When the Braves unexpectedly won the National League West in 1982, Joe Torre, the new manager, was a genius. This year the Braves are tied for second, 8� games behind the Padres, and guess who got stupid? Torre is now the morning-line favorite to be the first manager fired next season—assuming he makes it to '85.
"This is difficult to deal with," Torre says, "because I'm having to defend myself when I feel I really shouldn't have to. What really bothers me is the short memories there seem to be around here."
Torre's problems began last fall when the team released Phil Niekro, Mr. Brave. Torre swears it was an organization decision, but some people thought he saw Niekro as a threat to his job. "I resent the hell out of that because it's idiotic, but it's one of the reasons they're trying to run me out of town," he says. "Some people even say I did it because I wanted to be Mr. Atlanta."
So, the season started under a cloud, and when the Braves started to fall out of the race in July, the fun really began. Catcher Bruce Benedict sniped at Torre's choice of lineups, and no less a front-office personage than Hank Aaron, the farm director, said Torre was retarding the development of prospects Gerald Perry and Brad Komminsk by failing to play them every day. Torre has also feuded with a local writer.
Torre believes there are people in the front office, G.M. John Mullen and scouting director Paul Snyder for two, who wouldn't grieve if he were fired. "I'm not saying I don't have support up there because I do," Torre says. "But I get the feeling that everybody isn't pulling in the same direction."
When owner Ted Turner was looking for a new manager after the '81 season, his front office unanimously recommended Eddie Haas, the Triple A manager. But at the last moment, and at the suggestion of Bob Wussler, executive VP of Turner Broadcasting, Turner hired Torre. Wussler pointed out to Turner that Torre, a former Braves star who'd just been dumped as the Mets' manager, had the kind of name that might help the SuperStation's ratings. This season, however, the Braves' ratings are down 16%, and on July 20 Turner promoted Haas to be the batting coach.
Even if Torre does return, he'll likely be without Bob Gibson, his pitching coach and best friend. Turner and Torre don't see eye-to-eye on Gibson. "I asked Ted in what ways I'd disapppointed him from '82 to now," Torre says, "and he said, 'Nothing, no way.' But he said he wasn't happy with the pitching, and I explained that pitching wasn't our problem, that it was hitting. That Gibby seems to be the problem baffles me."
Torre has a point. The Braves led the National League in runs the past two seasons, but with Bob Horner missing most of '84 with a wrist injury, the Braves are tied for seventh in scoring. The pitching? In '82, Atlanta was 10th in ERA, .56 behind the leader; in '83 it was seventh, .58 behind the leader. This year? The Braves are eighth, .47 behind leader L.A.
"I got them used to winning here," Torre says, "and now, all of a sudden, it's a necessity. But that's the way things are. I understand that. But what's confusing to me is, if the turnaround supposedly started with hiring me, why the problems we have now might have to be solved by somebody else."