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Braves Throwback Thursday: Len Barker, Brett Butler & Atlanta’s great collapse of 1983

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Braves led NL West by 6-1/2 games in mid-August, finished 3 back

Atlanta Braves v Pittsburgh Pirates
Pitcher Len Barker, shown here in 1984, came to the Atlanta Braves from the Cleveland Indians in an August 1983 trade that remains controversial today among long-time fans. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

The 1982 and 1983 Atlanta Braves seasons were an oasis of contention in a desert of irrelevance through which the franchise wandered for the better part of two decades.

After Hank Aaron was traded away (at his own request) following his record-breaking 1974 Atlanta campaign, the Braves went on to finish an average of 23 games out of first place during the next 16 seasons. Atlanta won the National League West by a single game in 1982, and looked poised to repeat as division champion for much of the following year.

Led by reigning NL MVP Dale Murphy, All-Star third baseman Bob Horner, legendary knuckleballer Phil Niekro and an emerging cast of potential young stars — notably 26-year-old left fielder/leadoff man Brett Butler, the Braves had the best record in baseball by mid-August 1983. Bob Watson slammed a memorable walk-off, pinch-hit homer to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-7 on Aug. 13, putting Atlanta up by 6-1/2 games in the division with about six weeks to play.

“Look, the Dodgers were here in June and they said it was crucial,” manager Joe Torre told venerable Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Furman Bisher following Watson’s game-winner. “They’ll be back in September and they’ll say it’s crucial again.

“I hope that by that time we’ll have it nailed down and there’ll be nothing crucial about it.”

It was not to be.

First, Horner suffered a broken right wrist sliding into second base during a 4-0 loss to San Diego on Aug. 15. The 25-year-old slugger’s season was done after 104 games in which he posted a .303/.383/.528 line with 20 home runs and 68 RBIs (Horner re-injured the wrist early the next season and didn’t return to form until 1985).

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
Third baseman Bob Horner was a top slugger for the Atlanta Braves in the early 1980s, but had trouble staying healthy. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The Braves had a hot-shot third base prospect at Triple-A Richmond in Brook Jacoby, who was on his way to batting .315/.387/.542 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs that season. But for whatever reason, Atlanta resisted the idea of promoting the 23-year-old and playing him in a pennant race, instead opting to use utility men Jerry Royster and Randy Johnson — neither of whom posted an OPS of even .650 that season — to split time at third base.

The MLB non-waiver trading deadline was then June 15, so there was only so much teams could do to acquire major-league talent in July and August. Trades were still allowed until Aug. 31, but players had to pass through waivers before they could be dealt to another team.

Trade rumors at the time focused on pitching, with Rick Honeycutt of the Texas Rangers — then the AL leader in ERA — the most prominent name mentioned in an Aug. 18 AJC report. But Honeycutt went to the second-place Dodgers the following day in a trade that sent hard-throwing youngster Dave Stewart and pitching prospect Ricky Wright to Texas (the Braves had also talked with the Rangers, but rejected a deal that would have sent two pitchers — including promising rookie left-hander Ken Dayley — to Texas).

The most-prominent third baseman believed to be available was utility man Larry Milbourne, who was then with the New York Yankees and nearing the end of 11-year career that saw him post a .609 OPS. Milbourne hit only 11 home runs in his career, nine fewer than Horner hit in the first 4-1/2 months of 1983.

So if the Braves were going to make a move, it appeared it would have to be for pitching. Niekro, Pascual Perez and rookie Craig McMurtry had formed a solid 1-2-3 in the rotation, but Atlanta — which lost 7 of its first 11 after Horner was injured — was looking for more starting pitching help to fend off the always pitching-rich Dodgers.

Len Barker was 28 and in his eighth major-league season in 1983, having been a mostly league-average pitcher with the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians. The hulking 6-foot-5, 225-pound right-hander achieved a measure of immortality on May 15, 1981, when he pitched a perfect game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Cleveland — the first perfecto in the American League in 13 years.

Barker led the AL in strikeouts in both 1980 and 1981, and won 15 games with a 3.90 ERA in 1982. With a Cleveland team destined to finish last in the AL East in 1983, he went 8-13 with a 5.11 ERA in 24 starts, having developed a bone spur that knocked nearly 10 mph off his fastball in some starts.

On Aug. 28, 1983 (37 years ago this week), the Braves announced they’d traded for Barker, acquiring him from the Indians for three players-to-be-named-later. Citing a “Cleveland insider,” the AJC’s Tim Tucker reported in the next day’s paper that the two of the three PTBNL were Jacoby and pitcher Rick Behenna, both of whom were at Triple-A Richmond.

Tucker also reported that the third player was likely Butler, who was at that point a starter and emerging fan favorite with the Braves. Atlanta executive vice president Al Thornwell would not confirm the identity of the players going to Cleveland.

