With baseball season a couple of weeks away, time to put some sunscreen on this blog.
This will be the Atlanta Braves’ most interesting season in years. The team revamped itself well in 2009, after bottoming out in 2008. And the Braves will have key players such as Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson for a full season, not to mention a strong new bat in Melky Cabrera.
The most significant factor, though, is that Manager Bobby Cox is entering his final season. This could be a huge motivating factor for him and the players. The “send the old man out a champion” theme might make a difference for a team that has missed the playoffs four straight seasons after an incredible run.
Another link to the Braves’ glory days is also in an interesting position. Third baseman Chipper Jones, the only remaining player from the Braves’ last World Series team (1999), is showing his age. His offensive numbers dropped off in 2009 after he won the NL batting title in 2008. He long has had a problem with injuries, and he vows he won’t be a hanger-on if things don’t pick up for him this season. He’s had a great career — he was the NL’s MVP in ’99, he’s the all-time National League home-run leader for switch hitters (426), and he has an impressive .307 career batting average. But he also has become weaker defensively, and he may not want to play for a manager other than Cox at his age. He could become a baseball rarity — a player who spent his entire career with one team. Only Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn have managed that in recent years, and Derek Jeter still has a chance, too.
Still, the once-mighty Braves are symbolic of baseball’s biggest problem: lack of competitive balance. American League teams have won four of the past six World Series, showing that the designated hitter gives the league a huge advantage. And not since the Florida Marlins in 2003 has a small market team won the title. The sport with no salary cap continues to be dominated by a handful of teams in large TV markets.
But you can still tune it at home, or head to the park for the sun, hot dogs, and Bobby Cox jawing with umpires for another season. Play ball.