Amazin’, to quote Dr. Casey Stengel, the Florida Marlins come to Turner Field and take command. Three games in a row. A wipe-out. And it showed on the complexion of Frank Wren, who stepped on the elevator, looking neither right nor left. but glumly straight ahead. This was only the ninth game of the Braves’ season, but then again, these were the Marlins, who have been playing in a football stadium since they were born. A football stadium is a lousy place to play baseball at best — or should I say worst? — even though both teams are named for fish.
This is no occasion to engage in snobbery. The Marlins came into the major leagues 16 years ago. In that time they have played in two World Series’ and won them both, one with a manager who was retrieved from a farm in North Carolina. The Braves came to Atlanta in 1966 and have played in five World Series since. They won one, otherwise their fans have survived on a diet of division championship flags displayed above left field.
This has not been the best of preseasons. Spring training ran too long, mainly to work in the World Baseball Classic, a misnomer by any standard. Instead of conditioning under the eyes of their contracted team, so many were flitting about the world with one national team or another. Chipper Jones came home wounded. It appears that Jorge Campillo has punished his arm during the winter and WBC. Now the Red Sox’s Daisuke Matsuzaka blames his sore arm on the WBC.
Brian McCann displayed a patriotic view of it, “Honored,” he said, “to be playing for my country.” More to the point, playing for the commissioner, Bud Selig, and his union leader, Don Fehr. Publicly Bobby Cox speaks well of it. Privately, he wishes it would go away.
A few days ago the Braves were leading their division. The Marlins blew them out of the water and took over. The Braves’ prize was a weekend in Pittsburgh — all expenses paid. This is a team that seems to have more than its quota of vulnerable moving parts. They lost another infielder to another pulled something-or-other. Yunel Escobar came down injured, so the left side of the infield is in the hands of reserves.
The bullpen has come unraveled. Blaine Boyer finished the ’08 season with a 5.88 earned-run average. While the Marlins were in town, it was inflated to the monstrous number of 40.50. Peter Moylan, the gregarious Aussie, isn’t far behind, which may mean that he has tried to come back too soon from surgery. It will be mid-summer before Tim Hudson is ready again, and on the surface, there’s serious doubt that Tom Glavine will be of value.
All isn’t doom and gloom. There is some good news. Jeff Francoeur isn’t the Francoeur of old, but the new-model Francoeur. His swing is under control. He delivered twice against the Marlins and he doesn’t wince when he checks his batting average now. It was above .300 when the Braves left on this nine-game road trip. There was much wailing and groaning about the Mark Teixeira maneuvers, from Texas to Atlanta to LA Angels to the Yankees, after which all the Braves had to show for the five prospects they’d dispatched to Texas was Casey Kotchman, a journeyman first baseman. Well, get this: As the road trip began Kotchman was outhitting the Yankee Teixeira by more than l00 points.
All of us are inclined to leap to despair or exuberance too early in the season. When Joe Torre came to manage the Braves, he was undefeated for 13 games. They made the playoffs, then collapsed. This is not to say Frank Wren hasn’t got a plateful of frets, but if Bobby Cox can ever get all his gainful employs on the field in health, this is not a season to cast to the swine.