For any Braves fan old enough, the night of October 14, 1992 is one that will never be forgotten. The entire bottom of the ninth inning is steeped in baseball lore. Stan Belinda’s pitch. Francisco Cabrera’s base hit to left. Sid Bream chugging around third. Barry Bonds’ throw home. The Slide. The legendary call. Ask any Braves fan and they will tell you exactly where they were the night Sid slid. It’s a moment that is almost as meaningful for the fanbase as Marquis Grissom squeezing the final out of the 1995 World Series. Arguably more so, actually.
But what if one of those key pieces to the play was flipped? What if Barry Bonds was wearing the home whites on that warm October night in Atlanta? Would the Pirates even be in the NLCS? Would any National League team even be able to take that Braves team to a seventh game?
The 1992 campaign was Bonds’ best offensive season until he would explode from 2001 to 2004. His 9.6 fWAR would lead all of baseball by over two whole wins – Chicago’s Ryne Sandberg would be second with 7.4 wins. But how much different would his season have been if he had been shipped to the Braves after the 1988 season or in the spring before the 1992 season? How would it have shaped the landscape of the Atlanta organization?
To understand how it would have affected the pre-dynasty Braves from 1989 forward, we must first take a look at where the organization was. The 1988 Braves were mired in one of the worst runs in baseball history. Coming off a season in which they had lost 106 games and finished an incredible 39.5 games out of first place, the team hadn’t so much as caught a whiff of .500 during Bobby Cox’s tenure as general manager. And now, the talk throughout the city was what would happen with star RF Dale Murphy.
As early as the 1988 trade deadline, the rumors had begun to swirl. The rumors at the time centered around the Reds and 26 year old five-tool player Eric Davis, one of the best young players in the game. Murphy was now 32 and had failed to replicate the career year (7.1 fWAR, 150 wRC+) he had put up in 1987. His offense dropped off significantly, and murmurs began that the legend was beginning to slow down. But Eric Davis was coming with baggage. Rumors had circulated throughout the summer he was suffering through cocaine addiction, an affliction which would hamper the career of many great athletes in the 1980’s. And while the Reds were eager to unload the outfielder, they were also expecting a return of Murphy and pitcher Tommy Greene. One thing Bobby Cox had accomplished during his tenure as GM was stockpiling a wealth of quality arms, and he wasn’t about to part with any of them before they got a chance to prove their worth.
So, the Braves entered the 1988 off-season shrouded in uncertainty. They had many coveted pieces, but those pieces had shown very little promise or had been met with elevated expectations on the field. The team had a wealth of pitching, depth at shortstop, and one of the premiere players of the decade on the trading block. And they were in dire need to fill holes. While other teams focused on the likes of Jeff Blauser, Andres Thomas, Pete Smith, and Gerald Perry, Bobby Cox sat his sights on an electric 24 year old in Pittsburgh: Barry Lamar Bonds.
The Pirates coveted Andres Thomas. The Bucs were in dire need of a shortstop, and Bobby Cox saw his in to go after his man. Initial talks surrounded a Bonds for Thomas, one-for-one deal. Pittsburgh GM Larry Doughty had other thoughts. If he was moving Bonds, he would need Thomas and one of the Braves elite, young starting pitchers. Cox refused. Having already shot down previous deals involving his young arms, he stood his ground.
That winter, Cox had discussions coming and going in all directions. One of the main catalysts in his pursuit of Bonds was needing a potential replacement for Murphy, who was rumored to be heading everywhere from southern California (both the Padres and Angels were interested) to New York. The other wild card was which of his two young SS Cox would be able to move. Talks with the Yankees had involved a 19 year old Carolina League outfielder named Bernie Williams. Talks with the Expos sank quickly when Cox mentioned Tim Wallach. Calls to the Red Sox on Jim Rice and to the Indians on Cory Snyder had also proven fruitless.
