Braves make Headline News, no thanks to Turner

October 20, 1991|By Mark Whicker | Mark Whicker,Orange County Register

MINNEAPOLIS -- In 1977, when Steve Avery was 7, Atlanta Braves personnel vice president Paul Snyder was driving a rental car in Fort Wayne, Ind.

He dialed the AM band until he found the Atlanta-Pittsburgh game. He heard part of a sentence that terrified him.

He called general manager Bill Lucas, sputtering the words.

"You heard right," Lucas told Snyder. "Ted is managing the team tonight."

Ted Turner managed the Braves just that one night, one of 17 straight losses. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn rapped his knuckles and retired him. Baseball, in general, rolled in the aisles.

Turner was pushing his superstation and winning America's Cups back then, going to every Braves game and downing a beer or six. Snyder and his fellows, the baseball men in the field, silently suffered.

The Braves were terrible, with just three winning seasons between 1974 and today.

The Braves are now National League champions and carried an underdog's shrug and enough inner juice to illuminate Manhattan, into Game 1 of the World Series last night.

What saved the Braves?

Snyder thinks it was Cable News Network.

What else?

"I really think when CNN came along, Ted had to put so much energy into that, he had to put the ballclub in someone else's hands," Snyder said.

"Before that, Ted saw it as entertainment. He wanted to get guys tTC with big names, even if they couldn't play anymore. It was programming to him. But he couldn't figure out why you couldn't just pump money and time into baseball, and have it work out. It frustrated him."

Quite a Triple Crown for Turner -- Desert Storm, Jane Fonda and the Braves in the Series, in a town where the only "Go Braves" signs were followed by, "And Take The Falcons With You."

It's hard to remember Citizen Turner as all-purpose buffoon, but he was. When he signed Andy Messersmith, he made him wear $$ "Channel" over his number 17, to advertise WTBS. Kuhn nixed that, too.

Then in 1976 he traded five Braves to Texas for Jeff Burroughs, an ex-American League MVP who looked like Robert Redford but had fewer hits.

And in 1983, Turner convened the Braves' war council and sent Brett Butler and Brook Jacoby to Cleveland for pitcher Len Barker, who couldn't pitch anymore. Butler and Jacoby are still playing.

"The Dodgers had just traded for Rick Honeycutt," Snyder said. "We told Ted we'd heard Barker couldn't pitch. Our doctor said he had elbow bone chips, but it wouldn't be a complicated thing to take them out."

Snyder sighed. "I'd say the rest is history."

Snyder says Turner would, and will, listen to his underlings. Turner doesn't fire many people. He is capable of trust. He trusted Lucas, who died of a brain aneurysm. He found no one else to trust until Bobby Cox, an ex-Braves manager, wanted to )) return as general manager in 1986.

"That's when we added more field people," Snyder said. "Our [Class AAA] Richmond team has five coaches. We have instructors everywhere. We feel strongly that baseball players should be playing baseball, and we try to sign everybody."

Dollars were the difference when Atlanta signed Avery, who was committed to Stanford, and Tom Glavine, whom the NHL's Los Angeles Kings had drafted, and Ryan Klesko, the big bat from Westminister who was considered unsignable. "He is the strongest hitter I've ever been involved with," said Snyder, who has been with the Braves since 1957.

Avery, Glavine and Klesko had already flowered. But the thrill, for Snyder, is in the digging.

Ron Gant? The two-time 30-30 man wasn't even known to the Major League Scouting Bureau when he came up in Victoria, Texas. Scout Bill Wight arranged a tryout game in Seguin to see Gant and pitcher Kevin Coffman. "Ron was about 30 pounds lighter than he is now and he was stiff-handed," Wight said. "He wasn't a shortstop, which is where he'd played. But he had power. You don't see that often." The Braves, to the immense surprise of other scouts, took Gant in the second round of 1983.

David Justice? Last year's best NL rookie never played baseball in high school. Covington (Ky.) Latin High didn't have it. It was a tough school from which Justice graduated at 16, after skipping a grade. He played basketball at Thomas More College, and some baseball on what Wight called a "terrible team." In a tryout game Snyder arranged, he saw Justice go 9 for 11. The Braves drafted Justice fourth in '85. "You hate to take a guy off just a tryout," Wight said, "but we knew."

And Brian Hunter, who lovingly stood and watched his Game 7 homer beat the Pirates Thursday? Snyder and Bob Wadsworth, now with Seattle, went to Cerritos to see shortstop Bret Barberie, now with Montreal. But they also saw Hunter homer twice. Hunter had weight problems -- he still could have them -- and he was a BR-TL. That's Bats Right, Throws Left, a rare baseball mutation. Some scouts run from BR-TLs.

"They say there hasn't been a good one since Hal Chase or Cleon Jones," Wight said. "They are rare. But this kid had a swing." Hunter was an eighth-rounder in 1987.

Among the thousands of reconstituted Atlanta baseball fans is Ted Turner. But his hand, clasped in Jane's, no longer steers the ballclub. Did Turner really invent CNN to save the Braves? Not likely. He just envisioned a day when communism would fall, and when Middle East leaders would talk. In his most bizarre fantasies he even saw his Atlanta Braves making Headline News.

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