Four months after the last game, the last loss, the 20th loss in 30 games, it still doesn’t make sense. Players get hurt. Players slump. But does one get one’s mind around the worst collapse in franchise history and one of the worst ever in sports?
“You go over it in your mind a million times. You ask yourself, ‘Is there something I could have done better?’” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “After a while, it drives you crazy. This is really the first time I’ve talked about this, although I’m sure I’ll be asked 200 times at spring training. But we tried things. We had meetings. We had meetings for everything. We had meetings to decide about meetings. After a while it’s like, ‘How many times can I perform an autopsy?’”
Four months after the last game, the last loss, the spiral that crushed a team and its fan base, Gonzalez is going to struggle to convince anybody that he’s really over it. But he knows the calendar gives him no choice. The Braves open their annual prespring pitching camp Monday at Turner Field. They head to Florida in a few weeks. Before the first full-squad workout, players can expect to hear a positive message from Gonzalez — not about how they let a playoff berth slip away, but rather how they dealt with the aftermath.
For at least one month after the season, Gonzalez tried to avoid all media references to the Braves’ late-season drain-circling. But he was curious what was being said by his players, so he asked one of the team’s public-relations people to sort through articles. He was looking for player quotes that conveyed some sort of fractured clubhouse. There weren’t any.
“One thing I’m proud of is that nobody on this team did any finger-pointing,” he said. “There were no quotes about it being this guy’s fault, that guy’s fault. We all took ownership of what happened. That tells you a lot about these guys. You don’t see that in sports all the time. Look at what happened to the Jets. Oh my goodness — they lost two or three games, they didn’t make the playoffs and then they went after each other.”
OK. So the Braves can lose and still hold hands and sing Kumbaya. That’s not a bad thing.
But Gonzalez also knows the reality of 2011: What happened is unacceptable.
Good teams – and most would consider the Braves just that – can’t lose consecutive series to East Division clown acts like the Nationals, Mets and Marlins in a playoff race. Good teams don’t blow 8½-game wild-card leads in 23 days.
Players were injured. Players slumped. But Gonzalez, being the manager, was assigned blame. It was his first season after taking over for Bobby Cox. He was handed a playoff team, a potential World Series team. The Braves failed, so he failed.
“Our goal is to win a championship, and we didn’t do that,” he said.
It’s that simple.
What would he do differently than a year ago? He’s not sure. But something. Because if the Braves go into a similar funk in 2012, he said he will try anything. “Maybe I tell them to come to the park late or we skip batting practice,” he said. “I can’t really say right now.”
The Cox-to-Gonzalez transition was expected to be a smooth one. Gonzalez had coached here. He knew many of the players. There was a new vibe in spring training. Players were doing more running, working more on fundamentals. But it seemed the Braves never fully hit their stride, whether it was Dan Uggla flopping out of the gate, or Jason Heyward’s sophomore slump, or Martin Prado getting shelved by a staph infection. Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson were dented by injuries, and by the final month of the season the rest of the pitching staff – starters and bullpen – was toast. Something always was off.
After the season, Gonzalez went kind of numb. He didn’t watch a playoff game until Game 6 of the World Series, and he turned that off after five innings.
“It was one of the worst games I’ve ever seen, so I went to sleep. I TiVo’d the rest.”
The next morning, he learned that St. Louis rallied to win in 11 innings over Texas and the Cardinals. The Cardinals, who reached the postseason largely because of the Braves’ fizzle, went on to win the Series.
Gonzalez went to Sea Island for a few days with his wife. He spoke to friends, in and out of baseball. He had several conversations with his long-time buddy, Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, as well as Bill Parcells and others.
Van Gundy and Parcells didn’t provide any wonderful insight, unless you count this: “They all said if you’re at this long enough, things like this will happen to you.”
Gonzalez knows this: It can’t happen again, but he’s fine with that pressure. He says he’s looking forward to the first day of spring, the first game of the 2012 season, because that’s the easiest way to move on.
“After something like last year happens, the first thing you want to do is get back on the saddle,” he said.
He said he’s happy that management “didn’t blow up the team,” adding, “We have a good ballclub, but I’m not going to blow smoke either. We have some guys who need to do better than they did last year.”
A gentle jab. That can’t hurt. Something has to change for the ending to change, even if you can’t quite figure out what went wrong last time.
By Jeff Schultz