The Atlanta Braves are going back to the World Series for the first time since 1999, when Hall of Famers Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz were integral parts of a ballclub that was swept by the New York Yankees.
And perhaps just as important, the Braves will come out of two seasons plagued by COVID, having made money this year, said Terry McGuirk, the club’s longtime chairman.
“We’ve waited 22 years for this special event,” an ecstatic McGuirk told Sportico Saturday night on the field at Truist Park. “It’s hard for us to even talk about it, the emotions go so deep.”
Atlanta had just concluded a 4-2 win in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, eliminating the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Braves head into the best-of-seven World Series against the Houston Astros, beginning Tuesday night with Game 1 at Minute Maid Park.
As McGuirk spoke, the sold-out crowd of 43,060 was still roaring in delight, a testament to how things have turned around in just a few years.
Like every other Major League Baseball team, the franchise lost money during last year’s spectator-free 60-game season. But since May, the Braves have been at full capacity at their five-year-old stadium in Cobb County, set in a mixed-use ballpark village called The Battery Atlanta.
The public-private project cost $672 million for the ballpark and an additional $452 million for The Battery (private only), a total of $1.12 billion. The Braves are spending $183 million across 30 years to help Cobb County retire its bond issue.
This season’s attendance of 2.3 million—an average of 29,490 for 78 home dates—was second only to the Dodgers, who play in the much larger Dodger Stadium, which sat 53,025 for Game 4 last Wednesday evening.
“I don’t think we’ll lose money this year,” McGuirk said. “We lost a lot of money last year. When we did our budgeting last November, what we were looking at was very dismal. But the fans came back so much stronger than we expected. That provided the economic horsepower to fill this roster out and take some chances. The fans did it.”
Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, is a publicly traded company, and its financial report for 2020 told the story: Overall revenue for the Braves’ unit declined from $476 million in 2019 to $178 million last year. Operating income, which ran at a loss of $39 million in 2019, widened to $128 million in 2020.
Of the 2020 revenue, $148 million came from baseball and $36 million from The Battery, the latter figure down only $2 million from the previous year. Baseball-generated revenue in 2019 was a club-record $438 million.
Consequently, the Braves had to be judicious with their spending on players.
The Dodgers had a Major League-record $267.2 million player payroll, $119.7 million more than the Braves, who were 12th at $147.5 million. The Braves had only four players earning in excess of $10 million, with Freddie Freeman far and away the top at $22.4 million. The first baseman is finishing an eight-year, $135 million contract with the Braves and is soon to become a free agent.
The Dodgers won 112 games, 106 during the regular season to finish a game behind the San Francisco Giants, snapping a streak of eight consecutive NL West titles. Los Angeles then outlasted the Giants in a thrilling five-game NL Division Series that went down to the final pitch.
The Braves won 88 and surprised many by capturing the NL East for the fourth season in a row.
A year ago, the Dodgers came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Braves in the NLCS on their way to winning their first World Series since 1988, defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in six games.
The Braves squandered their lead in the Globe Life Field bubble sans fans. That didn’t happen in front of their own fans this year, even after the Dodgers won Game 5 in Los Angeles.
“It’s incredible that we prevailed in this series,” McGuirk said. “When you look back at the middle of the year, we were left for dead. This team doesn’t resemble today what it looked like in May and June.”
Neither did the Dodgers, for that matter.
Even with all their big spending, the Dodgers couldn’t weather in-season injuries to Clayton Kershaw, Justin May and Max Muncy, plus the loss of Trevor Bauer, who was placed on administrative leave while MLB investigates the pitcher through its domestic violence program. During this just-concluded series, Max Scherzer, Justin Turner and Joe Kelly went down.
The Braves had serious losses of their own this season, including two-thirds of their outfield: top star Ronald Acuna to a knee injury and Marcell Ozuna to a Bauer-like MLB domestic abuse investigation. But July trade deadline deals with the Chicago Cubs for Joc Pederson and Cleveland for Eddie Rosario proved to be the difference.
Rosario hit the fourth-inning, three-run homer Saturday night off Walker Buehler that won the game and the series. He was named MVP after hitting .560 with three homers and nine RBIs against the Dodgers.
It was reminiscent of the deals the Giants made for the little-known Cody Ross and Marco Scutaro during their World Series-winning years of 2010 and 2012. Ross was an Aug. 22 waiver wire pick up from the Marlins and Scutaro was obtained in a deadline trade with Colorado. Ross was MVP of the NLCS in 2010 and Scutaro, the same in 2012.
Sometimes a team just has to get lucky.
“I mean, this series was like a heavyweight fight,” McGuirk said. “The Dodgers are an unbelievable organization. Every time somebody went down, another guy just as good popped up. We don’t have that luxury. So, the guys who showed up for us were true heroes. Eddie, Freddie, [Tyler] Matzek. The pitching was just unbelievable.”
That it was, just as when the Braves went to the World Series five times in the 1990s, winning only the 1995 series in six games over Cleveland at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The 1999 series was played at Turner Field, now a college football facility.
With all the Hall of Famers on those teams, these current Braves still have big baseball shoes to fill.
–With assistance from Brendan Coffey.