LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The manager who would follow Bobby Cox wasn’t completely himself in year one. Not surprising. Fredi Gonzalez replaced a legend and his mentor.
With that as a backdrop, he wasn’t likely to walk into his first spring training as the Braves’ manager resembling a bulldozer with ears.
Gonzalez managed the Portland Sea Dogs in 1997.
“There’s a lot of stuff you think about in year one,” Gonzalez said. “Even though there was no pressure put on me by anybody here, you still knew who you were taking over for. You wanted to do everything the right way, and I say that even knowing that Bobby, in his eyes, is like my No. 1 fan.”
This will be Gonzalez’s third season since returning to the Braves, where he once coached. He has slipped into in a comfort zone. He can look across a field at Disney’s sports complex this spring and see Cox looking like any other retiree, tooling around in a golf cart, and not feel intimidated.
Nor does it matter that expectations for the Braves are higher now than in Gonzalez’s previous two seasons, the residual of General Manager Frank Wren’s winter fantasy league draft (B.J. and Justin Upton). Most would see raised expectations synonymous with increased pressure. But Gonzalez never has been more at ease with his position or how he fits in than now.
“To me, the goal has always been the same. That’s to make the playoffs,” he said. “We didn’t do that in the first year, and it was disappointing. Last year we made it but it’s one game, and a one-game playoff is a crapshoot. But I really love the way the team responded last year.”
Wren sees a different Gonzalez now than in 2011, when the Braves unraveled down the stretch in the manager’s first season and missed the playoffs. Whether it was justified or not, Gonzalez took some heat. The thought occurred: Maybe the obvious choice wasn’t the perfect choice after all.
“I think Fredi learned from the experience of 2011,” Wren said. “He did a real good job last year of staying in control. He had much more of a take-charge approach. I think it was extra hard for Fredi because of the respect he had for Bobby and how close he and Bobby are. Last year it seemed like he just told himself, ‘We’re going to do it my way.’ And while I say that, I don’t blame him for 2011. I think it was just one of those fluky things that happens.”
Asked if he ever second-guessed himself for giving Gonzalez the job, Wren said, “No. Never. I think he was the perfect guy at the right time. He’s continued to grow in the job.”
The Braves went 94-68 last season, tied for the fourth-best record in the majors. It was a five-game improvement over 2011. The team also avoided a repeat of falling into a late-season sinkhole. After raising concerns, losing 10 of 14 beginning in mid-August, they went 20-9 to close the regular season, nearly the reciprocal of the season before (10-20).
No. It didn’t end well. The Braves hosted St. Louis in Commissioner’s Bud Selig’s controversial creation, the one-game, wild-card play-in.
That timeline intersected with the Braves’ year-long strong defense suddenly committing three errors and umpire Sam Holbrook suddenly forgetting the definition of the infield fly rule. The Braves lost 6-3.
“Fredi wasn’t out there catching ground balls and throwing balls away,” Wren said. “We led the National League in fielding percentage and it all fell apart in one game. We can’t put that on the manager and coaches.”
He’s right, of course. But Wren and Gonzalez both must be aware that the Braves are overdue for postseason success. It has been 12 years since the franchise won a playoff series. But this comes back to the pressure component that Gonzalez quickly dismisses.
“Pressure is people who have to work their (rear) off all week to put food on the table. We’re playing a game. This isn’t pressure. This is fun. I take every day like that. You drive around the (Florida) turnpike, and here we are getting ready to play a spring training game on a beautiful day, and there’s guys working on the side of the road, getting paid, what, $8 an hour? That’s pressure.”
He has it good. He managed in Florida. He worked for Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who spends offseasons burning down forests and then can’t figure out why people look at him sideways.
It took him two months to get over 2011. It took him a few weeks to get over the playoff loss. This season, the bar is high, but Gonzalez embraces that.
“My goal is always the same — make the playoffs and go from there,” he said. “If we had a lesser team, we’d still have the same expectations, as far as I’m concerned.”
The losses of Chipper Jones, David Ross and others have led some to wonder about the team’s leadership. Again, Gonzalez smiled. Isn’t that his job? “As the manager, it’s my job to lead this team in a certain way,” he said.
He’s comfortable being the one out front.