Over the weekend, the Atlanta Braves clinched the National League East division title for the first time since 2013. Their roster, reinvigorated by rookie Ronald Acuna Jr., has been one of the surprise success stories of the 2018 season. While their win total will not come near the totals of the powerhouse teams in the American League, they are right in the thick of it of it in the National League, and while they lack the name recognition or expectations of the Cubs or Dodgers, anything could happen in postseason baseball. The regular season is a marathon, but the postseason is a sprint. Of all the teams with a real chance to win the World Series, the Braves were the farthest away at the start of the season. But they managed to fill the void and pounced on opportunity where the underachieving Washington Nationals could not.
What a difference a year makes.
At the end of the 2017 season, the Braves were a mess. Years into a rebuild, they appeared no closer to contending, finishing third in the NL East with a record of 72-90. In October of 2017–just two years after being hired by Atlanta–general manager John Coppolella resigned after infractions regarding the signing of international players came to light, and in November, he received a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball. The Braves were forced to release 12 prospects from their contracts for their infractions, but fortunately were allowed to keep Acuna. He was replaced in Atlanta by former Toronto Blue Jays GM and Los Angeles Dodgers Vice President Alex Anthopoulos. As sloppy as he was, and as devious as Coppolella was in his attempt to circumvent the rules, there will inevitably be think-pieces written and anecdotes by color commentators during postseason games saying “you really have to give credit to John Coppolella for what he did to build this team” (in my head, I imagined Tim McCarver saying that, even though I know he won’t be calling the World Series, and should give him the benefit of the doubt take-wise) or something similar should the Braves advance to the World Series.
Image rehabilitation has to start somewhere, and Coppolella is lucky the team he left in disgrace is playing well. It also would not be the first time, if they won it all, that a team won the World Series a year after a prominent figure of theirs was banned for life from Major League Baseball, and it’s the most famous lifetime ban since Shoeless Joe Jackson. In 1989, Cincinnati Red manager Pete Rose was banned by commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti for betting on baseball (and Giamatti would die eight days later), and in 1990, under the leadership of Lou Pinella, the Reds beat the 103-win Oakland A’s in a sweep. In the short term, the Reds recovered quite nicely, but the following decades would not be so kind.
In 1996, Reds owner Marge Schott was banned by Bud Selig for being racist, homophobic, and a Nazi-sympathizer. In the years following the Rose ban, the Reds and their fans have been obsessed with Rose.While they did not retire his #14 until 2016, Great American Ballpark opened in 2003 and was basically built as a shrine for Pete Rose, complete with a mural, a Rose garden, and two smoke stacks with seven baseball bats on each, making 14 bats in total. Everything about the Pete Rose experience is sad. The guy could not resist the urge to not gamble on baseball, has been denied reinstatement four times because he continues to bet on baseball, and while he is MLB’s all time leader in hits, he was a compiler who did not hit for much power, and the martyr complex act by Rose and Reds fans is just depressing. This is a franchise who had Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and both Kens Griffey, but they can’t quit the guy who can’t quit wagering on baseball.
Fortunately for Braves fans, I don’t think John Coppolella will get the Pete Rose treatment. There is far less connection between the fanbase and the guy in a suit who signs players. Coppolella may have put them in good position for 2018, but he was only on the job for two years, and he never even recorded one hit for the Braves. While reinstatement does happen on occasion, the odds are stacked against the 39 year old Coppolella ever working in Major or affiliated Minor League Baseball ever again, but if this Braves team sticks around, his name will still get mentioned for years to come.