ATLANTA — Chuck Tanner's relaxed attitude has proved infectious for the Atlanta Braves.
They're not only are winning more often this year than last, but, win or lose, the Braves are going about the business of playing baseball as though it were indeed a game.
"Baseball should be fun," said Tanner, the Braves gregarious manager. "It was never intended to be a 9-to-5 job that you left on your desk. For the people who play major league baseball, it should be a lifestyle.
"I like the fellows who get to the ballpark early, who spend time playing cards, sharing a bucket of chicken," said Tanner, who took over the Braves last winter after spending the previous nine as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. "A baseball team should be a family, one that sticks together through the bad times as well as the good."
At the moment, you'd have to say the Braves times are somewhere in between. While winning 27 of their first 52 games is nothing to brag about, that's enough to have them only 2 1/2 games off the lead in the slow-moving National League West.
"I'm pleased with the progress we've made," said Tanner. "That's what you really strive for. To improve, regardless of how little, from day to day with the goal of reaching the point where you are good enough to win, and keep on winning."
Tanner inherited a club that finished 30 games under .500 in 1985 under Eddie Haas, who was the antithesis of Tanner's inspirational leadership.
"I'd heard some stories, but I tried not to pay any attention to them," said Tanner. "I told everybody when we first went down to West Palm Beach (the Braves spring camp site) this past winter that I wanted to start with a clean slate.
"I told them what I expected, that I wanted us to work in harmony toward the end of heading north with the 24 best available players."
Tanner, with the backing of new general manager Bobby Cox, wound up with the same starting eight that Haas used. But there was a big change in pitching and on the bench.
The Braves released veteran pitchers Len Barker, Rick Camp, Terry Forster and Pascual Perez. Rick Mahler was the only starter held over in a four-man rotation. The other slots went to relative newcomers Joe Johnson and Zane Smith, and David Palmer, a free agent formerly with Montreal.
While the move was toward youth in pitching, Tanner wanted experience on the bench where 36-year-old Ted Simmons, 32-year-old Omar Moreno, and 31-year-old Billy Sample joined 37-year-old Chris Chambliss to make up what those veteran reserves are calling the "Bomb Squad."
"I don't know what got that started, but I like it," said Tanner. "It gives them added incentive. It's not easy sitting on the bench, waiting your turn. Anything they can do to make that more enjoyable has to help. Every man on this team has a role to play. The Bomb Squad's motto should be 'Be Prepared,' because they never know when they'll be needed."
The "Bomb Squad" was quite evident in Game 50. The Braves, trailing Pittsburgh, 5-1, going into the bottom of the sixth, won 8-5 when Chambliss had a pinch-hit double and Simmons a pinch-hit grand slam homer.
"You could feel the electricity fly," said Tanner, who dashed out of the dugout to greet Simmons following the grand slam. "He's been there before many times. That's what he's here for."
"I thought I would have serious difficulty coming off the bench, but I haven't," said Simmons, long-time catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers. "I thought I might dislike it because I had never done it, never had to prepare myself to hit one time a night. Instead, I've gotten to the point where I like it."
It apparently hasn't been as easy to accept for Chambliss, who was pushed into a parttime role in 1985 after 14 major league seasons as a regular first baseman.
"I still don't like pinch-hitting," he said after that double, his 14th hit in 29 at bats, raised his average to .483. "People think that just because a veteran player begins to do well as a pinch hitter that it means he's accepted his role. You never accept just pinch-hitting. But you come to the realization that you aren't going to play regularly anymore--and you go from there."
"It seems like those guys come off the bench every time and get a big hit," said Mahler. "You get the feeling that when those guys come up in that situation, they're going to do it."