Old timers (like yours truly) can recall a much-anticipated rite of summer … when the local minor-league farm team was graced by the presence of the big-league parent club for an exhibition game. Mostly, it was for the kids, who got to see their heroes up close and personal. Believe it or not, the players actually enjoyed themselves, signing autographs with a smile. Well, most of them anyway.
That all went away, of course. Suddenly, heroes became zeroes. The more money they made the less time they had for the fans. As best as we can determine, the last time MLB made an in-season appearance here was 1986. The Atlanta Braves – or reasonable facsimile thereof – came to the Diamond to meet their Triple-A affiliate. It was not a pleasant experience for anyone involved, most of all Richmond general manager Richard Andersen, who went off on the people who paid his salary – meager as it was – and somehow lived to fight again another day.
This is Volume 89 in our trip down memory lane. Call it: “When Local Ownership Could Have Saved The Richmond Braves.”
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The R-Braves had five general managers from 1966 (when baseball returned to these shores after a year’s absence) to 2009, when the franchise moved to a new facility in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett, Ga. Andersen was No. 4 and easily the least-experienced but full of vim and vigor (OK, himself) and ready to fight windmills if it came to that.
A college (Mercer) dropout, he was living in Atlanta and was a Braves’ regular at since-replaced Fulton County Stadium when he decided to apply for a job with them. He got a call in early 1977 to become GM at Greenwood, S.C., of the Carolina-A League, and Andersen accepted because “I wasn’t smart enough to know better,” he recalled. “The only reason they hired me was … they needed a warm body … who could drive the freakin’ team bus.”
True story. “I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t have hit water if I fell out of a boat,” Andersen said. “I was harassed by everyone. For three days Smokey Burgess had me looking for keys to the batting cage. It was a crap job. No money … $7,000 … and I was so excited. It was the greatest gig ever.”
No, he had never driven a bus before but the question had been: “Can you drive a bus?” So, technically, Andersen didn’t lie. Looking back, “I have no idea why I didn’t kill all of us,” he said. Among his players was Brian Snitker, current A-Braves manager.
“I did just enough the first year not to get fired … with hustle and energy and personality … and I got a little smarter … to be sent to Double-A Savannah where I stayed 13 months before getting the call: ‘Are you ready to go to Richmond?’
“Back in the day Triple-A GM’s were Harold Cooper, George Sisler Jr., men in their 60s who had spent their whole lives in baseball … and here comes this 27 year old kid full of … whatever.”
Whatever that whatever was he carried it well for seven often-embattled campaigns on The Boulevard. “I believed in three things: work hard, be enthusiastic and embrace change,” Andersen said. (More on the latter in a moment.)
But we digress. (Don’t we always). Back to our original reason for catching up with Andersen, the 1986 exhibition. While details were sketchy for him – it’s been 36 years, and he’s been on the move, after all – what he did recall about the game (without hesitation): “It was a travesty.”
While no one expected the A-Braves (or R-Braves, for that matter) to take it seriously, they owed the crowd a lot more than they delivered. Andersen was angry because he felt it was a reflection on him although, looking back, he says: “I’m surprised I let myself get so aggravated that I was quoted.”
“He’ll get over it, and so will the paying customers who felt cheated, but Richard Andersen remains embarrassed [his word] by the mockery the Atlanta Braves made of their annual exhibition here last week,” we wrote, buried in an ‘Of All Things’ notes piece. “’I don’t mind telling you I told them [his bosses] in Atlanta they should have made the game legitimate,’ Andersen says. ‘I’ll never have anything to do with a game like that again.’
“Yes, there were some positives regarding the visit, like charity work by Bob Horner and Dale Murphy. Both made themselves available at the park for autographs. But the game – if that’s the proper word – was a joke. A pitcher played shortstop, another in right field; batting practice pitcher behind the plate; stewardesses in the dugout; a coach drinking beer.
“And, talk about bush! With Brad Komminsk at the plate, here comes Atlanta manager Chuck Tanner to the third-base coaching box to discuss Komminsk’s swing or stance [whatever] with [Richmond skipper Roy] Majtyka.
“Andersen told reporters at the game he has recommended the teams meet here to close spring training. Or, if that doesn’t work, stop charging major-league prices. Eight dollars for general admission is a bit steep. OK, it’s very steep for something that means absolutely nothing.
