So, Ken Griffey Jr. was the latest to turn down the Atlanta Braves earlier this week, opting to instead sign with his first major league club, the Seattle Mariners.
For 14 straight seasons (1991-2005, excluding the strike season of 1994), the Braves had made the postseason every year and were among the elite in the sport. Who wouldn't have wanted to play for the Tomahawks, a team that always had a shot at winning the World Series?
But just this off-season, we've seen guys that reportedly changed their minds last minute (Griffey), backed out of verbal agreements last minute (Rafael Furcal), or took more money and went elsewhere (A.J. Burnett and lifelong Brave John Smoltz). Oh yeah, then there's the Jake Peavy fiasco, where Padres GM Kevin Towers pulled the San Diego ace off the table in their trade talks.
Where's the respect for this once-proud Atlanta franchise?
The Burnett situation was not a big shocker, as the ex-Blue Jay went to the Yankees for more dough. But ex-Braves Smoltz and Furcal? Apparently the Braves had thought Smoltz--who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last June--was done and wouldn't offer him a big enough contract, something the Boston Red Sox did in giving him a base salary of $5.5 mil plus incentives. You just have to question the fact Smoltz, certainly a high-risk one given his injury woes, didn't let loyalty make him re-sign with the Braves. Well, we'll see if he'll stay healthy the whole season in Beantown. But Furcal? There was reportedly a verbal deal made between the Braves and the Furcal camp, only to have the shortstop re-sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers a couple days later. Hmm.
And now Griffey Jr. On Tuesday, it was reported that The Kid was leaning towards the Braves--and almost about to sign there--and certainly Atlanta seemed to be a logical fit given the proximity to his home in Orlando. Plus the Braves' spring training facility was less than 30 minutes from Junior's home. A perfect fit on both sides, since Griffey--though no longer the power threat he once was--had better numbers than anyone in the Braves' outfield in 2008 and was expected to provide more offensive punch in the lineup. Of course, he signed with the Mariners the very next day.
So I ask again, where's the respect for the Braves?
Each one a different situation, but nonetheless, each player teased the Braves before leaving them dejected at the altar. Would the Braves of the 1991-2005 era have been dumped like this?
(If there's any consolation, word is that Tom Glavine will re-sign with the Braves on Friday, joining newcomers Derek Lowe, 33-year-old rookie Kenshin Kawakami, and 16-game loser Javier Vazquez. Oh yeah. Glavine will be 43 this season and had an ugly 5.54 ERA last year, a season cut short by elbow woes.)
Smoltz might get a second ring in Boston. Furcal might sniff postseason baseball in Los Angeles (though that's debatable). But other than unconditional love from fans in Seattle, in the city he starred in for over a decade, what on earth is Griffey getting into? Sure, Atlanta and Seattle are not likely to make the postseason this year, but the Mariners, baseball's first 100-100 team ($100+ million payroll, 100+ losses), have no shot at it in the tough American League. The wild card team isn't coming out of the AL West, where the M's reside, and no offense, Seattle isn't taking the Western Division crown.
Out in the NL though, the wild card is wide open, at least giving Griffey a chance to be part of a pennant race had he joined the Braves. (Nope, I am not saying the Braves will contend. And yes, I know they have question marks everywhere, but at least it's possible in the weaker senior circuit than in the junior one, where the Yankees, Red Sox, and other big spenders will vie for the four postseason spots.) With the M's, it'll be a long summer for a man who has never made it to the World Series.
When will Atlanta gain respect again? Depends on how soon the Braves start winning again, I suppose.
The Toronto Blue Jays had a similar decline in 1996, when coming off a couple of disappointing seasons after being the winningest organization for a decade, they couldn't sign anyone. Big-name free-agent closers Rick Aguilera, Jeff Montgomery, and Randy Myers all talked to the Jays and expressed interest, and yet they all signed elsewhere. Even one of their own--Al Leiter--"betrayed" them and signed on with the Florida Marlins for more money. This after the Blue Jays carried him and stuck with him despite injury-plagued and underachieving seasons.
And it Toronto's case, it's now 2009, and things aren't looking any better for that team.
But the Braves could look at the other "model franchises" and realize that better days could come again. So, not this year. But perhaps soon. Again.
In 1990, the Detroit Red Wings--despite having high-scoring Steve Yzerman in the lineup--were a non-playoff team and were in the 35th year of their Stanley Cup drought. (At the time, only the Rangers had an even longer Cup drought.) In the next few seasons, the Red Wings would endure several early-round playoff upsets before finally winning it all in 1996-97. Since then, the Red Wings organization has been widely considered a model franchise in professional sports, and its knack for picking up gems in the entry drafts is legendary.
Before 2001, the New England Patriots were a bad team. Sure, they made it to the Super Bowl once in the mid-1990s, but weren't expected to win (and didn't). However, they are now looked upon as one of the model franchises in the NFL. All the talk of "cheating" and of Bill Belichick's arrogance (by non-Pats fans) aside, the Patriots are one of the best in the sport. Just look at how they rebounded after losing Tom Brady in last season's opener. No, they didn't make the playoffs, but they did win 11 games.
The Atlanta Braves' run of dominance and respect may be over now, but who knows? Maybe if they draft well, develop players in the farm system the way they did in the 1990s, perhaps they can get back up to the top once again in the future.
So, you Atlanta fans out there, believe in your team. Better days are sure to come again. Other organizations have done it, so by not you guys? Don't let Griffey, Furcal, Burnett, et al, get you down. Your team will be around much longer after all of these guys are done from the game. Hopefully you guys can follow the Red Wings' and Patriots' leads.
Maybe five or ten years from now, we'll all be talking about the Braves as a great organization once again, one where all the free agents want to be a part of.
One thing for certain though: Ken Griffey Jr. ain't getting a ring in Seattle, that's for sure.