Imagine if the Atlanta Braves had signed both John Smoltz and Ken Griffey Jr., as most fans were hoping, during the offseason?
I'll admit -- I was among them (at least on Griffey, not on Smoltz). Griffey is about three years older than I am and when he first came up with the Mariners, I was a much bigger baseball fan.
Something about the idea of signing him captured the imaginations of so many baseball fans in Atlanta. Even if he could not perform at the level that he did when he first came up more than two decades ago -- of course everyone knew that he could not -- it was Griffey nostalgia that would have played so well in Atlanta.
After all, unlike so many other sports, isn't so much of baseball about a reverence of and affection for the past? (I don't see Hollywood making movies like "Field of Dreams" or "The Natural" about other sports.)
Atlanta baseball fans could have re-lived their own pasts, the idea goes, by watching Griffey creak around the outfield, even if he were a shadow of his former self. One could sense the team's sales and marketing department collectively salivating over the billboards, slogans and Griffey-generated ticket sales.
When he chose to sign instead with the Mariners amid a flurry of acrimony, all of that hot-stove anticipation was dashed. Exacerbating the problem was that it marked the third time in three months that the Braves had failed to land a big name.
First in December, it was ex-Brave Rafael Furcal ditching the team at the last second (after the Braves believed that Furcal had agreed to a contract) to re-up with the Dodgers, prompting Braves president John Schuerholz's tirade that the organization would never again deal with Furcal's Atlanta-based agent Paul Kinzer.
In January, Smoltz seemed to do the impossible and turned his back on the only organization with which he had ever played to sign with Boston.
Clearly, by the time that the Braves failed to land Griffey, the luster of 14 straight division titles was so far in the past that many -- the fans, media -- began to dump on the organization.
Whether the Braves make the National League playoffs remains to be seen, but what seems fairly obvious right now is that with Smoltz or Griffey or both, they would not be a better team. The Braves are 6 1/2 games behind the defending World Series' champion Phillies in the East, but only 3 1/2 behind Colorado for the Wild Card spot. If the current pace holds, it looks as if the Braves are on the verge of playing meaningful baseball well into September for the first time in four seasons -- what seems like an eternity here in Atlanta, where postseason runs once seemed a birthright.
Since June 28, when the Braves entered the day 34-40, they have gone 17-8 over their last 25 games. Their pitching -- already among the best in the major leagues -- got a shot in the arm from the promotion of rookie Tommy Hanson (in spite of the fiasco that erupted when the Braves cut future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine) at the start of June, but it's the amazing turnaround in run scoring that has the Braves competitive again.
Which brings us back to Mr. Griffey. Griffey is doing the impossible: By hitting .211 with 10 home runs and 27 RBI, he almost makes ex-Brave outfielder Jeff Francoeur's offensive output look like an All-Star season in comparison. Griffey also has 45 strikeouts in 75 games.
His contract is worth $4.5 million with $2 million in guaranteed money.
Now let's look at who the Braves signed instead, Garret Anderson. Anderson, who started slowly, is making $2.5 million this year with the Braves.
In the 10 games since the All-Star Break, Anderson is hitting a sizzling .429 and has scored 7 runs and has 4 RBI. Over his last 13 games, he's hitting .383 with 7 runs and 6 RBI.
Overall, he's hitting .292 with 7 home runs and 37 RBI. He has struck out 40 times in 77 games.
So not only did the Braves save money in the long run with Griffey's incentives, but they also got a player who is hitting 81 points higher and has 10 more RBI.
To be fair, others -- notably Yunel Escobar, Martin Prado, Brian McCann and Chipper Jones, who was suffering through an inexplicable season-long (by his standards) slump -- have picked up at the plate and now Braves admirers are saying the lineup doesn't have any easy out in the top eight.
And then there is Smoltz, who gave up six earned runs in five innings on Sunday and watched his record fall to 1-4 and his earned-run average balloon to 7.04. The Red Sox say they plan on sticking with Smoltz -- for how long, one wonders -- but a frustrated 42-year-old Smoltz seemed to openly raise the prospect of his retirement after his latest outing.
(Interesting how what the Braves feared would happen if they had allowed Glavine to return to the major league roster is playing out in Boston with Smoltz. While I think that the Braves made the right move with Smoltz, I still think they dealt unfairly with Glavine.)
So with football -- King of Sports here in the South -- about to get training camps underway in less than a week in Atlanta, the Braves could keep a bit of the sporting interest turned their way.
That certainly would not be the case with Smoltz and Griffey in the lineup.