Can it get any worse?
What’s worse than blowing a five-run lead and losing by two? OK, blowing a six-run lead and losing by one. Even if it did extend a Major League record for consecutive one-run road losses.
What’s worse than scoring nine runs and losing? How about scoring ten runs and losing?
What’s worse than seeing Royce Ring pitch on successive days? Seeing Jo-Jo Reyes pitch anytime?
What’s worse than giving up seven runs in a single inning? Giving up five runs — twice! —in three innings.
And what’s worse than seeing your All-Star catcher knocked out cold?
Only one thing could be worse than all of the above. The 1988 Atlanta Braves, of course.
As poorly as the current Braves have played, as many injuries as they’ve suffered, they left Philadelphia Sunday 7.5 games out of first.
The ‘88 Braves were 7.5 games out on April 16.
Impossible, you say? Not when you lose your first 10 games, setting a new National League standard for futility to open a season.
Now, it’s one thing to be awful. It’s a challenge to be awful at all times. This team opened the season in last place and remained there every single day.
By the end of April, they were 3-16, 10 games behind. They rebounded with a 13-15 record in May, and then hit their stride. They went 10-18 in June, 9-20 in July, 10-19 in August, and 8-17 in September. Their best month was October. They only lost once. They played twice.
They failed to produce a winning record against any opponent. They lost 14 of 18 to the Dodgers.
No home field advantage for this Tribe, either. They were 28-51 at home, 26-55 on the road. They finished at 54-106, a mere 39.5 games behind the Dodgers.
This team drove the eternal optimist, Chuck Tanner, from the dugout after only 39 games (12-27). Only two years earlier, Tanner had promised a World Series parade. He should have suggested a parade if the team reached fifth place.
Russ Nixon took over, and guided the Braves to a 42-79 finish. Marked improvement, you bet. Nixon also led the team to its longest winning streak of the season — three games. But they did it three times.
Opening Night still generated a modicum of enthusiasm: 34,929 patrons came out to see the Braves lose to the Cubs in a thriller, 10-9. Game Two drew a group of 6,122, Game Three a cozy gathering of 5,257.
After a week of losing, the Braves’ seventh game drew a throng of 1,938. And that was to see Nolan Ryan pitch for the Astros. Everyone in attendance got a foul ball.
The fans were wise to stay away. The Braves scored the fewest runs in the league, and allowed the most. Now there’s a formula for success.
They did rake the Pirates for 14 runs on June 1. But that was the day after the Pirates scored 14 runs against the Braves.
Only in extra innings did the Braves prevail, posting an inexplicable 11-7 record. Their most memorable game occurred on May 14, when they beat the Cardinals 7-5 in 19 innings. The game lasted 5 hours and 40 minutes, and ended at 1:45 am. Rick Mahler won, pitching eight innings of scoreless, three-hit relief.
Mahler was the staff ace (9-16, 3.69 ERA) and the only pitcher to top 200 innings. Pete Smith (7-15, 3.69), Tom Glavine (7-17, 4.56) and Zane Smith (5-10, 4.30) rounded out the rotation.
The overworked bullpen featured Paul Assenmacher, Charlie Puleo, Jose Alvarez, and Bruce Sutter. It’s good Sutter didn’t need to rely on this season to gain entry into the Hall of Fame. He went 1-4 with a paltry 14 saves and a robust 4.76 ERA.
The Braves’ big offseason transaction for ‘88 was re-signing free agent Ken Griffey Sr. In 193 at bats, Griffey produced a .249 average with 2 home runs and 19 runs batted in. He was released on July 28.
That left the outfield to Dale Murphy (.226, 24, 77), Albert Hall (.247, 1, 15) and Dion James (.256, 3, 30). Quite a crew indeed.
the plate lurked the immortal Ozzie Virgil (.256, 9, 31), a true master at calling a game and handling a pitching staff.
I was fortunate to be seated behind home plate the night he rolled the ball back to the mound and darted to the dugout, ready to lead off the next inning. It was the third strike, but only the second out. The runner strolled in from third, scoring with a look of bewilderment on his face. Similar to the look on the pitcher’s face.
Rookie Ron Gant (.259, 19, 60) gave hope at second base, and Andres Thomas (.252, 13, 68) remained the best solution at short. Ken Oberkfell (.277, 3, 40) manned third. Incredibly, Gant, Thomas, and first baseman Gerald Perry (.300, 8, 74) all led the league in errors at their position. Every ground ball elicited excitement.
Memorably, Perry opted to sit out the final game of the season in order to preserve his .300 average. No problem. The Braves had already clinched last place.
When not practicing his avocation, Denton Ashway practices his vocation with the law firm of Ashway and Haldi in Cumming.