Braves Complete Climb To The Top, Win World Series
HOUSTON—It is often said Disney World is where dreams come true.
Few knew it at the time, but five years ago, on the back fields of Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, the Braves were setting the stage for their dreams, and those of their fans, to finally come true.
It was on those back fields in the spring of 2016 that an 18-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr. could be seen taking at-bats against a 22-year-old Max Fried. That a 19-year-old Ozzie Albies and a 22-year-old Dansby Swanson could be found taking ground balls at shortstop together. That newly-drafted 18-year-old third baseman Austin Riley could be found in the cage and fellow 18-year-old righthander Mike Soroka could be found throwing bullpens.
The Braves had blown up a roster that had taken the team to the playoffs three times in five years from 2010-2014 but couldn’t get past the first round. They were good, but not good enough. After trading veterans like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel, the Braves found themselves near the bottom of the standings, with little in the majors to be optimistic about.
Hope lied in the future. It was on those kids, those fresh-faced newcomers on the back fields in Orlando, that the Braves pinned their championship hopes and dreams.
On a crisp Tuesday night, exactly 969 miles west of those back fields, those dreams came true. Following a five-year journey that included scandal, heartbreak, injuries and, ultimately, victory, the Braves finally became World Series Champions.
The Braves defeated the Astros, 7-0, in Game 6 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, finishing off a five-year rise from last place to the pinnacle of Major League Baseball. They claimed the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1995, and only the second in their 55-year history in Atlanta.
“There have been so many guys that have put in so much work over the years to make this moment possible,” Swanson said. “We've been grinding away at it for a long time. It's such a special moment.”
A direct line can be drawn from those back fields to the championship clincher. Swanson, now the Braves starting shortstop, made two spectacular defensive plays and hit a two-run home run over the train tracks atop left field to extend an early lead. Albies, once Swanson’s positional rival and now double-play partner at second base, snapped out of a series-long slump to go 2-for-3 with two runs scored. Riley joined them on the infield as the starting third baseman, and Freddie Freeman, the oldest homegrown Brave of them all, went 2-for-4 with a double and a home run that capped the scoring.
Appropriately, it was Freeman who caught the final out when Swanson scooped up Yuli Gurriel’s grounder to his right and fired across the diamond to first base. The 32-year-old first baseman was the one player the Braves kept through their rebuild. As the face of the franchise for more than a decade, he waited patiently through the lowest lows, knowing that maybe, one day, this group of kids could help him and the franchise achieve the highest of highs.
“I've said it many times,” Freeman said. “This organization drafted me when I was 17, and then they gave me the opportunity to be in the big leagues at 20 years old, and they gave me the starting job the next year. They didn't really owe me anything. I owed everything to them because they gave me the opportunity to live out a childhood dream.
“So in my mind, I wanted to do everything I possibly could to help get this team back to winning because I came up when we were winning. So what this organization has accomplished in six years, we lost 97 games in 2015, and six years later we're World Champions. That's extremely hard to do. And what this organization, the front office did to do that, it's special. It's a special group, what we were able to accomplish in such a short time.”
Of all those kids from the backfields, with the championship on the line, Fried was the biggest performer of all. In a postseason defined by starting pitcher struggles, the 27-year-old lefthander brought his best stuff of the year. After getting his ankle stepped on at a play at first base by Michael Brantley early in the first inning, there was a legitimate fear Fried wouldn’t be able to continue at his best.
Instead, Fried threw the hardest he had all season and neutered the high-powered Astros offense, tossing six scoreless innings in only 74 pitches. Given an early lead by Jorge Soler’s mammoth three-run homer in the second inning that sailed over the train tracks and left the stadium, Fried quickly and efficiently dispatched the Astros hitters as the Braves offense piled on, slowly and surely calming the nerves of Atlantans everywhere who feared another heartbreaking collapse from one of their teams.
Fried took the demons of Atlanta’s sports past and sent them down to the pits of hell with an array of 95-98 mph fastballs, 86-89 mph sliders—nearly 3 mph harder than he threw all year—and enough curveballs and changeups to keep Astros hitters from ever getting comfortable. He struck out six and induced 10 swings and misses before handing his bullpen a 7-0 lead, ensuring the outcome would not be in doubt.
