Anybody who follows my posts knows that I see a lot of baseball in a year. Starting with my alma mater Old Dominion's early games, continuing with over a week in Spring Training, the Minor League season, definitely aided by my season tickets to the Norfolk Tides, and further aided by the late end of the independent Atlantic League and the Major Leagues, I saw nearly 100 days of baseball this year.
The Braves are certainly my passion and I make every effort to see as many games with Atlanta affiliates as I possibly can, but I'm also a baseball junkie and make sure to see as many games in general as I possibly can. During the year I run into a number of former Braves players, prospects, and coaches and I thought it might be a nice respite from the cold winter rosterbation if I shared some pictures of them with you. I have a very broad idea of what makes a former Brave, basically if you've ever been a part of the organization at any level that counts to me, so there may be a few guys that even the most stringent of Atlanta fans weren't aware had been a part of the organization.
I live in Virgnia Beach, just on the cusp of Norfolk, so the Tides, AAA affiliate of the Orioles, is the team I see the most. They almost always have a former Brave or two and this year they had two for a large chunks of the season, left handed pitcher Chris Waters and catcher Steve Torrealba:
After being a 5th round pick in 2000 Chris Waters never actually played for Atlanta, missing roughly two full seasons between 2003 and 2005 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. After a healthy year with Mississippi in 2006 he was allowed to leave as a Minor League free agent and was scooped up by the Orioles and put together a nice season for their AA affiliate in Bowie in 07. He spent most of the last two years pitching with Norfolk, pitching much better than his numbers indicate, particularly in 08. He finally made his Major League debut with the Orioles in 08, pitching 76.1 innings for the O's the last two years to the tune of a 4-5 record, 5.01 ERA, and 1.48 WHIP in 16 games (12 starts). He was recently part of a roster crunch and is now a free agent. Chris is a really laid back guy but he has this sense of humor that's like a rattle snake hiding under some brush. He has this really serious face and every now and then he'll say something so dead pan that it takes a minute or two to realize it's one of the funniest things you've ever heard. And I think it's cool that he still wears a camoflage Mississippi Braves hat pretty regularly.
I always forget that Steve Torrealba actually played for Atlanta, appearing in 15 games between 2002 and 2003 and collecting a .105 average in 23 plate appearances. That's his only Major League time in his entire 15 year pro career and in addition to 8 seasons in the Braves organization he's spent time with the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, Tigers, Orioles, and several independent teams. He was surprisingly good for Norfolk, splitting time between catcher and first base, hitting .247 with a .723 OPS in 101 plate appearances but was sent to AA for the second half of the year when Chad Moeller was demoted from Baltimore. Even though he wasn't around that long Steve was very memorable for what he wore. He had one outfit, white sandals, white trousers, a white button up shirt (a little stylish), and a white kangol hat, that he wore, well, every day.
One of the teams that plays in Norfolk the most was also the team that had the most former Braves, the White Sox's AAA affiliate, the Charlotte Knights. During one mid-season visit the team had six players and one manager who had all been Braves at one point.
But, of all these players, the one that Braves fans might want back the most is catcher Tyler Flowers:
T-Flow had a nice season split between AA and AAA, hitting .297 with a .939 OPS, including 28 doubles, 15 homers, and 56 RBI in 436 plate appearances, and capped off the year by making his Major League Debut with the White Sox in September. He's a great player and an outstanding person and while many of us (myself included) would love to see him still wearing a Braves uniform I'd guess we're also very happy with Javier Vazquez and wish Tyler the best with the Sox.
The other Knights who once were Braves included manager Chris Chambliss, third baseman Wilson Betemit, shortstop Brent Lillibridge, catcher Cole Armstrong, outfielder DeWayne Wise, and first baseman Daryle Ward:
In addition to being a AAA coach for the Braves a few times, including serving as Richmond's AAA hitting coach in 2008, Chris Chambliss also played seven seasons as a first baseman for Atlanta, hitting .272 with a .767 OPS in just over 3000 plate appearances. Of course, he's best known for his work in the 1976 ALCS with the Yankees, so Yankees fans go nuts whenever he comes to town. I respect Chambliss a lot, cause I think he's a good coach, but he's a little crusty as a person. He kind of looks at fans as something getting in the way of his day.
