(Updated: 4:45 p.m.)
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – If there is one thing we’ve learned in sports, it’s that tangibles don’t always equate to success.
San Francisco didn’t win the World Series last season because it had the best talent, just as the Braves didn’t make it to the postseason because the secret formula of having a nine-game losing streak, losing two No. 3 hitters (Chipper Jones and Martin Prado) and utilizing 109 different lineups came with a 91-win guarantee.
Success is defined by that fragile thing called chemistry. It’s what prevents a nine-game losing streak, losing two No. 3 hitters and 109 lineups from making the lab blow up.
General manager Frank Wren and new manager Fredi Gonzalez have a significant challenge this season. It’s not merely finding a replacement for Billy Wagner, or helping Jordan Schafer relocate his career, or hoping the wander through the desert for a franchise first baseman ends with Freddie Freeman. It’s about re-creating the mojo that enables a team to endure when something goes wrong — because something always does.
“It is hard to create and to have something like that,” said Gonzalez, whose Braves’ spring debut as manager Saturday against the New York Mets ended in a 5-5 tie. “But I think the core that created that is still here. It makes it fun to come to the ballpark when you’ve got good chemistry. When they take care of their own problems, it makes it easy.”
Catcher Brian McCann referred to last season as “by far the closest team I’ve ever been on.”
Chipper Jones said, “It was fun to come out to the park early and just hang out. That doesn’t happen all the time.”
Wren said last season’s Braves were one of the more unique groups he ever has been associated with, saying: “I thought one thing that was interesting about our team, as well as defining, was that a lot of our leaders were our bench guys — [Eric] Hinske, [David] Ross, [Matt] Diaz, [Brooks] Conrad, [Omar] Infante. Those were guys we really depended on a lot on the field, but they also had a big voice in the clubhouse. We knew right off the bat that Infante [traded to Florida in the Dan Uggla deal] and Diaz [not re-signed] would not be back, so it was important to find out: How do we replace them?”
There are a lot of reasons to feel good about the Braves’ this season, but the biggest is that the core group hasn’t changed (and Uggla seems to be a Braves’ clone in every aspect).
The well-traveled Hinske, who also played on tight-knit teams in Boston, New York and Tampa, was a free agent after last season, but knew immediately he wanted to return to Atlanta. “Until you’re in the fire,” he said, “you don’t know how people will perform in those situations. But we have a good group. We have fun. We keep it loose. As we showed last year during the losing steak, nobody panicked.”
The knock on the Braves of years past is that they were overly robotic and relatively unemotional. Not an issue with this bunch.
“Some years here, we’ve had one class clown in the clubhouse to keep things loose,” Jones said. “Now we’ve got four or five.”
Last season was special and unique, so much so that when it was over, at least 15 players hung around until 1 a.m. after the final playoff loss to the Giants.
“That’s something you don’t see very often in this day and age,” Jones said. “Our season was over. We had a bucket full of beer just sitting there. We were reminiscing on the what-ifs and the year in general. Then Bobby [Cox] came in and sat with us. That meant a lot to the guys. I think we all just wanted to soak up the last few moments of the season.”
If they can re-create that, they’ll be fine.
By Jeff Schultz
Other posts from Braves’ camp