“I knew that I could empty the tank,” Fried said. “It was the last outing of the year and definitely just running on fumes. It’s the end of the playoffs, but just kind of knew you had to get ready for one more.”
There was no secret the Braves were on the rise. They had the No. 1 farm system in back-to-back years in 2016 and 2017. Their star-studded Class A Rome team in 2016, featuring Acuña, Riley, Soroka, Fried and righthander Touki Toussaint, won Minor League Team of the Year. Acuña won Minor League Player of the Year in 2017 after a transcendent season. When the team arrived a year ahead of schedule and won the National League East in 2018, it was clear they would be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
But that does not mean the road was smooth. Far from it.
In 2017, general manager John Coppolella, charged with overseeing the rebuild, was banned from baseball after MLB found the Braves violated international signing rules. The team was stripped of 13 prospects, forced to forfeit a draft pick and severely restricted from signing players on the international market for two years. Special assistant Gordon Blakely was suspended for a year and president of baseball operations John Hart resigned in the aftermath of the scandal.
In 2018, the Braves failed to sign first-round pick Carter Stewart in an ugly spectacle that led to Stewart filing a grievance against the team, which was ultimately denied by an arbitrator.
In 2019, the Braves won their second straight division title only to be humiliated at home in Game 5 of the NLDS, when they allowed 10 runs in the first inning in a 13-1 loss to the Cardinals.
In 2020, the Braves finally won their first playoff series since 2001 and advanced all the way to the NLCS. There, they blew a three-games-to-one lead against the Dodgers, losing the decisive Game 7 after taking a lead into the sixth inning.
And in 2021, everything went wrong that could. In late May, left fielder Marcell Ozuna was arrested on domestic violence charges that led to him missing the rest of the season. In late June, Soroka re-tore his Achilles, knocking the standout young righthander out for the season after he missed most of 2020. And just before the all-star break, the Braves lost Acuña for the season after he tore his ACL trying to make a catch in Miami.
At the all-star break, the Braves were 44-45 and missing three of their best players, in addition to others lost to an assortment of injuries. Thoughts of making the playoffs, let alone winning the World Series, could charitably have been labeled “far-fetched.”
But general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who succeeded Coppolella and stabilized the organization after the international signing scandal, decided to take his chances. Seeing a healthy core of Freeman, Albies, Riley, Swanson, Fried and veteran righthander Charlie Morton and weak competition in the National League East, he made a series of moves that have come to define one of the best trade deadlines of all-time.
Not only did Anthopoulos acquire the players who would save the Braves season—he did so while giving up little that would adversely affect the Braves' future.
For Joc Pederson, the Braves traded first base prospect Bryce Ball to the Cubs. Pederson reprised his “Joctober” postseason heroics and hit two pinch-hit home runs while becoming a defining part of the team’s identity with his pearl necklaces. Ball, 22, hit .206/.351/387 in High-A.
For Adam Duvall, the Braves traded up-and-down catcher Alex Jackson to the Marlins. Duvall had 16 home runs and an .800 OPS in 55 games for the Braves while taking over as their starting center fielder. Jackson, 25, hit .157 in 42 games with the Marlins and is out of options.
For Eddie Rosario, the Braves traded Pablo Sandoval to the Indians. Rosario hit .271/.330/.573 in 33 games with the Braves and became the star of the NLCS, hitting .560 with three home runs on his way to MVP honors. Cleveland released Sandoval immediately after the trade was completed.
And for Soler, they traded pitching prospect Kasey Kalich to the Royals. Soler hit 14 home runs and had an .882 OPS in 55 games as Atlanta’s primary leadoff hitter and hit three go-ahead home runs in the World Series to win MVP honors. Kalich allowed more than a hit per inning and averaged 4.1 walks per nine as a High-A reliever.
When the trade deadline reinforcements arrived, the Braves were reeling. After they arrived, the Braves became one of the best teams in baseball.
