These players were among the Baby Braves in 2005: (left to right, front row: Andy Marte, Blaine Boyer, Kyle Davies (in middle), Kelly Johnson (center front), Pete Orr (far right), back row: Wilson Betemit, Ryan Langerhans (sunglasses), Jeff Francoeur (also w/sunglasses), Roman Colon (black man in back) and Brian McCann (sunglasses) on far right. (KEITH HADLEY/AJC file)
Photo: Keith Hadley
Photo: Keith Hadley

Baby Braves are forever connected

The “Baby Braves” are all grown up now, raising babies of their own. They’re in their 30s, with wives and families, and in some cases, careers outside the game. The handful who are still playing are grizzled veterans, mentoring the younger players.

Ultimately, the band of 18 rookies who helped the Braves win the last of their 14 consecutive division titles will be remembered more for the sum of their efforts than any individual outcomes. And maybe that’s fitting, since that’s how they came into the majors in 2005.

“We were all living out the thing we’d dreamed about since we were kids, and we were all experiencing it together,” said Brian McCann, one of five Baby Braves from metro Atlanta who got to play alongside their boyhood heroes.

It was a close group, and many of them remain close. When their careers took them to other teams, leagues and countries, they kept tabs. And in life after baseball, word gets around quickly, too — when Pete Orr took a job scouting with the Brewers, Ryan Langerhans got his real estate license, and Joey Devine moved to Raleigh to go back to school and coach at N.C. State.

Sad news travels even faster, as it did Sunday morning when news broke that Andy Marte, one of the Baby Braves, died in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic.

“He was such a nice guy, easy to talk to,” said Orr, the former infielder who lives in his hometown of Toronto. “When you’re in the minor leagues, a lot of guys stick in their clique: the Dominican clique, the Venezuela clique, the redneck clique. Andy got along with everybody.”

Marte was like a lot of the Baby Braves. He arrived in Atlanta burdened by unrealistic expectations. He was billed as the third baseman who would supplant Chipper Jones. Wilson Betemit was going to be Rafael Furcal with power. Jeff Francoeur, the two-sport Parkview standout, was labeled “The Natural” by Sports Illustrated a month after his call-up.

Of the 18, only McCann — now with the Houston Astros after the Yankees traded him in November — made an All-Star team (seven) or won a Silver Slugger (six.)

“(In 2005, you figure) it’s going to be a cakewalk,” Francoeur said. “Baseball is a tough game, and it makes you really appreciate watching those guys that do it every year. It makes you realize how talented they are.”

The Baby Braves splintered in a dozen directions. A handful followed former Braves farm director Dayton Moore to the Kansas City Royals. Some like Marte (Korea) and Kyle Davies (Japan) went around the world and back. For Chuck James, after failed comeback attempts with the Nationals and Twins, it was back to the real world, selling windows in Paulding County. Langerhans, Marte, and Anthony Lerew all ended up pitching in the independent leagues. Blaine Boyer retired from pitching, before making a comeback with the Padres. Now he comes full circle, signing a minor league contract with the Braves, with an invitation to spring training.

Most of the Baby Braves spent more time together in the minor leagues than the majors, but for one remarkable season, they were all in sync. Whoever was called upon contributed, starting on opening day in Florida, when Orr went scrambling for a glove after second baseman Marcus Giles left the game with a bruised knee.

Orr, Langerhans, Betemit and reliever Roman Colon started the season on the 25-man roster, which was surreal enough. “They cut everyone, and I was just left,” Orr remembered. He found out from manager Bobby Cox after the final exhibition game, when he said, “You know you made the team, right?”

Francoeur, McCann, Boyer, Lerew, Macay McBride, and Jorge Vasquez all opened the season with Double-A Mississippi. They were in Montgomery for their first series and lost all four games, culminating in a brawl on Easter Sunday.

“They threw at me, and then we ended up throwing back at them and going (at it),” Francoeur said. “Snit was our manager. After the game, he brought in a cooler full of beer and said, ‘I’ve never been more proud of an 0-4 team in my life.’”

‘Snit’ — Brian Snitker, now manager of the Braves — must have been onto something because one by one his top players were called up and helped the Braves go from third place to another division title.

The Braves got 14 wins apiece from John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, a monster year from Andruw Jones, who hit 51 homers and drove in 128 runs, and another near .300 season and 20 homers from Chipper Jones. But the rookies took care of most everything else.

“Guys weren’t coming up and sitting on the bench,” Francoeur said. “Guys were actually playing.”

Injuries to Johnny Estrada and Brian Jordan opened the door for McCann, and a month later, Francoeur. McCann got two hits in his debut and made enough of an impression catching Davies that Smoltz asked if McCann could catch him the next day. Their pairing started with a complete game and continued all season.

