My All-Time Favorite Minor League Teams: 1981 Richmond Braves

The damndest thing happened in the summer of 1981 — baseball went on strike. No superstation! No internet! What was a fan to do? In response, newly rechristened SuperStation WTBS (formerly WTCG-17 Atlanta) decided to bring their MLB broadcast crew of Skip, Pete and Ernie to AAA to cover the Braves AAA affiliate in Richmond, VA for the duration of the labor stoppage. And so my minor league fixation was born, the 1981 Richmond Braves.

It helped a great deal that the Richmond 9 were actually a pretty good team with a core that would feature in our dreams — and break our hearts — in the years that followed.

1981 Richmond BravesBraves

  • Manager: Eddie Haas
  • Pitching Coach: Johnnie Sain
  • Record: 83-56
  • 605 runs scored 546 allowed

The International League of the early 1980’s was far different than what we are accustomed to today: games averaged a little over 8 runs (and less than 2 hours!) while the starting pitcher finished the deal almost 30% of the time. 10-man pitching staffs were the norm and the extra bench players were almost uniformly awful. It was not unusual for a AAA team to have an average age greater than their MLB counterpart as guys hung onto their dreams/careers for far longer than today. For instance, in 1981 there were 13 IL players who were already over 30 and would never play in a MLB game. The R-Braves bucked this trend as they had only 1 old guy — although, true to form he would never make the majors — and were the 2nd youngest team in the league.

As for the team, I’m just going to mention the players who made it to Atlanta, but most of the other players were easy to root for and several of them gave great interviews that sadly no longer appear to exist.

The whole infield would see time with the big team over the next few years, although only 21-year old catcher Matt Sinatro was any kind of prospect. He looked to be 15. 2B was manned by old man Chico Ruiz who had no arm at all and whenever possible lobbed the ball to first underhand. Gotta admit I loved that. The shortstop was Paul Runge, who would put up about half a win of value for the Braves over the next 9 years. At AAA, he was, well, not a star, but a very good player. Randy Johnson — unfortunately for us Braves fans the wrong one — was an excellent defensive 3rd baseman who fell flat in Atlanta both times Bob Horner broke his wrist.

Out in the pasture the team’s actual stars hung out. CF Brett Butler would be a quality player for the next 15 years although, thanks to The Worst Trade of All Time, little of it would be spent on the Braves. He won the IL MVP in ‘81. Left fielder Larry Whisenton was the other offensive standout although he could never turn his AAA success into much in Atlanta.

The pitching staff was the true strength of the team and every member would see significant time in the show (although, to continue the theme, usually not with the Braves). A young Ken Dayley led the team in innings and the league in wins while walking nearly six guys per nine. Steve Bedrosian was still a starter and tied for the league lead in complete games with long-time Pirate Larry McWilliams. Closer was generally manned by groundball specialist Carlos Diaz who worked to make every save an adventure.

The MLB strike lasted from mid June to the end of July so I ended up missing a pennant race that saw the team finish 5 games behind the hated Columbus Clippers (Yanks, natch). In the playoffs, Richmond came from 2 games to 1 behind to defeat the Tidewater Tides in a low-scoring affair marred by 5 rainouts. Meanwhile, Columbus dispatched Rochester in similar fashion. For the finals, Columbus defeated the R-Braves 2-1 after another 5 rainouts pushed the games into the planned instructional league schedule. Both teams requested Columbus be declared champs.

Thanks for reading this retrospective piece on the 1981 Richmond Braves! If you enjoyed this piece, check out our Braves Prospects Lists here!

15 thoughts on “My All-Time Favorite Minor League Teams: 1981 Richmond Braves”

  1. Stu, re: your comment that got JC’ed at the end of last thread, I’m pretty sure that Josh Donaldson was the scamp (I remember seeing several comments along the lines of “JD you lovable mulleted scamp” or something to that effect)

  2. Great remembrance, Karl. I dimly recollect this brief era — don’t think I watched much. Do you (or anybody) recall what Skip had to say about schlepping around AAA that summer? I’ll bet he had some doozies about hotel accommodations, janky broadcast booths, et al.

    For a too-deep dive into Larry Whisenton (I think this was my most recent effort here):

    Larry Whisenton (by sansho1)

  3. I watched every broadcast and can say that Skip was not at his sarcastic best. He seemed to save his best jibes for Marvin Miller and Ray Grebay (the owners rep) as the crew seemed to blame the 2 of them personally for the strike. Whenever some positive development made the news, whichever of the 3 were leading off the broadcast would start with, “And in a rare moment of sanity…such and such happened today. Oh, and today were are broadcasting from Richmond, VA…” Apparently Ted was anti-strike and allowed them to actually say what they wanted about the issues.

  4. Neil Greenberg, who is smart, quotes Clay Davenport, a pioneering sabermetrician who is very smart, arguing that the Mets will be the second-best NL team this year because of their pitching, which is dumb.

    Why did these smart people say dumb things? Traipse with me, dear reader, for a few more paragraphs.