I feel like I've known Wilson Betemit forever and I guess I kind of have; I first met him when he was playing for Danville when we were both 17. Over a decade later and things haven't really panned out for him, he's bounced around for a few Major League teams and ended up playing out 2009 with a fairl unspectacular showing in AAA. But, he's still a good dude, if maybe a little more reserved and less outgoing than he used to be. Still a guy I get excited to see. If you didn't get a chance to see him in A and AA on the way up, wow, you missed something.
In 2007 Brent Lillibridge almost single handedly hit the Richmond Braves to their International League Championship title, but now he's working off two sub-.700 OPS seasons and looks fairly lost at the plate. It's a shame because I think Lilly has a ton of talent but he just hasn't been able to show it in a while. But, he's a hard worker and a serious guy and I hope the best for him.
After a weak showing in 2005 for Rome the Braves left Canadian Cole Armstrong unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft, the Minor Leauge Rule 5 Draft, and the White Sox took him. He was actually a little worse in 2006, but got better from there and ended up on Chicago's 40 man roster before this year. Given all the catching depth at the time he left the Braves it's unlikely the same would have happened for him and again the Braves catching depth has caught up to him as Flowers joined the White Sox and quickly passed him on the depth chart. But, he's still on the 40 man and could get a shot sometime in 2010. Cole would make a great backup catcher cause he's got a little Eddie Perez in him.
Prior to 2008 DeWayne Wise's best season in the Majors was in 2004 when he hit .228 with a .716 OPS in 77 games for Atlanta, which really says a lot about his career. He came back to earth this year, with another sub-.700 OPS, but he made a much bigger impact with an amazing catch as part of a Mark Buerle no-hitter. He came through with Charlotte on a rehab assignment and it was interesting to see a guy who's always been down to earth acting a little stuck up and self-righteous, possibly just because of this catch.
Everyone should remember how good Daryle Ward was for Atlanta after they picked him up from the Natinals in 2006; in 15 pinch hit appearances with the Braves he hit .571 with a 1.457 OPS! He left as a free agent and had a good year with the Cubs before falling off and splitting this season between an independent league team and two AAA teams. His dad Gary Ward, who played for the Yankees, Rangers, Tigers, and Twins, was Charlotte's hitting coach and while Daryle was nice enough, his pops is one of the best around.
Charlotte had plenty of other interesting things to offer up this year as I got to see a rehab appearance by Jake Peavey, and got to meet him one-on-one, got to see my college classmate Dan Hudson dominate for three innings and get called up to the Majors in the same night, and got to see a collection of short season players try to hack it at AAA for a week when the Charlotte roster was decimated by September callups and players leaving for the World Cup.
I've been a fan of Jeff Bennett's since his Minor League days with the Pirates but even I was ashamed at how he ended his career with the Braves, breaking his hand by punching a wall. Still, it was nice to get to see him at the end of the year with Durham, cause, dumbass mistake aside, he is a great person. He wasn't very good for the Rays at the end of the year but they just re-signed him to a Minor League deal so I guess he'll get a chance to make their team next year. I wish him luck, but I would rather he could have worked things out with the Braves.
Jorge Julio, who was once a fairly legit closer, was actually a complete surprise in Septemeber of 2008 for Atlanta. But, after he left for the Brewers, he came back to earth, posting an ERA over 7, and found himself cut and in AAA with a different team later in the year. He actually ended up getting cut by Durham as well and pitching for the Pirates' AAA team too. But, he looked good the day I saw him; heck, he's looked good every time I've seen him throw. Julio is interesting from an autograph collector's standpoint because if you catch him on a day he's willing to sign he'll sign everything for you (like upwards of 20 cards in one shot), but if you don't catch him on one of those days he won't even talk to you.
