Mr. Schuerholz, We Apologize

There comes a time when you just have to tip your hat to someone and just give them their due. If you didn't know it by now, John Schuerholz knows how to do his job. We would all be so lucky if we were as good at our jobs as he is at his. He's not perfect, but he sure is good.

Time and time again, we've doubted Schuerholz. Certainly this was the season the streak would end; the Braves would return back to being a normal big league team. Schuerholz says that while the streak is amazing, it's equaled by the same number of years the fans and media types have doubted it would continue. But this year was his biggest test.

Not once in his fourteen years as General Manager of the Atlanta Braves was he asked to lower the payroll by almost 20%. But after last season, the geniuses that run Time Warner believed that while the Braves had been successful on the field, the losses in the financial books had to be leveled out. So they tested Schuerholz to see if he could put together a winning team with a lower payroll.

The decision to decrease payroll coincided with several important members of the team ready to cash in for free agency. Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez, Gary Sheffield, and Vinny Castilla were four important members of a team that won 101 games in 2003. Schuerholz had to replace those four players, and at the same time lower the payroll to somewhere in the $80 million dollar range. It was not going to be easy.

When J.D. Drew was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals on the day Saddam Hussein was captured back in December, most thought Schuerholz had given up too much for a brittle, underachieving player. He gave up the Braves best pitching prospect, right-hander Adam Wainwright, along with Jason Marquis and Ray King. Schuerholz was counting on Drew to stay healthy and become the player everyone always expected him to be. For many teams, that would have been a bigger gamble, but for the Braves it was just another stroke of Schuerholz's genius.

Schuerholz believed that Drew would get back to his home state and thrive. If Drew stayed healthy, Schuerholz thought, he could replace the production lost by Sheffield's departure. Critics said it could go either way: Drew could once again stay injured and remain on the disabled list most of the season or he could finally realize his potential.

Of course, Drew is realizing his potential and is arguably the Braves MVP this season. But should we have doubted that would happen? Things don't blow up in John Schuerholz's face. Usually, the things he projects come true. That's just the way it is.

But we've doubted him before. We wondered back in the winter of 2002 who he was getting from the Philadelphia Phillies for Kevin Millwood. It was obvious Schuerholz was mad as hell at having to make the trade, saying "the economics of baseball stink." He was forced to trade Millwood because of his rising salary. His bosses told him to get something for the right-handed starting pitcher, anything he could get. The only team willing to take on the salary was a division rival, and the only thing Schuerholz could get in return was a backup catcher.

Even Johnny Estrada wondered who else was coming to Atlanta in the trade. But it was just him, a lifelong Braves fan stuck behind Mike Lieberthal in Philadelphia. Schuerholz had the foresight to know that if he was forced to let Javy Lopez leave as a free agent the following year, Estrada might be a good replacement. He certainly would be cheap, and that was what Schuerholz's bosses wanted him to acquire.

Estrada is probably right behind Drew as the Braves MVP. He's having a tremendous season, and no one is wondering what Javy Lopez is doing for Baltimore, and for that matter, what Kevin Millwood is doing in Philadelphia.

The same winter Estrada was acquired, Schuerholz had to start the difficult chore of replacing legends. Not only did he have to replace Millwood, but left-hander Tom Glavine had decided New York was his kind of town with his kind of salary. So the Atlanta GM had to replace a pitcher that had accumulated 242 wins for the franchise. He decided two pitchers had to take up the slack: Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz.

Hampton was coming off a nightmare in Colorado. He had gone 21-28 with a 5.75 ERA out in the thin Denver air, but Schuerholz knew he was better than that. He remembered the lefty who went 73-41 between 1996-2000. Schuerholz believed placing Hampton in the Atlanta pitching factory would get him back on track. While he's had his ups and downs, there's no doubt that Hampton is better than the pitcher he showed in Colorado. He was 14-8 last season, and while he started off 1-7 this year, Hampton has won five in a row. As the Braves enter the stretch run, Hampton will be a very critical part of this team.

Ortiz was considered an innings eater in San Francisco. He had averaged 209 innings and 15.75 wins in the four seasons prior to his trade to Atlanta. But no one, maybe except John Schuerholz, believed he could be an ace pitcher. Well, he's 31-13 since donning the tomahawk across his chest, one of the best records of any pitcher since the start of 2003.

So Ortiz and Hampton are a combined 52-29 since joining Atlanta, while the two they replaced and moved on to division rivals are only 40-41.

Then this past winter Schuerholz once again had to replace a legend. There's no replacing a pitcher like Greg Maddux, but Schuerholz had to do the best he could to get a pitcher that would provide the Atlanta staff with innings and hopefully some wins. The candidate would come from within, a pitcher acquired off the waiver wire a few weeks before the end of the 2003 season.

No one believed Jaret Wright would ever be the pitcher he once was. Back in 1997, the son of former big league pitcher Clyde Wright was pitching for the Cleveland Indians in the 7th game of the World Series as a 21-year old rookie. He was fantastic. But then, he fell apart. Shoulder surgeries almost ruined his career, and last year he found himself in the San Diego Padres bullpen with an 8.74 ERA in 39 games.

Then a scout with the Atlanta Braves suggested that Wright be acquired. Schuerholz picked him up off the waiver wire for nothing. Wright worked with Leo Mazzone and made a few changes to his approach. All of a sudden, Wright showed glimpses of what we had seen in 1997. His fastball was crisp and his control was good.

This winter John Schuerholz made the decision that Jaret Wright would be the leading candidate to win a job in the Atlanta rotation. Many wondered if this topped it. How could you hand a starting rotation job to a pitcher with a 5.68 career ERA? Well, once again, doubting Schuerholz turned out to be foolish. Wright is 9-5 with a 3.05 ERA in 21 starts. He has been outstanding and a pleasure to watch.

But then again, that's what John Schuerholz thought he could do.

Schuerholz shouldn't get all the credit. When the bullpen needed help in spring training, his assistant, Jim Fregosi, recommended the Braves acquire Chris Reitsma. When the team needed an outfielder to replace the injured DeWayne Wise, the farm director, Dayton Moore, recommended the Braves call up a no-name outfielder called Charles Thomas. The scouts and staff work together tremendously, but the leader of the ship makes all the final decisions. And the decisions are usually right.

It's almost become easy to doubt John Schuerholz. We just don't seem to learn our lesson. Once again it's August, and just like this is the time of year for football to be gearing up, it's also the time of year for the Braves to grab their hold on first place. Two weeks ago, they were tied for first. Today the Braves lead the Philadelphia Phillies by 5 and a half games. Even if the Braves play .500 baseball for the rest of the season, the Phillies would have to go 35-22. The Florida Marlins would have to win one more than that, and the New York Mets, well they're closer to the last place Montreal Expos than the first place Braves.

But the Braves aren't going to play .500 the rest of the season. They'll be better than that. Just like John Schuerholz expected. And we were silly enough to have serious doubt.

Maybe we've learned our lesson.

Bill Shanks can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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