“If word leaks out, it leaks out, but it would not be proper or beneficial for us to disclose the players’ names at this time,” Thornwell said. “I’m not going to confirm or deny any names.”

Atlanta Braves v Pittsburgh Pirates
Atlanta Braves eft fielder Brett Butler was an emerging star and fan favorite in 1983 before he was shockingly traded to the Cleveland Indians. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

Players-to-be-named-later are still included in mid-season trades on a regular basis, but they are usually minor-leaguers — not starters on winning teams. At the time of the Barker trade, Butler was having a breakout season as Atlanta’s leadoff man, batting .278/.330/.394 with 65 runs scored 31 steals and a league-best 12 triples in 120 games.

The Braves were on the road in Pittsburgh when the deal was announced, but Butler apparently found out he’d been traded from a friend who had read it in following morning’s paper. As the team returned to Atlanta to begin a two-game series with the Chicago Cubs, Butler told the AJC he had already asked Torre about it.

“I asked Joe,” Butler said. “He told me not to worry because there’s a pennant to be won. … But he couldn’t tell me I’m not the guy.”

Atlanta team doctors signed off on the health of Barker’s right arm, with reports noting he’d been clocked at 90 mph in his most recent start against the California Angels. With Barker due to be a free agent after the season, the Braves immediately handed him a 5-year, $4.8 million deal that would keep him under contract through 1988.

As you might expect, Barker was ecstatic to be coming to Atlanta.

I couldn’t be happier,” Barker told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. “I’m going to a first-place team. I got a five-year contract. Wouldn’t you be happy to leave a last-place club?”

Though Behenna was considered a fringe prospect and Jacoby was blocked at the major-league level by Horner, the Braves also thought they had enough outfield depth in their organization to trade Butler. Murphy was 26 and in his prime, while right fielder Claudell Washington still had two years left on his contract.

The Braves also had speedy center field prospect Albert Hall and corner outfielder Brad Komminsk — a tall, rangy power hitter often compared to Murphy — at Triple-A Richmond that year. Both were projected to contend for jobs with the big-league club in 1984.

And yet, the trade was widely panned. The Cleveland paper quoted one anonymous National League scout as saying that the Indians caught Braves owner Ted Turner “in a panic situation.”

“Turner couldn’t sit back and watch his team lose its lead,” the scout told the Plain-Dealer’s Terry Pluto. “Then the Dodgers got Rick Honeycutt … Ted felt he had to do something … anything. So he overpaid to get Barker and then he overpaid Barker with a new contract.”

Writing for The Sporting News, Bill Conlin wondered why Atlanta general manager John Mullen was willing to give up more for Barker than he apparently had been for Honeycutt, a superior pitcher. Conlin also wrote that there was a “suspicion in some quarters that the Braves had shopped for damaged goods.”

Torre acknowledged the Braves were in “win now” mode.

“Look, you don’t get many chances to win a pennant,” Torre said. “You’ve got to make a run for it when you can.”

Los Angeles Dodgers v Philadelphia Phillies Before trading for Len Barker, the Atlanta Braves first tried to acquire left-hander Rick Honeycutt, but the Los Angeles Dodgers beat them to it. (Getty Images)

The Braves lost both games to the Cubs, dropping to 1-1/2 games back of the Dodgers — who were in the midst of a streak in which they won 12 of 13. Barker’s first start with Atlanta was set for Aug. 31 vs. the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Barker got through the first inning OK, but allowed four consecutive singles to start the second and found himself behind 2-0. With two on, two out and another run in in the fifth, Barker was replaced by Pete Falcone, who promptly allowed a two-run single to make it 5-0.

Barker’s debut line was ugly — 4-2/3 innings pitch, 10 hits, five runs and a walk with four strikeouts in a 6-3 loss. The Dodgers also lost that night, however, so Atlanta was still within 1-1/2 games of first heading into September.

“I didn’t do much tonight. I looked worthless,” Barker told reporters after his first start. “But I’ll do better. I will do better.”

Barker was indeed improved in his second Braves start on Sept. 5, allowing just an unearned run on two hits in seven innings of a 7-5 victory over the Houston Astros. He pitched so-so (three runs in 5-1/3 innings) but got no-decision in a 7-6 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles Sept. 11.

In that game, the Braves led 6-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth before relievers Donnie Moore and Gene Garber gave up four runs, the last on a suicide squeeze by rookie R.J. Reynolds. Atlanta had lost two out of three in the series and found itself three games out of first with 19 games left in the season.

“As big as this game was, you’ve got to win it every time,” Royster told the AJC. “… This hurts us bad. Definitely our most costly loss of the season.”

