Even a jaded sportswriter can be excited about this Braves season

Ronald Acuna (left, with prospect Cristian Pache) could join the Braves outfield as soon as mid-April, and some believe he’s a generational-type talent whose rookie season will be one to remember. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Opening day still gets me excited, and that’s saying something. But I’m also eagerly anticipating the rest of this Braves season, and that’s saying more, considering most pundits have the Braves again finishing below .500.

Let me explain why I’m looking forward to this next six months. But first, some background.

We get jaded, we ink-stained wretches who’ve covered more than 3,000 major league games (not counting spring training). I wrote about Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s dad when he was an Expos prospect, had Andre Dawson and Terry Pendleton on one of the first Marlins teams I covered, wrote of Livan Hernandez when he was feted in Miami as a 19-year-old Cuban defector and again as a World Series champion.

I covered an Indians-Marlins World Series that included the likes of 26-year-old Jim Thome, Orel Hershiser, Julio Franco and Kevin Seitzer playing for Cleveland, and Bobby Bonilla, Darren Daulton, 20-year-old Edgar Renteria and rookie Craig Counsell for Florida.

There was also a six-game NLCS that same year when the Braves out-homered them 6-1 – Chipper and Klesko had two apiece – but the Marlins still came out on top with Kevin Brown winning against Maddux and Glavine and Livan picking up wins in games where Smoltz and Maddux took the losses, including the infamous day when umpire Eric Gregg had possibly the widest strike zone in baseball history and Elton John’s “Levon” blasted on the Miami stadium speakers.

I’ve seen absurd infield fly rulings, five no-hitters – one perfect by Randy Johnson, one decidedly imperfect with nine walks and a hit batter by A.J. Burnett – and historically great defense by Andruw Jones and Andrelton Simmons. Saw remarkable pitching for years from the Big Three, all now enshrined at Cooperstown, and got to watch up close on a daily basis as two of the all-time great players’ managers, Jim Leyland and Bobby Cox, ran a clubhouse with such skill and awareness that most outside an organization will never fully comprehend what defines leaders like them.

What I’m saying is I’ve been around, seen some things and become a bit calloused in terms of what still gets me excited entering a season. It takes a lot.

And I’m not talking about opening day, because opening day is always special, whether it’s played in a sterile dome between two teams predicted to go nowhere or in a nostalgic ballpark with two teams squaring off that are both projected as pennant contenders. Everybody gets up for opening day.

So, Thursday afternoon’s game between the Braves and Phillies at SunTrust Park, a pair of teams that almost no one predicts to be contenders for so much as a wild-card berth, will be special nonetheless. It’s opening day and, as Joe DiMaggio said, “You always get a special kick on opening day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you’re a kid.”’

Or as the great George Vecsey wrote, “There is no sports event like Opening Day in baseball, the sense of beating back the forces of darkness and the National Football League.”

And he’s right about there being no other sports event like opening day. I’m a college basketball junkie and a big fan of college football and the NBA, but in those sports as well as the NFL, which I covered for two years, opening day is just a day when the league and TV networks try hard to make it feel special but it often comes across as jingoism and forced excitement.

Contrast that to opening day in baseball, so special that it’s hard to mess it up even though some go over-the-top and make it a spectacle.

That field of impossibly green grass, those clean uniforms, spring in the air, the start of the beautiful 162-game grind, everyone batting .000 (or 1.000, if you prefer) and with 0.00 ERAs, and no team below .500 at the first pitch.

A perfect thing that can’t be screwed up. Well, unless it gets postponed by rain or snow.

But it’s the 161 games that follow that can get ugly and tedious. Some seasons take on a bad vibe even before the Fourth of July and others are destined to stay compelling because of the juggernaut of talent one franchise has assembled or a group of misfits that another team has whipped into an overperforming unit with a knack for catching others by surprise.

And then there are the seasons like we’re about to watch from the Braves. They might not finish .500, but I’m pretty sure they’re going to snap a string of three consecutive 90-loss seasons, and even more sure they are going to feature some performances that those of us who watch on a daily basis will be able to look back on years  from now and say, “I was there.”

I think you know where I’m going with this.

