LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – They’re all here, a rare thing in these panic-and-detonate times in pro sports. Late-season collapses generally are followed by somebody in the front office looping wire around several big toes, running it to a wooden box that reads, “Acme TNT,” and pushing down on the plunger.
Not with the Braves. There was no kaboom in the winter.
On the first day of full-squad workouts in spring training Saturday, almost every player from a year ago, save the anchor, Derek Lowe, was there: Dan Uggla, who was hitting .173 on July 4; Jason Heyward, who messed up his shoulder and then everything inside his head; Martin Prado, who struggled and added staph infection to his list of career ailments; Brian McCann, who went into a slump and, for the first time in his life, couldn’t locate a solution; Jair Jurrjens, who followed a 12-3 first half with a 1-3 second half and a season-ending knee injury.
The Braves took the rare soul-cleansing approach to failure: They stepped back, took a breath, lit some candles, opened the chakras, serentized and moved on.
I know. It doesn’t play well on blogs, fan message boards and sports talk radio. So does that make it wrong?
Funny. Through all of those improbable, dramatic, oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened finishes in the 1990s, nobody ever proclaimed, “Ah, phooey. The Braves got lucky. They need big changes.”
Some perspective from Chipper Jones: “Should the Cardinals have even been in the playoffs? No. Should we have been in the playoffs? Yeah. Should the Rangers have won the World Series. Yeah. But none of that happened. I think if you look back over the last 20 years, we had our share of games where we snatched victory from the jaws of defeat — back in the heyday. Maybe it’s somebody’s way of getting us back.”
“Did anybody say Francisco Cabrera?”
Jones smiled, recalling an exchange he had with Texas’s Michael Young last October.
“I talked to him via text before the World Series, and I said, ‘Y’all are going to kill these guys,’” he said, referring to St. Louis.
Official closure to the 10-20, catastrophic end of last season came Saturday with the team’s first full-squad workout. Manager Fredi Gonzalez was surprisingly secretive about his pre-practice talk. But the elements weren’t expected to include great revelations. The focus is not on the final 30 games of 2011, but the 162 in 2012. The expectation is that the Braves will pay closer to attention to offensive fundamentals: bunting, hitting behind runners, making the most of situational at-bats like what to do when there’s a runner in scoring position with less than two outs (the plan: don’t hit a pop-up).
“I think he [Gonzalez] will pay a little more attention to detail of what guys are doing fundamentally,” Jones said before Gonzalez’s speech.
The Braves had so much go wrong at various points last season. Yet, they missed the playoffs by only one game. If Uggla starts better, McCann finishes better, Heyward or Prado have even average seasons, Jurrjens or Tommy Hanson stay healthy — do they not win at least one more game?
Yes, it’s a game of ifs. The emotional side of you screams: “The Braves blew it. Somebody needs to pay. Somebody other than just hitting coach Larry Parrish.”
The Boston Red Sox had a collapse that paralleled the Braves’. Seven minutes after the season, it looked like a hurricane blew through the front office. But do we know that Boston is now back on the rails?
“One year [earlier], we won the wild card by one game,” Prado said. “We clinched on the last day, but people don’t remember that. It’s easier to remember the bad things.”
There are obvious questions. Can Heyward, with weight loss, a new swing and a new coach, return to the form of his rookie season? Can Jurrjens, Hanson and Tim Hudson stay healthy? What will Gonzalez do this time if the team begins to circle the drain?
Gonzalez said he has felt “a good vibe” since camp opened. Pitchers and catchers reported, but most of the players on the roster walked in with them.
“That gives you a good feeling,” he said. “The way we finished last year, they were itching to get going. Stop looking in the rearview mirror. It’s time to look forward.”
Their expectation is that the odds are in their favor, and a few more things go right.
By Jeff Schultz