Time now to correct an egregious wrong.
The Braves have scheduled Sid Bream Slides Bobblehead Night at Turner Field on June 9. This commemorates the 20th anniversary of the famous play that delivered the 1992 National League pennant.
The Braves went all-out, as the figurine represents not only Sid, but Pirates catcher Mike Lavalliere and Umpire John McSherry as well. Though McSherry’s ample physique is generously trimmed down.
Completely overlooked, as usual, remains the most underappreciated of all Atlanta Braves teams. So please allow me to be the first to wish a happy 30th anniversary to the 1982 Braves.
Once the Braves embarked on their Era of Dominance, their Dark Ages became quickly forgotten. That’s a shame, because winning was a lot more difficult during the Braves first quarter-century in Atlanta.
From 1966 through 1990, the Braves won exactly two titles: the first Western Division championship in 1969, and another division title in 1982.
The ’82 team erupted as a complete and utter surprise. In the seven years prior to ’82, the Braves posted exactly one winning season, and that came courtesy of a rainout. The 1980 team finished 81-80.
From ’75 through ’79, the Braves win totals ran to 67, 70, 61, 69 and 66. They were just as bad then as they were good in the ‘90s. After the surprise of 1980, they returned to form in ’81 with a strike-shortened record of 50-56.
That ended the First Bobby Cox Era, and Joe Torre came aboard with a new coaching staff, new attitude, and a newly refurbished lockerroom in Atlanta Stadium. Still, nothing had prepared the team, or populace, for the Braves outrageous start to the season.
Rick Mahler, The World’s Greatest Opening Day Pitcher Who Was Mediocre The Rest Of The Time, shut out San Diego, 1-0, in the season opener. The Braves kept right on winning until they had rung up a record 13 in a row.
Before Torre could pose for a bronze statue, the Braves dropped five straight. Before the naysayers could say, “Told you so,” the Braves had won three straight, and five of six. A pattern had emerged: this would be the streakiest team in Atlanta Braves history.
Why? They didn’t have a reliable starting rotation. The rotation consisted of Phil Niekro, who went 17-4 despite not getting his first win until May 3. Niekro ate up 234 innings in 35 starts, with a 3.61 era.
The Braves also tried Mahler (9-10, 4.87), Rick Camp (11-13, 3.65), Ken Dayley (5-6, 4.54), Tommy Boggs (2-2, 330) and the inimitable Pascual Perez (4-4, 3.06) with varying degrees of success.
Thanks to the that crew, Gene Garber (8-10, 2.34, 30 saves) and Steve Bedrosian (8-6, 2.42, 11) saw plenty of action. Between them, they pitched an amazing 257 innings.
This staff needed ample support, and they got it from a lineup that led the league in runs and home runs. MVP Dale Murphy hit .281 with 36 homers and 109 RBI, and won a gold glove in centerfield.
Bob Horner (.261, 32, 97) added punch at third. Chris Chambliss (.270, 20, 86) added veteran savvy at first. Second baseman Glenn Hubbard and shortstop Rafael Ramirez led the league in double plays. Bruce Benedict emerged as a solid catcher, and Claudell Washington (.266, 16, 80, 33 steals) had a surprisingly productive season in right field.
On July 29, the Braves completed a four-game sweep of the Padres. Their record stood at 61-37, and they had a nine-game lead. For fans who had long begged just to see meaningful games in September, this team was too good to be true.
What followed were 19 losses in 21 games. During a wicked stretch of three straight extra-inning losses in Los Angeles, Jerry Royster allowed the winning run to score on a ball meandering through his legs, reducing him to pounding the infield with his glove like a little leaguer.
The streak finally ended on August 19, when Perez famously got lost on 285 and Niekro had to start in his place. Niekro beat the Expos to start a six-game winning streak.
The Braves played meaningful games right down to the season’s final day, when Joe Morgan of the Giants hit a home run to beat the Dodgers and clinch the division crown for the Braves.
Niekro was three outs from an official game shutout in St. Louis in Game 1 of the NLCS when the rains came. Bob Forsch then shut out the Braves on three hits to win the replayed Game 1, Garber couldn’t hold Niekro’s lead in Game 2, and Camp surrendered four runs in the second inning to lose Game 3. Thus ended the final streak of the season.
But those ’82 Braves took us on a ride unlike any other.