Lemke, now 54 and a resident of Sandy Springs, has found himself reflecting on his journey this year -- not necessarily because it’s the 25th anniversary of the Braves’ 1995 World Series championship, but because the minor-league season was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Countless minor league players have had their professional paths interrupted this summer, and many of them probably won’t get another shot next year. Lemke can easily put himself in their place.
“I think to myself: If this had happened in 1986, not having a minor league baseball season, that may have been the end for me,” he said. “I may never have seen the big leagues. I’d just have been home and probably had to accept it because I’d have had nothing to really show for any argument of why they should wait another year and bring me back again.
“So I feel for these kids this year.”
Lemke hit .149 in 42 games for the Braves’ Class A team in Anderson, S.C., in 1984 and was returned mid-season to Bradenton, Fla., for a second stint in rookie league, the lowest level of the minors. In 1985, he hit .216 in his first of two seasons at Sumter, which had replaced Anderson as the Braves’ affiliate in the South Atlantic League after the 1984 season.
A few weeks into the 1986 season, Lemke’s second at Sumter, the team needed a third baseman because of an injury. So Snitker, in his first year as manager there, turned to his backup second baseman.
“He asked me, ‘Have you ever played third base before?’” Lemke said. “I said, ‘Of course, I have.’”
Had he, really? “Not ever.”
But he played most of that season at third base, hitting a much-improved .272 with 18 home runs, and moved the next year, along with Snitker, to the Durham, N.C., team, then the Braves’ affiliate in the high-A Carolina League.
Lemke reached the big leagues for the first time late in the 1988 season and was the Braves’ starting second baseman for most of the 1990 through 1997 seasons.
“I loved Mark Lemke from the first minute I laid eyes on him,” former Braves general manager John Schuerholz said. “He was a blue-collar gamer who could play the game better than people would allow themselves to give him credit for.
“He made the other players on the team, especially the infielders, better players. He was understated, not a rah-rah guy. But boy, he was a baseball player. And you need to have as many of those kind of guys contributing to your team on a daily basis as you can find.”
Mark Lemke scores a run in Game 2 of the 1995 World Series.
Credit: AJC file
Credit: AJC file
Like many others who reached the big leagues through the Braves’ farm system over the past few decades, Lemke credits the influence of Snitker.
“I struggled out of the gate at Durham in ’87, but he stuck with me and I ended up turning that around and had a good year,” Lemke said. “That is what catapulted me.”
At the big-league level, he wound up playing in 1,038 regular-season games and 62 postseason games for the Braves.
He had a career batting average of .248 with the Braves and often starred in the postseason. He hit a team-high .417 with three triples in the 1991 World Series, which the Braves lost in seven games to the Minnesota Twins; hit a solid .273 in the 1995 World Series, which the Braves won in six games over the Cleveland Indians; and hit .444 with five RBIs and at least one hit in each of the seven games as the Braves beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1996 NL Championship Series.
By 1995, Lemke had experienced the Braves’ worst-to-first season of 1991, their thrilling NLCS victory over Pittsburgh in 1992, their scintillating 1993 race against San Francisco in the NL West and, yes, the strike that wiped out the final seven weeks of the regular season and the postseason in 1994.
The strike extended into the spring of 1995, delaying the start of the season and cutting the schedule to 144 games. The Braves won the NL East by 21 games, rolled past Colorado and Cincinnati in the NL playoffs, then faced “as good a lineup as we ever faced” – Lemke’s assessment – in the World Series.
“I think the biggest win of that series might have been Steve Avery’s game, Game 4, although they were all huge, don’t get me wrong,” Lemke reminisced. “That was a swing game. He pitched a heck of a game up there in Cleveland.”
Avery allowed one run on three hits in six innings, and the Braves won 5-2 to take a three-games-to-one lead. The series returned to Atlanta after the Braves lost Game 5. Tom Glavine was on the mound for Game 6.
“He was on top of his game and needed to be, every pitch,” Lemke said. “He was as clutch as you can get. One mistake, and it changes the whole game.”
After David Justice’s home run gave the Braves a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning, “you’re saying to yourself, ‘Is it going to be enough?’” Lemke recalled. “Well, turns out it was.”
Making the championship – the only World Series the Braves have won since moving to Atlanta in 1966 -- all the more special within the clubhouse was that many of the players had known each other for years, dating to their days in the Braves’ minor-league system.
“It was huge to have come up together and have gone through the ups and downs of the Atlanta Braves during those times,” Lemke said. “There were a lot of lean years -- ’88, ’89, ’90,” three consecutive last-place finishes.
The stars of the final game of the 1995 World Series -- Glavine, who allowed just one hit in eight innings, and Justice, whose homer produced the only run -- were among Lemke’s teammates in the low minors.
“I remember answering the door of my room in rookie ball in ’84 in Bradenton, Fla., and it was Tom Glavine,” Lemke said. “That was the first time I met him. I was his first roommate (in pro ball).”
Pittsburgh Pirates baserunner Al Martin slides into second base under a tag from Mark Lemke during a 1997 game at Turner Field in Atlanta.
Credit: File / AP
Credit: File / AP
Lemke was 17 years old, just out of high school, when the Braves drafted him in June 1983. He was set to go to Purdue University, where he had been offered a rare full baseball scholarship.
“Back then, when you got drafted (in low rounds), you just got notified by a telegram,” Lemke said. “My sister saw the telegram and said, ‘The Atlanta Braves drafted you.’ I pretty much looked at her and said, ‘Well, that’ll be nice for a scrapbook, but I’m on my way to West Lafayette, Ind.”
His plan changed after he made a post-draft trip to Atlanta for a workout at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and a Braves game. He signed, as he recalls, for a $17,000 bonus and a promise the team would pay future education expenses.
In his first year at rookie ball in Bradenton, in the summer of 1983, one of his teammates – briefly -- was a future famous college football coach named Urban Meyer, a 13th-round draft pick by the Braves in 1982 and to this day a friend of Lemke’s.
“He was a shortstop, a good player, athletic,” Lemke said. “We talk about it now, and he says the same thing I’ve heard from numerous players – you sign and you think this team really has all their focus on you, and then you get down there and you realize there are 30 guys just like you.”
Meyer’s baseball career didn’t advance beyond rookie league. Lemke’s career took him all the way to the World Series -- four times.
The Braves didn’t retain Lemke when he became a free agent after the 1997 season, and he finished his big-league career with the Boston Red Sox in 1998. He resurfaced as a knuckleball pitcher on an independent-league team, the New Jersey Jackals, during the summers of 1999 and 2000.
“I was kind of done as a player at that time,” Lemke said. “I just wanted to mess around with pitching. I had a really good time. I met some of the greatest people in the world up there.”
In recent years, Lemke has worked part-time in broadcasting. He co-hosted the Braves’ pregame radio show at home games last year and planned to do the same this year before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down baseball. He expects to resume that role in the delayed, abbreviated season, “but with all that’s going on there is a lot of rearranging so I’m not 100% sure.”
“I’m in that semi-retirement,” Lemke said. “I guess that’s a hint you’re getting older.”
And yes, like many of us, he finds it “hard to believe” it has been 25 years since the Braves won the World Series.