Ted Turner got his cables crossed last season by the Chicago Cubs, who displaced Turner's Atlanta Braves as "America's Team" on TV sets from Ashtabula to Zearing.
The Braves not only suffered in the ratings, they took a dive in the standings, too, finishing 12 games out of first place in the National League West.
Now, it's one thing to finish second to the Dodgers--somebody had to be runner-up to Christie Brinkley in a swimsuit competition, too--but to come in second to the San Diego Padres? That's enough to make a guy want to fight, which is just what the Braves and Padres did last season in a beanball brawl that left black eyes all around.
Thus, Turner came to the same conclusion that his TV subscribers had. He had seen enough. So, in the interest of quality programming, Turner did what any self-respecting network executive would do. Last winter, he canceled one long-running hit--"The Joe Torre Show"--and unveiled a new lineup for which he spared no expense.
Among the new shows:
--"Sutter's Gold," in which a bearded riverboat gambler from St. Louis, known for the peculiar way in which he holds his cards--not to mention his split-fingered fastball--strikes it rich on Peachtree Street. A high-budget production at $40 million, starring Bruce Sutter.
--"Company Man," in which a loyal custodian for 26 years is suddenly promoted to manager and trades in his broom for a new uniform, a desk, and a chance to talk to reporters while sitting in his underwear. Imported from Richmond just for this role is Eddie Haas.
--"Miracles of Medicine," in which a doctor from Houston who takes only hopeless cases finds a third baseman who has never played a full season because of injuries and heals the third baseman's deformed right wrist. This show is on a trial basis, since no one is sure how long the wrist will hold up. Starring Bob Horner as the patient.
--"Murphy's Law," in which an unassuming Mormon superstar discredits the old canon that says anything that can go wrong will, and replaces it with one of his own, namely: Anyone who can win two MVPs in a row is a threat to win another, at any time, and somehow do it better. Dale Murphy plays the lead, the only part he knows.
--"Trimming Tummies With Terry," in which the Weight Watchers' all-stars are led in aerobic exercises by a relief pitcher who took a year off to wrestle Hulk Hogan before dropping 30 pounds last winter. Starring Terry Forster.
Does Turner have a sure-fire winner? There's no way of knowing in April. The only sure thing is in a Rob Reiner movie, not in baseball, but for that same reason the Braves have to be considered a prime candidate to unseat the Padres as Western Division champions.
"I'm going to get down, say my prayers and thank the Good Lord, and pray that it's all for real," Turner said this spring. "I sure hope it is. The money's on the line. The dinner bell is ringing."
Something to digest: Division champions just don't repeat. In the last three seasons, division champions in both leagues have failed to do so. The only division champion in '83 that had a winning record in '84 was the Baltimore Orioles, and they finished fifth in the American League East.
Although the Braves should mount the strongest challenge to the Padres in the West, the Mets are hoping, with the addition of catcher Gary Carter, to make it lights on for the playoffs, in lieu of lights out for the Cubs. Of course, the Democrats once entrusted their future to the hands of a Carter, too, and got two terms of Ronald Reagan as a reward. Jimmy Carter didn't have Dwight Gooden, though.
Here's a capsule preview of the division races, by order of preference:
1. ATLANTA--Last season, the Braves were 30-23 with Horner, 50-59 without him. The man they obtained to replace him, Ken Oberkfell, had one RBI after July 21. If Horner is indeed back--and so far, as General Manager John Mullen said, "the reports are too good to be true"--an offense that slipped from first in the league in '83 to 10th last season should be revived.
Beyond Sutter, the only reliever in history to have saved at least 20 games eight seasons in a row, the Braves now have what ex-Dodger Forster calls the best pitching he's seen in Atlanta. If Len Barker and converted reliever Steve Bedrosian are healthy, and Craig McMurtry can rediscover the sinker that made him rookie pitcher of the year in '83, the Braves' rotation is five deep, led by Pascual Perez and Rick Mahler.
Under Torre, who was fired with Turner still owing him $500,000 for the two years left on his contract, the Braves never had a winning record in the second half of the season. The Braves sacrificed personality when they replaced Torre with long-time triple-A manager Haas, but Haas' Richmond teams always played .600 baseball the last two months of the season.