Wednesday, October 2, 2013

July 24- Atlanta Braves

I realize that this is a bit late, but according to my post date, July 24th, it’s right on time. Happy birthday to my friend and fellow MLB Fan Cave Dweller Shaun Kippins!

Of all the caps the Atlanta Braves currently have in their wardrobe, this one has to be my favorite. I realize that there is a great deal of kinship that follows the classic red-billed caps the Braves have been rocking since 1987; however, very few newer Braves fans are aware of the fact that this all-navy blue cap is a throwback to the old days when the Braves were still getting their footing in Atlanta. While the Braves’ first season in Atlanta took place in 1966, the team first introduced the well-known red-billed cap through the end of the 1967 season. That season proved to be their first losing season since 1952. Like a lot of teams, even simple uniform changes can prove to be a morale booster. It sounds weird, but it has been a successful transition multiple times in the past. The best, most recent example of this came in 2008 when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the “Devil” and changed their team colors to become the Rays. They ended up making it to the World Series, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games. From 1968 through the end of the 1971 season the Braves fared decent success, only having one sub-.500 season in 1970 and one incredible season in 1969 where they went 93-69 in which they lost to the New York “Miracle” Mets in the National League Championship Series under then-manager Lum Harris. The current Braves organization brought it back in 2009 to serve as the team’s road cap and it too has brought moderate success in the form of two postseason appearances, but two first round exists under both Bobby Cox and Fredi Gonzalez.

This is one of the many caps I ended up picking up at the New Era Flagship Store that sat across the street from the MLB Fan Cave, but not necessarily because I needed it for my collection. From day one when I started this blog I’ve talked about my personal experiences with these caps and the impact that the history behind them has had on me. Only once have I strayed off course to talk about two people who have had a profound impact on me, and coincidentally it came with another Braves post on June 26th. This is another one of those posts about fellow Fan Cave Dweller Shaun Kippins (@Skippins).

SK- I first found out about Shaun during the Top-50 campaign for the Fan Cave when I watched his audition video on the Fan Cave Web site. I needed to get a better understanding of who my competition was going to be so I figured, “What the hell?” The thing I liked most about Shaun’s video is that it was a lot like mine, straight to the point. He talked about himself, the history of the game and the impact it had on him, most specifically about Hank Aaron and the Braves. Shaun grew up in upstate New York and began his fellowship with the Braves organization the same way a lot of kids did back in the day, on TBS: The Superstation. Shaun could have gone with his home state heroes, the New York Yankees and Mets, but the glory years of Javy Lopez, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Sid Bream, Otis Nixon, David Justice and Fred “Crime Dog” McGriff were too much to resist. I didn’t hear much of Shaun during the publicity portion of the Top-50 push, but I was happy to see him in Phoenix, Arizona as we had both moved on to the Top-30.

The one thing I can say about the competition, let alone people running the show, is that it wasn’t diversely strong. Yah there were a few female competitors and employees, but only three African-Americans (one employee), two Mexican and one Asian contestant. The other black competitor was my friend Nick Hamilton, the Los Angeles Dodgers representative. Out of the entire whole of people present, I felt this to be a bit weird, but tried not to think about it too much. Shaun and I met around the pool in the mid afternoon when everyone was still getting settled. He struck me as a shy at first, but as I got to know him a bit more throughout the auditions, I was dead wrong.

Shaun attended Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York along with 2012 Top-30 hopeful/2013 Cave Dweller Travis Miller, although the two didn’t know each other during their time there. Most of the time that I was around Shaun came at the hotel when we had breaks as we were always in separate groups during the challenges. The only time we ever competed against one another was during the “MLB IQ” challenge hosted by Matt Vasgersian and Eric Byrnes. And if you want to see how it all went down, here’s the video. Shaun was on Team Triple Threat and I was on the aptly named Uni-Lovers as Vasgersian had called me Unabomber numerous times. Due to the fact that we had three members on our teams each, our teams were the last to go against one another in the first round. While the video is cut up in kind of a weird way the one thing I can say is that it was pretty much a dog fight between Shaun and Jay Tuohey (@TheRoar_24) versus Dave Barclay (@DaveBarc) and myself. The question about how many postseason games took place in 2011 was literally the last question asked and served as the tiebreaker. We had guessed 37 while Team Triple Threat had guessed 36. Not exactly the way I wanted to win the first round, but we pulled it off and ended up winning the whole thing. The one thing I did learn from that experience is that Shaun’s knowledge was much deeper than most had originally given him credit for.

