Rick Mahler had already given up home runs to Jody Davis and Leon Durham, but things were starting to look up for the Braves by the bottom of the fourth. Behind home runs from Ken Oberkfell and Gerald Perry, the Braves would plate seven runs and take an 8-4 lead. The Cubs would bring the gap within reach after a three run homer by Shawon Dunston. The Braves would score one more, and with a 9-7 lead, manager Chick Tanner would give the ball to future Hall of Fame closer, Bruce Sutter. Sutter had missed the entire 1987 season due to injury and Braves fans everywhere were hoping he would return to form. A walk, a double and a single later, the game was tied. Four innings later, with the Braves Jim Acker on the mound, it was a double, a bunt and a sacrifice fly. The Braves would lose 10-9 in 13 innings. That was opening day. The Braves wouldn’t win until the 11th game of the season.
If you’re a Braves fan and your baseball fandom began in 1991 or some point after, you have no idea just how long a baseball season can be. If there was any optimism to be had coming into the 1988 season, and there certainly wasn’t much, it was gone in the blink of an eye. The Braves won the NL West in 1982 on the strength of a 13 game winning streak to open the season. Well, in 1988, the Braves were out of it after just ten games.
I’m not sure how to describe the futility that was that season. The Braves would not win more than three games in a row all season. Other than three days in late May and early June, the Braves would occupy last place the entire season. The entire division would finish over .500. The Braves would finish thirty-nine and half games behind the first place Dodgers. As you would expect from a team that would lose a hundred and six games, they had the worst offense in the league and the second worst pitching staff in the league.
There were few bright spots that season. Dale Murphy remained the team’s top offensive threat, but his decline from his career best numbers of 1987 was stunning. Gerald Perry had his own career best year in 1988, but it was nothing to scream about. Rookie second baseman Ron Gant showed some pop, but still needed seasoning. Rich Mahler and Pete Smith were solid, but unspectacular in the rotation. Even the stories that you wanted to make you happy, like the return of veteran utility man Jerry Royster, would ultimately disappoint. (Royster would turn in the worst season of his career. It would be his last.)
The 1988 Atlanta Braves were just awful. Historically awful. Thanks to TBS, they were on display for the entire nation. If you were a Braves fan, you still loved your team. It just wasn’t easy. Still, brighter days were ahead and many of the names that would lead the Braves franchise into an unmatched streak of post-season appearances began making their mark in 1988.
After debuting in late 1987, Tom Glavine would spend the entire season in the rotation. He would lead the league with 17 losses, but he pitched better than that number would indicate. It was also Ron Gant’s first full season wearing a big league uniform. He finished fourth in Rookie of the Year balloting. It was Lonnie Smith’s first year in a Braves uniform, and while it was an awful year, he would begin a stretch of three solid seasons for the Braves in 1989. The two men who would man the middle for the Braves for a large portion of the 1990s, Mark Lemke and Jeff Blauser, would see limited playing time in 1988. John Smoltz would also debut by holding the Mets to a single run in eight innings for his first major league win.
It’s easy to remember how bad the Braves were in 1988. They would be bad again in 1989 and 1990 as well. It’s easy now to look back and see that the Braves were planting the seeds of what would blossom into a championship franchise. We may not have seen it then, but the team was starting to come together.
At the time, it was excruciating. More painful than heartbreaking. They were simply a really bad baseball team. A really, really, really bad baseball team.
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Tom Glavine and John Smoltz will both make the Hall of Fame one day. Still, I doubt their rookie cards will ever make much of an impact on the hobby. Both are victims of the era of rampant overproduction. Glavine would appear in all four major sets released that year. (The manufacturers in 1988 were Topps, Fleer, Donruss and Score.) To say his rookie card can be found in abundance would be an understatement. The Fleer Update card on which John Smoltz would make his first appearance in a major set is only slightly rarer. Still, I highly recommend every Braves fan pick up these cards. After all, you can probably get all five for two bucks.