Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Favorite Braves Team - The 1977 Atlanta Braves

Earlier this year, in approximately March or so, Jay Busbee and I decided on a friendly wager on who would win the season series: my New York Mets or his beloved Atlanta Braves.  After much deliberating, we decided that while the winner would get to gloat all off-season, the loser had to write about their favorite roster in the winning team’s history.  As luck, or as I like to call it “the Mets utter ineptitude”, would have it, the two teams tied 9 to 9.  So in lieu of counting stats and breaking it down to the knitty-gritty, we decided to both write.

I’ll be honest, before the Braves became an NL East powerhouse, I never paid them much attention.  Growing up in New York in the 1980s, the Braves were an afterthought, a minor speedbump on the road to further Mets glory.  Before the days of David Justice, Ron Gant, and John Smoltz, the only time I had any feelings towards the Braves was when Lonnie Smith hit a game-winning home run against Sid Fernandez sometime in 1989.  Fernandez was a personal favorite of mine and I was quite mad at this last-place Brave outfielder for standing in the way of my favorite team.  But I digress.  As for my favorite Braves team, for the sake of colorfulness and sheer ineptitude, I am going with the 1977 Atlanta Braves.

Besides being the year I was born, the year of the Son of Sam, the year Interpol made it illegal to copy video tapes, and the year the Bronx supposedly burned, 1977 marked one of the lowest points in Atlanta Braves history.  Gone were Hank Aaron, Dave Johnson, Ralph Garr, and Dusty Baker.  In their place were Jeff Burroughs, Willie Montanez, Gary Mathews, and a position-less youngster named Dale Murphy.  Add in a new charismatic owner and his penchant for hands-on management, a knuckleballer who won 16 yet lost 20, and the legendary Biff Pocoroba, and the 1977 Braves were one of the worst teams the city of Atlanta has ever seen, and that includes some bad Hawks basketball.

Leading the charge for these bumbling Braves was manager Dave Bristol.  Bristol would manage 160 of 162 games in 1977, making way for the first Bobby Cox era in 1978.  Of course, thanks to new owner Ted Turner, the Braves made headlines on one of Bristol’s “days off”.  Turner, eager to show his baseball prowess, took the reigns of the team on May 11th, promptly losing to the Pirates 2 to 1.  Although he would go on to claim that "Managing isn't that difficult, you just have to score more runs than the other guy", it would be the last day Turner would venture into the daily on-the-field management of the club.

As much of a mess as they were in the dugout, the Braves were as much a mess between the lines, and probably nowhere more so than on the mound.  The so-called ace of the staff was future Hall-of-Famer Phil Niekro.  Although Niekro pitched for the Braves from 1964 to 1983, 1977 was by far his worst year.  In 1977, Niekro gave up over 300 hits and walked a whopping 164 batters.  Rounding out the staff was a gaggle of has-beens and never-weres including one-time 20-game winner Andy Messersmith and one-time NL ERA leader Buzz Capra.

Although the aforementioned Burroughs had one of his better years and was clearly team MVP, my favorite Brave on the 1977 team is shortstop Pat “Don’t call me pocket” (can I say that?) Rockett.  I could be wrong, so long-time Braves fans please help me out, but by his stats, Rockett seemed like he epitomized the light-hitting, slick-fielding shortstops of the era.  Sort of a Rafael Belliard of his day.  Except for one glaring problem – Rockett wasn’t very good with the glove.  Although he only played in 84 games, Rockett was perhaps the worst fielding shortstop in the National League in 1977, committing 23 errors.  His 1 error per 3.65 games was second worst in the league behind stone-handed Padre shortstop Bill Almon and his horrendous 41 errors.  Whereas the Padres moved Almon to third the following season, Rockett wasn’t so fortunate, playing his the final 55 games of his career in ’78 and hitting an unmistakably pathetic .141.

Without a doubt, the 1977 Braves were a mess.  Similar to today’s Giants, they were a team in transition.  Young prospects Dale Murphy and Bob Horner would emerge the following season as stars, and after a few more years of struggle, the Braves would finish in first in ’82 and second in ’83 and ‘84.  Unfortunately however, their success was short-lived, and the Braves turned into the eventual doormat of the NL West.  Yet no matter how bad they were throughout the 80s, no other Atlanta Brave team featured a Rockett, a knuckleballer, and an owner gutsy enough to think he could manage.  That’s why, as a Mets fan and a fan of eccentric personalities everywhere, the ’77 team is my favorite Braves team.

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