Braves’ winning culture a good model for Cubs
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org August 24, 2011 10:38PM
Chipper Jones hits a solo homerun in the top of the 7th inning. The Chicago Cubs host the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field on Wednesday, August 24, 2011. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:19AM
On his first charter flight as a member of the Atlanta Braves earlier this month, Michael Bourn sensed something strange after the plane landed.
‘‘I was wondering why some of the young guys were just standing back, just sitting back,’’ he said. ‘‘They let all the veterans go first.’’
It was a little thing, he said, but something that told him a lot about his new team.
He laughed when asked about how his old team, the Houston Astros, deplaned.
‘‘They’d do whatever they want to do,’’ said Bourn, who was traded July 31.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But as the Cubs start dropping the ‘‘C’’ word — ‘‘culture’’ — again in the wake of their latest regime change, it might be worth actually identifying what a winning culture looks like.
Chipper Jones, the iconic Braves third baseman, said it starts with a cohesiveness in the clubhouse that feeds in one direction — with little tolerance for those who don’t want to buy in or can’t handle it. (Think Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley.)
‘‘We’ve had a couple here over the years, but they don’t last long,’’ said Jones, who added that goes ‘‘hand-in-hand’’ with the way the game is played. ‘‘We’ve had some good leaders here over the years, starting obviously with [longtime manager] Bobby Cox. But the names on the backs of the jerseys — not only are they good ballplayers, but they’re good people, and they’re good teammates. And that’s been essential.’’
The Braves aren’t the first team in history to seek character players. The Cubs even have gone conspicuously in that direction since the lost Bradley year in 2009.
But an exceptional Braves farm system that the Cubs are trying to emulate is what makes the organizational philosophy work for more than just a few up-cycle years. They don’t just acquire the talent — they also keep it and teach the players the same thing all the way up the ladder, Jones said.
‘‘You were taught the Braves’ way from the get-go,’’ he said. ‘‘I had unbelievable instructors preparing me to fill Terry Pendleton’s shoes from the time I first donned a uniform. They have a plan in mind for you, and they are going to groom you for that for at least three years, so that when you get here you’re not overwhelmed.’’
For Jones, the first overall draft pick in 1990, that meant batting third in the order wherever he played in the minors, he said, because that’s where the Braves projected him.
By contrast, former top Cubs prospect Felix Pie projected as a leadoff-type hitter but batted third in the minors much of the way up. Pie never stuck with the Cubs and this week was designated for assignment by the Baltimore Orioles.
Another emphasis in the Braves’ culture is on winning at the minor-league level — again, something many organizations try to do.
‘‘I would dare say most of these guys who have come up through this organization have been exposed to championship baseball before they ever got here,’’ Jones said. ‘‘They’re grooming teams — not just the players, but the teams — to win championships in the minor leagues. There’s a certain level of excellence that’s expected of you even at the minor-league level.’’
When the Seattle Mariners turned a corner in the 1990s, one of the driving forces in the clubhouse was slugger Jay Buhner, who had arrived in a trade from the New York Yankees and who often spoke of a similar expectation in their system.
But the only way for a winning culture to be sustained, Jones said, is for a team to keep its best players and build a homegrown clubhouse environment that perpetuates the expectations and success.
‘‘There’s something to be said for that,’’ he said.
And sometimes he can recognize when opposing teams don’t have the same, strong team culture.
‘‘I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s the case with the Cubs,’’ he said. ‘‘They’ve had some very good teams here over the years. They beat us in the  playoffs. The problem is maintaining that.
‘‘And I think that when you develop from within and you create that loyalty with your own players that you’ve drafted and developed, they in turn have a loyalty to you. . . . And you have more of a chance to sustain excellence when you build from within, as opposed to trading away your prospects for the quick fix.’’