It seems that the high hopes for the 1990 Braves were unrealistic. As of Sunday, Atlanta was 3-13 and heading for its seventh straight losing season. Each defeat brings increased speculation that manager Russ Nixon will be fired. Sources say Braves management wants general manager Bobby Cox to add field managing to his duties, but Cox's health (damaged knees and an ulcer) may make that impossible. That would leave Atlanta advance scout Pat Corrales as a leading candidate for the job. Corrales has told friends that he doesn't want to manage, but the Braves may not give him a choice.
As might be expected, Nixon says it's too early to write off Atlanta. "You can't judge a club until it's played 40 games," he says. "We've got to have patience. Every club I've ever had, I've had to have patience. But I'll reap the benefits someday."
Through Sunday, Nixon had a 209-320 (.395) record as a manager. And the last four teams he has managed—the 1982 and '83 Reds and the '88 and '89 Braves—have finished in the cellar. The only manager who has been hired after consecutive last-place finishes in his first four seasons is Preston Gomez, who debuted with the Padres in '69.
It's hard to blame Nixon entirely for Atlanta's troubles this year. Leftfielder Lonnie Smith reported to camp 19 pounds overweight. At week's end, ace pitcher John Smoltz was 1-7 since last year's All-Star break. The Braves' vaunted young pitching staff allowed five or more runs in 10 of Atlanta's first 16 games. Last Saturday, the Braves acquired Charley Kerfeld—and his 16.20 ERA-from Houston to shore up their bullpen.
Atlanta's off-season moves haven't been helpful, either. New catcher Ernie Whitt was well past his defensive prime two years ago. And free agent first baseman Nick Esasky had six hits, no RBIs. 14 strikeouts and five errors in his first nine games, and now he has a sprained right shoulder.
The Braves are not the only ones not living up to their billing. Here are some other early-season mystery stories:
?Last year the Giants had the best home record in the National League (53-28). This year, however, they lost nine of their first 10 games at Candlestick Park. Last year San Francisco became the 33rd team in this century not to lose four games in a row during the regular season. But this year the Giants dropped four straight in the third week of the season. The Giants' starting pitching has been so bad that the front office may recall lefty Bob Knepper (7-12, 5.13 ERA in 1989) from Phoenix. And the bullpen has been even worse (chart, left).
?Last week Cub first baseman Mark Grace struck out three times in a game for the first time in his two-year career. He also made three errors in a game for the first time. An excellent defensive team in 1989, Chicago made 24 errors in its first 19 games. In those same games the Cubs scored more than four runs only three times. After a 13-3 loss in San Diego on April 24—extending what would become a six-game losing streak—Cub manager Don Zimmer held a team meeting, matching his total for last year. "I didn't raise hell," he says. "I didn't know where to begin, and second, I would have been in there for three hours."