If Braves serious about cleaning up mess, they'll make changes at top

Braves president of baseball operation John Hart (center) is as culpable as former general manager John Coppolella (left) when it comes to rules infractions. (AP photo) Atlanta Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart, center, and general manager John Coppolella, left, meet with reporters in the dugout before a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Braves president of baseball operation John Hart (center) is as culpable as former general manager John Coppolella (left) when it comes to rules infractions. (AP photo) Atlanta Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart, center, and general manager John Coppolella, left, meet with reporters in the dugout before a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

In the Braves’ perfect world, this goes away quickly.

Maybe they skate because they’ve already sacrificed their general manager. Maybe they get dinged with a fine, pittance for a $1.5 billion franchise that’s owned by a corporation with $41 billion in assets. Maybe they lose a prospect or two, which would hurt but not crush the organization. But in their minds, they would survive. They could move on from this ugly mess and resuming their primary objective, which is to get everybody focused on "potential" (because that marketing freshness date never expires), and also next season’s bobblehead nights.

But this won't go away easily. It shouldn’t. Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Braves for breaking and/or extreme circumventing of signing rules in the international market is expected to be completed by next week. The stench from this will linger for sometime, however.

The Braves essentially fired general manager John Coppolella, but as in most walks of life where an executive is canned, there are people north of him desperately trying to deflect blame and hold onto their jobs.

John Hart, the Braves’ president of baseball operations, should be gone, too.

He is a long-time baseball executive and an affable, media-savvy guy. But he had to be talked out of semi-retirement by his (former?) good friend John Schuerholz, and one must always question the motives of somebody who basically has to be bought to take a job. Hart was Coppolella’s boss. So there are only two possibilities here: 1) He knew everything or most of what Coppolella was doing, in which case he’s equally complicit and/or culpable; 2) He had only little or no idea what Coppolella was doing – and that may be worse.

Terry McGuirk, the Braves’ chairman and CEO, shouldn’t escape blame either.

He is Hart’s superior. He has been everybody’s superior (south of ownership) for many years. As a former ranking Turner executive, McGuirk has accrued a certain amount of wealth and golf memberships over the years and certainly isn’t immersed in baseball operations. He’s living the dream.

But McGuirk is the link between the Braves and Liberty Media, the franchise’s absentee, corporate owner. On those rare occasions when Liberty CEO Greg Maffei descends from the mountain top and comes to Atlanta to visit the little people on the spread sheet, he speaks with McGuirk.

Question: If you’re Maffei, or any suit near the top of the Liberty flow chart, don’t you want to know who approved Coppolella’s not-quite-Kosher payments to players in Latin America? Don’t you want to know who signed the checks? Don't you want to know who's ultimately responsible for one of the more embarrassing episodes in the history of the Braves' franchise? Because that’s McGuirk.

Liberty Media doesn’t care about baseball. But Liberty Media cares about the brand. It cares about budgets and money and the potential of looking bad.

The Braves have lost 95, 93 and 90 games in the past three seasons. (Yes, Annie: improvement trending upward.) But this is an organization that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013, hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001, hasn’t been to the World Series since 1999. In the 17 seasons since, nine National League teams have played in the World Series: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Colorado, Florida, Arizona and Houston (which is now in the American League). The Braves are one of the other seven, but that group includes Los Angeles and Washington, who are in this postseason.

There comes a point when somebody other than a pitching coach, a manager or even a general manager need to get the blame for that.

Look up. It starts at the top. It always starts at the top.

Ownership isn’t expected to change any time soon. Liberty Media acquired the Braves for a tax benefit and have retained them because of the franchise's lone area of expertise: real estate deals. The budgets aren’t likely to significantly change. But the mindset needs to change.

The Braves have to decide what they want to be. Because if it’s all about acquiring retail space and building stadiums and training facilities with other people’s money, they’re fine. They're gold. Throw them a nice little sterile parade along West Paces Ferry, where everybody can relate.

But how about winning some games? How about giving people something to celebrate other than a fancy food court? How about putting together a front office with one person in charge and roomful of people who actually like each other and feel like they're valued? That shouldn't be that hard, and it hasn't happened for a long while. People at the top have been focused on the wrong things.

For too long, this organization has lived in a bubble, thinking dirty clouds will dissipate with the next news cycle, believing marketing spinsters can talk gloriously about the future.

The problem can be fixed so easily: Phone Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore. Today. Give him control over baseball operations. That means making him team president and de-facto GM. He can bring in his own understudy.

That means Hart is out. Or offer him a chance to be an adviser, a voice in the room. My guess is, he would opt for a cushy broadcasting gig and golf on weekends instead.

Moore is a former Braves executive. He likely would have replaced the retiring Schuerholz as general manager after the 2007 season had he not already left for the Royals’ job in June 2006. So the job went to Frank Wren.

Moore might have been hired after Wren’s firing in 2014. But the Royals were in the midst of their first of two World Series runs, and the timing just wasn’t right. So the decision-making jobs instead went to Hart for a year, and then he and Coppolella for the past two.

The timing is right now. It’s believed Moore would come here only if he didn’t have to answer to Hart. This shouldn’t be a problem. If it is a problem, that’s on McGuirk, who at times seems to exist in a bubble when it comes to criticism of the organization. If McGuirk is allowed to make that call, that's on Liberty Media.

This isn’t to suggest that Moore is the only executive who can put the Braves on the right path. There are other bright, young executives in the game. But none of them can bring the Braves' immediate credibility like Moore can . He would be like an instant air purifier. The man is highly respected, universally admired and built two World Series teams (one winner) in a small market with a shoestring of a budget. He would bring the leadership that Coppolella lacked, the leadership that the organization has lacked since the peak of the Schuerholz/Bobby Cox regime in the 1990s.

The Braves’ system is stocked with some good young talent, thanks to this rebuild. But there’s so much they lack that prevents them from competing at the major league level today, and the dysfunction that has existed in the front office for too long will prevent them from getting there without a smart plan by a competent leader who can pull people together.

Schuerholz brought in Hart. Schuerholz, who has somewhat been out of the loop on things, now may regret that decision. His hope was to slide into the Hall of Fame and off the Braves' letterhead with no smudges. That won't happen now.

The Braves sacrificed Coppolella. McGuirk (who declined comment for this column) has said nothing, done nothing, when it comes to Hart. There's no logical explanation for that.

Change needs to happen. Sometimes it's on the field. Sometimes it's in the dugout. Now it's in the executive suite.

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