What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 5 of 25)
(continued from Bobby Cox)
Jeff Burroughs, in the context of the 1978 Braves, raises the question of protection. In baseball, the term “protection” is used to refer to how much effect a player in a batting order will have on the way the opposing pitcher treats the player one notch higher in the batting order. When a team is lucky enough to have a good slugger, that team will want to maximize the efforts of that slugger by placing another good hitter behind him in the lineup. With that protection, the opposing pitcher will be less likely to pitch around the slugger. Of course, not all teams are lucky enough to be able to protect their best slugger, leaving the opposition with a simple game plan: don’t ever give the slugger anything good to hit, walk him if necessary, and take a chance on the next guy, the flimsy protection.
In 1977, Jeff Burroughs swatted 41 home runs and drove in 114 runs. In 1978, the National League took the bat out of his hands. Among the players rookie manager Bobby Cox used to protect Jeff Burroughs in the lineup were (on multiple occasions in all cases) Biff Pocoroba, Brian Asselstine, and Rowland Office. Eventually, two very young, erratic sluggers, Bob Horner and Dale Murphy, joined the ragged collection of protectors, but their occasional flashes of power didn’t stop the opposition from taking a wide berth around Jeff Burroughs whenever the situation in the game was the least bit dicey—for the year, Burroughs walked a career-high 117 times, led the National League in on-base percentage, and despite batting .301 with 23 home runs with 30 doubles drove in only 77 runs.
Without protection, what chance have you got?
What protects you? This subject has come up before on this site in loose relation to Jeff Burroughs, whose 1974 card caused me to recall that when I worked at a liquor store in Manhattan in the 1990s we had a Jeff Burroughs bat hanging from two nails behind the counter. This was for protection, I guess, though none of us ever used it as such. Sometimes it was brandished for comedic purposes, and then in more solitary, anxious moments it was held, at least by me, as a way to pretend to feel a little more powerful in a setting that could occasionally seem a little scary. We got shoplifters periodically, gangs of street kids who fanned out around the store, some barking questions in our faces (“Yo, you got Alize?”) while others moved quickly up and down the aisles in their parkas, their hands moving fast. There wasn’t much subtlety in their method; it was built on speed, shouting, and menace. To get them out you had to confront them (“You got ID?”), which led to more shouting and menace, the aura of impending violence ratcheting up a notch. They’d be in and out quickly, maybe some bottles gone with them, and after they left I’d move back behind the counter feeling shaken and weak, and I’d pick up the Jeff Burroughs bat and hold it, imagining that I’d handle things differently next time.
One night when we were locking up, I made my co-worker Ngai laugh by updating the old “Another day, another dollar” saying with, “Welp, another day . . . and we didn’t get shot.” At that time I was immersing myself in violent movies of the 1970s, and someone was always getting their brains blown out, often in the very city in which I was living, and occasionally even in a liquor store. It was a small store, and usually there were only two of us on duty at a time. When I started, I was the guy who went out on deliveries, leaving the store under the watch of one guy, either Morty the boss, Dave the adjunct philosophy professor, or Ngai. Ngai was the gentlest and most introspective of the three, a sweet guy whose constant stream of hobbies that he worked on in the back during lulls eventually branched out from the peaceful pursuits of such things as origami, window design, drawing, and tending to bonsai trees to include obsessions with weight training, nutritional supplements, guns, and increasingly complicated and terrifying gravity knives. I didn’t share his interest in any of those violent or nonviolent pursuits and instead got through my hours by reading novels about alienation, staring at baseball games on the little television up front, or dwelling on whatever 1970s portrait of A Man Alone In A Society On The Brink I’d watched the night before. As the years went on, I eventually became the guy who stayed behind at the store while a newer clerk went out on deliveries. I’d sit there behind the counter, the Jeff Burroughs bat close at hand. On many occasions, this thought occurred: If someone comes through the door with a gun, what the fuck am I really going to be able to do with this Jeff Burroughs bat?
Which brings me to this question of protection. It’s a violent world, I guess. I wish I knew kung fu or something. Without it, I guess I’m just hoping to get lucky and get through the day without getting shot.
(Love versus Hate update: Jeff Burroughs’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)