The morning haze was still heavy in the air and in our eyes as we piled into the van to travel to Turner Field for a Braves game. The 5 of us used to get together many times each summer and make the drive from Charlotte to Atlanta. It has gotten more and more difficult for my friends and I to make time for those trips, though. Life has sunk its gnarled teeth into our schedules, but we still manage to carve out the occasional weekend or holiday. That morning, as we loaded up on coffee and settled into the ancient blue minivan, we were going to see the Braves play the Red Sox. It was Memorial day, and it would be the only game we would all be able to make it to together in 2014. We were really hoping to see a good one.
Instead we saw an Ervin Santana meltdown and David Ortiz raking like it was 2005. We saw the attending Red Sox fans drown out cheers for the Braves and Fredi Gonzalez go to Ian Thomas and Luis Avilan after a nearly two hour rain delay. Ultimately, we saw a Braves loss at home and had to drive home in Atlanta traffic and ponder on the pieces that made up what may have been the most frustrating game I’ve ever been to. My friends and I discussed all of its many problems for a few hours on the way back. Frustration was present in the little old van, but it never took control and it quickly gave way to jokes and laughter that lasted for hours. We had come to see a good baseball game and we were disappointed. The game was, for lack of a better term, a big, leaky bucket of wet garbage. And we had given up an entire holiday and hundreds of dollars to see that bucket. Yet, as my friends fell asleep one by one and I was left to think on it by myself, I began to ask myself some questions. Was I actually disappointed in the day’s events? Was I truly upset about the failures I had just watched? I couldn’t muster an ounce of irritation, to be honest. I realized that I was absolutely happy and content with how the day had gone. The baseball game’s many failings had not been excused–they were still very present in my memory. However, I recognized that the pieces which made up that game fit into a larger story. I had spent a whole day with some of my closest friends. We had come together, eaten deliciously awful food, drunk beer, laughed, shouted obscenities, and had a generally wonderful time. We had come together to watch baseball. The particular game we saw was a bummer, but the uniting force of the sport had yielded a more than satisfying return.
So here we are four months later–me, my friends from the van, everybody who trekked to Turner Field that day, all the vagrants I talk to on the internet, every super fan who watched all 162 games, all the casual fans who only caught one or two, every Braves supporter from Liberty Media Group on down to every individual person reading this article right now–here we all are at the end of the 2014 Braves season. Back in March we all piled on to the Braves bandwagon and excitedly rolled into yet another year of baseball. The sport and its denizen in Atlanta had brought us together over the course of many years and many experiences. Hurled together by fate’s comical whims, some of us got along splendidly while others were held together by only mutual contempt for each other and a shared interest in the Braves. Baseball has a way of making that happen, though. It can cause a pacifistic poet and a militant fascist to cheer at the same time and to boo alongside one another. No matter how different our lives, mutual fans of a team rise and fall as one with the game’s moments; share in the same memories. It brings us together, because it is real, though ultimately without consequence. And so, baseball brought us together again this season and we formed hopes and potential narratives for the months to come. Then we set out on March 31, not knowing what we would see. We were really hoping to see a good season together.
But here we are. The MLB playoffs are currently going on without Atlanta, and fans have until April to look back on 2014 and consider what it was they saw. What we saw. Did we see the season that was expected of this collection of bats and arms? Did we see a failure of leadership, management, talent, or anything at all? We all saw the same wins, losses, and events. We all saw the same final record. But what were the pieces that led to that eventual grim number? Were they each a disappointment or was it just some elements of the year that let us down. What exactly did we see?
We saw pitching bodies failing – The Braves 2014 campaign rang in with the sound of young UCL’s snapping like twigs. Beachy and Medlen were supposed to be important parts of the rotation before they both got word that their arms would not be able to fulfill their respective duties. By that time, Tim Hudson had already left the team for the more willing wallets of San Francisco and Mike Minor was sidelined because of an issue of manhood. Before opening day, we saw a pitching staff whittled down to a pair of 23 year-olds, an expensive emergency replacement, a newly acquired Tommy John-er in recovery, and Aaron Harang. What did we expect? Was this the 5 to lead our Braves back to the playoffs? Was this honestly the group we had all joined together to support? Would it be disappointing or just an affirmation of good sense if they failed? Thankfully, we don’t have to answer that last question.