As a 30 year old for Richmond in 2005 Jason Childers had the best season of his career, racking up 16 saves and a 2.09 ERA in 38 games. He pitched a little better in 2008 with Charlotte, but that really underscores the fact that the soon to be 35 year old has had an oustanding AAA career; in 8 seasons he's collected 70 saves, a 3.31 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. But, he's constantly undervalued because of his diminutive size, only pitching in 5 Major League games, all in 2006, in his 13 year career. Even in 2005, his brother Matt, who had a nice season, but nothing close to Jason's, was called up to Atlanta instead, mostly because of his size. Jason is one of the best people in the game and I really hope that some team finally wises up and gives him a chance toward the end of his career, but with each passing year that likelihood becomes more faint.
Braves fans had plenty of chances to see Joe Nelson in 2008 when he was pitching very well in 58 games for the Marlins, but they might not have remembered that he was orignially a Brave, drafted in 1996 and pitching in just 2 games for Atlanta, both in 2001. Joe's always had a funky delivery, which you can see a little in the picture, which he's refined over the years, and that's making him better as time goes on. Guys like Joe make me feel old because I met him for the first time about 13 years ago.
I didn't get a good shot of him but Winston Abreu, who spent eight years in the Braves organization also played for Durham this year. He started his Minor League career with the Braves in 1994 and didn't make it to the Majors until 2006 with the Orioles and has still only managed to make it into 38 Major League games in three season with the O's, Rays, and Indians. He spent all of 2001 with Atlanta's AA Greenville team and enjoyed the city so much that he bought a home and has made it his permanent residence.
Since I really don't go to that many Major League games outside of Spring Training I don't get a ton of chances to see guys play both in the Minor and the Majors, but I did get a fair bit of it this year as I saw guys like Nolan Reimiold, Jason Berken, and Matt Weiters with the Orioles and Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen, and Barbaro Canizares (among others) with the Braves play in both AAA and the Majors. But the team that really stuck out was Syracuse as it seemed like about half the team I saw play in Norfolk in late July was with the Natinals when I saw them a few times in late September. While seeing guys like Justin Maxwell and Ian Desmond play in the Majors was cool for me since I've known them for years, it doesn't really mean much here, but getting to see utility man Pete Orr play at both is something Braves fans should have at least a little interest in:
Pete's another guy I've known for a while, first meeting him back in 2001 when he was playing for Myrtle Beach. We had a very memorable conversation back in Spring Training of 2004 when he basically told me he thought he might get cut and that if he didn't he wouldn't be shocked at being sent anywhere from A ball to AAA and that he'd have to fight for at bats as a back up. It turned out he got a ton of playing time that year and it turned his career around. He's never been a star and has actually had some bad seasons as a hitter in the Majors, but he's as versatile as they come and the word is he's learning how to catch this offseason to make himself a valuable part of the Natinal's 2010 team (they just re-signed him to a Minor League deal). Personally, I love Pete and I hope he gets another 10 years in the Majors.
One of my two late season trips to DC included a game against the Dodgers, which was a pretty sweet day since I got autographs from Jim Thome, Don Mattingly, and Andre Eithier. And, even though I didn't get his autograph, it was nice to see shortstop Raffy Furcal play:
I know, he screwed us, I'm supposed to hate him. But, I don't; I like Raffy and I always have. I first met him when he was 19 playing for Danville (even though we thought he was 17 at the time) and he was a freaking roadrunner. He stole 60 bases in 66 games and didn't even stop running when he was off the field. The dude was a blur. Actually, I should say that I first met him earlier that year in Spring Training when he spent about a half an hour looking through my baseball cards while we converesed in broken Spanglish, but I didn't realize that was him for several months so I tend to forget about it. So yeah, I like Raffy. And anyway, he would have been very overpaid for what he produced this year, so it turned out well for the Braves.
We all give the Natinals and the Royals a bunch of crap about piling up former Braves, but I've always felt like the Pirates get their fair share of Ex-Braves as well, and that was apparent on this year's Lynchburg team which had both outfielder Jamie Romak and just traded pitcher Jeff Locke.
Jamie Romak was part of the Mike Gonzalez/Adam LaRoche trade and while I didn't expect him to become a superstar, I didn't think I'd be seeing him playing in the High A Carolina League for the third straight year. He's put up some great numbers at this level, but in 374 AA plate appearances he's hit a measly .187 with a .619 OPS.
