There’s little doubt that every season since the 2005 season has been a bit of a struggle for Braves fans. With every passing year, the feats of the team that won 14 straight division championships fade a little from our memories. Where has the time gone? It was 20 seasons ago that Sid Bream slid across home plate to send the Braves to their second straight World Series. It’s been 17 seasons since Tom Glavine shut down the Cleveland Indians to lead the Atlanta Braves to their only world championship. It has been 10 seasons since the Braves roster included Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. It has even been seven seasons since Brian McCann hit that home run off Roger Clemens in the last post-season of the division championship run.
Sometimes, it seems as though the championship run was an illusion. Check the sports shelf at any bookstore, and you will find numerous books about the Yankees and the Red Sox. Seemingly every player on both of the teams has their own book. Numerous serious sports journalists have written about the teams. World famous authors like Stephen King have even contributed to the mix. Every accomplishment of every player from the Yankees and the Red Sox, whether meager or substantial, is deemed worthy of a book. An unprecedented run of 14 division championships by a team with national television is not, however, worthy.
I’m not suggesting that there’s a conspiracy. The publishing industry releases books about the Red Sox and the Yankees because they sell and because the players are willing to do them. For the most part, it just doesn’t seem to be the Braves way. Throughout the run, the Braves carried themselves in a quiet and unassuming manner. The team was confident, but never cocky. Compared to most championship franchises, there was very little in the way of drama. Still, you would think the magnitude of their accomplishment would have led to at least one book examining the historical nature of the run (and, of course, why the team failed to win more than a single World Series). The good news is, now that the players have settled into their retirements, we are starting to see a few willing to step up and tell their stories.
First out of the gate is Behind the Plate, A Catcher’s View of the Braves Dynasty by Javy Lopez. Behind the Plate was coauthored with Gary Caruso and it reads in a very conversational tone. It is little more than Javy Lopez telling his story and offering his opinion wherever he feels its needed. There’s little to nothing in the book to spark controversy, but at the same time, Lopez isn’t afraid to offer criticisms of both his teammates, his manager, and of himself. (It should be noted that at no point in the book are steroids or other PEDs mentioned. This will pretty much confirm that the book will be ignored by the mainstream press.) He manages the trick of being a little prickly without compromising the affable good nature we saw on display week in and week out throughout his career.
The book opens with Lopez discussing his remarkable 2003 season, his last season with the Braves and his best season, where he set the single season record for home runs by a catcher. He is clearly proud of the accomplishment, and amazed that he’s put his name in the record books. It is clear that he considers that year as the highlight of his career. From there, he moves into stories of his youth and how he ended up falling in love with baseball. He covers his signing with the Braves, his time in the minor leagues and each of his big league seasons. This isn’t a long book, but he hits all of the highlights of his career without shortchanging any particular period.
It won’t surprise people to learn that Lopez is a pretty emotional guy. One of the turning points of his career was an emotional breakdown he had while struggling in the minors. He writes about the stress his Dad would put on him by constantly asking him why he keeps swinging at bad pitches. (Actually, from time to time, that was a question we all asked.) He also talks about the hurt of having the Braves fail to make an offer of any kind after his 2003 season. He even lays out the problems with his first marriage in frank and uncompromising terms.
When looking at his own talents, he is his own harshest critic, offering especially negative judgements on his rookie year in 1994 and his 2002 season. In addition to dealing head on with his personal failings on the field, he also talks at length about the Braves failure to capture more than one World Championship. He offers his own theories that include criticisms of some of the Braves moves in the post-season. He does not, however, believe that the failure reduces the magnitude of the accomplishment.
As a former catcher, I loved the parts of the book where he discusses the craft of catching. He discusses why he calls a game a certain way and the importance of being able to stop balls in the dirt so that a pitcher can throw any pitch with confidence. He believes that a catcher can see things about a hitter that there’s no way a pitcher can pick up on their own. He even goes into how he reads an umpire and how that affects his pitch calling. As much as I enjoyed these portions of the book, I wish he had delved even deeper into the topic. As a fan, I love to know what goes through a player’s mind as they play. I love to know the “why” behind their actions on the field.
One surprise to me was that Lopez had little to offer in the way of stories of about the trio of future Hall of Fame pitchers that he caught. While it is clear that he admires Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz for their talents, it is also clear that he was not close with any of them. Early in the book, he promises to offer his opinion of why he stopped catching Maddux regularly after the 1994 season. Unfortunately, rather than offering an opinion of his own, he relates the theories that others have shared with him. It is clear that it bothered him, but he seems to accept it as being beyond his control, even as he worries that it affects people’s perception of his quality as a backstop. (Everyone will want to read his story about the size of the catcher’s box.)
While he doesn’t offer many stories about the “Big 3,” he offers a few laugh out loud stories about his good friend Ryan Klesko. He covers what it was like to be a teammate of everyone from John Rocker to Andres Galaraga. He tries to break down what it was that he loved about playing for Bobby Cox.
Perhaps the best part of the book are two stories he relates about on the field occurrences. I had to laugh as I read his story of Francisco Cabrera’s hit in 1992 and his reaction as he ran from the bullpen to home plate to celebrate with his teammates. Even better is how he breaks down his pickoff of Manny Ramirez off first base in game 2 of the 1995 World Series. While many love to write this play off as one of those quintessential “Manny being Manny” moments, I think that really short changes the skill and preparation of Javy Lopez. It was certainly one of the most memorable moments of his career.
Ultimately, as Braves fans, we should all hope that Javy finds success with his book, and likewise, we should hope that the John Smoltz book coming this spring also finds success. If so, perhaps it will inspire others to tell their stories. I want Greg Maddux to write about his preparation. I’d love to read Mark Lemke or Steve Avery’s thoughts on those early post-seasons. It’s hard to picture a book by a gregarious guy like David Justice not being entertaining. I don’t just want to know the stories of the Braves best players, like Chipper Jones. I also want to hear the stories of the minor players who left their mark, like a Mike Mordecai or a Francisco Cabrera. More than anything, I would love for Bobby Cox to tell his story of the Braves run. I want a bookshelf full of books I can pull out when I want to remember the “good old days” of Atlanta Braves baseball.
Still, even if the Lopez and Smoltz books don’t lead to a rush of Braves books, I’m glad that Javy decided to tell his story. His book is both pleasant and entertaining, and thanks to the conversational tone, it is also a quick read. More than anything though, I’m glad that he’s helping to preserve all of our memories of the Atlanta Braves historical division championship run.