Wiedmer: Do 2013 Braves miss Chipper's leadership?

Wiedmer: Do 2013 Braves miss Chipper's leadership?

June 24th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones watches a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates in Atlanta in this June 4, 2013 file photo.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

The meeting occurred early in 2004. So many of the Atlanta Braves' clubhouse leaders through their 1990s decade of dominance gradually had exited the Big Peach: Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez.

Pitcher John Smoltz sat down with third baseman Chipper Jones and told him, "You need to offer constructive criticism to the position players. It will come better from you than me. I'll talk to the pitchers."

And who would become the pitchers' clubhouse leader when Smoltz parted ways with the Braves following the 2008 season?

"The onus fell on me for everything," Jones said last week, a few minutes before he took the Chattanooga Convention Center stage for this newspaper's Best of Preps banquet. "I kind of became the clubhouse leader by default."

By scoring four runs in the opening inning of Sunday's 7-4 win at Milwaukee, the Braves snapped a scoreless streak of 24 innings and a losing streak that had reached three games.

Now 44-33 for the season, they remain comfortably atop the National League East, six full games ahead of second-place Washington. But the NL East is the only division in the major leagues with only a single team north of .500.

So are the Braves really any good? Or are they just fortunate to be in a weak division?

Moreover, in light of Dan Uggla's comment following Atlanta's second straight 2-0 loss to the Brewers on Saturday night, is anyone stepping up to replace Jones in the clubhouse, where he almost single-handedly appearedto run the show during last year's run to the playoffs?

Said Uggla: "We've got to pick up our attitude, pick up our intensity. I'm not saying we didn't play hard today, or we didn't play hard yesterday, but we've got to pick it up in every aspect."

No one needs to pick it up more than the player some have dubbed Dan Struggla, given his .190 batting average and league-high 96 strikeouts. On the other hand, he also has 13 home runs and is fourth on the team in RBIs and second in walks.

In many ways, Sunday was a microcosm of Uggla's season -- two hits in five at-bats, one RBI and three strikeouts. Ugggggg ... la!

So even though his Saturday quote was followed by a Sunday win, it's difficult to see Uggla replacing Jones as this team's leader.

Then again, Chipper doesn't see the need for a single person to replace his clubhouse leadership.

"I think it's shared," he said. "B-Mac (catcher Brian McCann) is probably the position player who's looked up to the most. Among the pitchers, Tim Hudson is obviously held in high regard. They're going to be fine. This team wants to do whatever it takes to win a [division] championship."

McCann certainly led the team out of its brief funk Sunday by smashing a first-inning grand slam, the 10th of his career. It snapped a personal 1-for-16 slump for B-Mac.

But it also underscored a continuing problem for Atlanta, an all-or-nothing mentality that seems far too dependent on the long ball. Even in that win-delivering first inning, three Braves struck out.

Yet the team is 40-9 in 2013 when hitting at least one home run.

Unfortunately, the Braves are 4-24 when they fail to hit at least one pitch out of the yard.

Given his .303 career batting average and 1,623 RBIs and the fact that he spent all of his 19 major league seasons with the organization, Jones would seem a perfect candidate to return to the Braves as a hitting coach.

"If I was to get back into baseball, that's the job I'd consider," Chipper said. "And I think I'd have something to offer. I've always been fascinated by the science of hitting. Can the hitter out-think the pitcher? That's always the challenge.

"But becoming a coach would also mean me returning to that lifestyle, to being back on the road and away from my kids. I've made promises to people that I intend to keep, and those promises include being here for my children during the season."

But would he consider giving his advice to a team struggling at the plate, a team that surely would greatly respect his opinion.

"I'm not going to be a doting father [to the team]," Chipper said. "They need to figure this out on their own, and I know they will."

They figured it out Sunday. Or as McCann said afterward, "We'd lost a couple in a row, but all in all we've having a really good year."

And all in all, they are. But if the Braves don't soon figure out how to win without the long ball, their postseason stay -- assuming they ultimately win the East -- could be painfully short.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com