It had only been a week or two since Jeff Locke had been traded and he was still a little in shock about it. Frankly, he wasn't happy about being traded from the only organization he had known. But, he was already making friends with his new Pirate teammates and I'd guess if I asked him today he's probably gotten over things a bit. On the field he was a little all over the place, bouncing between utter dominance and completely hittable, but in the end I think he'll be a good pitcher. The Pirates have always been one of the teams that I've rooted for, so far behind my rooting for the Braves that it's barely worth talking about, but still, and with guys like Locke, Gorkys Hernandez, and my main man Charlie Morton in the organization I've definitely got more of a stake in them than I used to.
In addition to the former Braves Lynchburg was also bolstered by a rehabbing Lastings Milledge,playing with them because the Major League All-Star Break happens to coincide with the AAA and AA All-Star breaks, meaning there wasn't a higher level team for him to rehab with. When I asked a few of the Hillcats why Milledge was there, one quipped, "Maybe he's trying to make the team." Well, if that were the case he would have failed since he dropped an easy fly ball in left field. Then, to make matters worse, he showboated after a walk the next inning, causing one of the Hillcats pitchers to ask, "Did he just pimp that walk?" Stay classy, Lastings.
Last year the independent Atlantic League expanded, adding the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in Waldorf, MD, just three hours from my house, and I've been able to fully understand the unmitigated awesomeness of independent league baseball. Every washed up former star hanging on for their baseball life washes up in these leagues and they've all eaten a huge helping of humble pie. The baseball is good, the autographing is so easy it should be illegal, and you always see something weird. In addition to John Halama, who I didn't get a picture of with Southern Maryland, which is fine since he's a miserable douche bag, the Blue Crabs also employed former Brave outfielder Michael Tucker:
Honestly, Tuck looked old and slow and if he ever thinks he's going to play in the Majors again, he's dillusional. But, he was decent enough for the Atlantic League. And hey, as a Braves fan you have to love the guy since two of his best seasons in the Majors came in Atlanta. In 1997 he was good enough to allow the Braves to go slow with Andruw Jones, who was platooning with Tucker, which greatly helped the 20 year old's development. In 2006 Tuck actually played the whole year for Norfolk, and while he's never been very talkative with fans, he's always been nice enough and actually seemed to have lightened up a bit with the Blue Crabs. As you can see in that picture on the left, he was even trying out first base in an attempt to extend his career. My bet is I see him again in 2010, right back in SoMD.
Depending on how you feel about saves, you could argue that Antonio Alfonseca had the best season of his career in 2004 with Atlanta, racking up a 2.57 ERA in 79 games. Apparently, before the game he was very nice and congenial, but I was sick for no good reason and stayed in the car so I only got to see him after the game and he gave me the run around before getting on the bus and not signing anything for me. Oh well. And I don't mean for this to sound mean or insensitive, because it's not something he can help, but his extra fingers and toes are a fascinating sight. Seriously, I've never seen anything even close to that before.
Aaron Herr was a supplemental first round pick by the Braves in 2000 but didn't show much offensively or defensively as a range limited second baseman and was taken by the Cardinals in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft after the 2004 season. He shuttled around a little more, with the Inians and Reds organizations, actually having a very solid year in AAA in 2007, before ending up in independent ball this year on a team coached by his dad Tom, a Major League All-Star who played mostly for the Cardinals.
I didn't get a picture of him, mostly cause I never saw him in uniform, but right handed pitcher Trey Hodges was also a part of this team. After a 15 win season in 2002 where he looked like a Minor League Greg Maddux Trey spent a solid year in the bullpen with Atlanta then just fell off the map. He's been back in the organization twice since but hasn't pitched well either time and is now fighting it out in indy ball. It's mystifying the turns that happen in the careers of these players sometimes.
Michael Nix had a nice four year career in the Braves organization and actually pitched better in AAA than in AA in 2008, but was released in Spring Training this year as part of an upper levels numbers crunch. He hooked on with the Rockies but didn't dazzle them in 6 games for their AA team and ended up being an important part of Newark's bullpen. The Braves have a strict no facial hair policy for their Minor Leaguers so I didn't even recognize Mike when I saw him. It wasn't until he yelled "Hey CB" that I finally realized who the giant with the beard was. He's got a good arm and pitched well this year so hopefully he can hook back on with an affiliated team for 2010.