In the two days that we were in Arizona I only saw Shaun without this Braves cap once, but it wasn’t at any point when I was around. I only found out about it a few days after I had gotten back home to Eugene, Oregon. Most of you who are reading this may or may not remember who Shaun is; however, you will after you see this video. Shaun was the "unlucky" person selected to be the prank victim of Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in probably one of the most simplistic, yet clever pranks I’ve seen pulled in quite some time. Everyone played their parts to perfection, especially Shaun who was the unfortunate victim.

When the time came to head to New York I was pleased with most of the selections they made for the Top-nine, and Shaun’s name definitely came up on the good list. The only part that I was a bit confused about was why they had chosen two Braves fans in the top-nine, but after having gotten to know both Shaun and Ricky Mast (@RickyMast) in Arizona it totally made sense. Unfortunately for some of the other Top-50, Top-30 and random followers, they didn’t agree. I’m not going to call out names, but one of the biggest reasons why I disassociated myself with a lot of people before and after the Fan Cave was because of their feelings on Shaun and his skin color. A lot felt that his presence was based on the executives trying to find a cultural balance, a point that I didn’t agree with at all nor did I even want to hear coming out of the mouths of people who I called “friends.” Back on April 13th I had written about my views on skin color during Hank Aaron’s early years in baseball, and if there’s one thing I hate seeing or hearing about it's racism... unless it's a really good joke, I'll be honest about that, but it's still wrong.

Shaun and I shared an apartment together along with Phillies Cave Dweller Gordon Mack, but none of it came down to our choice. By this I mean that all of the apartments available were first come first serve and the three of us were the odd ones out as the other six had chosen to take the solo apartments and pair the three of us up. It was kind of a dick move, but I got over it in about 15 seconds. Every morning Shaun and I alternated on waking the other person up as we were always staying up late and needed to get up early in order to give ourselves enough time to shower and head down to the Fan Cave for filming. We had cable in the apartment so Shaun and I would occasionally watch “Mad Men” and “Shameless” as they were both shows that he enjoyed but I had never watched. We talked about the journalism industry a lot as we were both seeking work within our respective fields; him on the production, video side and me on the written side. Shaun also had a bevvy of hats with him, almost all of which were Braves, but most of the time he rocked this cap.

When we had our first day meeting at the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball I did my best to make him laugh as there was a photographer trying to catch candid shots of us smiling and Shaun was having a difficult time of making it “look real,” That into itself made me crack up, but the best way I knew to make Shaun laugh was to call him a “broke ass Juan Pierre-looking motherf---er.” Everyone within in earshot of that comment had dying and Shaun was doing his best to hold his head up straight as he was about to fall over with laughter. It sounds gay, but I wish I had a copy of that photo. It was an awesome moment, especially after we hugged it out. Yah, kind of gay.

Other moments came and went, but we always did our best to make the other person laugh. One moment in particular came when we had been driven home after a late night and I was left in the front seat to sign for the voucher. Our driver had a thick mustache and Shaun, as he exited the car, made sure to say, “Thanks for the lift Mr. Belvedere,” which sent me into a fit of hysterics as I tried to sign my name. That’s still one of the funniest things anyone has ever done. Shaun, the person who I thought was extremely polite and shy was pulling a rouse on all of us, in a good way.

During the first week of the 2012 regular season I found myself at a going away party for one of the graphic artists of the Fan Cave as I was invited by her and later forced to go by one of the security guards after the first big party the Fan Cave had hosted. What I wasn’t expecting when I got there were three of the top level executives to be there as well. I think I touched on all of this is an earlier post, can’t remember which one though. Anyway, they were all a bit sauced but happy to see me and bought me a few rounds. Throughout the night they asked me questions about each of the other Cave Dwellers. When it came to Shaun they seemed to listen a bit more intently, as if I had some deep insight to him. All I said is that he is “purposefully” quiet, and by far the funniest person in the group. Nothing more really needed to be said beyond that. Shaun, as I learned, will open himself up when he needs to, something I found out in the weirdest ways a few weeks before I got eliminated.

