Yesterday, during the press conference announcing the firing of Frank Wren, team president and former GM John Schuerholz made mention of “The Braves Way,” and suggested that the team had gotten away from that in recent years. He was finally asked by someone to define it. Here is what he said:
It’s a special way of identifying young players who you want to become part of your organization with great comfort and expectation that when they put on a Braves uniform, they’ll be taught well, instructed well. Their makeup and their character will allow them to turn into winning championship-caliber players. They’ll fill the pipeline of this organization with highly capable, high-character, young, winning men who help you win many, many championships on a major league level, year after year after year.
If you need to vomit, please do. You’ll feel better afterward.
I am not dismissive of the idea that a team needs an organizing philosophy and that the culture of any institution matters. But it’s just culture. It’s not, as Schuerholz suggests here, the primary organizational criteria or mission statement and it’s not the basis for actually finding talent. The idea is to win a lot of baseball games. Talent is mostly an objective thing. You get smart scouts and analysts to find it, good coaches to develop it and you pay money to sign and retain it. It’s not easy — not by a longshot — but it’s made all the more difficult if you then start making that process subservient to makeup and character.
But I don’t even think the Braves have done that too much, actually. They won with John Rocker and Gary Sheffield and Denny Neagle and all kinds of other jackwagons. The won by drafting and developing players and they won by signing free agent mercenaries. They have won with Bobby Cox managing well and they’ve won with Fredi Gonzalez being nearly unable to get out of his own way. They’re no different than any other baseball team. And they are no more special than any baseball team.
I suspect John Schuerholz truly believes in “The Braves Way.” As the guys at Talking Chop note, there’s probably some healthy nostalgia at work. But there’s also some self-deception at work. Schuerholz sounds a lot like most of us do when we look back at our successes and assign them to our own skill and will and tend to forget the good fortune and sometimes dubious decisions which, against all odds, helped those successes along. Schuerholz and Bobby Cox did a ton to turn the Braves from losers to winners in the late 80s and early 90s. They also had things like the Padres’ 1993 fire sale and Greg Maddux’s aversion to playing in New York work in their favor. Perhaps his memory dwells on the grit and overachievement of Mark Lemke, but paying top dollar for Andres Galarraga and enduring and making excuses for John Rocker helped a whole hell of a lot too.
This “Braves Way” stuff is aimed at getting a certain segment of fan to be OK with losing and to be OK without paying top dollar for talent. To get some people to, more or less, say “Hey, this may not be ideal, but at least we have not sacrificed our 100% invented-on-the-spot principles just to win!” To ignore the fact that the team has played the local populace for a new stadium it didn’t need and to overlook the fact that Liberty Media, the team’s owners, are way, way more interested in the Braves turning a profit than they are in hoisting championship banners.
Maybe that suckers enough fans into being cool with underachievement. It’s Atlanta, after all, and once football season starts people stop caring an awful lot. But for hardcore baseball fans, it’s no substitute for doing everything possible to put the best team on the field and for simply winning. The Braves haven’t always done that lately. They need to start doing that more and start worrying about slogans like “The Braves Way” less.