After winning a batting title for Myrtle Beach in 2006, Carl Loadenthal hit his way up to AAA by 2008, hoping to make up for a lack of pop with sheer hitting ability. He was left unprotected however and the Mets claimed him in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. But, they quickly soured on him, releasing him after only 59 games with their AA affiliate. He hooked on first with the York Revolution but played much better after getting traded to Newark. He was just signed to a Minor League deal by the Natinals, so he'll get another shot at affiliated ball next year.
He's 36 years old, he's played 19 professional seasons, and in all that time he's collected just 231 Major League plate appearances, a decade ago for the Orioles and Blue Jays, but Willis Otanez just keeps on plugging. He's built like a slightly more athletic John Kruk, but always has been; I swear, look at his 1992 Minor League rookie card, the guy is a rambling mess who just makes it work. He spent on year in the Braves organization, 2001 with AA Greenville, where he hit .266 with a .798 OPS in 93 games. The funny thing about Willis is he doesn't mind signing a lot, but he always wants to take cards from you. It's not really a problem, but he usually doesn't ask, he just plams it an you're left trying to figure out which one he took, and when he took it.
Chris Spurling is the last guy the Braves actually took in the Major League Rule 5 draft, plucking him from the Pirates in 2003, and he didn't even make it out of Spring Training with the team, getting traded to the Tigers for Matt Coenen, who would pitch on good year of AA for Atlanta. Spurling stuck with the Tigers and went on to put up 3 solid Major Leauge seasons, spread over the next 5 years. But, since 2007 he hasn't appeared in a game with an affiliated team and didn't pitch very well with Newark. In fact, he got blown up in the game I saw him throw. I really like Spurling, he's a good dude, but it seems like his time as a professional pitcher is coming to a close.
For the second straight year I wasn't able to see the York Revolution, who have, at various times, had as many as 8 former Braves on their roster. But, Newark made up for it in other ways, mostly with star power. Their manager was borderline Hall of Famer Rock Raines, who's freaking tiny!, their hitting coach was his old teammate catcher Ron Karkovice, and they had a bevvy of former Major Leguers, including D'Angelo Jimenez, Scott Williamson (another former Braves I didn't get a picture of; I did get about 20 cards signed by him though), Rob Mackowiak, Victor Santos, and the biggest draw of them all, Carl Everett. I don't know why all the batshit crazy guys are so cool to the fans (I'm talking about you John Rocker and Milton Bradley) but man they are. Everett is a really cool guy and he just has a blast playing baseball. But, he is clinically insane, which is a good reason to play the wonderful game "Crazy Shit That Would Sound Natural Coming From Carl Everett". It constist of shouting out stuff like "I invented the number 3!" and "All cats are Russain spies!" Hey, when the guy has already said, "Dinosaurs never existed" and "The earth is only 6000 years old" pretty much anything works.
There are plenty of coaches that either played or coach with the Braves and a few I got pictures of include former third baseman Ken Oberkfel, Jim Saul, JJ Cannon, and former outfielder Marquis Grissom:
Over the course of 5 years from 1984 to 1988, Obie played about 4 full seasons as Atlanta's primary third baseman, hitting .273 with a .703 OPS. Those aren't exactly oustanding numbers, but remember, the Braves sucked hard back then, and he was a decent enough fielder. He's been the Mets' AAA manager for about 6 seasons now, heading up the Buffalo Bisons (who've never figured out the plural of Bison is Bison) this year. He was the manager here in Norfolk for three years and I personally think he's going to make a fantastic Major Leauge manager if given a chance.
Sixty-nine year old Jim Saul coached for over 15 seasons in the Braves organization, mostly as a manager for the short season teams. In a 14 year Minor League career that started before they even had the High A, Low A, short season classifications, he never made it to the Majors. Still, he was an invaluable part of the Braves system for a long while and the Orioles have been fortunate to have him for the last 5 season. Jim is..well, a crazy old man. He's almost 6'4" and he kind of wobbles and towers over you speaking in a booming Appalacian twang. When you think of the Minor Leauges characters like Jim Saul are who you should be thinking about.
