Apr. 2, 2001: Haul out the pine tar! Limber the muscles!

Grab the horsehide and swing the lumber! It is baseball time again! Time to once again greet America (On Line)’s team – the Atlanta Braves!

Hope springs eternal. Over the past few years, our heroes have smashed our high expectations like Mark McGuire smashes fastballs. But this year may be different. Granted the combined age of the pitching staff nearly equals the cost of a field level ticket to a Braves game and last year, Chipper Jones made more errors at third base than Bill Clinton made bad pardons, but they did sign New Zealand’s best softball player. That is real progress.

I spent much of the off-season talking to a number of experts about the Brave’s chances for success this year. What follows is their view of how they think the team will fare this season.

Q: The Braves have come close to winning the pennant and World Series on a number of occasions over the past decade but fell short. What about this year?

A: It depends on getting rid of the distractions that have plagued them in the past. With Ted Turner having ditched Jane Fonda, fans won’t feel compelled to do a wimpy Tomahawk Chop out of deference to her political views. The trainers have strict orders to stuff John Rocker’s mouth with old newspaper clippings and then tape it shut. This will allow the Concerned Black Clergy to move on to other things like their heroic efforts to get Jesse Jackson to open up his Rainbow Coalition books for audit. All of this should help the team.

Q: I understand that ticket sales are down this year. What factors contributed to that?

A: The new owners, AOL/Time Warner/Ted Turner/Looney Tunes, forced the Braves to raise ticket prices this year because of increased costs. They found out that it takes a lot of money to pay Chipper Jones and the guy that says, “You Got Mail!” Unfortunately, because of the price increases only 817 people can afford to go to the Games this year.

Q: Any plans to increase attendance?

A: Absolutely. No team has better promotions planned for this year than the Braves.

Q: Can you give our readers some examples?

A: There is no doubt the best will be Ted Turner Insult Night. At each home game, some lucky fan will be selected to visit Turner’s box where he will insult the winner and their family. The beauty of this promotion is that it doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs, your ethnic background or your skin color — Turner will have an appropriate insult. It should be a lot of fun. In addition, those who have been insulted the worst, will be invited back for Ted Turner Half-Hearted Apology Night at the end of the year.

Q: Any other promotions that stand out?

A: There are a couple. One is Nuclear Disarmament Night. The 817 people who can afford to come to the games will yell out their favorite country and Turner will go and personally disarm that nation’s nuclear weapons. There is a little concern in the organization about this promotion. If Turner pushes the wrong button, it will severely impact the opportunity for future Insult Nights because neither he nor the rest of us will be around.

Also, the Braves haven’t forgotten those fans that can’t afford a ticket, which is most of the rest of the world. These folks can participate in the What a Stupid Question phone-a-thon with Braves announcer Skip Caray before each game. This promotion works much as Insult Night only you don’t have to be present to be made to feel unimportant by a member of the Braves organization.

Q: Speaking of unimportant, there are concerns that because of increased ticket costs and the fact that the World Series is played at 2 AM in December, Major League Baseball isn’t building a fan base with young people who are vital to the future of the game. Is that true?

A: Who cares.

Q: Finally, assess the team’s chances this year.

A: The hitting and defense should be okay. Pitching will be strong but the bullpen will be a question mark. However, their biggest problem seems to be psychological. The Braves sense that the new owners at AOL don’t have a lot of confidence in the team’s chances this year.

Q: Why is that?

A: AOL has just announced that it has leased Turner Field from July through October for NASCAR Racing.