This is not new - this bullpen trouble - you know. The Atlanta Braves have had bullpen trouble for as long as I can remember. It’s the same chapter, different verse. And it’s not fun one bit.
So Chris Reitsma is not a closer. Bobby Cox is the only human alive that has not figured this out. I admit I was hopeful he would be our saving grace, but it’s not the first time I’ve been disappointed by a Braves’ closer.
Heck, I remember when the Braves signed Al Hrabosky, the Mad Hungarian. You young whipper snappers might remember him as the one who got behind the mound and gathered himself, before furiously pumping his fist into his mitt. He was good in St. Louis, better in Kansas City, but guess what he did when he became Atlanta’s closer in 1980?
Then in the mid-1980s it was Bruce Sutter. At the time, he was one of the best relievers in the game, along with Rich Gossage. He left the Cardinals for a huge money deal from then-Braves’ owner Ted Turner. But shoulder trouble ruined his chances to help the Braves, and once again we were all disappointed.
We’ll skip the late 80s. No worry about saving games we never were in. But then in 1991 John Schuerholz came to town. That was the season all this began - the winning, not the bullpen troubles. Right off the bat Schuerholz found the bullpen an Achilles Heel.
He even tried to sign Jack Morris to be the Braves’ closer the winter he first got here. Morris was supposedly on his last leg as a starter with the Tigers, but instead of coming to Atlanta he signed with his home state Twins. Rumor has it he won some big game for them that season, but I just can’t seem to remember.
Instead of Morris, Schuerholz signed former Twins’ reliever Juan Berenguer - Senor Smoke as he was called. The feisty reliever helped us in 1991, saving 17 games, but he was not a dominant closer. Schuerholz had to go acquire more help, and luckily found Alejandro Pena.
It’s difficult to look back on the all the Braves’ bullpen troubles and blame Pena for any wrongdoing. If not for him, there’s no way we would have won the division in 1991, and I doubt we would have gotten to the World Series. But it’s not like Pena was a dominant reliever.
He struggled a bit the next season, and the Braves ran Mike Stanton, Kent Mercker, and a young Mark Wohlers out there. The bullpen was still in shambles enough to go and acquire Jeff Reardon, and we all know what in the Ed Sprague happened to him in October of 1992.
In 1993 our first unknown soldier appeared in the name of Greg McMichael. He came out of no where, a castoff from the Indians. The sidearm reliever saved 19 games that season, along with the 27 from Stanton. Those two held down the fort again the next season, the year Bud Selig killed baseball.
After four years of grooming him for the closer’s role, Mark Wohlers finally took control of the job in 1995. We all know what he did that season, and his celebration on the mound will be in our memories forever. But the next October, Wohlers’ career fell apart with one slow slider - one that Jim Leyritz broke every Braves’ fan heart with.
We all believed Wohlers was going to become the best closer the franchise had ever had, but he was really never the same again. He finally fell apart in 1998, the same year our next future closer appeared.
John Rocker was just a setup man in his first season with Braves. He saved only two games and had an ERA of 2.13. The next season Rocker became Atlanta’s closer, and it seemed like we had finally found someone to be that elusive dominating reliever.
And then, in typical Braves’ closer fashion, he opened his mouth and that all fell apart.
So after Rocker was banished to Cleveland, the idea that had been bandied about for years finally became reality. John Smoltz was moved to the bullpen. It took a while, but he became the best closer to ever where an Atlanta uniform. He was a pleasure to watch. And just like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, when Mr. Smoltz stepped onto the field as the closer, the game was over.
The decision to move Smoltz back to the rotation could be debated and discussed for years. Personally, I tend to go with Smoltz on this one. He believed it to be best to be back in the rotation, and despite the trouble we’ve had to replace him as the closer, I believe him. He’s still a fantastic starting pitcher, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to see him in another Game Seven situation this October.
But replacing Smoltz has been the hardest thing this franchise has ever had to do. Dan Kolb, wait, I’m sorry but you knew I’d have to mention that name eventually. Well, he didn’t cut it. He was a good candidate, coming off 39 saves in Milwaukee. But in typical Braves’ closer fashion, he flopped.
And now Reitsma is flopping, harder than a hamburger patty thrown onto a Burger King grill. Maybe Cox will realize it eventually - before it ruins this team. But there is zero doubt that Reitsma cannot and will not be this team’s closer later this summer.
Who knows why the Braves have always had this trouble. The Smoltz years were certainly fun, but as long as he says it’s not possible to move back there, those years are simply a memory - and not an option. We’ve got to somehow, someway break this curse that has made the word bullpen a four-letter word.
It might just be the difference in giving this franchise its second World Series title.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.