From out of the early piles of pitching wreckage, Teheran and Wood emerged with spectacular years. They showed us pitching of the highest order all season long. Minor struggled most of the year, but even he gave us all one strange and awesome night by almost no-hitting the Reds. The rotation was rounded out by our expensive pickup and the aging Harang. Big Erv earned his keep and brought some #weird twitter noise to our collective. But the greatest, most baffling thing we saw from the pitchers–maybe the best story in baseball this year–resided at the bottom of the Atlanta rotation. We all saw Aaron Harang fill the basepaths every night he took the mound. We winced and shrugged as he somehow worked his way to a team-leading (tied with Teheran) 25 quality starts. The man who was supposed to fill in for April became our ugly-mugged stopper. His paradoxical, overarching success achieved by incremental failure was something special. He defied expectations, as did Alex Wood, Julio Teheran, and maybe even Ervin Santana. The pitching rotation we saw was not a disappointment. They kept the 2014 trip going in the right direction as long as they could.
What about the bullpen, though? That soft underbelly of the staff. They were also weakened for another season by injury. Venters was and is gone. Luis Avilan pitched in just one less game than Craig Kimbrel, and we saw blown games from both. However, as bullpens go, this one did just fine. They were not a delight to watch nor were they a burden to their fans. Walden, Carpenter, Varvaro, etc. performed above league average. Kimbrel remained mostly otherworldly despite a moment or two of mortality. The Braves bullpen was not spectacular, but it did not bring the misery that a team like the Rockies or the Astros bullpen did either. Overall, the combined pitching staff of 2014 performed better than we could have reasonably asked for. They were not a cause of disappointment and we will remember their efforts fondly. We came to see more than just the pitchers in 2014, though. From the outset of the year, many of us had the defense pegged as a possible source of ruination for the season. Now that it’s all said and done, just what did we see from them?
We saw beauty and monstrosity on the same diamond – Defense is a difficult thing to measure. Most of us know the good when we see it, and we definitely know the bad, but the overall context is often lost to narratives. More specifically, to memories and muddled ideas based only loosely on what we saw. In 2014 we saw the corner stumps of Chris Johnson and Freddie Freeman (For all his scoops) still unable to move to a ball that was not within an arm’s length of their foxholes. We witnessed the birth of BJ Upton’s defensive foibles as he led the league in errors by a CF. There were countless passed balls and missed signals attributable to that bear of a man, Evan Gattis. And of course, for a time, we saw Dan Uggla stand in the spot a second baseman is supposed to stand. The defense was often a beast. A drunken, surly animal burrowing and undermining the work of the pitchers. However, it was not as bad as many expected or even remember. The 2014 Braves came near the top in many defensive metrics–or so I’m told by smart people who make lists. This can almost certainly be attributed to the brilliance of a few key players; a few of our favorites whose jerseys we wore into the season with pride.
The glove of Andrelton Simmons is rarely a disappointment. His runs saved are as numerous as the sands of the shore and his web gems as the stars in the sky. We rallied around his extended highlight reels for months after the 2013 season and we continued to preach his good news to the rest of the baseball world as this season progressed. We saw him combine the efficiency of a player like Chase Utley with the audacious excitement of an Ozzie Smith. He was beautiful and we were witnesses. Jason Heyward was similarly magnificent in the field. Right field at Turner is now a burial ground for many a potential double and it is because number 22 patrols it. His left field counterpart even showed us some fun glove work by faking throws and tricking runners into outs. These guys and some sporadic efforts (THE SCOOPS) from other members of the roster made defense exciting in the best possible way. Looking at the opening day lineup not much could have been expected from the defense collectively. Our early season hopes were not formed around the men behind the pitcher carrying the team. But, like the pitchers, the defense provided more than we could have asked. They too did not disappoint. The bandwagon could roll on happily as far as that side of the innings went.
We saw a lot of good this year. Yet the question still hangs over this series of reflections. A question in the form of a set of very disappointing numbers. 79-83: What brought a 96-66 team down 17 wins, if not the pitching and defense? By now, the answer is obvious, of course. It’s an answer we became all too familiar with as the bandwagon barreled on through losing streaks and scoring slumps. It’s an unfortunate truth that we saw the 2014 Braves on more than one side of the diamond this season. We saw them stand one-by-one in the batters box and tear apart nearly all of the expectations we had come up with.
We saw regression – In 2013 a few Braves had seasons at the plate that they were never supposed to have. Chris Johnson, Jordan Schafer, and Andrelton Simmons punched above their weight and contributed to putting the team into the playoffs. Many of us hoped to see those levels improve. Even the most cynical among our group of fans thought those hitters would at least remain close to their 2013 selves. But, to put it simply, they disappointed. Those three were among the least productive hitters in the division. Evan Gattis, in a backup role, also brought his bat during the hot first half of 2013. In the absence of Brian McCann, he gave us a 2014 which more closely resembled the later struggles of the prior season. It was widely thought that B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla had nowhere to go but up this season. It turns out that was incorrect. Both limbo-ed lower–down into the depths of hitting hell. Not an exciting level with shouting and flames. No, they hit at one of the frustrating, maddeningly repetitive levels. They were miserable to watch; a real downer on our season long trip. And yet they were just barely worse than the replacement options.