“’We have an image for being pretty classy,’ Andersen said. ‘We’ve got too much integrity to let this happen again.’”
“Wow!” he said last week. “It’s a wonder they didn’t fire me.”
If the parent club thought about replacing Andersen, now living in Huntington Beach, Calif., it became mute. Before season’s end, he announced he was resigning. Time to move on to bigger, hopefully better, things. While Andersen probably is best-remembered here for being a key figure in the transition from Parker Field to The Diamond in 1995, he also had some less-publicized but nonetheless … shall we say … spirited clashes with Atlanta.
First, with only one year of AAA experience, Andersen had to deal with a dubious decision by farm director Hank Aaron to forfeit the R-Braves out of the International League’s championship series. Columbus, Ohio, home of the Yankees’ AAA farm hands, held a two games to one edge and, with rain in the forecast, Aaron called Cooper, then IL president. As a result, the Jets were declared champions, leading to a piece in the New York Times in which iconic scribe Dave Anderson wrote: “Not since Grant took Richmond has such utter contempt been shown for the citizens there … as well as for the Richmond players …”
“Hank felt the series had gone on long enough,” Cooper told Anderson, who also quoted Aaron: “I don’t think ending the series was a disappointment to the players … They weren’t going to draw anybody in Richmond anyway … Overall, we were losing in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $7,000 a day.”
Andersen told Anderson (who, by the way, misspelled the GM’s last name throughout the Sept. 22, 1981 piece): “Our players did not want to cancel … For them it was like the bottom fell out of everything they’d done this year.”
In retrospect, Andersen, 69, said, “That would have been a bad reason … if we pulled the plug because we were losing money. I was super-frustrated.”
At the same time, he defended Aaron, who was a great player but not nearly as accomplished – nor as popular – in his career as an executive. “I liked Hank,” Andersen said. “[The A-Braves] were all over him to get some players up [from Richmond]. I could tell he was under stress.”
But, “After Cooper told me what they were going to do, I called Hank: ’What am I going to tell the people here?’”Andersen said. “My job was to build a sense of community. There was our integrity to think about … and all that.”
Some of the pressure was taken off Aaron when Columbus – in a classic duh response – went along. Why not, when literally you’ve been handed the Governor’s Cup by the opposition? Cooper was quoted as saying, “If one of the clubs wanted to play, I would have told ‘em to keep playing.”
Wrote Anderson, “Baseball lost another measure of its self-respect. Shamefully, most of the people involved don’t seem to understand that … Baseball once created a word as a term of endearment for the minor leagues that now describes [the game] itself all too often – bush.”
Then, in 1985, when the Diamond opened to record attendance … and the franchise went from losing a modest amount of money to making a lot of it … the A-Braves didn’t do right by the local team – and fans – again. It had to win the final game of the regular season to qualify for the playoffs, and Majtyka had his ace, righthander Steve Shields, scheduled to be the starter against Tidewater.
But a few hours before the first pitch, Shields inexplicably was called up to the big club which, at the time, had no chance of making the National League playoffs. Richmond lost 7-6 to finish fifth … and it was natural to assume the cheering you heard was from the bean counters in Atlanta because they were more concerned with the bottom line. In fact, postseason play in the minor leagues never was a moneymaker here – or anywhere – once football season took center stage.
At least, small consolation though it might have been, the R-Braves did get the Larry MacPhail Award given each year to the best front-office operation in the minors … for drawing more than 380,000 announced customers, a club record broken in 1986 (officially: 403,000-plus) when Andersen was named IL executive of the year for the second time … and the team claimed both the pennant and Governors Cup championship.
To this day Andersen insists he left not because of recurring troubles with Atlanta or constant bickering with local city hacks who didn’t treat the team with respect. He actually referred to one as “psychotic.” No, it was about money, that simple.
“I wanted to stay there … [but] I had three kids … and wasn’t making any money. I went up to Pittsburgh, my hometown, was interviewed by the Pirates and …,” Andersen recalled. “ … and I made three times as much running – in effect – Three Rivers Stadium.”
If he had a specific area of expertise, it was in facilities – which Andersen developed here and led him to run Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium for the Dolphins and baseball’s Marlins. (“To think less than 20 years after being hired to drive a bus I was running a Super Bowl … and playing golf with Dan Marino.”) He later worked in a similar capacity for the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers. Andersen also has been employed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
He currently is listed as Chief Illumination Officer for a consulting and professional leadership development firm … “that shines a light on people’s potential and shows them how good they really are.” Sorry we asked.
