Monday, April 19, 2004

Braves Still Struggle Under Curse of Henry "The Babe" Blanco

APRIL 19, 2014
ATLANTA, GA- The Atlanta Braves, some of you may remember, won 12 consecutive division titles from 1991 through 2003. And as most Braves fans are painfully aware, in the ten years since then they have won exactly zero. Not a single one. Most Braves fans will tell you that one man can be blamed for this "curse", and his name is none other than Henry Blanco. Ten years after they let him walk, the Atlanta Braves organization is still regretting their fateful decision to not re-sign the soon-to-be Hall of Fame catcher after the 2003 season.

"Even though I was the architect behind all those great playoff teams," says former Braves GM John Schuerholz, "the one decision that I regret the most is letting Blanco go. It probably would have saved my job and the fortunes of the entire franchise. I still don't know how Terry Ryan knew he would blossom into a perennial All-Star at age 32. All I can say is no one ever doubted his genius after that move."

For those of you who don't remember, Blanco was the Braves backup (and Greg Maddux's personal) catcher during both 2002 and 2003, playing in 81 and 55 games each year respectively. He only posted a combined .202 BA with 7 HR and 35 RBI over that span, but the Twins' Ryan knew when he signed Blanco to a $750,000 deal in the winter of 2004 he had gotten a huge bargain.

"I knew there was something special about Henry," said Ryan, the mastermind behind the Twins five World Series victories in the '00s, "When we signed him, he was only supposed to be a backup for this kid named Joe Mauer. But Mauer struggled with injuries his entire career and never really panned out. Luckily, we had Hammerin' Hank to anchor the middle of our lineup that year [2004] and the rest is, well, history."

"History" is putting it modestly. Blanco became the Twins starter only a couple games into the 2004 season and immediately began flashing the form that will make him first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2016. He hit .344 with 41 HRs and 135 RBIs and was named the both the American League and World Series MVP that year. He would go on to average a .335/38/128 over the next eight years, firmly solidifying his place as one of the best catchers of all-time.

"I always knew Henry had it in him," commented current Braves manager Bobby Cox, now 73 years old and in his 35th season as a major league manager. "I told Johnny [Schuerholz] to hold on to him because he really showed some flashes during his time here, but he wanted to go with this Estrada kid. We all know how that worked out." Johnny Estrada hit .221 as a Brave in 2004 and was out of the game within two years.

Since Ryan "stole" Blanco off the free agent pile, the Braves and Twins franchises have gone in completely different directions. The Twins became the "team of the 2000s" with their five championships in six years (anchored by Blanco, ace Johan Santana, flame-throwing closer Jesse Crain, and outfielder "Sweet" Lew Ford). The 2004 Series win also netted the Twins their state-of-the-art stadium, Pohlad Park, which helped vault them into the top five teams league-wide in terms of revenue.

The Braves, on the other hand, quickly became the laughingstock of the National League. Even the lowly San Juan Expos have posted more .500 seasons (1) than the Braves (0) since 2003. But Cox (along with long-time pitching coach Leo Mazzone) remains optimistic about the future.

"I can feel it in my bones," says Cox. "This is going to be the year that J.D. Drew stays healthy and has a breakout season."

Meanwhile, the Twins are gearing up for yet another championship run. But Twins fans will never forget the man who almost single-handedly turned a low-budget playoff contender into a perennial power way back in 2004. A man who will always live on in the annals of baseball history. A man named Henry Blanco.

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