Justin Upton was marvelous for most of the year. We also saw Freddie Freeman continue to earn his contract extension at the plate. Jason Heyward produced finely and more than earned his keep. That was about it, though. A few good performances echoing in the cavernous failure carved out by the rest of the everyday lineup. What about the bench, some may ask? I don’t recall the Braves having one this year.
The offense was disappointing. No, it was more than that. Pathetic. In a year which saw the entire league slump offensively, the Braves slumped to the bottom 6 in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. On July 20th, we watched the Braves lose the division lead to the Nationals. After that the offense sputtered mightily and eventually collapsed into shambles on the side of the first base line. The offense failed to live up to even our most modest expectations. They made it hard to keep watching. They disappointed the pitchers, the fielders, the managers. Oh, that’s right! I almost forgot those managers.
We saw high risks and low rewards – The Braves managers–a catch-all term used inappropriately to describe the higher ups in the front office as well as Fredi and his coaches–were once again a disappointment. The season is over and they are still teetering on the brink of going fully over the edge into a maddening let-down of the most obscene nature. For all of our collective support, we were rewarded with lineups featuring Emilio Bonifacio and even worse hitters in the leadoff spot. There were pinch hits and high leverage misses and sac bunts and Freddie Freeman tried to steal a base. All points of frustration that we have shouted about at great lengths to one another and, at times, to nobody in particular. The hitting suffered a nearly complete regression and the hitting coach “resigned”. We saw contracts that seemed within the realm of reason at the time of their signing continue to go as wrongly as possible. Because those probabilities turned out poorly and because the GM wasn’t cool enough for the old timers club, he was fired. So far, the fearless Fredi remains employed at the whim of a 3-man cabal, and it’s all enough to make many of us just crazy enough to think about setting fire to the whole idea of our fandom. It’s frustrating. It’s disappointing. But we won’t do it. There are other memories to consider. A bigger context.
Yes, taken as a whole, the 79-83 season we saw and took part in was a disappointment. It was a disappointment to build up expectations and have them dashed month after month. It’s irritating to miss out on the playoffs while watching the Nationals and their bandwagon of fans come in and win the division on our home field. Objectively, it was a bad season. Not everybody was to blame. Nor is there just one person who should bear the weight of this failure. It comes down a collection of pieces, and in this case the pieces broke very badly. And yet, we won’t abandon our fandom. Because, you see, this season’s frustrations fit into a larger story. The same story that made my Memorial Day trip so satisfying.
The game I saw that afternoon in late May was disappointing for all the reasons I mentioned at the start of this thing. The result and the way we got to it were indefensibly upsetting. And yet, I do not regret that my friends and I got up early that morning and piled into a minivan that is 178 years old in van years. I do not regret the 10 hours of driving, sitting through the rain delay, nor the money we spent on it all. Because, honestly, it was fun. Jason Heyward made a great play that shut up the Boston fans. I got to explain who the hell Ian Thomas was to those same fans after the rain delay. That rain delay gave me and my friends another hour and a half to drink cans of Sweetwater 420 in the stands. We got to make fun of Fredi Gonzalez and we got to complain about the often ridiculous, but lovable city of Atlanta. Through every disappointing turn, I was still watching baseball. This wonderful, terrible game which brings me together with my oldest friends just as it does with a bunch of people I would not otherwise know from Adam.
This 2014 Braves season turned out badly. At times it was ugly. We dealt with a lot of very long streaks of disappointment. Our well considered and discussed expectations never became reality. And yet, amidst the awful hitting, questionable management, and even the good bits, we were still watching, still taking part in baseball together. We united around an organization that exists to play a game. We piled into that organization’s season together and we drank beer and we made jokes. We argued, apologized, wrote, read, studied, and discussed. We became friends and had conversations that had nothing at all to do with the Braves. We got to laugh at a beat writer’s be-stickered laptop. And we even cheered a few times together. We came together and were met with an ultimately disappointing season of baseball. But there were memories made–both good and bad–that matter more than the end of the season record. They matter more because we made them with each other. Fellow humans sharing in a silly game that has created countless oddball families over the past century or so. The game that created the “we” I’ve been referencing throughout this piece continues writing new stories year in and year out. It was a let down this year. But it was still good. And I don’t regret any of it. So, at the end of it all, I say here’s to taking a few moments to remember all we saw and shared with one another during this clogged toilet of a Braves season. And then I say here’s to looking forward to baseball’s triumphant return to our group in 2015. We’ll see you next season.