SABR 40: day two, Braves Player Panel

SABR Liveblogging Day 2
I’m late to the Braves Player Panel. I would have been on time, but something I had at the breakfast buffet didn’t agree with me. I’m there now, though…
Phil Niekro, Mark Lemke, Bobby Cox, Ron Gant, and moderated by Pete Van Wieren
Recapped below!

Mark Lemke is telling the story of his drafting. He grew up in upstate New York and had been watching a lot of the Braves on TBS. He remembered the Plexiglas home run fence. He hoped to get into pro ball but didn’t get drafted at all in his first eligibility, and then did get drafted the next year with one of the Braves last picks, but didn’t expect to sign. He thought he was going to Purdue, but the Braves then would fly all their draft picks in. So he flew to Atlanta with his parents and ended up signing there.
Moderator Pete Van Wieren then asks Ron what he thought about his signing. “I thought I was going to get a new car.”
Pete asks Bobby Cox why he came back to Atlanta after all the success he had in Toronto. Bobby says it was Ted Turner, and it was a hard sell to his wife and kids to stay in Canada when they had stayed in the Atlanta organization.
Bobby Cox now saying three owners really shaped baseball. George Steinbrenner, Bill Corbett in Texas, and Ted Turner with the Braves. In those days the Winter Meetings always had rumors coming out of those teams. Nowadays the owners don’t even go to the winter meetings.
The guys tell a bunch of funny stories about the day Ted Turner decided to get in uniform and manage the team. Apparently he couldn’t figure out how to get his stirrup socks on and then still wore his loafers. Phil Niekro pitched that game and supposedly joked, “Hey, Skip, you still got me hitting ninth?”
One of the first things Cox did on coming back to Atlanta was implement a 5 year plan to improve the organization and to build up the minor league system. “Our philosophy was ‘if you like ’em, we’ll sign ’em’ and build them up. We had more minor league teams than any other team.” They added more instructors in the minors, too.
Ron Gant in 1990 was the first Brave to have a 30-30 season. “What were you thinking when you first came up?”
Ron: We were thinking our chances were slim to none. I came up through the organization and if you talk to any major league payer who came up through it you know it’s a top notch organization. We were able to hone our skills because of that. I came up as a second baseman, and they decided I would play third base in Puerto Rico. Bobby Cox showed up down there to check on me. I could see on his face he was thinking “I hope he doesn’t play third base as bad as he plays second.” Well. The next time I appeared in a game [in the US] it was in center field.
Cox describes what it was like going into 1991, and then talking about at the All Star Break being 9.5 games back and in third place.
Lemke: I remember that night before the break I think we were in Los Angeles, thinking man, what do we have to do? And some guys were like “We’re not out of this. We can do this.” And when we came back we went on a streak. Terry was like “We can do this.”
Ron: Yeah, we were thinking we were out of it. But we had some guys like Mark, Dave Justice, every night there was someone different coming up with a big hit. There was a lot of talent and a lot of guys who got along together. We saw the Dodgers starting to slip backwards and thought we can stick the knife in.
Lemke: And it really showed what a good manager Bobby Cox was. He never panicked.
Pete: You stuck with John Smoltz that year even though everyone was getting down on him. He ended up with a winning record that year.
Cox: He was a young kid but he was a great competitor. You knew he was going to win more ballgames. Those red tomahawks came out around that time. We were playing a game against the Dodgers. John is the type of guy who always has to be doing something, hyper type guy, but there was energy everywhere that day, the stands were full, people were honking their horns at us. And John went out and shut them out that day.
Pete: Phil, there were a lot of nights when you played here when you would have loved to have the Braves in a chance to get a crowd like that.
Phil: I think back then this (indicates SABR audience) would have been a good crowd.
Ron: I think back then you could get a seat in the dugout. (laughs)
Lemke: It was such an exciting time. Even driving to the ballpark was exciting. The fans were getting there before the players they were so excited.
Pete: If you weren’t here in 1991 it’s hard to describe what it’s like. People had tomahawks for their mailbox flags, big office buildings had signs on them. Phil, did that excitement filter down to the minor league level?
Phil: You know our biggest thing was just keeping everyone healthy in case they needed them in the big leagues.
