If the Atlanta Braves hadn’t admired Fredi Gonzalez the man, they’d have fired Fredi G. the manager a while ago. But they tried to be fair to him, which wasn’t easy: They knew they’d handed him a bad team. What made them finally decide to do the deed was that they believed this bad team was better than it had played.
We can argue the point. We can note that the Young Braves were largely made up of retreads and hadn’t-yet-beens. We can concede the Hector Olivera Experiment has been a raging success only if the idea was to embarrass the entire operation. And after we’ve done that, here would be the Braves’ rebuttal:
“If we were flat-out tanking, would we have signed so many 30-year-olds? Would we have bolstered the bullpen? Would we care about Clubhouse Presence and Playing The Game The Right Way? Would we be firing our manager if we weren’t at least trying to win a game every so often? Wouldn’t the easier course be simply to do nothing and wait until Albies/Swanson/Newcomb get here to bring Bud Black aboard?”
Again, we can quibble. Does re-hiring Jim Johnson and Eric O’Flaherty constitute a bolstering? Is there a difference between sort-of-tanking and flat-out-tanking? But here’s something you on the outside mightn’t know: It kills John Coppolella and John Hart to lose. (You should see their faces as the make their way to the press elevator after a narrow defeat. Their faces, to borrow an expression from the Brits, look like thunder.)
Yes, the Two Johns are the architects of a tear-down-to-build-up scheme that yielded tanking (or thereabouts) as collateral damage. But that doesn’t mean they want to lose 120 games. It’s mid-May, and the Braves remain on pace to break the modern record established by Marv Throneberry’s Mets of 120 losses in 162. We all knew this team would be bad. But historically horrendous?
Not all, and maybe not even most, had to do with managing. But the five narrow losses in the season’s first 10 days did nothing to make anyone believe Fredi G. was doing more with less, and then you cast your glance back to the post-July 7 Braves of last season, when 42-42 became 67-95. Yes, the Two Johns sold off Alex Wood and Luis Avilan and Juan Uribe and three guys named Johnson (Kelly, Jim and Chris). Still, a wipeout finish wasn’t out of character with Fredi G.’s teams.
His first bunch of Braves went 9-18 in September and lost a playoff berth in the 13th inning of the 162nd game. His 2014 team went 7-18 in September and blew any chance of claiming the second wild card so completely that, the day after the Braves were mathematically eliminated, general manager Frank Wren was “terminated.” Fredi G. got spared then, same as he’d been spared after the Epic Collapse. (Refresher course: On Sept. 2, 2011, the Braves led St. Louis by 8 ½ games for the then-only wild card; for a half-hour, they were the first team ever to miss the playoffs after leading by eight games in September.)
The point being: People like Fredi G. I’m among them. (Not many people liked Wren.) They tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, even when the doubt is considerable. He followed Bobby Cox and neither succeeded wildly nor flopped completely. He won one division title and took two teams to the playoffs. He’s not the world’s worst manager by any stretch. Neither is he the best.
Tony La Russa couldn’t turn these Braves into a winning team. But La Russa – or Cox, or Joe Maddon, or Buck Showalter – could have nudged these Braves a bit closer to .500. You might say that doesn’t matter, what with this second rebuilding year being another to file and forget. But the Braves are under new-ish management, and the Two Johns want to set a higher standard.
After the Braves lost 2-1 on April 21 to the Dodgers in a game started by Clayton Kershaw, Gonzalez said he was “proud of this team” for the way it “battled.” He said things like that a lot, and on that day it was semi-understandable. The beleaguered Braves managed 10 hits off the best in the business. Still, they lost.
Contrary to how it sometimes seems, the Braves are a major-league team. They’re on salary. They mightn’t have a gold-plated roster, but they’re expected to win a few games now and then. As much as we might admire Fredi G. the man for remaining upbeat, at least for public consumption, we ask: Was that the message — “I’m proud of you guys” — a 4-11 team needed to be hearing?
(That team is now 9-28 and hasn’t strung consecutive victories together in four weeks. It wasn’t getting better, folks.)
A manager can lose only so many games and tip his figurative cap to the opponent so many times before his players stop listening. A lesser man might have raged against his circumstances, but nobody had any problem with Fredi G. the man. He’s a fine fellow. But he’d become the manager of a team on pace to have a season of historic wretchedness. Change had to come. Change has.