The Braves went 36-18 after Aug. 1, a .667 win percentage. They then went 11-5 in the postseason while dispatching teams that won 95, 106 and 95 games.
“I remember we did we did our media call after we did those trades,” said Anthopoulos, who was forced to watch the World Series from home after testing positive for Covid-19, “and if I’d said, ‘Yeah, you know what? Eddie Rosario is going to win NLCS MVP and then when we get to the World Series, Soler will win World Series MVP,’ I mean, you cannot script it like that. The players obviously deserve a ton of credit for doing it.
“We weren’t the same team at the end. These guys played so well and it’s awesome. What everyone did, what everyone pulled together, it’s unbelievable.”
Still, the process of building this championship team stretched beyond one year and one person.
Five different general managers had a hand in acquiring the 26 players on the Braves’ World Series roster, a process dating back more than 14 years.
It all began with Freeman, who was drafted by John Schuerholz’s regime in 2007. Schuerholz’s successor Frank Wren brought in Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo, in addition to signing Freeman to an eight-year extension. Wren also was the GM when the Braves signed Acuña, who was not on the World Series roster but was critical in returning the Braves to contention.
Hart and Coppolella each brought in four players on the World Series roster during their short tenures as GM. Anthopoulos finished it off, bringing in 15 of the 26 players on the Braves’ World Series roster and overseeing each of their four straight division titles.
“When I got here, they had done tremendous work here,” Anthopolous said. “There was a ton of talent. John Hart, John Coppolella, Frank Wren, John Schuerholz, all those guys have such an impact on this team. There was a ton of talent. I think it was just a matter of try to stay the course and try to do the things that they had all done and continue to get better. And then obviously the players and the staff did incredible work. We were just going to try and make good decisions day in and day out and obviously they weren’t all going to be right.”
The Braves had made 12 playoff appearances since their last World Series appearance in 1999. That was the longest active streak of postseason appearances without reaching a World Series.
In many ways, it’s remarkable that this was the Braves team that ended that World Series drought. Not the 2002 and 2003 teams that each won 101 games and featured at least three future Hall of Famers. Not the 2013 team that won 96 games, second most in the National League. Not 97-win team in 2019 that had nine different players reach double-digit home runs. But this team, the one with a 52-55 record on Aug. 2 and an entirely new outfield cobbled together on the fly at the trade deadline.
Still, it’s not an accident that it happened. Plans don’t always come together, but in this case, this was the plan the organization set five years ago.
“We planned for a renaissance for this team that came with the new ballpark,” Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said. “We had big, big ideas on what this franchise can be as a result of The Battery and Truist Park and the success that it brought.
“A long-term plan is absolutely paramount. We haven’t wavered from it. We took the losses and the tough years like a man and we knew that was what was necessary to get to the next level. So I think we’ve been on a long-term plan, but we’re not there yet. We got there a little early with this World Championship, but my god, it’s incredible.”
It came in just the right year. It came the same year that Hank Aaron died, as well as Phil Niekro. It came in manager Brian Snitker's 45th year in baseball, and third base coach Ron Washington's 50th. Each earned their first World Series rings as part of a major league coaching staff.
It wasn’t always pretty. It wasn’t always clean. But in the end, through sheer force of talent and will, the dream that was birthed on those back fields at Disney World came true.
The Braves are World Champions.
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Five different general managers were responsible for acquiring the 26 players on the Braves' World Series-winning roster. Here is the full accounting of each player who was acquired by the organization under each GM.
John Schuerholz (1990-Oct. 2007)
Frank Wren (Oct. 2007-Oct. 2014)
John Hart (Oct. 2014-Oct. 2015)
John Coppolella (Oct. 2015-Oct. 2017)
Alex Anthopoulos (Nov. 2017-current)
Note: Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mike Soroka were not on the World Series roster and Charlie Morton and Ehire Adrianza were removed from the World Series roster. Acuna was signed during Wren’s tenure, Soroka was drafted during Hart’s tenure and Morton and Adrianza were signed during Anthopoulos’ tenure.