Here are highlights of the nine inning of that Braves-Dodgers game if for some reason you want to watch:

Barker’s next start was a tough-luck 2-1 loss to San Diego on Sept. 17, in which he allowed just two runs in 7-1/3 innings. Steve Bedrosian relieved Barker in a 1-0 game in the eighth and served up a go-ahead, two-run triple.

The loss dropped Atlanta to 3-1/2 games behind the Dodgers. That same day, even more crushing news arrived via the AJC.

Turner finally confirmed that Butler was headed to Cleveland after the season, first telling the player and then the AJC’s Chris Mortensen after Mortensen talked to Butler.

“He said, ‘yeah, you’re going to Cleveland,” Butler said. “… I couldn’t believe this news when I heard it originally and I still can’t believe it. But it’s happening. It’s done.”

Ted Turner, Atlanta Braves owner from 1976-99, rarely met a situation he couldn’t make worse by opening his mouth. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

As he so often did, Turner drew the ire of the commissioner’s office by opening his big yap. Due to concerns that a “lame duck” player such as Butler might not be motivated to perform for his old club, commissioner Bowie Kuhn was reportedly considering sending Butler immediately to Cleveland to play out the final two weeks of the season. (Kuhn ultimately fined Turner $25,000 and allowed Butler to stay with the Braves through the end of 1983.)

The Braves were down by four games with 14 to play at that point, having lost 4-2 in 13 innings to the Padres on Sept. 18. They split a doubleheader with Cincinnati Sept. 21, then lost 6-4 to the Reds the following day to drop to 4-1/2 games out entering a three-game series with the Dodgers in Atlanta beginning Sept. 23.

With more than 44,000 fans in the crowd on a Friday night at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, Barker took the hill vs. the Dodgers’ Jerry Reuss. With only 11 games to play, the Braves were clinging to slim division-title hopes.

Barker didn’t make it out of the third inning. He allowed a sacrifice fly in the first and then an RBI groundout in the third before Mike Marshall drilled a two-run triple to chase the Atlanta starter from a game the Braves would ultimately lose 11-2.

“Pushover Braves go down for the count,” read the headline of Jesse Outlar’s column in the next morning’s AJC. “Even the fat lady would concede that it is over,” he wrote.

The Braves then proceeded to win three straight — including a 3-2 victory on Rafael Ramirez’s walk-off RBI single in Game 2 of the Dodgers’ series. Butler homered to lead off the bottom of the first in a 7-1 victory on Sunday, which pulled Atlanta back within 3-1/2 games with eight remaining. (The Dodgers and Braves both won the following day to keep the lead at 3-1/2.)

Barker’s final start of 1983 came on Sept. 27 against the Giants. He allowed just two unearned runs in six innings, leaving the game for a pinch-hitter shortly before Glenn Hubbard tied it with a two-run homer.

The Giants scored four times off the Atlanta bullpen to win 6-2 and drop the Braves 4-1/2 back of L.A. The pennant race finally ended three days later, when the Dodgers won 4-3 over San Francisco and the Braves lost 3-2 to San Diego.

“I thought we had a better ballclub than last year,” Niekro said after allowing two homers in the loss. “I really thought this was the year we could get in the World Series.”

The Braves finished the season 88-74, just one game worse than the division-winning 1982 team. However, the Dodgers won the NL West with a 91-71 mark in 1983, going 28-20 after Watson’s walk-off homer for the Braves on Aug. 14.

Atlanta went 17-28 in that same span, including 17-27 after Horner was injured and 12-20 after acquiring Barker. The Braves finished the season an NL-worst 19-29 in one-run games.

The collapse was a collective effort, Jim Baker wrote on the 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract.

“If the Braves could have only managed to finish two games below .500 in their one-run games the West would have been theirs,” Baker wrote. “What went wrong? What happened? Not one Braves’ regular managed to rise to the occasion. … The pitching, with few exceptions, was poor.”

Barker made six starts for the Braves in 1983 and wasn’t great but also wasn’t bad. He posted a 1-3 record with a 3.82 ERA, striking out 21 in 33 innings.

Butler, it should be noted, played great down the stretch despite knowing he’d been traded away. In 32 games after news of the Barker deal broke, he batted .288/.388/.390 with 20 runs scored and eight steals.

“After our game is over, I go back to my room, watch the news and see how my other team did,” Butler later told The Sporting News.

As he so often did, Turner immediately realized he’d made a huge mistake trading Butler and soon after tried to “re-acquire” him in a trade that would have sent Hall and fellow outfielder Terry Harper to Cleveland. Indians GM Gabe Paul said “no thanks” and Butler went to the AL after the season as the teams had originally agreed.

