Pitchers and catchers are reporting in a few days, but the Braves 400 Club's Annual Gameboree Saturday night did get everybody in the mood for baseball. It was a combination of a great meal, great fellowship, and a great night of talking baseball with fellow Braves fans.
The Braves 400 Club is the official fan club of the team, and this was their 39th annual banquet. After a silent auction, Braves' announcer Pete Van Wieren was in his usual perfect role as the Master of Ceremonies.
This year's ceremony honored the three Braves championship teams from Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. Tom Singleton, the nephew of baseball Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville, spoke eloquently about his favorite uncle that was so important to the "Miracle Braves of 1914."
Atlanta native Taylor Phillips, a pitcher on the 1957 World Series Champion Milwaukee Braves, spoke to the crowd about the Braves great series with the New York Yankees. And Skip Caray, the voice behind the microphone when the Braves won the whole thing in 1995, talked about how that team was so special because it was made up of a bunch of solid people. Caray also recognized Braves' Director of Player Personnel Dayton Moore for his fine work in finding similar good people that have helped comprise the Braves rosters over the past several seasons.
The Braves 400 Club always recognizes talent from the Braves minor leagues, along with a Georgia high school and college player. The Jason Varitek Award, given to most outstanding scholar athlete in Georgia, went to former Georgia Tech pitcher Andrew Kown. The 6'7" starting pitcher went 9-0 in his final 15 starts of the 2004 season. He helped lead the Jackets to the NCAA regionals. Kown was drafted by the Tigers in the fifth round last June. He will head to East Michigan in the Eastern League this season.
Chris Nelson was the recipient of the Red Wooten High School Player of the Year, Named after the legendary Braves scout that worked the Georgia area for years. Nelson, from Redan High School in Stone Mountain, missed the first half of his senior season last year after recovering from Tommy John surgery. Some teams liked him as a pitcher, but most believed in him as a shortstop. He returned and hit .587 with 8 home runs and 42 RBI to show that he was ready to perform as a position player. The Colorado Rockies drafted him with the 9th overall pick in the first round last June, and Chris started off his pro career with a cool .347 average for the Casper Rockies.
The Braves 400 Club Minor League Manager of the Year Award went to Richmond's Pat Kelly, who led the AAA club to the South Division Championship last year. Kelly, now entering his third season with the Braves organization, led the Braves to a near reversal of their record from the 2003 season when they went 64-79. The 2004 club went 79-62 and was named Baseball America's Triple-A Team of the Year. Kelly is a former Braves' farmhand himself, having been drafted by the Braves in the Rule V draft back in 1981. Kelly will once again manage in Richmond this season.
One of Kelly's most valuable players last season, Pete Orr, was awarded the Bill Lucas Award, symbolizing a Braves minor league player who best exemplified sportsmanship and character. Orr has finally turned the corner and become a legit prospect after languishing in the organization for a few seasons as a minor league backup. His great makeup allowed the Braves to stick with him, and now Orr is knocking on the door of a big league opportunity. He will head to Spring Training next week and battle Wilson Betemit for the reserve infielder spot on the Atlanta roster.
Ryan Langerhans was named the winner of the Hank Aaron Award as the Braves Most Outstanding minor league player. Langerhans had a breakout season in AAA Richmond last season, hitting .298 with 20 home runs, 72 RBI, 34 doubles, and 103 runs scored (all career highs). The Braves' 3rd round pick in the 1998 draft, Langerhans will now head to spring training as the leading candidate to be on the Atlanta roster. With Andruw Jones, Raul Mondesi, and Brian Jordan all being right-handed hitters, the lefty hitting Langerhans has a great shot at being in the outfield mix in 2005.
The Phil Niekro Award Winner, symbolizing the best Braves minor league pitcher, went to right-hander Kyle Davies. The 6'2", 190-pounder started off the 2004 season in High-A Myrtle Beach, but quickly moved up to AA Greenville, and then ended the season in Triple-A Richmond. Overall, Davies went 13-3 with a 2.72 ERA in 25 games started. He also allowed only 100 hits in 142.1 innings pitched, along with 57 walks and 173 strikeouts. Davies will head to spring training with an outside shot at a big league job, but more than likely he'll return to AAA Richmond or there's even a small chance the Braves could start him off in AA Mississippi.
The Braves 400 Club Luke Appling Nostalgia Award went to Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro. "Knucksie" has won just about every award known and this one was special to him considering his friendship with the late Luke Appling. Niekro won 318 games in his big league career, 268 in a Braves' uniform.
Finally, this year's Ivan Allen, Jr. "Mr. Baseball" Award went to Skip Caray, who is getting ready to enter his 30th year as a Braves broadcaster. In accepting his award, Caray was very complimentary of the numerous efforts that Allen, a former Atlanta mayor, made in helping shape the sports scene in the state of Georgia. Caray also told a hilarious story of his first network football assignment on NBC when he broadcast a game between his alma mater, Missouri, and Kansas.
The 400 Club also presented the Phil Niekro scholarship awards to Berry College in Rome, Georgia and Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.
President John Padgett and the other 400 club officials put on a tremendous kickoff to the 2005 season. For more information on the 400 club, log on to braves400.org.
Bill Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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