One thing that only a select group of people were fortunate enough to witness came when Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy visited the Fan Cave. The sketch that we ended up filming was a form of speed dating in which we quickly jumped in, asked Lucroy a question and then bolted. This concept has been since used multiple times without much success. The sad part of this experience is that Shaun's an my portions ended up on the cutting room floor as they didn't air it until we had both been eliminated. I won't go into detail about my run until a later post, but what Shaun did halted production for a solid three minutes afterward. I don't remember what Shaun's question was going to be, but we he had cooked up in his head was that he was going to knock over the Lucroy bobblehead sitting in front of him and ask the question police interrogation -style. When Shaun stepped up to the table he stared Lucroy down and knocked it over. When Shaun had intended was that the bobblehead would just tip over; instead, the bobblehead took a tumble off the table and down to the floor, breaking the right hand off. Shaun then went into panic mode, picked up the bobblehead, took a step to leave, forgot that he left the hand, picked that up, placed it on the table next to the bobblehead and split. Three minutes of laughter erupted throughout the basement where we were filming. It was like watching a live action cartoon, and Shaun played it out to perfection. He didn't say a word. He didn't need to.

I didn’t sleep much while I was in New York, but every few days or so I dedicated my time to trying to get a full nights rest, even for just one night. This night in particular happened to be when a few of the others decided to go out and close a few of the bars down. At some point somebody had texted me, but I slept right through it. Some time a little after four in the morning I heard the front door open, foot steps, my light switch turn on and then I received a flying elbow drop from Shaun to really wake me up. I’m not one to get upset about these sorts of things, and in this case I was startled and laughing at the same time. Shaun kept going over and over about how I should have gone out with everyone and that they had “the best time.” I couldn’t muddle any words out, I couldn’t stop laughing. I don’t remember how we transitioned but it soon became “drunken confession” time. Nothing bad came out, but hearing Shaun tell me how good of a friend I’ve been, how I’ve always supported him and his work really clung to my heart. He then said he might barf, but I made sure to help him get into bed to prevent it. I slept pretty well the rest of the night. The next day though, Shaun was still in a bit of a haze, but at least we had a long break in between games so he good take a nap.

My version of the “drunken confession” came with the same consequences of elbow drops and late night wakeups, but the message was the same. I never forged a stronger bond with anyone in New York other than Shaun. He was and still is the only person who has been straight with me, has had my back and never judged me when things got crazy after my exile. I let him borrow my Jeff Francoeur Braves jersey when he came to the Fan Cave

and he was always the one who would crank his ITunes up when we got home, blasting some Talking Heads, Grateful Dead, Phish or The Band. It was Shaun who inspired me to get this cap. I wish I had more friends like him in my life.

#12- Most people know Dusty Baker because of his managerial stints with the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, but few remember how accomplished he was as a player from 1968-1986. Baker was drafted in the 26th round of the 1967 draft by the Braves out of American River College in Sacramento, California and made his MLB debut on September 7, 1968. From then until the end of the 1971 season Baker bounced back and forth from the Majors to the minors with the AAA Richmond Braves. In 1972 he received his first full-time spot in the lineup playing centerfield where he went on to hit .321 with 17 home runs and 76 RBI, good enough for a 22nd place finish for the NL MVP. Baker played with the Braves until the end of the 1975 season, batting .278 with 77 home runs and 324 RBI during his tenure before being traded to the Dodgers at the end of the season.

In LA Baker continued to play stellar defense and he received the name “Bakersfield” after the oil town which say 95 miles north and is also the place I spent most of my childhood. From 1976-1983 Baker made two All-Star Game appearances (1981 and 1982), won a Gold Glove in 1981, won two Silver Slugger Awards (1980 and 1981), finished in the top-seven twice for the NL MVP (1980 and 1981) and won one World Series title in 1981.