Pete: I used to get to the ballpark early because I thought this is something special. I didn’t want to miss a moment of it. I didn’t have any idea that it was going to be the start of 14 consecutive postseason series.
Cox: We thought we had good young talent and thought they would be around for a long time. We thought we had enough pitching. And then in 1993 we signed Greg Maddux and that really stabilized everything.
Pete: And that started the Maddux Smoltz Glavine era. What was it like playing behind them. Got a Maddux story?
Lemke: There were times he would call you to the mound and he would tell you, okay, this guy is going to foul off a couple and then he’s going to hit one right to you if you move over just a little. And sure enough three pitches later it would come right to you.
Cox: I would be down in the radar room and Greg would come in with the lineup and he’d be like okay, in the fifth inning, this guy is going to be looking for something, so give me two pitches if the count goes 2-1…. et cetera. And I’m thinking wow I’ve got eight other hitters to worry about. There was the year Luis Gonzalez was hitting 50 home runs, and Greg said to me, I want two pitches on this guy before we walk him. Sure enough in the 8th inning the guy comes up, and I go out of the mound and say “Mad Dog, this is the guy you said you wanted two pitches on.” Maddux says “Yeah it is. Don’t you remember? I’m going to pop him up to the third base side on the second pitch.” I go back to the dugout and I told Leo, he’s going to pop him up on the second pitch. Well, you can look in the record book what happened. [As predicted by Maddux.]
[EDIT: I was later talking to some folks in the hall who said they tried to look this one up, and Cox has it wrong, it wasn’t Luis Gonzalez he did this to, but Jorge Posada in the World Series. I wasn’t able to get details on why they thought Maddux might not have done this to BOTH Gonzalez and Posada…]
Gant: There were days he pitched when I could just bring an Emery board with me to the outfield because there would be no action out there.
Cox: But when you weren’t playing for us, when you were against us, Maddux told me he didn’t want to face you. His exact words were “He scares me.”
Pete: We’re retiring Tom Glavine’s number tonight. Anyone with Glavine stories?
Cox: Larry Bowa is the one who gave him that nickname “The Machine.” He could throw it in, out, up down, throw that changeup whenever he wanted. Bowa was like when’s The Machine pitching? I’d say “He’s pitching Sunday because it’s getaway day and we want to get out of here with a win.”
Lemke: There was one day Jay Howell called me into the mound. Jay says hey could you do me a favor. Turn around and tell Gant and Justice to move back. Move back? Why? And Howell tells me, Because I got nothing. And you be careful out there tonight, too.
Niekro: I’m really looking forward to polishing some chairs for other Braves in the Hall of Fame. It’s just me and Hank Aaron. But Maddux is coming in. Glavine is coming in. Dale Murphy has very close numbers to Kirby Puckett and Andre Dawson. I will be pushing for him.
Questions from the audience.
I”m a SF Giants fan so the 1993 season is of particular interest to me.
Lemke: We had quite a double digit deficit to the Giants that year. And in the end I remember we had lost the coin toss and would have had to fly to San Francisco if we lost… no wait, we lost that day and we had to wait around the stadium waiting to find out what would happen with the Giants and Dodgers. Fortunately for us, the Dodgers took care of business.
Gant: I’m still trying to figure out why we were in the West.
Todd Van Poppel said he didn’t want to play for the Braves. How would that have changed the franchise?
Cox: Van Poppel didn’t want to sign with ANYBODY. So he was easy to pass over. Whereas Chipper Jones said to us, “No matter what anyone says, don’t let anyone tell you I’m going to college.”
A SABR member comments he wants to thank the players and especially Bobby Cox that this is the first time he can remember the manager of the team of the major league franchise in the city we had our convention actually coming to speak to the convention when he had a game to manage that night. Much applause in agreement.
More on the 1993 pennant race:
Lemke: We had a really uplifting feeling when we got Fred McGriff.
Gant: In fact, it was like an omen. The day McGriff got there, the stadium caught on fire. And so did we.
A question about Phil Niekro pitching for the Yankees at the end of his career.
Niekro: When I got to the American League, all I knew was the mound was still 60 feet six innings, there are still nine guys you had to get out, and whoever scored more at the end of nine innings won the game. But I enjoyed my time there. No matter what team’s uniform you put on, you feel blessed to be going out there.

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