Thursdays used to be random in The Common Man’s kingdom, and they will be again next week. But today, frankly, The Common Man needs to break form. As terrific as Tuesday was at TCM’s house, what with the Rob Neyer shout out and all, Wednesday sucked very hard. First, The Common Man got too little sleep the night before. Then he had to leave work early with the hackingest cough that ever did hack (which caused a splitting headache). Then The Boy was in perpetual revolt upon being picked up from daycare. He and The Common Man fought over everything last night, culminating in TCM trying to shout down a three-year old at bed time. It was not The Common Man’s finest moment as a father. Plus, The Uncommon Wife decided to play tag with a streetlight in the parking lot at work (she’s ok, and, on the bright side, she won). Thanks karma.
Anyway, the only thing that could cheer up The Common Man today is the futility and overall silliness of ‘70s and ‘80s Braves executive Al Thornwell. Thornwell was brought in by new Braves owner Ted Turner in 1976 on his Board of Directors. While Turner initially took a hands on approach to running the team (culminating in his 1977 decision to manage the team for a game), Thornwell eventually took the reins from his boss in 1980, not that Turner was ever too far away. A wire report in the Palm Beach Post, from Feb. 7, writes “saying he needed ‘someone to mind the store’ while he expanded his budding communications empire, yesterday [Turner] put his friend Al Thornwell in charge of the day-to-day operations of the Braves….’I needed somebody to tie things together…I have given this a lot of thought and became convinced that Al Thornwell is the right man for the job.’"
Thornwell’s experience in and around the game was almost nothing. His business background was described in the paper as “electrical equipment” and “refuse hauling” but he expressed a great deal of enthusiasm, “I’ve been interested in running a baseball team ever since I was a boy….I had a chance to work with a Class D team in Waycross (Ga.) when I first came out of school back in 1951, but the idea of traveling around the state in an unairconditioned bus and staying in $2 motel rooms didn’t appeal to me.” As you can see, he was very dedicated to the game.
Exactly how much power Thornwell ever had independent of Turner is unclear. Sports Illustrated describes him as Turner’s “vice-president for sycophancy” in April of 1981. But under Thornwell’s “management,” the Braves (despite their division title in ’82 and strong performance in ’83) were largely a mess. Their transaction history from 1980-1986 is a laundry list of terrible decisions:
Doyle Alexander (11-7, 2.89 in 1981) in for Craig Landis (never played in the majors) and John Montefusco (77 innings for the Braves before being granted free agency)
Jeff Burroughs (who would post a 116 OPS+ over the next five years) for Carlos Diaz (who pitched 19 games for the Braves)
Gary Matthews (who would post a 119 OPS+ for the next six seasons) for Bob Walk (who would 12-13, with a 4.85 ERA in three seasons, before being released in 1984).
Larry McWilliams (33-24, 3.09 in 587 IP from June ’82-84) for Pascual Perez (33-20, 3.50 in 506 IP from ’82-84, 1-13, one cocaine conviction, one game missed because he couldn’t find the ballpark, 6.14 ERA in ’85 leading to his release and more than a year out of the game).
Brett Butler (110 OPS+ from ’84-’87, 164 SB), Brook Jacoby (112 HR, 110 OPS+ from ’84-’90), Rick Behenna, and $150,000 for Len Barker (10-20, 4.63 from ’83-85).
Steve Bedrosian (22-22, 3.19, 120 Sv, from ’86-’89, 1987 NL Cy Young) and Milt Thompson (97 OPS+ and strong CF defense from ’86-’88) for Pete Smith (19-40, 4.37 from ’87-’91) and Ozzie Virgil (99 OPS+)
Two minor leaguers and Rick Cerone for the corpse of Ted Simmons (467 PAs in 3 seasons, 10 HR, 86 OPS+).
Claudell Washington (108 OPS+ from ’86-88, primarily a CF) and Paul Zuvella for Ken Griffey Sr. (111 OPS+ in ’87 as LF) and Andre Robertson (never played for Braves)
Duane Ward (31-34, 2.98, 121 Sv, 657 Ks in 634 IP from ’88-’93) and Joe Johnson for
Doyle Alexander (6-6, 3.98 for Braves in ’86-’87) and Jim Acker (7-26, 3.71 with Braves from ’86-’89)
Even though Alexander eventually begat Smoltz, by then Thornwell was (thankfully) long gone. His free agent pickups were scant and uninspiring. Claudell Washington did all right, but Gaylord Perry was disappointing in ’81 and Bruce Sutter was an utter failure in ’85. That history, and his complete and utter mistreatment of Bob Horner (which culminated in Horner being demoted to AAA in 1980 over his manager’s protests and his decision to test free agency after 1986 and being jobbed by collusion).
All of which is presented as a prelude to the thing that will set right The Common Man’s mood. Digging through the same magazine pile at TwinsFest last weekend that spawned this post, The Common Man found a 1980 copy of Braves Illustrated, the team’s annual yearbook. The yearbook itself will soon be sent to uber-Braves fan Craig Calcaterra as compensation for Kent Hrbek wrestling Ron Gant in ’91. But its first article asks several officials to predict what will happen to baseball in the 1980s. Thornwell is optimistic, leading to The Common Man’s “The decade of the Eighties will bring peace and tranquility on the labor front in baseball. Free agency will flourish and ballplayers will continue to prosper. But I look for no disruptions in future spring training or championship seasons.”
Given Thornwell’s history judging his players’ future performance, perhaps it’s not surprising to find several levels of fail in this statement. By 1981, the players were on strike, and MLB had to cancel a third of its schedule. What’s more, Thornwell was an active participant in the collusion that denied free agents the opportunity to “flourish” and “prosper.” His grasp on the economic realities of the game makes him look incompetent here at best, and potentially delusional. Thornwell continues to pile on the crazy ideas, suggesting “I foresee even more colorful uniforms, perhaps for umpires. An orange or yellow colored baseball is a possibility and the stadiums themselves will be more color-coded. I think that interleague play will come about and that both major leagues will be in conformity on the designated hitter rule.” Oops. The Common Man’s mind boggles at the idea that this man was allowed to run a baseball team.