COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — On the day before the trade deadline, baseball inaugurated the author of a historic pre-deadline trade into its Hall of Fame. Fred McGriff was dealt to the Atlanta Braves on July 13, 1993, time being of the essence that overheated summer. John Schuerholz always was ahead of the game.
Then again, the Hall could have welcomed Schuerholz into the Hall in December and it still been appropriate. Because the general manager who stole the Crime Dog from San Diego also made the greatest signing of a pitcher at any Winter Meetings ever — Greg Maddux in December 1992, the deal being done at the Galt House in Louisville, Ky.
And there, if you’re new to baseball or Atlanta or this Earth, were two reasons why Schuerholz stood on a stage in a field just south of the Hall of Fame itself. He could see the next turn and 10 miles down the road. He could land McGriff in time to turn a race that seemed unwinnable, and he could make a trade with one week left in the 1991 season that saw the Braves acquire Damon Berryhill and Mike Bielecki, who were ineligible for that postseason but who became key contributors in the years ahead.
It wasn’t enough that he came to Atlanta and turned the last-place Braves into a World Series team in less time than it takes to say, “Terry Pendleton.” It wasn’t enough that Schuerholz’s first major signing – Pendleton – as Braves GM became the 1991 National League MVP. Schuerholz then went out and landed Maddux, who’d just won a Cy Young award and as a Brave would win the next three, and then McGriff, who played 68 games for his new club in 1993 and wound up fourth in the NL MVP voting.
Here’s how big a deal that was: Had McGriff played only 65 games for those Braves, they’d surely have missed the playoffs. They needed 104 wins to take the NL West in the Last Great Pennant Race; on the season’s final day, the Giants and Barry Bonds got stuck on 103.
Oh, and one thing more: At those winter meetings in Louisville, Schuerholz nearly hooked Bonds, too. Which wouldn’t have been like Kevin Durant signing with Golden State. It would have been like LeBron James signing with Golden State.
Doubtless you know this stuff already. But Schuerholz and his Braves were so great for so long – 14 consecutive first-place finishes – that we took them for granted. We picked their nits. (Trading David Justice and Marquis Grissom to Cleveland, for example.) Some among us hold that not winning the World Series more than once cancels the 14 division titles. But the Hall of Fame is, at base, a hall of memories. What we need to remember about that those Braves is that they were better for longer than any team has ever been.
The occupants of the chairs behind Schuerholz on the stage for Sunday’s ceremony told the tale: Maddux, Tom Glavine and Bobby Cox, Hall of Fame class of 2014; John Smoltz, class of 2015. Next year will bring Chipper Jones to the same podium. Counting the GM, that’s six Hall of Famers from that so-good-it-spoiled-us team. In an era where every halfway decent player has the right to change teams, the Braves stand as a shining example of how teams can get good and stay good and change players while still staying on top. (At that, Schuerholz is the unchallenged all-time best.)
As for his speech … well, here were the parts I liked. Him talking about playing stickball against a factory wall growing up in Baltimore. Him recalling his tryout for the hometown Orioles ending when scout Walter Youse handed him a stopwatch and told him to time the other guys. Him referencing the famous letter he wrote – he was then teaching junior high English – to Jerold Hoffberger, the Orioles’ owner, and how GM Frank Cashen recognized the Schuerholz name and personnel director Lou Gorman gave him a job on the strength of that. Those were nice touches.
The rest was unmemorable, except for Schuerholz not mentioning Frank Wren when listing his assistant GMs who’d moved up to run a team. (I guess technically Wren didn’t “go elsewhere.” He stayed to succeed Schuerholz and got “terminated” by him.)) But that’s OK. For Atlanta and its baseball franchise, far better to have had a guy with an eye for talent and a knack for hiring good people running the shop than a deliverer of stem-winders.
There are now seven men who acted as GMs – their titles might have varied – in the Hall. Four worked for the Yankees: George Weiss, Ed Barrow and Larry and Lee MacPhail. The other two are Branch Rickey and Pat Gillick. Only Schuerholz and Gillick ran teams in the era of free agency. Only Schuerholz and Gillick won World Series titles with clubs from both leagues. But Gillick never built a team that finished first 14 times over 14 completed seasons. Only John Schuerholz did that.
He closed his remarks by mentioning all the times he’d come here for someone else’s induction. “I really, really liked my seat on that lawn,” Schuerholz said. “But I need to confess: I love my new seat up here on this stage.”
When finally the speeches were done — at 17 minutes, his was the shortest, though it didn’t seem short — he and fellow inductee Bud Selig met the media and were asked about the plaques that will hang in the Hall. “We looked to see if ours looked anything like we thought it would,” Schuerholz said. “But who cares? It’s the Hall of Fame.”