Braves soared when Turner quit meddling

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - The best move Ted Turner ever made with the Atlanta Braves was in moving out of the way.

As a hands-on owner, Turner was an obstacle to his team. As a figurehead, he's become a force. The secret to his recent success has been the recognition that baseball clubs are better left to experts than egomaniacs.

''For the 10 years I ran it, it was a disaster,'' Turner admits. ''But buying the Braves was a good move. As I relinquished control of the Braves and gave somebody else the responsibility, they did well.''

Stan Kasten presides over the Braves for Turner, and has overseen the club's rise from doormat to dynasty. He has brought order to Turner's chaotic organization, and produced four National League pennants in 10 years.

''He's more than entitled to do anything he wants, and I would not have any problem with it,'' Kasten said of his boss. ''It's his team. But what he wants is for it to be the best it can be and he's decided that the best way to achieve that is to let me run it.

Baseball not his game

''If Ted had dedicated himself to it, no question he would have been successful. Are you kidding? What has Ted ever failed at?''

Before his media empire expanded beyond his capacity for micro-management, Turner tried to put his personal stamp on the Braves with ruinous results. He achieved the highest payroll in baseball with a last-place team, and rivaled Yankee owner George Steinbrenner in bidding up the price of mediocre talent.

''When he first owned the club, he was extremely hands-on,'' said Braves manager Bobby Cox. ''He would be at the baseball office at 8 a.m. and left about 3 p.m. to go over to Channel 17. He worked himself practically to death to make both of them successful.''

Turner was a persistent presence in the Braves offices and, on one memorable 1977 evening, their dugout. He stepped in as manager in an effort to end a losing streak that would eventually reach 17 games, supervised the 17th loss, and then was ordered back to the stands by then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

''I was sitting at home that night because Ted didn't tell me about it,'' said Kasten, then the Braves' in-house legal counsel. ''I was single then, eating my TV dinner and turned on the TV and there he was in the dugout . . . The next day I was in Bowie's office.''

Braves just a hobby now

Turner's stewardship was often silly, but it was never dull. He once defeated Tug McGraw in a race that required the contestants to push an Easter egg down the third base line with their noses. Another time, he competed in an ostrich harness race. He signed a pinch hitter once only to discover the fellow was blind in one eye.

Then Turner became interested in other pursuits - cable television, population control, buffalo meat, Jane Fonda - and reason returned to his baseball operation. Braves General Manager Schuerholz says he meets with Turner only once or twice a year.

''He hires people who he feels are qualified and capable and gives them the wheel,'' Schuerholz said.

Under Kasten and Schuerholz, the relentless tide of red ink has been reversed. Next year, the Braves will move into the remodeled Centennial Olympic Stadium, and reach serious profitability.

''I told people last year that we could break even if we could just get to Game Nine of the World Series,'' Kasten said. ''I used it as a joke all year. It turned out to be too sadly true,

''This year was a little better for us, but nothing great. Next year we should finally reverse the unpleasant economics of the last three seasons.''

Not that it matters all that much. When Ted Turner's net worth reached $2 billion, he donated 10% of it to charity. As his holdings have grown, the Braves have become a hobby.

''What people have to realize is that baseball is not our main source of income,'' Turner said. ''I get my value from other things. We can afford to play the game.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 24, 1996.