Any Minor League franchise that sticks around for a while is bound to run into a good season or two, maybe even a championship. For the Greenville Braves, though, the 1992 campaign was more a matter of alchemy than statistical probability.
“It was an unbelievable team we had from the beginning of the season all the way until the end,” said Javy Lopez, who played 115 games for the Braves' Double-A affiliate in a Southern League MVP effort before debuting with Atlanta in September. “But I would say it wasn’t until [after] the first quarter of the season when we kind of realized we had a special team.”
The pitching staff was made up mostly of names forgotten by the baseball world three decades later, but the young hurlers turned in results appropriate for the organization that featured a National League-best staff led by Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Some of the team’s best hitters were players who wound up with brief or marginal big league careers. On the other hand, Greenville had a couple prospects – Lopez included -- who helped Atlanta maintain dominance throughout the mid- and late-'90s. Whatever their respective destinies, these players formed a team that went 100-43 to win its division by 30 games before cruising to an SL title.
On the way to setting league records for wins, shutouts (24), and best road record (50-23), the '92 Greenville Braves led the loop in ERA (2.64 – the only team under 3.00), WHIP (1.151) and strikeouts (1,010), as well as batting average (.266), on-base-percentage (.340), slugging percentage (.422), runs (709), hits (1,258), home runs (130 – the only team with more than 104) and so on and so forth.
Lopez -- a three-time Major League All-Star, World Series champion and 1996 NLCS MVP – was a 21-year-old catcher who led the G-Braves not just from behind the plate but at it. He batted .321/.362/.507 with 16 homers and 28 doubles. He also played in the Eastern-Southern All-Star Game in Charlotte in front of his parents visiting from Puerto Rico.
“There was something at the beginning of the season that clicked and I got locked in,” he said. “Everything was enjoyable -- offensive, defensive, and we were winning so many games. Everything was exciting.”
Having entered the season as _Baseball America'_s No. 78 overall prospect, Lopez became aware of his stock rising through the summer.
“Considered a prospect? … I started to feel it a little after the All-Star Game, when I realized we had a special season going on, a special season for the team,” he said.
That was his second year under Grady Little, who also managed Durham in the Class A Advanced Carolina League in 1991 and whom Lopez credits for much of the record-setting team’s success.
“We had not only great players but our manager, Grady Little, was a very inspirational guy,” Lopez said. “Every time we showed up at the ballpark, he had a new quote written on the board for us to read, and that helped us come into the game every night with different positive attitude. That was a big adrenaline [boost] – coming into the game every time and you see something like that, having Grady Little motivate everybody and pushing everybody.”
Little won Manager of the Year honors from both The Sporting News and Baseball America.
“I think my best ability is to communicate with each individual player, however he needs to be communicated with,” he told The Sporting News at the end of the year. “Each player is different, and I have a knack for working with all of them.”
He also would have been the first to admit he had no shortage of talent at his disposal throughout that season. When the G-Braves lost shortstop Mike Mordecai to a promotion to Triple-A Richmond in the middle of the season, they got a more than satisfactory reinforcement in the 1990 No. 1 overall Draft pick. At age 20, Chipper Jones faced Double-A pitching for the first time and batted .346 with nine homers, 11 triples and 17 doubles in 67 games. Coupled with Lopez, he had Braves fans daydreaming about years to come. The duo did some daydreaming of its own.
“Just knowing that we are the next phase of Atlanta, we wanted to make it into the Major Leagues and make an impact for that team and that city,” Lopez said, noting the Braves were still shaking off several losing seasons of the '70s and x'80s (including a 106-loss campaign in 1988).
“We wanted to turn that into a winner, a championship, and that was, obviously, our goal. With the Braves, most of the players came from the Minors instead of coming from other teams, and a lot of teams [built through] free agency then, so that was special.”
Not all of the prospects on that ’92 G-Braves team developed into the Major League All-Star that Lopez became or the Hall of Famer Jones became. Melvin Nieves and Mike Kelly fell short of those marks, but each was electric in the Southern League. Nieves roped 18 homers and 23 doubles while posting a .381 OBP, and Kelly went yard 25 times and stole 22 bases. Tony Tarasco had 140 hits, two shy of Lopez's team high.
On the mound, Pedro Borbon and Greg McMichael (both on the way to solid Major League careers) were lights-out, mostly working out of the bullpen. Nate Minchey (who appeared in 15 big league games over four years) was the league's ERA leader with a 2.30 mark and shared the top spots with 13 wins and four shutouts. Dennis Burlingame, who never made the Majors, had a 3.09 ERA in 26 games, including 25 starts.
The club rolled through the postseason, flattening Charlotte and Chattanooga to take the crown and send Lopez, Borbon and Nieves up for an autumn stint in the bigs. The '92 Greenville Braves were named No. 23 among the Top 100 Minor League teams of the 20th century.
Although that G-Braves team played its way into history, the story of the franchise as a whole is the story of the Minor Leagues returning to a great baseball city. Home to the Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball History Library, Greenville hosted Minor League teams going back to the first decade of the 20th century. The city also featured a Braves team in the Western Carolinas League in 1963-64, but its residents went without pro ball from 1972 until the arrival of the Southern League Braves in 1984.
That was when Bruce Baldwin, who’d taken a Minor League operations job with Atlanta two years earlier, moved the team's Double-A affiliate from Savannah. They played in a new $3 million park called Municipal Stadium, which Baldwin helped fill by making close to 100 public appearances to hype the coming team during the 1983-84 offseason.
Baldwin, who’s currently president of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, came to town with experience as a Minor League umpire and front office experience in the North American Soccer League and as the GM for Eugene in the Northwest League, as well as running the show for the Braves’ Appalachian League club (Pulaski) and the G-Braves' previous incarnation in Savannah.
“I’ve been down the street a few times,” he told The Sporting News upon receiving the 1984 Executive of the Year award. “But, as corny as it might sound, I think everything I’ve done has led me to Greenville.”
The on-field product also did its part in establishing the Greenville Braves as a local institution worth following. The inaugural G-Braves went 80-61 to win the East Division. Although the club fell short of a championship, it succeeded in creating a bond with its city that remained until Atlanta moved the Double-A franchise to Pearl, Mississippi, where it’s still located, for the 2005 season.
On top of the historic 1992 campaign, the years between featured the kinds of memories that make Minor League Baseball beloved by communities across the country. In 1991, when Dave Letterman joked that he could throw a shutout inning in the Majors, the G-Braves invited him to try in the Southern League. In 1993, as the team closed in on the third of four straight seasons with the best overall record in the East Division, Mike Hostetler went the distance in a Sept. 8 no-hitter – the first and only one in Greenville Braves history.
And every night of every home game from 1984-2004, there were moments that made the team special to somebody.
By the end of the franchise’s time in Greenville, however, Municipal Stadium no longer was considered up to the standards of a Double-A ballpark.
“Because I didn’t know any better, I thought it was pretty nice,” Lopez said. “Every ballpark I played in, every year, the ballpark was better and better and better.”
In 2003, attendance fell to about 183,000 after years of the G-Braves welcoming in more than 200,000. Announcing the move to the Jackson suburb of Pearl the following April, Braves executive vice president of baseball operations Mike Plant (now president and CEO) told the media, “This is going to be our home for the next 20 years.” And it has been.
But Greenville got a happy ending, too. After one season without a team, it welcomed the Drive, the Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, in 2006 to the new Fluor Field. Last year, the Drive led the South Atlantic League with an attendance of 329,733, and Fluor Field is still considered one of the gems of the Class A level.
Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.