Remember Tony Brizzolara?
He made his Braves debut on May 19, 1979, at the ripe old age of 22. A right-handed pitcher, Brizzolara was big, especially in that era. He stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 215.
The Braves had drafted him out of the University of Texas in the second round of the June 1977 Amateur Draft. He was the 30th overall selection.
The Braves had such a good draft slot because they were every bit as woeful then as they were on their recent road trip.
The ’76 Braves finished 70-92, dead last in the Western Division.
Things quickly took a turn for the worse. In ’77, they plunged to 61-101, last again, a mile (37 games) behind the Dodgers. They improved to 69-93 in ’78 (last, 26 games back). They would slip to 66-94 in ’79.
So, when this strapping young right-hander arrived in Atlanta, he was viewed as a much-needed shot in the arm for an ailing franchise.
But at that point, Brizzolara had barely pitched a full year in the minors. He had only logged 116 innings at the Triple-A level.
In the Rookie League at Kingsport in ’77, Brizz went 3-2 with a 2.33 earned run average. In ’78, he went 3-0, 0.90 at Single-A Greenwood, and 4-4 with a 1.93 era in 10 starts at Double-A Savannah.
Moved up to Triple-A Richmond, Brizz was hit hard. He went 3-4 with a 5.94 era in nine starts. That warranted more seasoning in Richmond. In ’79, he went 4-2 with a fine 1.91 era in nine starts. That warranted a promotion to Atlanta.
“Believe it or not, my first day in the major leagues was not that enjoyable,” Brizzolara told The Ultimate Strat Baseball Newsletter last December. “The Braves GM who signed me, Bill Lucas, an absolutely great guy, died unexpectedly just before I was called up. So, I had to deal with a quickly hired replacement.”
That would have been John Mullen.
“I asked a few questions, such as what would happen to my salary if I got sent back down. He told me I should be thankful that I was even there, because the only reason I was there was because of an injury! Nice thing to say to a 22-year-old.
“Well, I was with Atlanta the remainder of the year, and every time I won a game, I wanted to shake the ball in the GM’s face!”
Brizz pitched well in his debut, allowing the Giants two runs on six hits, with three walks and three strikeouts in six innings. He left with the score tied, 2-2. The Braves lost 4-2.
Not the performance of the savior of the franchise, but it offered the faithful a modicum of hope that help had arrived.
Still, Brizz found he wasn’t quite ready for prime time. “It was fairly awe-inspiring to face some of the stars I had followed since I was a kid,” he told the Newsletter. “For instance, Willie McCovey hit a double off of me in my first big league start. I faced Tom Seaver once. I got to pitch against all the National League stars of that era. It was a blast!”
Brizzolara would make 19 starts for those pitiful Braves. He went 6-9 with a robust 5.28 era. He allowed 133 hits and 33 walks in 107 innings pitched. That’s a tiresome WHIP of 1.547.
But he did have his moments.
“My first win sticks in my mind,” he recalled for the Newsletter. “I was facing J. R. Richard, and I gave up four runs in the first inning. And for some reason, Bobby Cox left me in the game. I ended up pitching eight innings, and only giving up those four runs. We came back and won the game.”
But here’s the crux of Brizzolara’s big league experience: “I remember more of the bad things that happened in games than I do the good things,” he told the Newsletter. “I realize that it was an accomplishment just to get where I got and do what I did, but when you are there and see other guys who you believe are no better than you go on and have a good career, it is definitely frustrating. It took a few years after I retired before I would attend a game.”
It would be four years before Brizz would pitch another game for the Braves. In ’83 and ’84, he pitched a total of 49 innings, going 2-2 with a 4.56 era.
And that was his big league career.
Brizzolara was the prime example of the Braves of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s being forced to bring pitchers to the majors before they were ready. Guys like Mickey Mahler, Rick Matula, Rick Behenna, Marty Clary, and Kevin Coffman. I have always thought that Brizzolara never recovered from the incessant poundings he took during that long summer of ’79.
And now, the Braves are employing almost an entire pitching staff of young people. As we have witnessed over the past six weeks, none of them seem to be quite ready.
You just wonder if the constant poundings will take their toll.
You wonder if the Braves are putting their futures behind them.