Sports Contributor Archive 2018
Brett Butler played four seasons in Cleveland after being traded by the Atlanta Braves in 1983, and retired in 1997 after a 17-year major-league career. (Getty Images)

Butler became one of the game’s top leadoff men in Cleveland, where he spent four years before signing with San Francisco as a free agent. He eventually played 17 MLB seasons with the Braves, Indians, Giants, Dodgers and New York Mets, retiring in 1997 with 2,375 hits, 1,359 runs scored and 558 steals.

Though Behenna never caught on in Cleveland and was out of baseball by 1986, Jacoby became a solid performer for much of the next decade. He was twice an All-Star in nine seasons with the Indians, hitting 32 homers in 1987 and 120 in his 11-year MLB career.

The Dodgers went on to lose in four games in the National League Championship Series to the Philadelphia Phillies, who in turn lost to the Baltimore Orioles in five games in the World Series. L.A. won the NL West again in 1985 and won the World Series in 1988.

Honeycutt was far worse with the Dodgers than Barker was with the Braves in 1983, going 2-3 with a 5.77 ERA in nine games (seven starts) and being relegated to the bullpen for the postseason. He pitched well the next three seasons as part of the Los Angeles rotation before he was traded to Oakland and later become a top set-up reliever to fellow former starter Dennis Eckersley.

Stewart was excellent with Texas in 1983 — going 5-2 with a 2.14 ERA in eight starts, but flamed out the following year and was eventually traded to Philadelphia. The Phillies released him in May 1986 and he soon after signed on with Oakland, where he remade himself as one of the top pitchers in baseball over the next half-decade, winning 20-plus games every season from 1987-90. (Wright appeared in a total of 55 games, mostly in relief, with the Rangers through 1986, after which he was released and never pitched in the majors again.)

The Braves wouldn’t return to the playoffs until 1991, by which time no members of the 1983 squad were still around. Niekro was released after the 1983 season, ending his 25-year association with the Braves organization (20 of those spent in the majors).

Murphy won his second straight MVP Award in 1983, batting .302/.393/.540 with 36 homers, 120 RBIs and 30 steals in 34 attempts — becoming the Braves’ first 30/30 man since Hank Aaron in 1963. He continued to excel through 1987, but faded badly once he reached his early 30s and was traded to Philadelphia in 1990.

Horner bounced back with 27 homers in both 1985 and 1986, but left for Japan when he was unable to reach a contract agreement with Atlanta. Years later, he was awarded more than $7 million in a collusion lawsuit brought against club owners by the Major League Baseball Players Association on behalf of 600-plus players.

Brad Komminsk stands ready
Braves outfielder Brad Komminsk was compared to Dale Murphy coming up through the minors, but hit just 12 home runs in parts of four seasons in Atlanta. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Hall and Komminsk, the two young outfielders the Braves thought would help them sustain the loss of Butler, never panned out. Hall hung around until 1988 as mostly a fourth-outfielder type, though he did bat .284/.369/.411 with 33 steals in 92 games in 1987.

Komminsk, who hit 105 homers in four minor-league seasons from 1980-83, never was even that good. The former first-round pick batted .217/.297/.319 with 12 homers in 220 games in Atlanta from 1983-86 before being traded to Milwaukee in 1987 for leadoff man Dion James (who had one good year and two mediocre ones with the Braves before being traded away himself).

Barker drew the Opening Day start for the Braves in 1984, and by late July had a 7-8 record and a 3.85 ERA in 21 games (20 starts). But his bone spurs flared up again, causing an ulnar nerve problem that resulted in season-ending surgery in mid-August.

Barker was back on the mound in spring training the following year, but never returned to form. He went 2-9 with a 6.35 ERA in 20 games for a Braves team that was about to begin a stretch of six straight seasons in which they lost at least 89 games, missing most of June and July 1985 with a recurrence of elbow problems before being shut down in mid-September.

With Bobby Cox having come on as general manager in 1986, the Braves released Barker at the end of spring training. He pitched all of that season in Triple-A with the Montreal Expos organization before ending his career with 11 starts (going 2-1 with a 5.36 ERA) with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987.

Barker pitched in 47 games (44 starts) over three seasons with the Braves, going 10-20 with a 4.64 ERA (an ERA+ of 83). In 233 innings, he allowed 235 hits and 89 walks, striking out 163.

Still, Mullen — who’d been retained as assistant general manager after Cox arrived — told the AJC in 1986 he’d probably make the Barker trade again.

“We felt another pitcher might win it for us,” he said. “We really thought one more veteran pitcher would do it.”

As we know now, the Len Barker trade didn’t win a second straight NL West championship for the Atlanta Braves. Instead, it helped set the franchise down a path from which it wouldn’t recover for more than a half-decade.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; SABR.org; Newspapers.com; NewsBank.com; Sporting News archive (via PaperofRecord.com); The 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract (Ballantine Books, 1984)