Defensive excellence sewn into fabric of Braves
Players reminded of club's longtime emphasis on glovework with motivational sign
Did you hear the news? Not only did Braves right fielder Jason Heyward spend this week capturing a second consecutive Gold Glove Award, but he was named the overall Wilson Defensive Player of the Year. Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons also won back-to-back Gold Glove Award honors, and this comes a season after he received the Rawlings Platinum Glove Award as baseball's premier defensive player regardless of position.
Ho-hum. Next thing you know, somebody will mention that Henry Louis Aaron slammed a lot of home runs.
Well, Aaron did, and he also was a splendid fielder. The same goes for Del Crandall, Joe Torre, Felix Millan, Clete Boyer, Phil Niekro, Dale Murphy, Terry Pendleton, Greg Maddux, Marquis Grissom, Andruw Jones, Mike Hampton and Jeff Francoeur. Just like Aaron, they all won Gold Gloves while playing for Atlanta, which is impressive.
Which is why Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had this brilliant idea before the 2014 season. He had a sign made to display Atlanta's defensive accomplishments through the decades. Then, after conversing with several groups of players on the importance of fielding, throwing and thinking on the diamond, Gonzalez placed the sign at the end of the tunnel that leads from the home clubhouse at Turner Field to the dugout.
"[Gonzalez] told us the sign was a reminder that if you're not hitting like you want to, you still have to go out there and play defense, because defense is eventually what's going to get you into the playoffs," said Simmons, 25, who took Gonzalez's words literally.
Despite a slump-filled season at the plate that landed his final batting average at .244, Simmons continued to field out of his mind during his third Major League season. He is this century's Ozzie Smith, and given his regular appearances on cable-television highlights, he may become the greatest wizard of them all with a glove.
We're back to that sign. You can't miss it. Even so, it isn't overwhelming. It's about the size of your average road sign that gives directions to a nearby church or a freeway ramp. It also lacks the power of that "Play Like a Champion Today" sign that Notre Dame football players bang with their fists when they leave their locker room for the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium.
Then again, maybe not. With Simmons and Heyward on the verge of an impressive streak when it comes to collecting fielding honors, maybe that Braves sign is more effective than we think.
"Yeah, yeah. When you see that sign, it really does get you thinking as a player on this team," said Braves pitcher Aaron Harang, 36, who has witnessed a lot of signs and other things as a 13-year Major League veteran. "What's that sign that was in the old Yankee Stadium that you always saw Derek Jeter notoriously hit every time he walked from the clubhouse to the field?"
Harang's reference was to the sign that featured Joe DiMaggio saying, "I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee." Jeter cherished the sign so much that he stole it. He did so right before the old Yankee Stadium gave way to the new one after the 2008 season. The Yankees had another sign made with DiMaggio's words for their current clubhouse.
Then Harang thought some more, before saying, "You go into weight rooms, and they have all of those positive quotes from big-named coaches and very historical people. It's just that you have subliminal messages that are being sent to you as you're at the ballpark every day. You may not consciously think about it, but you notice those messages. You read them, and it's those subliminal messages being thrown your way to create a positive attitude."
Take the Braves in general, for instance. Team officials have perfected the art of using nearly everything associated with Turner Field to flaunt the franchise's accomplishments.
There are the 14 placards shaped like pennants that sit high beyond the left-center-field wall. They represent Atlanta's Major League-record 14 consecutive division titles. Five of the placards are shaded to represent the Braves' five National League pennants during that stretch. The one for 1995 is red to commemorate their World Series championship that year.
In addition, there are all of those bronzed statues in front of Turner Field, ranging from Niekro to Aaron. The face of the ballpark's upper deck is a showcase for each of the 11 numbers retired by the Braves. Then, when you go inside the home clubhouse, there are pictures to remind folks about the franchise's all-time great players and moments.
Now the Braves have that sign.
Not that Simmons needed it to know about the Braves' history when it comes to defensive excellence.
"As a Braves fan, watching Andruw Jones, I saw a bit of the year when he wasn't playing very much, and that's when the Braves had Otis Nixon, and then they had Marquis Grissom," said Simmons, a native of Curacao, where Jones grew up before spending the first 12 of his 17 Major League seasons with Atlanta. "I saw all of those guys play great defense, and you saw the importance of doing that, because the Braves always made the playoffs."
With that in mind, Gonzalez converted his vision about that sign into action, and to hear Simmons tell it, there is a Notre Dame thing happening here. He said he taps the sign along his way to the dugout "every once in a while."
Then Simmons added, "I definitely take a peek at it, because it gives me the feeling that I have to protect what's on the sign. That I have to live up to that standard and keep it alive."
So far, so great.