Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Braves’ improvement needs to start with the ghost ownership

The Braves are in fix mode again. Find a dependable starting pitcher, not a jelly-bellied cartoon. Patch the bullpen, acquire a veteran third baseman, improve the defense. Try to do all of this without committing another series of baseball felonies, because that clearly was a problem for the previous regime.

Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves’ new general manager, does not have an impossible task. With the right moves, he can turn the Braves into playoff contenders relatively quickly. He’s eager and bright, without the devious arrogance.

But the biggest key to this organization’s future success doesn’t start and end with him. It starts and ends with the corporate ghosts.

Liberty Media has been dreadful owners since purchasing the Braves from Time Warner in 2007. The deal amounted to a tax-swap for a short-term tax benefit. The absence of a human pulse in the transaction was best illustrated in the first paragraph of the press release: “Liberty exchanged approximately 68.5 million shares of Time Warner common stock, subject to a working capital adjustment, for a newly created subsidiary of Time Warner which holds the Atlanta Braves, Time Inc.'s Leisure Arts, Inc. and $960 million of cash.”

Yea! Go team!

LISTEN: “We Never Played The Game” podcast: Dale Murphy on Hall of Fame snub, steroids and Liberty Media’s purse strings.

It’s almost impossible to have good corporate ownership in professional sports because corporations are not emotionally invested. They basically are warehouses of absentee suits answering to faceless stockholders. There’s no tangible joy when things go right or anger when things go wrong. There’s nobody standing at the front of the room answering questions. There’s no accountability.

Which brings me back to the Braves. In the aftermath of WatchUsBreakEverySigningRuleGate -- which led to lost prospects; further sanctions in the international signing market; the firings of former general manager John Coppollela (who was permanently banned from baseball), and special assistant Gordon Blakeley (suspended for a year); and president John Hart slinking out the door, leaving a grease stain along the way -- there are a number of issues Liberty has never publicly addressed.

I emailed questions to Courtnee Chun, senior vice president of investor relations at Liberty Headquarters in Englewood, Colorado, which sits 1,392 miles from SunTrust Park, if you make your way to I-70 west.

I asked her if it’s true, as I had heard, that Liberty was doing its own investigation into the rules infractions, given that an estimated $20 million in signing bonuses was burned when the Braves were stripped of 13 prospects.

I asked if the future of Braves CEO Terry McGuirk was being evaluated, given he’s entrusted with budgets and is ultimately responsible for the lost millions and the Braves’ brand getting stepped on.

I asked if Liberty plans to allow the Braves to increase their payroll to improve the on-field product. 

I asked why Liberty had not made any statement on the saga to this point.

I asked what measures Liberty is taking to prevent this from happening again.

I didn’t ask about the value of Braves’ stock because I know that’s always a sore point.

This was the response Chun emailed me:

“We support the efforts of the Braves to ensure solid controls are in place and that this conduct does not occur again. We have confidence in Terry McGuirk, Alex Anthopoulos, and the management of the Braves to lead the team to on-field success.”

There were no specific answers to the specific questions. Let me translate the statement because I’m fluent in corporate non-answers: “We have assets totaling $41 billion. Our empire has a market value of $80 billion. I’ll give you a genuine and transparent response when you pry it from my cold, dead but well-manicured hands. Go Bears! I mean, Braves!”

Sorry. I need more.

The Braves’ players, coaches, scouts and fans certainly deserve more.

There has been no accountability in this organization, from McGuirk down. Nobody wants to answer questions, least of all McGuirk. He declined comment throughout MLB’s investigation, avoiding questions about himself or Hart. He attempted to spare his good friend Hart humiliation and slid him into a “special advisor” position until later making a U-turn after finally feeling compelled to do so.

McGuirk spoke at a season-ticket holder breakfast two weeks ago and reportedly stated the franchise would not be brought down by a “rogue employee.”

As if Coppolella did this on this own. McGuirk hands down budgets. Hart oversaw baseball operations. John Schuerholz, the former general manager who was just inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame, still had his tentacles in the organization. Coppolella: not rogue. He may have been the lead dog, but the chairs around the conference table were all full.

MLB sought to avoid putting a blemish on Hart’s and Schuerholz’s career plaques. They have friends in high places. So does McGuirk. So he wasn’t held accountable.

The ball is in Liberty’s court. Blakeley met with MLB. He is expected to meet with Liberty officials. The man knows where the skeletons are buried. If Blakeley goes public and indicts the unpunished, how will Liberty look?

Do owners believe the Braves will fix themselves if some of the same people involved in the rules-breaking are still in place? More important, do they care? Can McGuirk be trusted to be their oversight of the Braves?

As for the budget, it’s hard to imagine the Braves not getting significantly better in 2018 without increasing their payroll, particularly in the area of starting pitching. 

Former Braves great Dale Murphy was critical of Liberty Media during a taping of the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast Tuesday, saying, “There’s often a correlation between success and paroll. If you’re not in the top five in payroll, it’s going to be tough.”

Success in pro sports begins when the person in the owner’s box knows what they’re doing.

The Braves have a problem. Their owner’s box is empty. They can’t fix the problems until they fix that first.

Subscribe to the,We Never Played The Game” on iTunes or on the new AJC sports podcasts page. Fresh podcast with Dale Murphy

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About the Author

Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.