Monday, May 9, 2005

He owned the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks. He won the America’s Cup yacht races. He founded CNN. He created the Goodwill Games. He pledged $1billion to the U.N. Foundation. He was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” He would marry a movie star, Jane Fonda.

But when Ted Turner tried to manage the Braves as a temporary replacement for beleaguered incumbent Dave Bristol, he became a one-day non-wonder. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and National League president Chub Feeney shot him down after one game, ruling that anyone who owned stock in a club could not manage it.

Turner, aka the Mouth of the South, responded typically. “They must have put that rule in yesterday,” he told The Washington Post the next day. “If I’m smart enough to save $11million to buy the team [from longtime owner Lou Perini in 1976], I ought to be smart enough to manage it.”

Turner’s first and last game as a major league manager came on May11, 1977, at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium. He wore uniform No.27 and sat quietly in the dugout as the hapless Braves lost to the Pirates 2-1 — their 17th straight defeat in what would be a 61-101 season.

Perhaps fortunately, Turner had little chance to use any strategy. All the scoring came in the first three innings. Atlanta had only six hits against winning pitcher John Candelaria and Pirates closer Goose Gossage.

Longtime Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren was in the manager’s office before the game when Turner met with his coaches.

“[Pitching coach] Johnny Sain probably was the only person in Pittsburgh who didn’t know what was going on,” Van Wieren recalled. “He finally said, ‘Where’s Dave?’ He had no clue. … That was a fun day. We weren’t winning much, but we had fun.”

The next day, with coach Vern Benson in nominal command, the Braves ended the losing streak with a 6-1 victory. The day after that, when Bristol returned early from his Turner-imposed vacation, the Braves were shut out by the St. Louis Cardinals.

Was Turner upset or even dismayed at becoming an ex-manager practically before he had learned to chew tobacco?

“Well, I’d like to be down there to take some credit for this,” the 38-year-old multimillionaire told a Post reporter the next day as obscure starter Max Leon pitched three-hit ball for seven innings and drove in three runs in the Braves’ victory.

After the game, the players celebrated in the clubhouse by guzzling and spraying champagne as if they had won something important. They hadn’t, of course, but it didn’t matter. The point was, they had won.

Originally, Turner had planned to manage his team for 10 days while Bristol relaxed at home in Andrews, N.C. After Kuhn and Feeney killed the plan, the owner bristled.

“I want to manage even more now because they don’t want me to,” he said. “[Everybody in baseball] takes all this so seriously. This is just like a big Little League team to me.”

Would he perhaps take Major League Baseball, Kuhn and Feeney to court, charging that his inalienable right to manage a team he owned had been violated?

“No, I’m being a good boy,” Turner told Feeney uncharacteristically in a telephone conversation the day after. “No … lawsuits. I just want to get along.”

It’s no surprise that Turner, usually a maverick, wanted to avoid problems with the game’s establishment. His aggressive pursuit of free agent Gary Matthews after the 1976 season had brought a one-year suspension from baseball, a penalty that was delayed when Turner appealed.

Surprisingly perhaps, Turner’s players supported his managerial effort, though he probably couldn’t have explained the infield fly rule or given a sign.

“Ted’s the best owner in baseball, and the other owners are trying to blackball him from the game,” pitcher Andy Messersmith told The Post. “They’re loving this nosedive we’re in because they can say, ‘See, you can’t have fun playing baseball, you can’t be loose, you can’t be interested in the fans and the players before the profits.’”

Turner’s brief fling at managing brought him almost as much attention as would his victory with Courageous in the America’s Cup yacht races later that year. A year afterward, he explained his baseball motivation in a Playboy Interview.

“I figured if I could just get down in the dugout with some authority, I might find out what was wrong. When things are going bad, there are 10,000 guys in the stands who think, ‘If I could just take over this ballclub for a while, I’d straighten them out.’ But Kuhn said I couldn’t manage again. I asked him if it was OK if I went and managed in the minors for a year and really learned how to do it. He said, ‘Nope.’”

The interviewer asked how Turner had managed — pun intended — to alienate almost all of his fellow owners.

“They didn’t like some of the other things I did at the ballpark. One time last year, I just decided to run out with the ballgirl when she went out to sweep the bases between innings. I swept the bases, then did a flip at third base. … You want to know why I bought the Braves? Because the stadium is one big playpen where I can have 53,000 of my friends over for a little fun.”

Turner’s idea of a “little fun” also included racing an ostrich around the ballpark and pushing a baseball from first base to the plate with his nose. Not even Bill Veeck, a previously flamboyant owner who rankled his peers, went that far.

Eventually, Turner got serious and began turning the Braves over to people who were winners. First Stan Kasten and then John Schuerholz brought some order to the front office. The Braves remained mostly out of contention, except for a National League West title under Joe Torre in 1982, but Bobby Cox returned for his second stint as Atlanta manager in 1990 and soon began his ongoing 16-year reign that has produced 13 straight divisional titles.

With his usual lack of restraint, Turner anointed the Braves as “America’s Team” when TBS, his cable “superstation,” began telecasting their games nationwide in the early ‘80s. But he began losing control of the Braves and Hawks in the late 1990s after Turner Broadcasting merged with Time Warner and subsequently with AOL.

Now, at 66, the former Captain Outrageous — listed sedately as “R.E. Turner” — serves on the board of directors of the Braves and stays out of the spotlight even though the club’s ballpark (built as a venue for the 1996 Olympic Games) is named after him. But still remembered is his comment some years after his abortive attempt that “managing isn’t that difficult — all you have to do is score more runs than the other guy.”

That sounds like something Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra might say, which puts Ted Turner in pretty good baseball company.

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