Well-timed moves make Schuerholz a hot topic again

October 22, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

ATLANTA -- This time a year ago, John Schuerholz was almost as hot a conversation item at World Series functions as he is today.

Publicly, he was accepting congratulations for his lucrative new contract as the chief baseball officer for the Atlanta Braves. Privately, people were questioning either his sanity or motivation.

Schuerholz had just left the seemingly lifetime security of the Kansas City Royals to take over a team considered one of, if not the worst in baseball. Even some of his closest friends now admit they wondered what he was doing.

"Believe me," said the Baltimore native, "we [he and his wife, Karen] were the first two to ask that question. I can't tell you how agonizing it was the day we made the decision.

"We went back and forth, weighing the pros and cons, and just decided to do it," said Schuerholz.

Even with the Braves down 2-0 to Minnesota in the World Series that resumes here tonight, it would be easy to say now that Schuerholz realized the tremendous opportunity with a young team. After all, he had been with Kansas City since that organization's inception in 1968, when he left the Orioles' minor-league department to join the expansion franchise. He would recognize an opportunity as good or better than anyone.

But while he concedes the Braves' young talent, especially the pitching, was a consideration, Schuerholz says it wasn't the primary reason he made the move. So why did he do it?

"The time had come to make a change. I sensed that the [Kansas City] organization felt it was time for a change," said Schuerholz. "And I know I did.

"How many people get to spend 23 years in the same organization? I think both sides realized it was time for a change. The Braves pursued me real hard -- and made me a great offer. That made it easy."

Schuerholz played a major part in Kansas City's quick development into a contender, first as the minor-league director, later as the general manager. The Royals won three straight division titles beginning in their eighth year, and an American League pennant in their 12th season and a World Series five years later.

Known as a bold trader and occasionally as a high stakes roller in the risky free-agent game, Schuerholz has used both avenues -- sometimes successfully, other times with disastrous results. His success in finding the missing links for the Braves this year has been well documented, but it hasn't diminished his sense of humor or perspective.

For instance, when he was asked what he learned from the trade that sent then promising young pitcher David Cone to the Mets for catcher Ed Hearn, Schuerholz had a quick reply. "It taught me how to disguise myself in public," he said.

His last foray into the free-agent market for the Royals might have led to the mutual split. Mark Davis and Storm Davis didn't come close to living up to expectations, and neither did Kirk Gibson.

But the experience didn't cause Schuerholz to bring a timid hand with him to Atlanta. As he had done in Kansas City, he relied on what people in the organization told him -- and went about fixing what was broken.

"They told me we needed infielders who could play defense -- good defense -- especially at the corners," said Schuerholz. "I was told that a lot of balls that should have been outs were doubles that kept the pitchers on the mound longer than they should have been there."

Third baseman Terry Pendleton and first baseman Sid Bream were signed as free agents to plug those holes. Two other free agents, shortstop Rafael Belliard and catcher Mike Heath, ended up in roles other than what had been originally planned.

"I thought Belliard [who like Bream came from the Pirates] was a bargain -- if you can call a $425,000 utility infielder a bargain," said Schuerholz. "We figured if we didn't get a top shortstop, then we'd just go with defense and play him every day."

Which is precisely what happened. Schuerholz says he signed Heath to replace Greg Olson as the No. 1 catcher. "I was told we needed a catcher, and I liked the way Heath handled pitchers, the way he threw, and the enthusiasm he brought to the field with him," said Schuerholz.

Heath has not been a regular because Olson has turned out to be better than anyone expected a 31-year-old, eight-year minor-league veteran could be. "He has made a believer out of me," said Schuerholz.

The surprising thing about the Braves isn't necessarily that they made a remarkable turnaround after losing 97 games last year. For the last four years, baseball people had been saying the Braves were bringing along an excellent crop of young players.

"The surprising thing is that it all came together so quick," said Schuerholz. "I thought it would be next year. I thought these [new] guys would need a year to get acclimated and for everyone to realize the talent that was here."

But the Braves jelled in the second half, coming from 9 1/2 games off the pace to beat the Dodgers. They did it despite the fact that Bream and David Justice were out of the lineup at the same time for five weeks, and that closer Juan Berenguer was lost for the last six weeks.

Pitching enabled Atlanta to overcome the loss of Bream and Justice, and Schuerholz made a superb trade to get Alejandor Pena as a replacement for Berenguer.

And one year later, Schuerholz is still a hot topic at World Series functions. This time, however, nobody is questioning his sanity or his motivation.

They say timing is everything in baseball. Schuerholz and the Braves are the perfect example that it's not confined to the playing field.

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