Bobby Bragan, manager of the Braves, was talking about off-season jobs. "Ken Silvestri, our bullpen coach, lives in Chicago," Bragan said, "and last winter he took a job in the control tower at O'Hare Field. Shortly after he went on the job he heard this pilot saying, 'Flight 701 from New York City requesting landing instructions from the tower.' Ken said, 'This is the tower, Flight 701. Proceed to land on runway No. 1.' Almost as he said that he heard this other voice saying, 'Flight 702 arriving from Dallas. Requesting landing instructions from the tower.' Silvestri said, 'This is the tower, Flight 702. Proceed to land on runway No. 1.' The New York pilot then says, 'Hey, tower, you told me to land on runway No. 1.' Silvestri said, 'I did? Well, y'all be careful.' "
Bragan, like Silvestri, was busy to the point of distraction during the off season. When he was not serving as a goodwill ambassador smoothing the way in Georgia for the transfer of the team from Milwaukee to Atlanta, he was busy thinking. And when Bobby Bragan thinks, he really puts his mind to it. During the World Series he paid close attention to the high-speed, freewheeling tactics of both teams, and a few weeks later announced that henceforth his Braves would adopt similar strategy. "We hit 196 home runs in 1965," Bragan said. "More than any other club in baseball. Yet we finished fifth. I would say that we have to change our approach a little. We plan to run the bases with more daring, hit-and-run more often and sacrifice more than ever." At every opportunity he reiterated these points and tossed in reminders that "Henry Aaron is one of the finest base stealers in the game [40 steals in 54 attempts the past two seasons]. Mack Jones has great speed and should develop into a sensational base runner."
In spring training, however, Bragan made a confession. "Yes," he said, "I deliberately announced early that we would be a running team. I said it when I did because I wanted the other teams to have all winter to think about it. No, we're not going to do an awful lot of running, but there's a lot of psychology in managing. It's like me betting someone $10 that I can beat him across the street. He might not believe me. But he's gonna have to put up $10 to see if I can do it, and he may not put up the $10."
As a result of this psychological warfare Bragan feels he is, so to speak, in the control tower. He can either order his sluggers to hit away or he can play go-go baseball. As for opposing managers, Bragan has just a few words of caution—"Y'all be careful."
"Those other clubs won't know what to expect," Bragan says hopefully. "If Felipe Alou gets on, they won't know where to play Eddie Mathews. If they play back, he can lay one down and move Alou to second, and then we've got a man in scoring position with Henry Aaron and Joe Torre coming up. If they play in on Mathews, it gives him a better chance of hitting the ball through the infield. No matter what they do, we're gonna be in good shape."
Bragan's players endorse his master plan and, just as important, they executed it with considerable success during the spring. Last season the Braves were in first place on August 20, then folded faster than Bragan's $10 bettor. Shortstop Denis Menke thinks he knows what happened. "When everybody goes for the home run," says Denis, "it's easy for the whole team to get into a slump. I think that was our trouble. With this new strategy we should win more close games, the ones in which our home runs haven't already given us a big lead."
A more diversified offense was not the only byproduct of Bragan's off-season thinking. He also decided to scout opposing clubs all season through. "One coach will scout the club we are to play next and the other will coach at first base," Bragan says. "After each series we'll get a fresh report on the team we are about to play, and that way we'll be up to date on who's hot, who's cold, who's having trouble with what pitches and who's got aches and injuries."
In addition to Bragan's livelier offensive plan and his up-to-the-inning scouting system, there are other reasons why Bobby feels the Braves could go all the way this time. With Outfielder Rico Carty, a .330 hitter in 1964, his rookie season, back in shape, and Menke, the sluggingest shortstop in the league, healthy and with the acquisition of Lee Thomas from the Red Sox to pad out first base, the Braves have the biggest stockpile of hitters anywhere.
Unfortunately, however, the Braves do occasionally make three outs in an inning, and that lets their opponents come to bat. That is bad, because Braves pitching isn't good. Well, let's call it spotty, since it is good in spots. In Tony Cloninger (24-11), Ken Johnson (16-10) and Wade Blasingame (16-10), the Braves have three dependable starters. Cloninger gives up a lot of hits and often labors like a plow horse, but he is a bear-down competitor who doesn't quit. Denny Lemaster, 17-11 in 1964 and 7-13 last year, is talented enough to fill some of the space between the spots if he can shake his arm miseries. But what the Braves need most is a right-handed reliever to complement left-hander Billy O'Dell.
Defensively, the Braves are solid, particularly behind the plate, where Torre takes command, and in the outfield, where Aaron, Jones (though he was bothered by a bad shoulder this spring) and Alou are on patrol. Bragan is blessed, too, with players who can fill in at several positions—a big asset in this day of the 162-game schedule.
Bragan says he does not like to overestimate the importance of a manager, yet this is a season in which he plans to be thinking all the time about which of his battle plans to invoke. And who can tell what might happen when Bobby Bragan spends a full season thinking? First place? Fifth?
Smooth behind the plate and rough at hat, Joe Torre is the best catcher in baseball today.