JJ "The Toy" Cannon managed Danville in 1999 and 2000 before moving on to the Astros and eventually the Orioles organizations. Hitters he had a major impact on in those two seasons include Wilson Betemit and Adam LaRoche, who excelled in his first pro season under Cannon's guidance. This year, as Frederick's hitting coach, he helped Carolina League MVP Brandon Waring produce like a top prospect.
And, of course, we all remember Marquis Grissom as the guy who caught the final out in the 1995 World Series. Grissom had a fine 17 year career, that included several All-Star appearances and four Gold Gloves and his 1996 season with Atlanta was probably the best of his career. I'd heard that Grissom was crusty about autographs and while I can certainly see that, this year I asked him for his autograph twice, once in Spring Training and once late in the year in DC, and he signed something for me both times. So yeah, I wish I could find that number 9 Grissom t-shirt I had in high school.
There were a number of other former Braves I didn't manage to get pictures of, including former super prospect George Lombard. Sometimes it's raining, sometimes guys don't play, and sometimes I just don't feel like taking pictures. And some of the times I do feel like taking pictures I just end up taking crappy ones. But, I did get a pretty nice one of right handed pitcher Elmer Dessens:
Dessens certainly gave fodder to the "Frank Wren's an Idiot" camp when the team signed him out of the Mexican League last season, and made the move look even worse when he pitched horribly in all 4 of his appearances. But, he was fairly dominant in AAA for the Mets this year, on the team managed by Ken Oberkfel, and pitched well even when he was promoted to New York. Who knew he had it in him? I'd never had a chance to meet Elmer before this year and you really never know what to expect out of a player when he's been around as long as he had, but he fell into the "pleasant surprise" category. He doesn't talk much but he was very giving of his time and autograph with the fans. I can't say I enjoyed watching him suck for Atlanta in 2008, especially when I personally knew a good hanfull of players who could have done better, but at least now I like him personally.
And the final picture of this far too long post, unfortunately, isn't an action shot. I wasn't there the day he pitched, so I had to settle for this shot of him charting in the stands, but of all the former Braves I saw this year I think he's the biggest, the staff ace, who was 36-16 in two years with Atlanta, Russ Ortiz:
Since those years with Atlanta, Russ has gone 10-28 with a 6.56 ERA in the Majors. He probably wasn't as good as those years in Atlanta, but he certainly didn't seem as bad as he's been. This year he was beat up pretty good as a part of Houston's bullpen before getting released midseason and hooking on with the Yankees AAA team, who he was with when I saw him. He was released about a week after the team came to Norfolk, which was a shock since he had pitched well for them, with a 1.59 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 3 starts. Now that I've met him, all this bad luck and poor performance is even more lamentable, as I'm fairly positive that Russ Ortiz is one of the better human beings I've ever met. First, from an autograph collector's standpoint, you couldn't ask for more; he signed almost 30 cards for me and probably another couple hundred between my fellow autograph collectors during the series. And he was polite talkative and incredibly friendly the whole time. I had remembered that Russ was very into chartiy during his days with Atlanta (Tim Hudson before Huddy was around) and I asked him about it. He was very happy to tell me about The Ortiz Family Foundationn a charity he and his wife founded and have run for a number of years. The regular Norfolk autograph collectors pulled together around 200 dollars and donated it to Russ' charity and if you find yourself wanting to donate to a charity any time it's a good a one as any.
The End, Finally
So, if you read through all that well, I guess I hope you feel it was worth it. Anyway, I hope it was a least a reasonable break from the rampant speculation and armchair crystal balling that makes the offesason so frustrating. As I do every year, I had an amazing time with baseball in 2009 and I can't wait for it to come back. Baseball is the only really lasting relationship I've been able to forge in my life and I don't particularly think it's fair that it gets to leave me in the winter. It's 30 degrees outside but that's no reason somebody can't hit a curveball.
C.B. Wilkins is the author of the baseball novel Four-A. The story follows a relief pitcher over the course of a year as he bounces between AAA and the Majors, attempting to balance his dreams and his reality. It can be purchased here: https://www.createspace.com/3407939