Braves Lead-Off Luncheon full of laughs

Braves Lead-Off Luncheon full of laughs

BUCKHEAD, Ga. -- Maybe it's that they're no longer considered the overwhelming favorite in the National League East or that they're 5-1 after their season-opening series with the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets, the teams that are favored, but something is different with these Atlanta Braves.

The Braves, once considered the stiff, buttoned-down, humorless group that was so focused on the business of winning that they never saw the fun side of the game of baseball, showed at Tuesday afternoon's Lead-Off Luncheon at the InterContinental Hotel that there's a breath of fresh air blowing through the club that has everyone, from the veterans to the kids, downright giddy.

At times, all that was missing was the snare drum and cymbal for the rimshots.

"It's a privilege to be here today. It's always more enjoyable to speak on behalf of the team when you're 5-1," said veteran ace John Smoltz, who served as the keynote speaker. "I started to put together why they asked me to speak, because the last time they asked me to speak at a function like this was in 1991. I was trying to get people on board. Get season tickets. You never know. Miracle of all miracles, we went from last to first and we sustained the long streak, 14 years.

"We obviously had a little hiccup last year, so it's my job to start another 14-year streak. That's why I'm speaking now. Part of the next 14 years. [Jeff] Francoeur always [kids] that I just missed Babe Ruth when he broke in."

After Smoltz proved that he could throw one-liners as nasty as his splitter, the Braves kept the crowd entertained through a video display.

But these weren't highlights of years past or even of the past week. Instead, they chose an offbeat poll of the players. The questions ranged from the sublime -- What was your first job? Who was your favorite superhero? -- to the ridiculous, such as What did you get most in trouble for as a kid? What is your personal kryptonite? What food could you eat to win an eating contest?

The best reaction came to this question: Who would you least like to room with on a road trip? The crowd, which groaned in anticipation, was roaring by the end, as player after player named Brian McCann. The segment ended with McCann naming reliever Blaine Boyer, who he claimed is even messier than he is.

Longtime announcers Pete Van Wieren and Skip Caray then led an offbeat question-and-answer session with Francoeur, McCann, Bob Wickman, Bobby Cox and Chipper Jones. The biggest laugh came when Van Wieren asked them who their favorite player was when they were growing up.

McCann evoked laughter with his response, "I was a big fan of [former Braves catcher and current bullpen coach] Eddie Perez." Cox almost brought down the house when he followed Wickman's answer (Robin Yount and Paul Molitor) with his tongue-in-cheek response, "Eddie Perez as well."

The difference in the turnout and enthusiasm of the crowd at this third annual event impressed Braves chairman and president Terence McGuirk.

"Derek Schiller, the Braves senior vice president of sales and marketing, told me today that we have twice as many people here today as we did last year or the year before," said McGuirk. "The optimism of the team right now is unbelievable. Bobby Cox and [general manager] John Schuerholz have done an amazing job since the end of '06 in retooling and rebuilding. I think that's also part of the new optimism and enthusiasm, how exciting this new team is."

As the players left to prepare for their game with the Washington Nationals and the crowd filed out, there was more of a feeling of having left a good show than having attended a simple luncheon.

Prior to the luncheon, a Braves Baseball Festival took place, featuring Braves alumni Mark Lemke, Pete Smith and Terry Harper greeting fans and signing autographs. The festival also included the 2007 Braves Tomahawk Team and Heavy Hitters Drum Line, the Ruby Red Dixieland Band, and inflatable hitting and pitching games.

Inside, fans had a chance to take part in a silent auction featuring Braves and Major League Baseball memorabilia, with all proceeds going to the Atlanta Braves Foundation.

Jon Cooper is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.