    Basically everyone agrees that the Mets will be good at pitching. This is because Jacob DeGrom is always good, Marcus Stroman is usually good, and even though Edwin Diaz was bad last year and Noah Syndergaard may have been below his usual standard, he will probably bounce back to being good.

    (Note that FIP, and hence fWAR, do not think that Syndergaard was bad last year. His ERA was a full run higher than his typical standard, but FIP doesn’t care, because FIP regards defense-mediated runs — anything other than homers — as the product of luck more than skill. Which is, in my view, a useful overstatement, but not worth taking in isolation.)

    Basically everyone agrees that the Mets are indifferent hitters — they have Alonso, Conforto, and McNeil, and Nimmo if he’s healthy (which he rarely is) but the other half of the lineup isn’t much good. And the fielding is pretty bad, though if Amed Rosario can figure out to pick it, maybe they can be better.

    Essentially: the Mets are insanely top-heavy. If DeGrom goes down, this is an 80-win team. If Alonso goes down, they’ll struggle to break .500.

    But the thing that you always have to remember about the Mets is that they are poorly financed and poorly run: the Wilpons, who it appeared would be selling the team but who now remain firmly in charge, are still running the team like a thrift store because of Madoff fallout, and I’ve never trusted the Mets training staff to keep players healthy. The Wilpons have insulted numerous injured players by essentially insinuating that they weren’t man enough to play, which certainly did not help their injuries heal faster, including their almost-manager Carlos Beltran, who cheated so much with the Astros that he fired before playing a single game, which is the most Mets thing he ever did in his career.

    Finally, it’s really really really hard to predict what pitching will be like next year. Will MLB change the ball again? If so, then Alonso’s homers could fall by a third, and the Mets’s apparent advantage in pitching and run prevention could dissipate. Or will the “rabbit” ball continue, with new franchise home run records set by multiple teams? If so, then Edwin Diaz might continue to struggle. (Many people speculated that the new ball, with its lower seams, led to worse movement for the slider that he and Syndergaard throw, leading to elevated home run rates — hence, not exactly “luck,” but actually grounded in a definable cause. Of course, we really don’t know for certain.)

    The Mets could be a dark horse candidate to make a run, of course. They have a lot of stars and someone always picks them as a dark horse. But they have a persistent knack for underachievement, and their strengths are flimsier than you’d like, given the unpredictability of the modern run environment. I’d much rather bank on a team that pays its rent with its offense, like the Twins, than a team with a bunch of hard-throwing right-handers who just started giving up more home runs than usual. Even if the dead ball kills the Twins, you’d think that it would kill everyone else at the same rate. Predicting pitching has always been much more of a sucker’s bet.

  5. All I have to say is that I loved Brett Butler. :-(

    That trade was the one that was supposed to put us over the top and it put us six feet under instead.
    What’s worse is that everyone in the world knew it from the start except Braves executives, apparently.

    Always harken back to that any time someone wants us to trade for “an ace” especially if it costs us some integral part of the team we already have. I have to put that as a big fat check mark in AA’s favor so far. Maybe he hasn’t made “the big trade” so far but he also hasn’t made the big blunder either.

  6. The thing about “the one that was supposed to put us over the top” is that it’s usually just like the “one last big score” from the movies — you’re almost never as close as you think. (Ultimately, that was the problem with the Teixeira trade, too, and it was certainly the problem with the Edwin Diaz/Jarred Kelenic trade, as well as too many others to count.) Most of the time, it’s an 80-win team that thinks it’s an 85-win team, so they think that one move will take them to 90 wins, and then the bottom falls out and they win 75.

    If the Braves did something crazy like trading Pache for Bryant, I wouldn’t have a serious problem with it. We’re not an 80-win team, we’re an 85- or 90-win team, and I’d love it if AA took a shot with both barrels.

  7. Regarding the rabbit ball, I think if it’s gone this year, it hurts the Braves more than a lot of teams. Lots of wall-scrapers from this club. I have no data to back this up.

    Has anyone attempted to quantify the difference in distance the juiced ball made, and figured out which teams benefited the most?

  8. Paul Byrd (@PaulByrd36) tweeted at 11:08 AM on Fri, Feb 21, 2020:
    After some light harassment from Ron Washington, @Braves Acuña proceeds to flick 11 HR in a row to opposite field. Easily hit over 25 in BP and it may have been the greatest show in BP I’ve ever since Mark McGwire hit the Coke Bottle at Turner in 97’… @FOXSportsBraves

    I’m guessing the baseball remains lively.

  9. Wonderful memories, Karl, of a bittersweet season. My own favorite Richmond Brave of that season was starting pitcher Tony Brizzolara. Tony had made his major league debut with the woeful 1979 Braves, when he won 6 games, albeit with an ERA of 5.28. Although I didn’t really know him personally, I was friends with one his family members, and I got to sit in the player’s family section for as couple of his starts that year. (By the way, although the seats in that section were terrific, it did put a cramp in my freedom to comment on the players.)

    Brizzolara never made it back to the show for any extended period after his half season in ’79, but he continued to toil away in Richmond for the next six years. He won 61 games for the R-Braves in his career, which I’m confident without looking it up is the Richmond franchise record.

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