First thing you notice is that coaches no longer have lockers in the main section of the Braves’ clubhouse. And you think: “Aha! An example of how Fredi Gonzalez has changed things! He’s sequestering players from coaches!”
Er, no. Said Gonzalez: “That’s a design thing. I had nothing to do with it. They needed some room [in the main clubhouse] for all the call-ups, and rather than have them double up, they put lockers in the coaches’ room.”
Here Gonzalez smiled. “I wish I could take credit,” he said. “Might make me sound like Bill Belichick.”
The Atlanta Braves, as you’ve heard, are under new management. Fredi Gonzalez, once Bobby Cox’s third-base coach, occupies Bobby Cox’s office, which has also changed. Although Gonzalez had nothing to do with this re-do, either.
Before he left for spring training, a lady from the front office told him she’d been given license to redecorate. “She had a budget,” Gonzalez said, speaking before Wednesday’s exhibition game. “You know how it is with women and budgets — she was in hog heaven.” (And here Gonzalez stressed to two female reporters he meant no offense. None taken, they said.)
He returned to Turner Field on Monday to find new carpet, new furniture, a new blue coat of paint and a new photo wall of honor, with his predecessor’s likeness smack in the middle of luminaries including Aaron and Spahn and Maddux and Mathews and Murphy. “Real nice,” was the new occupant’s verdict.
So these alterations, both cosmetic, weren’t of Gonzalez’s doing. But he has made changes, and some of them could enhance his team’s performance. As much as he seeks to pay tribute to his bound-for-Cooperstown Hall of Famer, the new man isn’t bound to the past.
“It’s like following Bear Bryant,” said Gonzalez, who was reminded that the coach who followed Bryant — Ray Perkins, an Alabama grad — roiled the Tide by removing Bryant’s famous tower from the practice field.
“This ain’t broke,” Gonzalez said. “You don’t want to go in a different direction and ruffle feathers. The changes we’ve made, we didn’t go out and advertise them. But it’s not like we’re changing the color scheme or taking the logo off the helmet.”
One change: The Braves’ manager will throw batting practice. Another: The Braves will stretch on the field. (Cox thought teams stretching on the field looked silly.) Yet another: The Braves will take 10 or 15 minutes of concentrated infield practice before BP. Still another: The manager has a laptop open on his (new) desk; indeed, he’d already done digital reconnaissance on the Washington Nationals, whom his Braves will face in Thursday’s season opener.
That Gonzalez knows what he wants — he has managed before, you know — is a good sign. That he’s unafraid to tweak is even better. The Braves don’t need someone who’s forever asking, “What would Bobby do?” They need someone who, without quite tearing down the figurative tower, has a method of his own.
Gonzalez’s rationale behind stretching: “It’s more for me than for [the players]. I’m not going to lead the stretch, but I can walk around. You can go days without talking to a long reliever, a Christhian Martinez, and this gives me a chance to say, ‘How are you doing? How are your mom and dad?’ ”
On the infield work: “Taking infield during batting practice can be dangerous. You’re ducking line drives and throwing over screens. This is a way to get your work in … I got this from Edgar Renteria [when the shortstop was a Brave]. He’d come out around 4:15 and take ground balls by himself, and then Kelly Johnson started doing it. I liked that. Edgar told me that’s the way they did it in St. Louis.”
(Note: That alone would have scotched the notion for Cox, who would never have borrowed from Tony La Russa.)
The belief here was that the Braves might have been better served looking outside the extended family for Cox’s replacement, but that belief is undergoing renovation. Fredi Gonzalez has readied himself do exactly what needed doing: He’s bringing a new approach to an organization that had, for more than two decades, known only one approach. He might be following Bear Bryant, but he’s no cowardly cub.
By Mark Bradley