The Baby Braves had their share of ups and downs, as rookies do. Kelly Johnson started 1-for-30, then broke out with a 10-hit road trip to win National League player of the week. Devine was called up two months after the Braves drafted him in the first round, only to give up grand slams in each of his first two appearances. Francoeur, who worked through the disappointment of watching his roommate McCann as he was called up before him, homered in his debut and hit 10 home runs in his first 34 games.

By late July, the rookies had helped the Braves overtake the Nationals. Shortly thereafter, they finished a game in Cincinnati with McCann behind the plate, Orr at third, Betemit at short, and Johnson, Langerhans and Francoeur in the outfield.

“I remember going through the line shaking hands and McCann was going nuts like, ‘Can you believe this?’” Johnson recalled. “‘We’re all rookies and we’re in first place.’ We were all recognizing how insane it was.”

Both Johnson and McCann chalk it up to how close the rookies were on and off the field, to the trust Cox put in them, and to the leadership of veterans such as Smoltz and Jones.

“Well, first thing’s first,” said Chipper Jones, laughing, when asked this week about the Baby Braves. “We were outnumbered. They came up, and they already had their own clique, so they were comfortable from the get. … We picked our spots to haze them, but the bottom line was they were part of the 25 that were going to help us get where we wanted to go.”

That meant Jones pulling McCann aside after he struck out with the bases loaded to end a game on three consecutive split-finger fastballs, and explaining that the reliever was not going to lay a fastball in there for him. It meant Jones inviting Langerhans to his hotel suite to play cards and talk hunting. It meant Smoltz could tell Boyer he looked like he was pitching chained to the mound and have Boyer realize he’d been trying too hard to make the perfect pitch.

“They held us accountable,” Boyer said. “And they spoke to us like men.”

They treated the Baby Braves like rookies when it was appropriate — off the field. With Hudson and Mike Hampton as ringleaders, the Baby Braves got a rookie “dressing up” for the ages. McCann had to bare his belly in a miniskirt. Francouer wore a hot-dog costume for the “Frenchy’s Franks” fans at Turner Field. Boyer dressed in speed-skater spandex, Orr in a bikini and Langerhans in leopard skin. They were all paraded through LaGuardia Airport in New York and then to two different sports bars in Buckhead.

Some pranks got personal, too, at least the one Smoltz played on Francoeur in Washington After a steak dinner out, the veterans passed the hat and came up with $3,000 in cash to offer to the first rookie to jump into the fountain outside the restaurant. Francoeur obliged, in dress clothes and all.

Two days later, during a rainout at RFK Stadium, two cops approached Francoeur in the visiting clubhouse and “arrested” him for jumping into a public fountain, using handcuffs and all. It wasn’t until he was in the back of a squad car that the cops revealed they’d been put up to it.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, they got me,’” Francoeur said. “I knew exactly who it was.”

Smoltz could take it, too, when the rookies gave him guff back. He chuckled when McCann posted a photo in Smoltz’s locker he’d taken with Smoltz as a 12-year-old Braves fan.

“What separated the veterans when we came up was their willingness to teach us,” McCann said. “Chipper spent hours upon hours in the cage with me, teaching me how to hit, and I don’t know any other superstar that would take a 21-year-old kid and teach him how to hit, what to sit on. I got to learn how to call a game from John Smoltz — how lucky is that? I don’t know if I’d be where I am if I didn’t come up through the Braves system and meet the guys I met.”

Ultimately, McCann gave the Baby Braves their biggest thrill of the season, hitting a three-run homer off Roger Clemens to lead the Braves to a win in Game 2 of the division series. That series, and the season, had the feeling they would come down to the Baby Braves, and they did.

Three days later, the Astros and Braves were tied in the 16th inning of Game 4. Devine and McBride were the only pitchers left in the visiting bullpen at Minute Maid Park, when Clemens came in to pitch in relief.

“I remember looking at each other, like ‘Holy Smoke,’” Devine said. “I said, ‘It’s ride or die buddy. It’s you or me. Let’s go do it.’ … I was trying to be confident, even though I was nervous.”

Devine struck out two batters in a perfect 17th, but Chris Burke got a hold of one of his fastballs with one out in the 18th and hit a walk-off home run to end the Braves’ season. One of the last images of a Baby Brave was Devine standing in the tunnel with tears streaming down his face.

“I felt like I wanted to dig a hole and jump in it,” he said.

The game had lasted 5 hours and 50 minutes. It’s the longest playoff game in major league history. But the 2005 season itself? It was fleeting.

“One thing I’ll take from that year is the friendships I’ve had going forward,” Devine said. “One of my closest friends to this day is McCann.”

Some Baby Braves keep in closer contact than others. James, for one, relies on his wife’s Facebook use with other wives to find out what’s happening with his former teammates. But they always will be connected. James’ customers at Window World don’t always recognize his name, but when he says he played with the Baby Braves, they know.

“Now that I’m out of the game and looking back, you think of it almost as a dream,” James said. “I tell people I played with Chipper Jones and Smoltz and those guys, and I think, ‘Man, did that really happen?’”

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