Dan's Dugout: Schuerholz Deserves Hall Nod • Latino Sports

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Dan’s Dugout: Schuerholz Deserves Hall Nod

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[With the unanimous election of John Schuerholz by the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, the following material is excerpted with permission from When the Braves Ruled the Diamond: Fourteen Flags Over Atlanta by Dan Schlossberg]

Less than a handful of baseball general managers have won world championships in both leagues. But only one has guided a team to 14 consecutive division titles.

John Schuerholz, whose world titles came 10 years apart, won first with the Kansas City Royals and then with the Atlanta Braves. It was only in the second stop, however, that he established and cultivated a reputation as a creative genius.

John Schuerholz (left) and Bobby Cox had an amazing title run

John Schuerholz (left) and Bobby Cox had an amazing title run

A one-time Baltimore school teacher who took a pay cut to work for the Orioles, Schuerholz found his Atlanta tenure roughly equivalent to playing a game of Whack-a-Mole that lasted 15 years (the 1994 season, stopped by a player strike, was never completed).

When sudden injury struck, he had to fill the void. When salary arbitration forced him to spend too much on one player, he had to shave salary by shedding another. When a player suddenly slowed because of age or injury, he had to reach into his farm system.

He changed players only when he had to. During their title run, the Braves never used more than 47 players (2000 and 2001) but employed as few as 31 (1994), 33 (1993), and 34 (2003). Never did they use the same basic lineup in consecutive seasons.

At first base alone, the cast of characters included Sid Bream, Brian Hunter, Fred McGriff, Andres Galarraga, and even Julio Franco, an ancient bastion of fitness plucked from the Mexican League when nobody was watching.

Schuerholz had a knack for finding good players in strange places – once trading a dozen bags of bats and balls to the independent Minneapolis Loons for Kerry Ligtenberg, an unknown commodity who morphed into a solid big-league reliever.

A skilled negotiator, Schuerholz not only could hold the company line when negotiating player salaries but

John Schuerholz was the lone unanimous selection of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee Credit: Dan Schlossberg

John Schuerholz was the lone unanimous selection of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee
Credit: Dan Schlossberg

fleece an opposing team in trade talks by dangling prospects who were more like suspects. Rivals liked and respected him but also feared his superior intellect.

During his tenure as Atlanta general manager, Schuerholz had a well-established persona as a polished executive who dressed well, spoke well, and could ante up anecdotes about world-famous cellist Pablo Casals.

According to him, Casals practiced six hours a day even as he approached his 100th birthday. Asked why, the cellist said, “Maybe I can get better.”

That philosophy guided Schuerholz throughout his career.

Before he left Kansas City to take the Atlanta job, Ted Turner was the owner, Stan Kasten was team president, and Bobby Cox was both manager and general manager. Then Kasten met Schuerholz in New York late in the 1990 season when both were working on the same committee for Major League Baseball.

“When Stan I began talking,” Schuerholz said, “he asked me to recommend potential general managers because he intended to keep Bobby in the dugout. I thought that was a wise thing to do based upon my admiration and high regard for Bobby.

“Fast forward a couple of weeks and Stan offered me the job. He asked me again how I felt about Bobby managing the team and I said, ‘I don’t think I could consider this job without Bobby Cox in the dugout.’”

 

John Schuerholz, now 76, is vice chairman of the Braves

John Schuerholz, now 76, is vice chairman of the Braves

Most outsiders thought Schuerholz would never leave Kansas City, where he had worked in the front office for 23 seasons, but ownership changes with the Royals created unexpected tensions for the executive. But a different set of problems awaited his arrival in Atlanta.

Even the concessions needed to be improved. Hot dogs were not supposed to be gray and cold.

“Some of my friends thought I was crazy to come to Atlanta,” said Schuerholz, remembering the massive overhaul required both on and off the field. “But I knew Bobby and Paul Snyder had put together a robust minor-league system and brought some good young arms to the Braves. I also noticed that when those young pitchers would make a good pitch, balls would go through legs, balls were thrown into the stands, and there were a lot more bad hops than good hops.

“The first thing I did was to improve the infield itself. I had heard from a number of general managers that it was far from a major-league surface. I hired Ed Mangan to be chief groundskeeper and then went out and signed three free-agent infielders: Terry Pendleton, a third baseman who won a batting title and an MVP award in his first year with us; Rafael Belliard, who couldn’t hit much but caught everything at shortstop; and Sid Bream, who never let anything get by at first base.”

The Pendleton signing drew the ire of Furman Bisher, sports editor of the Atlanta Journal. He suggested in print that Schuerholz should be drawn and quartered, among other unpleasant things.

“He was our first and harshest critic when we signed Terry,” Schuerholz said years later. “He finally began to cut me some slack after about 13 straight division titles.”