Let me first reiterate that so much of what the Braves have done over the winter and will continue to do this season is aimed at 2019, and that the season which starts Thursday is not the one they’ve targeted for returning to perennial playoff contender, next year is. Know that.

For example, consider a couple of quotes from Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk and general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who were among four members of the Braves brass who met Tuesday with three AJC writers to go over the state of the franchise, on the field and in its real-estate endeavors at The Battery mixed-used development adjacent to SunTrust Park.

Here’s McGuirk when asked why the payroll hasn’t risen this year – it’s actually going to be lower than 2017 – after the Braves had long indicated SunTrust Park would provide more revenues than available at Turner Field and use some to fund increases in payroll. And after the Liberty Media ownership group indeed reported an “astounding” increase in revenues in the first year over the last year at Turner Field.

“They gave one side of the ledger, which is an astounding story,” McGuirk said of that recent Liberty report to shareholders. “There aren’t very many sports franchises that had that kind of revenue growth in one year. ... But on the other side of the ledger there’s a lot of debt, a lot of new expenses. Just running this new stadium is much, much more expensive. ... It’s a different business than what we left, really. And at the end of the day, there’s not an awful lot more profitability at this point in time as we work through some of the debt repayment and figuring out what it cost to run this more expensive operation.

“That being said, it will be more profitable and there will be – our hope is that between the Atlanta Braves in this stadium and the Atlanta Braves in the real-estate environment, (we) produce greater profits in the future and have the ability to support Alex as he – I have no question that all the dials and levers are in our hands, and as we bring all these young players up that are at minimum salary and we’re not even close to arbitration years. But the growth in salary, it happens quickly, it’s not really something that we can stand in the way of. Because once these kids come up, these are kids that are going to be with us for a very long time, as Alex picks who goes where. And as we all know, that jump (in salary) from the (player’s) third year to the fourth year, or even the second year to the third year with Super Two (arbitration players) – big numbers, 200-300 percent salary growth.”

McGuirk continued -- and this is a quote to clip and save -- “We’ve cleared the decks for next year. There will be very few teams that have as much to spend in the marketplace next year as the Atlanta Braves. And so the opportunity to spend is there, but it's going to be done judiciously and sequentially when Alex says it’s time. If we were to bring in a raft of veteran players, stick them in the position-player positions today, Alex would be blocked from bringing his guys along.

“Our fans have gone through a lot of pain. We’ve gone through a lot of pain. You (reporters) have gone through a lot of pain watching the losses. We’re going to let these young players come up, but we’re going to supplement. Whenever it’s time to put the pedal to the metal, we feel like we have that capacity to do it. I don’t have a number as to what that is. You have access to what the top payrolls are. We’re not where we’re going to be, but it’s not where we need to be right now because it’s not appropriate. But there will come a time when it will be appropriate to spend.”

Anthopoulos described how much of the Braves’ available funds this winter went toward dumping the final two years of Matt Kemp’s contract by taking on 2018 payroll from the Dodgers in the form of expiring-contract pitchers Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir (released last week, still getting $16 million from the Braves) and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (gets $21.8 million from the Braves, released after the deal per agreement so he’d waive a no-trade clause). The Braves cleared Kemp’s salary off the books and opened a spot for phenom Ronald Acuna, who’ll take over in left field as soon as mid-April.

“When I took this job, nobody said ‘we think you should move Matt Kemp; we think you should take on contracts this year,’” said Anthopoulos, who did that financially driven megadeal in December, after being hired away from the Dodgers in November to replace the forced-to-resign and later banned-from-baseball-for-life former Braves GM John Coppolella. “That (trade) was my idea with the baseball operations group. I’ve been asked a lot about spending money in the winter; we did spend money in the winter, we just didn’t do with free-agent signings. But we took on, that’s $21.5 million of Matt Kemp (per season) over two years that was really put into one.

“Terry certainly gave me the rope to do what you feel from a baseball-operations standpoint that you feel you need to do. Could have kept Matt Kemp here, when Acuna was ready to come up one of Matt Kemp or Nick Markakis was probably going to have to sit and we would have gone out and we could have absolutely taken those dollars and re-allocated them, whether it was make a trade, sign a free agent. Terry gave me the latitude from a baseball-operations standpoint to do what I felt was best, so I knew that even when I had the idea to do it, I had just started working with Terry and I’m thinking, wow, this is one of the first things that I had to bring to his plate. And in a way it was almost a test, because I was apprehensive. I knew I was going to get full support but I know how important it is for him to win.

