Sometimes, I can be really stupid about professional sports. I told anyone who would listen that Emmett Smith wouldn’t be able to cut it in the NFL. I once remarked to a friend that Michael Jordan would never be good enough defensively to truly be one of the greatest. I believed, to an astonishing degree, that Tom Glavine had been screwed out of the 1992 Cy Young Award. Anyone who knew me heard my rant. I was a 22 year old idiot. I had no interest in learning about the man who won the award until early December 1992.
When Greg Maddux chose to sign with the Braves over the Yankees, I was elated. I would learn that Greg Maddux had a lights out season for the Cubs in 1992, and as good as Tom Glavine was, Maddux was even better. With even a modicum of run support, he could have won five to ten more games. For the Braves in 1993, Maddux would not only cement himself as the best pitcher in the game, he would also make it obvious that he was one for the ages. It’s hard to believe in retrospect that the Braves won the division twice without him. They certainly wouldn’t have won it in 1993 without him.
Maddux was selected to start the first game of the season against his old Team, the Chicago Cubs, and against a good friend, Mike Morgan. Morgan would pitch a very good game. The only run the Braves would put on the scoreboard was from a David Justice RBI single in the first. Maddux would make it stand. In 8.1 innings, he would not allow a run across the plate. It was as great a debut as you can imagine. Watching him on television that day, he instantly became my favorite player. He still is, in fact.
How many people have you watched play for your favorite team and known, as you watched them, that you were watching one of the greatest to ever play the game? It was an honor and it was a privilege.
The Cubs inability to resign Greg Maddux was brushed off by Cubbie GM Larry Himes. He didn’t need Greg Maddux. He could use the money earmarked for Maddux to sign Candy Maldonado, Dan Plesac and Jose Guzman. I’m sure that Cubs fans still have plenty of reasons to hate Larry Himes after all these years, but letting Maddux go was the big mistake.
The day after Greg Maddux made his Braves debut at Wrigley, the Braves would find themselves on the wrong side of a 1-0 loss and that Jose Guzman signing wasn’t looking so bad. Through the first seven innings of the game, Guzman was perfect. At times, it looked as if he was playing with the Braves hitters. He’d catch them looking. He would throw balls by them. He’d force them to hit the ball into the ground. He’d get them to pop the ball in the air weekly.
The 8th wouldn’t go as well for Guzman. He’d walk Terry Pendleton to start the inning. Down only a run, Bobby would send Deion Sanders in to run for TP, but Deion would promptly be cut down attempting to steal second. Guzman would then walk David Justice before retiring the last two batters. He would take his no hitter into the ninth.
On his first pitch of the game’s final half inning, Guzman would get Mark Lemke to ground weekly to Mark Grace for the first out. Two pitches later, Francisco Cabrera would just on a 1-0 pitch and pop up weekly to third. It looked like we were about to witness history when Otis Nixon stepped to the plate.
The game was only 1-0, so it would not have been out of character for Nixon to try and bunt his way on to get something started, but Nixon respects the code of the game and wanted to earn his way on first the old fashioned way. Otis would take the first pitch for a called strike. Guzman did not look tense at all as he served up the next pitch, which Otis Nixon would drive to left field. It was a good clean hit. While standing on the bag at first, Nixon would tip his cap to the pitcher who would, in return, tip his cap to Nixon. Guzman would then get Jeff Blauser out to complete his one-hit shutout.
After the game, Otis Nixon was complementary to Guzman, but was still pleased with his hit. As he would tell the papers after the game, nobody wants to read about their team getting no hit.
There are more memories over the flip.
Vince Moore, Donnie Elliott and Melvin Nieves. You’ll be forgiven if those names don’t mean anything to you. Vince Moore never played a game in the majors. Donnie Elliott would only appear in 31 games over two seasons. Melvin Nieves was a journeyman with a short career who never made much of a mark. Collectively, these three man ensured that the Atlanta Braves would win their third straight NL West championship.
On July 17, the Braves were 12 games over five-hundred, yet, they still found themselves trailing the Giants by nine games. The 1993 San Francisco Giants were a great ball team anchored by Matt Williams, Will Clark and their newest acquisition, Barry Bonds. They ended play on July 17 with a 61-31 record and looked to be running away with the West.
1991 and 1992 changed the Braves organization immeasurably. This was a team that had not just tasted winning, but had been agonizingly close to two world championships. Every individual in the organization from Ted Turner down to the bat boys was enjoying the team’s rise into the games elite, and no one wanted the run to end. The 1991 and 1992 Braves were widely praised for the quality of their starting pitching, yet, the Braves went out and got Greg Maddux. The Braves would do whatever it took to win again.
Vince Moore, Donnie Elliott and Melvin Nieves. Those were the three players that John Schuerholz would send to the San Diego Padres for Fred McGriff. He would join the Braves at Fulton County Stadium on July 20. The start of the game was delayed after a fire broke out in one of the luxury boxes. When the Braves broadcast began that evening, the images of the fire were juxtaposed with images of the “Crime Dog” taking batting practice and meeting his teammates. In the bottom of the 6th, he would even upstage the fire. Down 5-0 at the start of the 6th, the Braves would bag three runs on a Blauser homer. Gant would then bang out a single and McGriff would step to the plate.
I’m sure you know the story. McGriff would spank a home run to tie the ball game and the stadium came unglued. The Braves ownership and management had shown the fans that they were not giving up on the 1993 season. They had also shown that they picked the right guy. McGriff was great down the stretch and would help the Braves end the season with a 51-19 run and third consecutive NL West championship.
The Braves won the NL West by a single game in 1993 over the Giants. That Giants team would win a hundred and three games and yet they would not be allowed to play in the post-season. There was no consolation prize, or as we now call it, the Wild Card. It is often known as the last great pennant race. If not for a brilliant move by the Braves front office, it might have turned out so much differently.
In 1993, Dennis Martinez was still a very good pitcher, and the Giants needed good pitching. Bill Swift was having a spectacular year and John Burkett was great as well. After those two though, the Giants were plugging a number of different pitchers into their rotation. As August drew to a close, the Giants found their lead in the division dwindling. Eager to fortify their rotation, they claimed Dennis Martinez on waivers.
The Braves, on the other hand, did not need starting pitching. The Braves staff could not have been better at this point. Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Avery were dominating, and with Justice, Ron Gant and McGriff slugging in the middle if the lineup, the Braves were confident they had the team they needed down the stretch. Yet the Braves, for some reason, also claimed Dennis Martinez on waivers. On waiver claims, the team with the worst record wins and the Braves won the right to attempt and make a deal for Martinez.
Of course, the Braves didn’t make the deal. Truth be told, they would have been happy to take Dennis Martinez and plug him into the fifth starter’s spot, but they weren’t willing to give Martinez a new contract. As a player with ten years in the big leagues and five years with the same team, Martinez exercised his power to refuse the trade. The team that wanted Martinez could do nothing. The Giants were helpless. They were victimized by their own success.
No one can know for sure what would have happened had the Braves never blocked the Giants attempt to acquire Dennis Martinez. Still, it’s not too hard to imagine a pitcher of his caliber easily making up for a one game difference. This one waiver claim is the most unheralded front office move the Braves made during their division championship run.
Two years later, Martinez would pitch against the Braves in the 1995 World Series. Six years later, he would end his career wearing an Atlanta Braves uniform.