d) without waiting for the umpires to get involved.

While they’re at it MLB should tell batters they can’t readjust their batting gloves or landscape the batter’s box with their cleats between every pitch. MLB should have stepped in on this issue back in 1974 when Mike “the Human Rain Delay” Hargrove of the Texas Rangers started his routine of stepping out of the box, adjusting his helmet, tightening his batting gloves, pulling up his sleeves, rubbing his hands on his pants, and reviewing his IRS long form 1040 between each pitch.

Another change this season is an attempt to reclaim some of the time added to the game by a change implemented last season–the replay challenge. In the first season of the replay challenge, the manager sauntered out onto the field and entered into a deliberate discussion with the umpire who made a questionable call, while a designated replay watcher on the bench or in a booth somewhere looked at replays and decided whether their manager should risk a challenge. This season managers will not leave the dugout to initiate a challenge.

But another change to the replay challenge could eat up any time the first change recovered. Last season, managers got only one more chance to correct an umpire’s mistake after the first overturned call. They now retain the right to challenge after each overturned call. It seems to me that unlimited challenges will further slow the pace of the game. And I’m not so sure baseball is getting much bang for its buck from this whole process. Last season it appeared that, even after further review, there was no guarantee that the ultimate ruling would be correct.

Here Come the Clocks

MLB decided it could cut some more time off the length of its games by closely controlling the events that occur between innings. This is where the clocks, or timers, will show up for the first time in baseball. There will be a timer on the outfield scoreboard and another one on the façade behind home plate near the press box to measure the time between innings.

When television revenue became the pot of gold that baseball could not survive without, commercials between innings became baseball’s original time bandits. More commercials mean more revenue, but they also mean more time between innings. This season a timer will start immediately after the third out of a half-inning. For locally televised games, the first pitch of the next half-inning should come 2:25 after the final out of the previous inning; nationally televised games will get 2:45.

MLB will have an official on hand to operate these timers and closely track specific between-inning activities. With 40 seconds remaining on the timer, the public address announcer identifies the leadoff batter and begins to play that batter’s walk-up music. With 30 seconds remaining, the pitcher completes his final warm-up pitch. With 25 seconds remaining, the batter’s walk-up music mercifully comes to an end. As the clock winds down from 20 seconds to five seconds, the batter finally gets into the batter’s box and as the final electronic grains of sand run through the timer, the pitcher begins his motion to deliver a pitch.

Pitchers can toss as many warm-up pitches as they want up until 30 seconds remain on the clock, but they are not guaranteed the traditional eight warm-up pitches if they can’t manage to get them delivered in the allotted timeframe. There will be exceptions for pitchers who make the last out of the previous half-inning or were left on base. Umpires will issue warnings and fines to batters who don’t get in the box with at least five seconds left on the timer and to pitchers who don’t deliver a pitch before time runs out. I can’t wait to see how this works out.

Since baseball is adding timers and closely scripting its between-inning activities, instead of worrying about when a batter’s walk-up music starts and ends, maybe they should do us all a favor and ban walk-up music altogether. Who cares what tune a batter wants played while he’s fidgeting with all of his accoutrements instead of getting in the batter’s box? If the public address system had started blaring “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” every time Ty Cobb approached the plate, Cobb would have stormed the press box, put an end to such nonsense, and been back in the batter’s box ready to hit in less than 2:25.

Too Many Pitchers Lengthen the Game 

Baseball made these changes apparently without taking into account the main reason games are lasting longer than they used to; just take a look at the team rosters and you’ll see why they do. Every team now carries at least 12 pitchers because late in the game the managers want a left-handed specialist, a set-up man, and a closer.

Whenever a left-handed hitter comes to the plate after the sixth inning, the opposing manager likes to slowly walk out to the mound, paw around in the dirt for a minute, pass the time of day with the entire infield, wait for the plate umpire to drag out to the mound, and then finally signal a left-handed pitcher into the game. If the next hitter is right-handed, whether or not the left-handed pitcher retired the left-handed hitter, then the manager slowly walks out to the mound, paws around in the dirt for a minute, passes the time of day with the entire infield, waits for the plate umpire to drag out to the mound, and then finally signals a right-handed pitcher into the game. For goodness sake, let a big league pitcher try to retire two batters in a row late in the game every now and then. That will do more to speed up the game than timing the walk-up music will.

All of this choreography and timers make me wonder whether the cure for what ails baseball is going to be worse than the disease. Watching baseball is supposed to be a leisurely experience. I think I had rather watch a game for an extra half-hour than hear about whether the pitcher and batter are in danger violating a bunch of manufactured time restrictions that have no real effect on the way the game is played.

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