Cox would hold onto his pieces and fail to complete a deal for the one player he so coveted. Murphy would eventually be dealt to the Phillies at the deadline in 1990, by that point receiving change on the dollar for the aging RF who would ultimately be the one to decide it was time for a change. The Braves would end up leaving deals involving names such as Lenny Dykstra, Howard Johnson, and Rick Aguilera from the Mets, and Sandy Alomar Jr., Greg Harris, and John Kruk from the Padres. These names were all on the table over the course of one winter, but the Braves would settle less than two years later for much less. Jeff Blauser would prove to be a key part of the Braves 1990’s dynasty, and Andres Thomas would be out of baseball by the time he was 28. Maybe Cox got greedy. Maybe he over-valued his young pitching talent. But it’s hard to not wonder what would have happened had any of those trades come to fruition. Maybe the Braves wouldn’t have put up 97 losses in each of the next two seasons.
No matter how you draw up the roster, had the Braves been able to acquire Bonds and ship Murphy to either San Diego or New York for the rumored packages, the outlook and direction of the franchise would have likely been changed forever. Who knows where the team would have went in the coming years, with the young pitchers starting to break through into the Majors in the coming years. What we now know as one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history could have been far more successful.
But, as we all know, everything would eventually come together in Atlanta despite the failures of the 1988 offseason. Following the disastrous end to the 1980’s and the inconspicuous start to the 1990’s, the pieces fell into place for a magical run in 1991. With John Schuerholz now steering the ship and Bobby Cox now the onfield admiral, the Braves were destined to become the team of the decade. But Schuerholz wasn’t going to get complacent. He wanted to build on the excitement that swept the south in 1991. He wanted a superstar. Like his predecessor as Braves general manager, he wanted Barry Bonds.
This time things were different. Over the previous three seasons, Bonds had developed into the best player in baseball. With an MVP award in 1990 and a second place finish to Terry Pendleton in 1991, Bonds had lead the Pirates to back-to-back NLCS. But while the Braves were headed in one direction, the Bucs were in danger of heading the opposite. Bobby Bonilla had already jumped ship to New York, and Bonds and ace Doug Drabek were next to hit the free agent market after the 1992 season.
As teams began reporting to Spring Training in 1992, rumors began to circulate that new Pittsburgh GM Ted Simmons was looking to unload his LF in order to get some return before the superstar was lost to free agency before the end of the calendar year.
Schuerholz had already made a minor push to Doughty before he was fired in January 1992, offering up Blauser and young lefty Kent Mercker, as the Braves were finally willing to trade away some of their young arms. It wasn’t enough, and was dismissed rather quickly. But by March, Peter Gammons was reporting a deal was in place, and would likely be coming within the next week.
Schuerholz and Simmons remained mum, refusing to even acknowledge they had even been discussing the trade which had already begun to sweep like wildfire through the baseball world. Atlanta players refused to comment. Those who did remained anonymous and stated their dislike for Bonds; intimating that his presence would be detrimental to the clubhouse that rose from the ashes in 1991. The two named players who did speak up, however, were the two whose names had been actively tied to the trade: 1B/OF Brian Hunter and RP Mark Wohlers.
Hunter had been very vocal about his having to split time at 1B with Sid Bream in 1991, and was facing doing so once again in 1992. The young RH felt he was the superior player and deserved the opportunity to prove it on a full-time basis. Wohlers felt much the same way. The hard-throwing righty saw limited action in 1991, and wasn’t believed to be a strong factor in the Braves plans for 1992. Wohlers wanted a chance to make his mark with a Major League club, not return to AAA Richmond.
Hunter and Wohlers would be only two of the names thrown around, however. The Braves were said to have sent the Pirates a list of players to choose from which also included OF Keith Mitchell and 1B Sid Bream, who had just come to Atlanta from Pittsburgh a season earlier. Rumors circulated for weeks, as both GMs continued to deny involvement.
Adding fuel to the fire was Otis Nixon’s name being attached to trade rumors with the California Angels for the better part of the off-season. If the Braves were to acquire Bonds, pieces would need to be shuffled in order to clear up space in a crowded OF that already contained Nixon, David Justice, Ron Gant, Lonnie Smith, and Deion Sanders. Considering the drug suspension which cost him the end of 1991 (as well as the playoffs), Nixon figured to be the odd man out. Ultimately, the deal would fall through as the two teams would be unable to agree on which top prospects the Angels would send to Atlanta.
