The Gwinnett Braves
Tonight, the Norfolk Tides begin a four-game series with the Gwinnett Braves. Unfortunately for me, the Tides are not playing well, having dropped all four games of their series against the Toledo Mud Hens. That’s unfortunate for me because there is no team I more enjoy seeing lose than the Gwinnett Braves. I believe the Gwinnett Braves represent all that is wrong with the current state of minor league baseball.
From 1966 through 2008, the Atlanta Braves had their AAA affiliate in Richmond, Virginia. For most of that time, the closest major league team to Richmond was the Baltimore Orioles, a three-hour drive up I-95; and the closest minor-league teams were the Carolina Mudcats, an AA team in suburban Raleigh, North Carolina; the Norfolk Tides; and Potomac, a class A Carolina League team in suburban Washington, DC. The presence of the Richmond Braves allowed the 1 million people in the Richmond area to be exposed to live, in-person professional baseball without long travel.
The Diamond, the Richmond stadium, had fallen into disrepair and lacked many of the amenities of more modern ballparks. The Atlanta Braves, who owned the franchise, demanded upgrades and when the governments of the Richmond area failed to provide them, declared their intention to move the team. Ultimately, they moved the team to Gwinnett County, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta itself. This was certainly more convenient for the Braves, who could more quickly call players up or place players on injury rehabilitation. But it was much more shortsighted for professional baseball as a whole, because the baseball fans of Gwinnett County already had a nearby major-league team and the Gwinnett Braves would be unlikely to produce any more future baseball fans.
(In fairness, a double-A franchise moved to Richmond soon thereafter, and as a result of the ensuing sequence of moves, the city that lost professional baseball entirely was Oneonta, New York, a city of about 20,000 people. Also, when I went to a Gwinnett Braves home game, my scoring colleague told me that he didn’t go to Atlanta Braves games because the traffic is so bad.)
The other reason the Gwinnett Braves are bad for baseball is that, because the Atlanta Braves own the team, they are able to manipulate scoring decisions to their advantage. Scoring decisions — hit vs. error, wild pitch vs. passed ball, earned run vs. unearned run — are made by an official scorer. (That’s different from my role as datacaster; I record what happened and the official scorer’s decisions.) The official scorer is a league employee, paid by (in this case) the International League. However, the league office is not able to recruit or identify official scorers for each team, so in reality the team finds the official scorers. In theory, the official scorer should be independent of the team, but again in reality the (usually home) team will press for favorable decisions. But rarely does it go to the levels of Gwinnett. Again, according to my scoring colleague in Gwinnett, the G-Braves stationed a team official next to the official scorer to make sure that the decisions reflected the best interest of the Braves. For example, a borderline hit/error call might be called a hit, but then changed to an error when the four runs that score in the inning could become unearned. The really bad part of all this is that the G-Braves would refuse to use official scorers who were too independent. This directly affects the integrity of the statistics — the decisions should reflect the best judgment of an unbiased observer, not what makes the home team players look best.
The Gwinnett Braves have had disappointing attendance in their three years there. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving team.