“In my interviews (for the GM job) I asked all these questions – payroll, upside, I asked about the ownership, I asked about everything. I was in a great spot in L.A., I was very comfortable, a chance to win every year, felt very confident with the stability there. Had just moved my family, had to grab my wife and kids and move again. You want to feel like you’re going to the right place. This is my last GM job, as far as I’m concerned. It had to be the right move. (McGuirk) didn’t bat an eyelash. I explained to him from a baseball standpoint why I really felt strongly about this. I didn’t have to talk to him for weeks to explain and convince him.”

Anthopoulos continued, “So we did spend money. It wasn’t in the form that you would normally expect. Come (next) offseason, there will be a lot of dollars available. That might be in the form of free agency, that might be in taking on a contract in trade. We’re not just going to spend for the sake of spending, but when the opportunity is there we’re going to do it. We’ve done it this winter already. It’s not that we didn’t go make a splash.

“Again, not to be critical of what was done in the past, because the previous baseball-operations group last winter elected to go spend significant dollars, whether it was R.A. Dickey, (Bartolo) Colon, Jaime Garcia. That’s totally fair. That was their philosophy for their reasons; I wasn’t part of it.

“My thought coming into this was, I want to know what we have at the big-league level with our kids, with our young players. We need to find out what we have because we want to move forward, especially beyond this year. We want to be able to really take a step and we needed it, we needed it to be done with the teardown, that (Kemp) was kind of the last long-term piece that we were going to move.”

Now that you’ve heard team officials allude to a spending spree that could unfold next winter, here’s why I’m looking forward to this season.

It doesn’t matter that the Braves are aiming for next year and not this one, as far as spending big and going all-in to be a contender again. Because this is the season that could produce the kind of memories you will never forget.

A wild-card playoff run or even a division title are fun, but watching guys pop champagne and celebrate is one thing. Seeing all-time great players in their first time on the big stage is another. And if you were there for Hank Aaron’s or Eddie Mathews’ first season or Chipper Jones’ rookie year or when Tom Glavine or John Smoltz turned the corner towards greatness, you know what I mean.

Those are memories you take to your grave.

You never forget seeing truly special as when generational talents make their debuts, or a young pitcher figures things out and starts to build the foundation of a Hall of Fame career.

And when we watch Acuna this year, I have a strong suspicion we’ll be watching a kid who’ll have his bust in Cooperstown some day.

And when we watch Ozzie Albies in his first full season this year, we might be watching a kid who could become one of the best undersized players we’ll ever know, a freak of nature who is only about 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds but can hit line drives all day and launch balls out of the park to any field.

And when we watch Mike Soroka arrive, possibly before his 21st birthday (that’s in August), we might be seeing the next great Braves starting pitcher and a kid who could be one of the best Canada has produced. Same for Luiz Gohara, who is only 21 and hails from soccer-crazy Brazil. He has ace-caliber stuff despite a body that’s the antithesis of Acuna’s – Gohara is a hefty lefty, indeed. But so talented.

With Max Fried and Kolby Allard waiting in the wings, the Braves could potentially have four lefties in their rotation at some point with those two plus Gohara and big Sean Newcomb, another kid who’ll be in his first full season.

And by September, we might also see the debut of third baseman Austin Riley, whom the Braves believe could be their best homegrown power-hitting prospect since Freddie Freeman – well, other than Acuna, a genuine five-tool player at a time when that’s an increasingly rare species.

And did we mention potential closer A.J. Minter, the strikeout machine whose stats in a late-season call-up demonstrated why some have long called him a lefty version of Craig Kimbrel? Minter will be in the bullpen from Day 1 in 2018.

So you see why even a jaded ball writer like me could be excited about the 161 games that will follow Thursday, whether the Braves surprise people and stay in the wild-card picture longer than most expect them to.

Sometimes the arrival of individual greatness can be as memorable or even more so than something so relatively common as a playoff berth. This could be one of those years where we see the emergence of truly special talent.

Enjoy. And have a great opening day.

How could we not?

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