My, how times have changed.  During my mid-twenties is when I really became a baseball fan, not just the kid growing up in Florida chasing players around at spring training for autographs.  No, I was a more educated fan of the sport, keeping track of everyone’s HRs, RBIs, slugging percentage, and the like.  I was a statistics nerd, I admit, but during that era, you had to be.  The counting stats, it seemed, mattered almost more than the outcomes of the games.  It was all about the individual.  What I really need to mention is that my mid-twenties occurred in the late 1990s, which was pretty much the height of the steroid era.  You didn’t care who won the game; you just wanted to know if McGwire or Sosa hit another home run.  Would either of them reach 70?  How far could they blast those HRs?  Would the cover even stay on the ball if McGwire, a.k.a. Paul Bunyan, got ahold of one?  I’m the first to admit that I got caught up in the excitement of it all.  A few years later, Barry Bonds came along, and you wondered how the heck that previously beanpole-like former Pirate was now jacking 73 HRs.  Deep down, we all knew something was fishy, but we didn’t care.  We loved watching folks “go yard”.

Thankfully, though, that all changed with the exposure of just how deeply steroids were a part of the game.  Drug testing and severe punishments for anyone caught or suspected of P.E.D. use were enough to finally help bring an end to that high-intensity yet spurious era of baseball.  I, personally, am grateful for the new brand of baseball to which we seem to have returned.  Yes, our Braves here in Atlanta have disappointed this season in the standings, but I truly do enjoy the brand of baseball they put out on the field, even if it doesn’t always produce the results I want right now.  Instead of swinging for the fences during every at bat, trying to pad one’s personal statistics, guys are trying to get on base, maybe swipe a bag, and hope to be driven in by the next guy with the same batting philosophy.

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To analyze a few statistics will show just how far the game of baseball has come back toward a more traditional, more fundamental game.  Consider a few statistics from the current season.  As it stands now, the current RBI leader is not on pace to even top 125 for the season.  In 2001, 14 players reached or topped that mark.  In 2015, the current HR leader will be lucky to reach 50 by season’s end.  Only about 10 guys can even flirt with the idea of reaching the 40 HR plateau this year.  Consider the contrast between these numbers and a couple that jump out at me from a few seasons in the late 90s or early 2000s.  Guys like Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, Albert Belle, and Rafael Palmeiro reached RBI marks of 165, 158, 157, 152, and 148 respectively.  We all know about the “magical” season when Sosa and McGwire battled it out for the title, reaching 66 and 70 HRs.  The most baffling of all the statistics I researched was the year Barry Bonds hit 73.  During that season, he only drove in 137 runs.  How do you launch that many HRs and only get 137 guys across the plate?  By caring only about the back of your baseball card, that’s how.

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I may be older, I may be wiser, and I may just have become old-fashioned, but I’m glad most of that is behind us.  Being a Tampa Bay Rays fan, I certainly enjoyed the way Joe Maddon was able to take the stigma off the term “small ball” during his tenure there.  Like I’ve said before, I see a lot of similarities in the way the Braves appear to be building for the future, and I’m excited about it.  Gone are the days, apparently, where you shop for the “biggest bat” in the offseason.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love watching Freddie deposit lots o’ baseballs over the outfield walls, and I miss seeing guys like Justin Upton doing the same, but I’m perfectly happy watching this club build for the future with what I call the new breed of player.  Again, I still believe every team needs a guy like Freddie on it, providing that threat in the heart of the lineup, but it appears the Braves are trying to build a lineup around him full of young, athletic players with plate discipline (mixed in with some veteran leaders like Markakis and Bourn).  As I was watching the Braves game the other day, and they were talking about all of the new guys recently acquired as they build for the future, I was struck by the type of players being added.  I kept thinking about how these aren’t the same guys we used to acquire in trade or free agency.  The philosophy used to be one of “We’ll grab a few big bats and all of our offensive troubles will be solved”.  I think of “fill-in” guys like Raul Mondesi, Edgar Renteria, Mark Teixeira, Derrek Lee, and Troy Glaus.  How many of these guys even lasted a full season in the ATL or lived up to the hype?  I thought they were going to come in here and save us.  So, I’m happy to say that I don’t see that with our current philosophy, or at least it appears that way.  When I first heard of the big trade involving Alex Wood and Hector Olivera, I was upset.  Several other transactions also baffled me a bit.  I was wondering what the heck John Hart was doing.  As the dust settled, however, I started to feel better and better, realizing there actually was a plan behind this “madness”.  They are building for the future with more athletic, fundamental players.  There appears to be a wealth of young pitching talent to go along with these athletic hitters as well, much of it acquired during the frenzy.  I know that a lot of things can happen in the offseason with contracts, more trades, and the like, but I gotta say that I like what could be our team heading into next season and the following one when the sparkling new stadium is opened.

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Yes, it is sometimes painful to watch our beloved Bravos stumbling down the stretch, especially the sight of them getting swept by the Padres, but again, like I usually do, I’m going to look at the bright side once more.  With any thought of the playoffs long gone weeks ago, the team has an excellent opportunity to evaluate a lot of this young talent and get some idea what direction it would like to take heading into next season.  I’m also probably a little more excited about the acquisition of Edwin Jackson than most folks, as I watched him in the Rays organization.  I’ve seen what he can do when he’s on (when he’s off, it can get ugly quickly, but again, happy thoughts….).  Also, he knows a lot of the other teams well, seeing as he seemingly has played for almost all of them.  To summarize, I like the thought of the Braves next year with a decent, albeit young, group of arms and a lineup hopefully consisting of names like Bourn, Maybin, Freeman, Swisher, Olivera, Peterson, Simmons, and sometimes Garcia.  If you’re a big fan of the long ball, this group may not be for you, but if you like the thought of a gritty, fundamentally sound, athletic mix of veterans and up-and-comers, this might be the recipe for success we’ve been looking for, or at least we can feel like we’re heading in the right direction.  I’m tired of looking for that one big piece that will “make it all better”.  Instead, I’m happy to look for a lot of the smaller pieces to help make that phrase “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” translate into a winning ball club in this town for years to come.