By: Steve Norris
TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services
For those of us who have been Atlanta Braves fans for over 40 years, we have been through some good times, some bad times, and then some really, really bad times.
There were a few Braves teams in the 80’s that were inexplicably bad. Many times, as the Braves were headed towards yet another loss, legendary Braves announcer Skip Caray would quip, “Well, Folks…you can’t win ‘em all or it would get boring.”
Well, believe me, some of those 80’s teams went out of their way to save us from that boredom.
Then in 1990, things began to turn around. John Schuerholz took over as General Manager and Bobby Cox came back as Manager (he managed the Braves from 1978-1981).
The team finally started making intelligent decisions and good things began to happen. For me, the biggest thing that came along was David Justice.
Now, I realize a lot of people are going to disagree with me here. They’ll say that it was the Braves’ pitching that made them what they were in the 90’s, and I’m not saying they’re necessarily wrong. But every great team has a leader. And Justice was it. Here’s how I know.
I was lucky enough to get to cover the Braves from 1994-1996 while working for 13WMAZ in Macon, GA. I covered somewhere around 20-25 games in that time, and for a guy in his 20’s who had grown up loving the Braves, it was like a day at Six Flags for me.
I got to interview the players on the field while they were taking batting practice, sit in the press box to watch the game, and then go in the locker room after the game to do interviews.
The locker room at that time was full of future Hall-of-Famers that everyone remembers. Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Jon Smoltz, and Fred McGriff were all present.
However, there was one player the media always went to like a moth to a bug light. And that was David Justice. He had a commanding presence that couldn’t be denied and wasn’t afraid in the least to say exactly what was on his mind. He also didn’t suffer fools when it came to the reporters.
If somebody asked a dumb question, Justice called them out on it. His mouth did get him in trouble with the fans in 1995 when he went on a rant before Game 6 on the World Series, claiming that the fans would hate the team if they didn’t win the series.
However, he still went out and hit the biggest home run in Braves history to win the series that night.
The following year, Justice only played in 40 games of the 1996 season due to a shoulder injury. He wasn’t available for the World Series against the Yankees, and it led to the biggest collapse in Braves history.
After getting out to 2-0 lead in the series on the road and headed back home, the Braves managed to lose four games in a row, dropping the series 4-2.
As a Braves fan, I’m still not over that World Series loss. I couldn’t sleep for a week. David Justice was my favorite player and it frustrated me that he wasn’t able to be in the lineup to help keep that loss from happening. Still, I was looking forward to the 1997 season when he’d be back healthy and the team would be even stronger.
Then, for me and many other Braves fans, the worst trade in Braves history happened.
On March 25th, 1997, in a salary-cutting move, the Braves traded David Justice and Marquis Grissom (my second favorite Braves player) to the Cleveland Indians for Kenny Lofton and left-handed relief pitcher Alan Embree.
As a Braves fan, I was devastated. I had seen how clutch Justice could be when they needed him. I had seen what his presence meant in the clubhouse when he kept reporters away from other players who preferred not to be interviewed (like Grissom, Maddux, and McGriff). I felt like Justice was “the straw that stirred the drink” as the saying goes.
He went on that year to lead Cleveland to the World Series while Kenny Lofton was a problem child who never really wanted to be in Atlanta, lasting one year before re-signing with Cleveland the next year.
Embree was basically an average pitcher at best, who didn’t bring much value.
Meanwhile, the Braves went on to lose in the National League Championship Series to the underdog Florida Marlins 4-2, in what is still another playoff loss I’ve never really gotten over.
Which brings me to my point…there is no substitute for chemistry on a team, and some players are way more important than others.
After dealing Justice, the Braves never made it to the promised land again with Cox as manager. While eventually winning 14 straight division titles, they only played in one more World Series; in 1999, getting blown out 4-0 by the Yankees.
Now, here we are in 2023 and I’m afraid history is repeating itself. After the exhilarating and unexpected World Series win in 2021, the Braves let the biggest part of their chemistry go by not signing Freddie Freeman to another contract. And what happened?
A shameful first round playoff loss to the Phillies where Freeman’s leadership was sorely missed.
It’s hard for me to criticize Braves General Manager Alex Anthopolous for losing Freddie. After all, it was Anthopolous who made the moves halfway through the 2021 season that led to the World Series win.
But I’m getting that old feeling again. That while the Braves will be loaded with talent and most likely playoff-bound for several seasons to come, they’ll still find a way to blow it now that the chemistry has been irreversibly changed. I really hope I’m wrong.