This has been, as a general rule, a pro sports market of misery and hangovers, not celebrations and … well, hangovers.
The Falcons lost an NFL playoff game in 1980, and it evolved into some perceived mutant voodoo curse for the next two decades. The Hawks last won an NBA title in an era of canvas high tops (1957-58), and when they were based in St. Louis. The NHL – two teams, come and gone (the first winning a Stanley Cup after it moved to Calgary).
Even when the Braves’ lone World Series title in 1995 is referenced, it’s usually with some verbal slap about 13 other Octobers when the team fell flat, fell short or outright imploded (1996 vs. the Yankees)?
It’s for that reason that Fredi Gonzalez, Frank Wren, Terence McGuirk and the corporate weasel owner behind the curtain should be aware of something: This city-wide vitriol that they’re hearing, seeing and feeling in the aftermath of a late-season self-immolation is going to linger for a while.
Through the winter. Through the spring. Probably even through next September, because we’ve learned not to make assumptions with 8½-game leads.
In 22 years of living in Atlanta, I’ve witnessed the area’s sports fans being sad, distraught, shocked, confused, frustrated and numb. But I can’t ever remember this level of anger directed at a team, at least not outside of Athens, where it can be a weekly occurrence. (Eugene Robinson submarined the Falcons at the Super Bowl with a late-night mission of lust, but nobody could blame the team for that.)
By unraveling in the season’s final weeks, the Braves just firebombed much of their audience. It took five years to get people excited again in 2010, and that has been undone. Few will listen now to grand proclamations about this team contending for titles, until it actually does. Certainly, nobody will assume greatness of Fredi Gonzalez, at least until he can exorcise memories of a 9-18 September.
This is not an-easy-to-please sports town — not because fans have been spoiled, but because they’ve been conditioned to assume the worst.
In theory, the Braves should still be a strong playoff contender next season. But in theory, they had a playoff team this season (yes, even after injuries).
Fair or unfair, almost every assumption we made about this team now seem off. Dan Uggla, a career .263 hitter in Florida and .287 in his last season, came to Atlanta, signed a $61 million contract and needed every bit of it for therapy. He hit .233, and that, folks, was close to the high-water mark. So now we must wonder: Was he a great player on a bad team and in an invisible market who can’t take the pressure on a bigger stage?
Jason Heyward hit .227, 50 points lower than his rookie season, lost his swing after injuries and then lost his starting job. So we ask: Was 2010 an aberration, the scouting reports bunk?
Martin Prado’s average dropped from .307 to .260, he had the second-worst on-base percentage (.302) among regular position players on the roster, and he scored 34 fewer runs (66) than a year ago. Alex Gonzalez, the only player with a lower on-base percentage, hit .241, far below the shortstop he was acquired for, Yunel Escobar (.290), who also happens to be six years younger. Brian McCann, a perennial All-Star, faded late for the second consecutive season despite a new offseason workout plan.
Gonzalez? He was manager of the year with the Marlins three years ago. But is getting a cheap, young team to overachieve with 84 wins his strength?
All of this might seem unfair. But it’s not like most of this bunch has a long resume. The burden of proof is on them.
The Braves built up a lot of good will in 2010. They made the playoffs after a four-year absence and a season filled with an almost cartoon-like string of injuries. They were fun to watch, simply because they never stopped playing hard, even when X-rays, MRIs and logic told them the year was over. They lost in the playoffs, but it seemed acceptable because those box scores included the names Melky Cabrera, Troy Glaus, Rick Ankiel, Nate McLouth, Brooks Conrad, Diory Hernandez and Kyle Farnsworth.
There was momentum coming into 2011. There won’t be momentum going into 2012. Or assumptions. It’s going to take a while before people believe again.
By Jeff Schultz
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