Of course, it didn’t take a genius to recognize, on arrival here, that Parker Field, home of the R-Braves, needed to be replaced. “I didn’t dislike Parker Field,” Andersen insisted, “but, if you wanted a picture of what dilapidated looked like …”
At first he was a one-man band, trying to coax improvements for the old park built for $360,000 and opened in 1950. It’s been well-documented how Andersen got no satisfaction from the city then, with the threat of moving the franchise to Savannah, Ga., rapidly becoming a reality, local businessman Bobby Ukrop and lawyer, the late Dick Hollander came to the rescue.
The result was the $8 million Diamond, a magnificent slab of concrete that, for a short while, made Richmond the envy of minor league operators everywhere.
“Bobby and Dick made it all happen,” Andersen said. “I convinced some people it should happen.”
OK, so that’s oversimplifying a complex achievement that included many parts, not to mention rare regional togetherness not seen before or since. Lost, or at the very least forgotten, was an attempt to purchase the franchise from Atlanta. The way Andersen remembers it, several local well-moneyed people, all dead now, met with A-Braves owner Ted Turner in early 1986 and offered $3 million …
“If he had accepted, I feel certain the [R-Braves] would still be there. So would I,” Andersen said.
So why did Turner say, “No”? While he went with the delegation from Richmond, Andersen apparently didn’t sit in on the meeting so he can only speculate. “At Parker Field, the Braves were losing $50,000 to $60,000 [a year]. When The Diamond came in, we were making $600,000 net. He was a good business man, so …”
Andersen wasn’t speculating when he said … “I don’t think many people knew this … but in 1982 [Braves official] Charles Sanders offered me the opportunity to buy the Richmond Braves for $200,000. You might think I was an idiot for turning him down … but when you have a family and are making only $30,000 … two hundred thousand might have been $2 million, as far as I was concerned.”
He insisted he wasn’t blowing smoke when he added, “Richmond was the greatest gig I ever had. I loved everything about it … except the pay.”
… Andersen recalled one exhibition game here when Al Hrabosky was the Atlanta pitcher and left-hand-hitting Ed Miller leading off for Richmond. Now Hrabosky was … uh, a bit eccentric … “and he comes charging off the mound, grabs Miller’s bat and draws an arrow in the dirt in the batter’s box pointing directly back to the dugout. (italix) Before the game even started! (italix)” Sure enough, as predicted, Miller struck out and headed back to his seat in the home-team dugout along the first base line. Funny stuff!
… Not so funny but equally memorable was the A-Braves appearance here in 1972 when manager Eddie Matthews got loaded and never made it to the field. He remained, in uniform, in the small, cramped watering hole under the stands popping cool ones and telling war stories. We recall Richmond skipper Clyde King, a teetotaler (and proud of it), becoming incensed over Matthews’ behavior. In 1974, early in the season, Hall of Famer Matthews was fired … replaced by C. King.
… OTA (Old-Timer’s Advice) of the Day: Enjoy the Flying Squirrels while you can. If they aren’t looking around for potential new digs, they should be. They arrived from Norwich, Conn., in 2010 with the promise of a new ballpark that would meet upgraded minor-league standards. Thirteen seasons later, they’re still waiting, with prospects for a new facility by 2025 going, going … almost gone. MLB, which runs everything now, will tell the Double-A rodents to re-locate – and they will have no choice but to obey whether they want to or not.
… Let’s see … since arriving here in 1959, we have watched franchises – all sorts of all pro sports – come and go. From baseball’s Virginians and Braves; to ice hockey’s Robins, Wildcats, Rifles, Renegades I and II and RiverDogs; to basketball’s Squires (shared with Roanoke, Hampton and Norfolk), Virginians, Rhythm and Rage (women); to outdoor football’s Rebels, Roadrunners, Mustangs and Saints; to indoor football’s Speed, Bandits, Raiders and Roughriders, … plus men’s and women’s tennis tournaments … all had one thing in common. In the end, lack of interest did them in. The Squirrels would be the first to leave despite overwhelming popularity.
… Finally, a belated Happy Birthday to Majtyka who was 83 June 1 … and former Richmond and Atlanta manager Eddie Haas, a personal favorite who never got the credit he deserved. Haas was 87 May 26.