In 1984 he was signed by the Giants and played with them for one season before getting traded to the Oakland Athletics for his final two seasons as a player. For his career Baker hit .278, hit 242 home runs and knocked in 1013 RBI. His first year as a manager in the Majors came in 1993 after then-Giants manager Roger Craig (not the football player) stepped down. Baker has only been to the World Series once as a manager in 2002 with the Giants, losing to the Los Angeles Angels in seven games. As of now he has a career 840-715 record. 

#35- Signed by scout Bill Maughn in 1958 for a mere $250, Phil Niekro pitched for 20 seasons (1964-1983 and 1987) for the Braves (two of those seasons when the team was still in Milwaukee). He was popular in the city of Atlanta for remaining loyal to a team that often had a losing record, as well as for his contributions to Atlanta charities. On August 5, 1973, Niekro threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres; the no-hitter was the first for the Braves after moving to Atlanta. He was often the only star on the Braves teams. In 1979, for example, Niekro tied his brother for the league lead with 21 wins while playing for a team that only won 66. During his tenure in Atlanta, Niekro was selected for five All-Star Teams (1969, 1975, 1978, 1982 and 1984 with the Yankees), won five Gold Gloves (1978-1980 and 1982-1983), led the league in victories twice (1974 and 1979) and ERA once (1967 with a 1.87) despite being a knuckleballer.

Niekro was also a key to the only two division titles Atlanta won before 1991. In 1969, he had a 23–13 season with a 2.56 ERA and finished second in Cy Young balloting to Mets sensation Tom Seaver. In the final days of the season, Niekro started three of seven games, going 3-0 as the Braves won the division. He lost his only appearance in the NLCS, as Atlanta was swept by the Mets. In 1982, at the age of 43, Niekro led the Braves' pitching staff with a 17–4 season. On October 1st, with the Braves clinging to a one-game lead over the Dodgers, Niekro beat the Padres almost single-handedly by throwing a complete game shutout and hitting a two run home run. Niekro started Game One of the subsequent NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals and pitched well, but the game was called on account of rain just before it became official. He pitched six innings of Game Two and left with a 3–2 lead. However, the Cardinals scored 2 late runs after Niekro left the game and would eventually sweep the series.

The Braves released Niekro after the 1983 season and he signed with the Yankees and went on to win 16 games and make the last of his five All-Star appearances. It was while pitching for the Yankees that Niekro gained entry into the 300 win club with a shutout win over the Toronto Blue Jays on October 6, 1985. At 46 years, 188 days, Niekro became the oldest pitcher to pitch a shutout in the major leagues; this record stood for nearly 25 years before Jamie Moyer (47 years, 170 days) bested the feat in May 2010; for Niekro, this complete-game shutout would be his 300th win. He did not throw his trademark knuckleball until the final hitter, former American League MVP Jeff Burroughs. Prior to facing Burroughs, Niekro's teammate and brother Joe visited the mound in the role of "substitute pitching coach" and jokingly suggested that an intentional walk was in order. Instead, Niekro struck Burroughs out to end the game.

After two seasons in New York, Niekro pitched for the Cleveland Indians and the Blue Jays in 1986 and 1987. The Blue Jays released him after he pitched ineffectively, and the Braves brought him back for one last start to wrap up his career late in the 1987 season. At the age of 48, Niekro was the oldest player in major league history to play regularly until Julio Franco, and his 24 seasons in the major leagues without a World Series appearance is a major league record. His total of 5,404⅓ innings pitched is the most by any pitcher in the post-1920 live-ball era. He only appeared in the postseason twice, making a playoff start in 1969 and again in 1982, both for Braves teams that would go on to lose the series.

In 1997 the Baseball Writers Association of America Niekro into the National Baseball Hall of Fame with a 80.34% vote on his fifth ballot. In 1984, when Niekro’s first stint with the Braves came to an end, they retired his #35, which of course was worn again when he returned during the 1987 season. Niekro is also the 1979 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award recipient as well as the 1980 Roberto Clemente Award winner, both of which were for philanthropic work on and off the baseball field.

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