When the Braves’ long run of baseball Octobers sputtered to a halt, it was more than just a case of their starting pitching declining, or investments going belly-up, or the prospect well drying up. Specifically, they never replaced Andruw Jones.
The decision not to re-sign Jones after the 2007 season left a sinkhole in center field. They traded for Mark Kotsay. He didn’t make it through the year. They tried Gregor Blanco and Nate McLouth and Jordan Schafer and Michael Bourn and the creature from the misery lagoon, Melky Cabrera.
Then former general manager Frank Wren tied an anchor to his leg and jumped off a bridge. The anchor’s name was B.J. Upton.
From 2008 through 2015, 23 Braves players started a game in center field. Even if you eliminate those who made only cameo starts, 11 players who started at least 22 games, so help me Josh Anderson.
But it’s safe to take a cleansing breath now. Atlanta’s post-Andruw apocalypse appears over.
Ender Inciarte arrived in 2016. And the angels sang.
Inciarte looked at the list of 23 starting center fielders who were sandwiched between him and Jones, then smiled Tuesday and said, “Well, I hope the Braves get settled with what I’ve been able to do. I enjoy playing for the Braves. I hope I can stay here for a long time.”
This isn’t about whether Inciarte will be as good as Jones. This is about the Braves finally finding answers to two of their long-term issues: starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. He arrived last year in the lopsided Arizona trade for Shelby Miller, along with Dansby Swanson and pitching prospect Aaron Blair. Even if Blair doesn’t develop, the Braves acquired two potential faces of the franchise for the next several seasons.
Inciarte hit .291 and won a Gold Glove in his first season in Atlanta. He had the catch of the year in a win over the New York Mets in September, when he climbed the wall at Citi Field to steal a three-run homer from Yoenis Cespedes.
That catch will be commemorated with an Inciarte bobblehead giveaway in May. The Braves are confident the Inciarte bobbleheads will maintain their value longer than the Upton ones, which have been crushed to fill holes on various Atlanta interstates.
“Steadiness,” Freddie Freeman said when asked what Inciarte brings to the team. “He wants to be out there every single game. He had one hiccup last year in the first week with his hamstring, but other than that he’s a guy you can count on every day. He cares about defense as much as he does offense, if not more. He tries to change the game in every aspect.”
Inciarte, who hit four home runs in a span of four games recently and entered Tuesday’s game against Washington hitting .269, was signed to a five-year, $30.5 million contract in the winter.
“It means a lot that they’ve committed to me,” he said.
Somewhere in heaven, Astolfo Inciarte is smiling. Inciarte’s late father was a pro player in Venezuela and provided the “inspiration for me to play baseball the way I do.”
After a stretch and before every Braves game, Inciarte makes time for a small tribute to his father.
“When I go out there, I say, ‘This one is for you dad,’ and for God,” he said. “He’s the one who told me he didn’t just want to see me play in the big leagues, he wanted to see me play for a long time.”
Inciarte also said his father told him the words that have carried him through his career since he was struggling in the minor leagues.
“I was in the low-A and I was not feeling well, mentally, and I remember I told him, ‘I’m doing everything I can to keep you proud of me,’” Inciarte recalled. “He said, “I don’t care if it’s baseball or whatever. If you’re happy, I’m proud. That’s my only mission for you.’ That’s something I’ve kept in my mind since then.”
He plays with pure joy. It’s as clear to teammates as it is to fans watching him. Freeman marvels as his defense, saying, “He covers so much ground. I don’t know if anyone is ever going to be close to Andruw Jones, but any ball that’s hit to center you feel he could get to it. That’s how I felt with Jason (Heyward) in right. And what he brings to the leadoff spot is something we haven’t had since Michael Bourn. Everybody talks about how we got Dansby in that trade, but Ender has actually changed our team around.”
Every game at SunTrust Park, Inciarte makes his way through the tunnel that leads from the Braves’ clubhouse to the field. Just before reaching the dugout, he passes a Gold Glove trophy and a plaque listing all of the Braves’ past winners of the award. Jones won 10 Gold Gloves, tied with Greg Maddux.
Inciarte just won his first. When he watched games on television growing up in Venezuela, he seemed to lock onto the outfielders. Jones, being from nearby Curacao, “had a huge influence,” on him. “Everyone who watched him play, we felt fortunate. All the stuff he got to do for this team, he’ll always be remembered.”
Inciarte also will be remembered — for being the answer at No. 24.