The outspoken Bisher, a proud man who hated to admit defeat, eventually apologized for lambasting the general manager in print. He wrote, “You must keep this in mind: never sell Schuerholz short. Never.”

Along with catcher Mike Heath and relief pitcher Juan Berenguer, also signed as free agents, the Braves had lots of new faces on the first day of 1991 spring training. But the biggest new face belonged to the new GM.

“Nobody knew Schuerholz very well,” said the late broadcaster Pete Van Wieren. “We were all tiptoeing

Bobby Cox (right) answers a question from Latino Sports baseball editor Dan Schlossberg

Bobby Cox (right) answers a question from Latino Sports baseball editor Dan Schlossberg

– John was too. Everybody was waiting to see how other people responded to certain situations. Bobby was careful what he said because he didn’t want Schuerholz and John was careful what he said because he didn’t want to upset Bobby.”

It didn’t take long for the players, coaches, and manager to stop walking on eggshells. For his part, Schuerholz was still reshaping his roster.

“We shared our spring complex in West Palm with the Montreal Expos,” he said. “When they decided Otis Nixon wasn’t going to be in their plans, we made a deal for him. We gave them a minor-league catcher and put Otis in center field. So our defense got dramatically better from the time I took the job until we left Florida.”

The revived defense made a huge difference in the morale and performance of Atlanta pitchers.

The first team in baseball history to finish first after posting the worst record in the majors the previous season, the Braves quickly erased the memory of seven straight losing seasons and attendance of under a million per year.

The streak was on, though neither Schuerholz nor anyone else realized it at the time. “We never dreamed it would happen this quickly,” he said during the euphoria of the obligatory champagne party, “but since it has, it’s my job to make sure we stay on top.”

Invariably polished, professional, and reserved, Schuerholz finally succumbed to the party atmosphere he created. As the Atlanta team plane winged its way toward Minnesota for the 1991 World Series, he actually danced in the aisle with rap-loving reliever Marvin Freeman.

John Schuerholz and Andruw Jones were installed in the Braves Hall of Fame last month

John Schuerholz and Andruw Jones were installed in the Braves Hall of Fame this year

The general manager preferred the street-corner harmony of Doo Wop music but also found golf a great stress-reliever. An annual team spring training outing quickly picked up the initials of “SWT,” short for Schuerholz Wins Tournament.

Schuerholz gave his blessing to golf-loving pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, who seemed to spend every free minute either on the links or planning their next visit.

Although Maddux did not arrive in Atlanta until 1993, Glavine and Smoltz were mainstays of the pitching staff that allowed the Braves to become the first team in National League history to vault from last place one year to first place the next. In fact, had Minnesota not ended a scoreless tie with a tenth-inning run in the seventh game of the World Series, the Braves might have become world champions.

John Schuerholz, the creator of that cast, sat on the edge of his seat as five of the games – including the 1-0 finale – were decided by one run.

Thanks primarily to the prowess of the pitchers, the Braves duplicated their 1991 margin by finishing first by a single game in two more seasons: 1993 and 2000. Those races were just as nerve-wracking – not only for players and fans but for the GM who put those clubs together.

“The ‘93 race was incredibly stimulating,” Schuerholz admitted. “It was our last year in the National League West. We made up substantial ground on San Francisco before finally winning on the last day of the season. The two biggest factors were signing Greg Maddux as a free agent and trading for Fred McGriff in July. Looking back, it’s fair to say that Maddux and Pendleton were my best free agent acquisitions and McGriff was the most significant player obtained in a trade.”

After debating whether to sign Maddux or Barry Bonds, who both hit the free agent after the 1992 season, the pitcher won out.

Even when a new alignment moved Atlanta from the NL West to the NL East, the Braves made a habit of playing deep into October, winning more pennants during the ‘90s than any other team. Their best year was 1995, when Chipper Jones was a rookie. They won their first NL East title easily, finishing with a 21-game margin, and went on to beat the Colorado Rockies in the Division Series, the Cincinnati Reds in the Championship Series, and the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.

Though still in the minors for the first three years of Atlanta’s title streak, Jones wasted little time in

Chipper Jones was the face of the franchise for the Braves Credit: Bill Menzel

Chipper Jones was the face of the franchise for the Braves
Credit: Bill Menzel

becoming the face of the franchise, as Dale Murphy was before him. Like Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr., Jones wound up playing his entire career with one team.

During their 14-year title run, the Atlanta Braves tried to maintain consistency – a difficult feat in an era of free agency and salary arbitration. The team had the same manager and pitching coach throughout the streak but only one player stayed from start to finish.

Glavine was there at the start and Chipper was there at the end but Smoltz was the only athlete who rode out the whole streak. Plus the manager, pitching coach, and the great GM.

About Dan Schlossberg

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has produced 35 baseball books, including autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. Also a broadcaster, he is the host and executive producer of Braves Banter and Travel Itch Radio and a contributor to Sirius XM.

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