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At 8:15 a.m. on Tuesday of last week, Ernie Whitt entered a Brave new world. The veteran catcher, the last of the original Toronto Blue Jays, had been acquired over the winter by Atlanta, and as he got out of his car in the parking lot at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium, his head was swimming. "It was like the first day of school," he says. "All these uncertainties. Names to attach to faces. A different coaching staff. A different pitching staff. A new uniform. A new league. And I had to become accustomed to all that in just three weeks."
Thus preoccupied, Whitt walked into the clubhouse—and was told he was in the wrong place. "I showed up where the minor leaguers dress," says Whitt. "They gave me directions to the major league clubhouse. Not a good start."
Whitt was not alone last week; nearly everyone in baseball was feeling a little lost. Spring training was starting a month late because of the owners' lockout of the camps and the torturous labor negotiations, and teams were faced with three weeks instead of the usual six to prepare for Opening Day. New arrivals like Whitt now have to play Getting to Know You at 45 rpm instead of the more natural 33⅓. Players trying to win jobs have much shorter auditions. Overweight players have to trim the fat in a hurry. Pitching coaches have to figure out ways to get their pitchers enough work—but not too much too soon. Managers in tenuous positions may feel pressured to get up a full head of steam even with only two weeks of exhibition games. General managers wanting to make deals will have to wait and see.
Every team in baseball will feel the heat of the short spring, but no team in baseball has more to do in the next few weeks than the Braves. They are as good an example as there is to demonstrate the particular problems of spring training 1990. Over the winter, their leftfielder, Lonnie Smith, ate too much and inflated to the size of a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Three new players—Whitt, first baseman Nick Esasky and third baseman Jim Presley—were acquired from the American League in the off-season, and they will have to adjust to a new team and a new league. With Jeff Blauser replacing Andres Thomas at shortstop, second baseman Jeff Tread-way has to adjust to three new partners in the infield. Reliever Mike Stanton has to convince the club that he can be the closer before general manager Bobby Cox goes out and trades for one. Pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton has to rein in his young and eager arms, and the Braves have to resist the temptation to bring up their lefthanded sensation, Steve Avery. And all of this will have to be resolved over the course of 15 scheduled exhibition games instead of the usual 30.
Presiding over this accelerated circus is manager Russ Nixon, a man whose job will be on the line if the Braves don't get off to a fast start. "Obviously, we would have preferred to have started in the middle of February rather than the middle of March," says Nixon. "But we have no choice."
Also beyond the Braves' control is their leftfielder's physique. The Lonnie Smith Weight Watch has been an ongoing concern in Atlanta ever since word got out in January that Smith, the team's 1989 MVP (.315 average, 21 homers, 25 stolen bases), had tipped the scales at 226, some 35 pounds over his playing weight and somewhat unseemly for a 5'9" ballplayer. The term "plate appearances" had taken on a whole new meaning for Smith. "I stopped smoking on December 3 and started snacking," says Smith, who had been a pack-a-day smoker. "Instead of playing winter ball, I sat around the house watching TV. The most exercise I got was walking around in shopping malls. I knew I was gaining weight, but I didn't know how much until I stepped on the scale one day and saw 225."
Batting coach Clarence Jones strongly suggested to Smith that he enroll in the Georgia Sports Institute, and he did, embarking on an aerobics program and a new diet. "Chicken and fish, no more fettuccine Alfredo," says Smith. "And lots of water—eight eight-ounce glasses a day."
Smith showed up for his first day of workouts last Thursday, and naturally the topic of the day was his size. To his credit, Smith was pretty up front about his weight gain—he was also out back and spilling over the sides. "I couldn't sleep last night," he said, "knowing everybody was gonna ask, 'How big is he?' "
He was pretty big, 209 pounds to be exact, but he said losing the extra weight "won't be a heavy problem," no pun intended. He did have a difficult time squeezing into his size 33 uniform pants. "I'm not gonna change the pants," he said, fingering a split seam on the inside of his thigh. "This way I'll know that the bigger they feel on me, the smaller I'm getting." He still has 15 pounds to lose in two weeks.
If Smith survives, he will be the only Brave playing the same position on Opening Day this year as last year. For a team like Atlanta, that's good news. The Braves have finished fifth or sixth in the National League West every year since 1985, averaging 96 losses a season. In the 1980s, only the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians lost more games. But over the last four years, Cox has replenished the farm system—the Braves' top three minor league clubs all played in league championship series last year—and in the off-season he sought to improve the major league club's offense with the three AL imports.