The key to any deal for Bonds wouldn’t be who Atlanta would give up to acquire the enigmatic LF, it would be Atlanta’s ability to sign him to a long-term deal and avoid his impending free agency. Reports were the Braves were willing to meet whatever demands Bonds had, which were believed to include a five year deal worth more than $6M per season. It was an unprecedented amount of money, but with Ted Turner’s deep pockets, it was within the Braves capabilities.
But first a deal would have to be struck. And Simmons, at this point, was calling the rumors nothing more than wild speculation. Within days the deal would be dead. Schuerholz would say later he was blind-sided by the abrupt end, as the Bucs GM was now proclaiming his LF would “under no circumstances” be traded. Month later, all Schuerholz would say was that the trade did not feature Hunter or Wohlers, the two players believed to be the centerpiece.
The following year, a Braves beat writer named Bill Zack would shed light on the trade that never was. In his book “Tomahawked” he would reveal the two players who were to be sent to Pittsburgh–surprisingly reliever Alejandro Pena, the aforementioned Keith Mitchell, and a top prospect–likely OF Melvin Nieves. As reported at the time of the rumors, Braves players were adamantly opposed to the trade, citing the combination of Bonds and Justice as being a recipe for clubhouse disaster. So, what happened to the deal? Schuerholz and Simmons were ready to pull the trigger until word got back to Pirates manager Jim Leyland. The Pittsburgh manager for six seasons threatened to walk, if the deal was done. Simmons shut the whole thing down.
But what might have been? Assuming Nixon ends up traded, the Braves likely start 1992 with an outfield of Bonds, Gant, and Justice, with Sanders and Smith on the bench for depth. As we know, the deal doesn’t get made without Bonds being locked up long-term, so he’s likely under Braves control until at least 1996 or ’97. With Deion eventually emerging into a borderline superstar in 1992, would the Braves give Sanders a starting job in 1993 and move Justice back to 1B? That move would also negate the need for the McGriff trade, Bonds being locked up likely negates the Greg Maddux signing, and 1B/LF Ryan Klesko goes from top prospect to being a huge bargaining piece on the trading block.
Speaking of Bonds and Maddux…
Schuerholz would have one final opportunity to make a run at Bonds. This time when he and Maddux both hit the free agent market following the 1992 season. One was the reigning NL MVP, the other was the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. And the Braves found themselves tied to both through much of November. The prices were high, and few teams would be able to throw around the type of money both of these elite players were demanding.
Bonds wanted to come to the Braves. During that memorable 1992 NLCS, he spent time house-hunting in the wealthier Atlanta neighborhoods. He consulted with Nixon and Sanders. He stated repeatedly that he would welcome an offer from Schuerholz and his front office. Even Braves players were becoming more vocal about wanting the slugger, as the face of the team at the time, Tom Glavine would state “[I] don’t think anyone would mind.”
The Braves and Bonds’s agent would enter into preliminary talks, but unfortunately, that is as far as the discussion would go. The Braves had already entered into a bidding war with the Yankees for Maddux, they couldn’t afford to enter into another with the Giants over Bonds. The LF would end up in San Francisco on a six-year, $43.75M deal; Maddux would ultimately leave the Yankees high and dry, spurning a five-year, $34M deal with New York to sign for $6M less in Atlanta. Braves President Stan Kasten would say the deal for Bonds was simply too much, as Bonds’ contract would pale in comparison only to that of former teammate Bobby Bonilla’s deal with the Mets.
The legacy of Bonds in a Braves uniform and what could have been is one that has haunted many Braves fans for the better part of the past two decades. Many wonder what could have been with the polarizing outfielder if he had been under the tutelage of Bobby Cox, and how he could have been shaped had he been exposed to the infamous Braves Way. Others wonder what the venomous Bonds might have done to a clubhouse that was built on professionalism and remaining quiet; the old cliché of “playing the game the right way.” The debate for Bonds v. Maddux is one that is tossed around a couple times per year in certain circles, and it’s one that we will never have a definitive answer on.
The thought of Barry Bonds with a tomahawk across his chest is, unfortunately, a sight none of us ever got the chance to see.