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Mudville: April 14, 2024 12:38 pm PDT
BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

Mark Lemke was instrumental in helping turn the Braves from a perennial last-place team into one of the most dominant teams of the 1990s, serving as one of the pillars that supported Atlanta’s rise, which culminated in a World Series title in 1995.

He was a post-season hero and spent 10 of his 11 Major League seasons with the Braves, earning his reputation as one of the most dependable middle infielders in franchise history. However, while Lemke, 57, is best remembered for what he did between 1988 and 1998 in Atlanta, he views his time growing up in upstate New York as being just as important and essential to his story as anything he was able to accomplish later in life.

Lemke was born and raised in Utica, which is not far from the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, where he was a baseball and basketball star at Notre Dame High School. He was headed to Purdue University before the Braves came calling in the 1983 First-Year Player Draft, setting him on a path that forever connects him with some of the most dynamic players of the era. Though north central New York might not be thought of as a hotbed for baseball, Lemke was part of a group of dominant players that sprang from that region including Philadelphia’s three-time All-Star Dave Cash in the mid-70s and Andy Van Slyke, who was a three-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner for the Pirates in the late 80s and early 90s.

“We had good baseball programs in Utica,” Lemke said. “And you can say it was good teaching and good schooling because we had limited playing time [because of winter spilling over into spring in upstate New York]. Dave Cash was from Utica and he was someone who I looked up to. He was a really good player. Andy Van Slyke wasn’t from far away, either. He was from the Utica area. You were able to say to yourself that it’s possible [to reach pro ball and the Major Leagues] because it wasn’t as if no one from there ever made it.”

Lemke certainly made it, ultimately appearing in 62 post-season games and in 1,038 regular-season games for the Braves. He hit .272 during the post-season, including batting .417 in the 1991 World Series against Minnesota and .444 in the 1996 NLCS against St. Louis.

He closed out his Major League career by appearing in 31 games for Boston in 1998 and then for the New Jersey Jackals of the independent Northern League in 1999 and 2000. It proved to be quite a run, one that might not have been possible had Lemke not been provided with a solid foundation during his formative years in Utica.

UTICA, WHERE’S THAT?

Utica, a small, rural city of about 60,000 people was best known for years for being one of the first ports to open on the historic Erie Canal that connected the Hudson River and Lake Erie in the 1800s and early 1900s. While the Canal has been resigned to history, the region’s love of baseball began during the same era has remained strong as evidenced by the fact that several of the game’s most memorable players in the latter half of the 20th century sprung from the Utica area.

Lemke speaks fondly of going to minor league games in Utica and Syracuse, which was home to the Yankees affiliate in the Triple-A International League during the 1970s. Bobby Cox, who would later manage Lemke in Atlanta, was the Syracuse manager for four years during that time.

“I went to a lot of Utica games but not as many in Syracuse,” Lemke said. “Bobby Cox was managing that team but I never looked down and said I’m going to be playing for that guy one day. The Blue Jays came into Utica in 1977 and I would go over to the park all the time to watch them.”

While the International League and the rookie-level New York-Penn League, in which Utica played, captured Lemke’s imagination, his own play was drawing the attention of others. He became a prominent basketball [point guard] and baseball star locally, excelling in both sports throughout the winter, spring and summer.

“Andy Van Slyke was four or five years ahead of me and we idolized a guy like that,” Lemke said. “Us kids knew him more as a basketball player; that was our sport. Andy was such a good basketball player and Dave Cash was the leading scorer in the city in basketball for so many years until that record was broken recently.

“There wasn’t much else to do when I was up there. This was before weightlifting and gyms so the only way you were going to get any exercise or get your muscles going in the winter was to be on the basketball court. It was harder finding a court than a baseball field in the summertime. I was a point guard and I took it pretty seriously. Once baseball season ended, it was full throttle on basketball. It was our little getaway in the wintertime.”

Lemke, however, was still known for his baseball exploits. He helped his Notre Dame baseball team win consecutive Sectional titles, earning writeups in the local press along the way. The June 2, 1983, edition of The Herkimer Evening Telegram went into great detail to discuss how Lemke’s first-inning homer and overall, three-RBI effort lifted Notre Dame to a semifinal victory over Herkimer. The next night The Syracuse Post-Standard gave him the headline “Lemke Hits and Pitches Notre Dame Past Homer” after he connected for a two-run homer in the top of the seventh and then came on in relief in the bottom half of the inning to seal the victory.

Atlanta Braves second baseman Mark Lemke snags a ground ball hit by Nelson Liriano in the sixth inning during a game with the Los Angeles Dodgers at Turner Field in Atlanta GA. (STEVEN R. SCHAEFER/AFP via Getty Images)

The story told of how “Lemke, a seldom used pitcher, struck out two batters with the bases loaded”. Lemke walked the first batter he faced to load the bases but then quickly retired the next two. “I wanted to come in the game; I knew I could do the job,” Lemke told the paper. “I was still calm after the walk,” he added.

The Braves selected him in the 27th round the following week, leaving Lemke with some decisions to make.

“I was aware of the draft because we always had draft picks from our area,” said Lemke, who also starred for and guided the Adrean Post American Legion team to a state championship in 1982. “I also played for the legion program that had Dave Cash and Jim Wessinger [who was a sixth-round pick by the Braves in 1976] play before me. So, I thought there was a chance I’d get drafted. I got drafted in the 27th round and I wasn’t particularly set on signing; more so I was headed to West Lafayette [Indiana] to play for Purdue [University].

“I think all the time about what might have happened had I gone there. Not that I regret anything but my life would have been different. The people at Purdue were great; I loved Purdue. I was very fortunate because I didn’t have a whole lot of offers. I had one from Georgia, that was an interesting one. The Purdue coach told me that if I visited Georgia he would take the scholarship offer off the table. [Future Braves catcher] Brian McCann’s father was the guy at Georgia arranging the trip. The Braves played Georgia in an exhibition and I ran over and saw Howie. He was an upstate New York guy. My life would have changed had I done that, too.”

That’s when the Bills were losing four Super Bowls in a row. Now we have lost two. Are these the Buffalo Braves? I would hear that more than anyone else because I knew exactly what they were talking about [living in upstate New York].

.

HELLO PRO BALL

Lemke’s life was about to change anyway. He quickly signed with the Braves and was sent to Florida to play in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League [GCL] with hundreds of teenagers, many of whom were also later-round picks. Lemke hit .263 with 19 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 53 games.

He would split 1984 between the Class-A South Atlantic League and the GCL, taking another step on what would ultimately be a winding road to the Major Leagues. Lemke called those early years a grind but they were also interesting ones as he met some interesting people and formed some lifelong friendships.

When the Braves drafted future Hall-of-Famer Tom Glavine in the second round in 1984, he was sent to the GCL and Lemke was his first roommate. Lemke also played with National Championship winning football coach Urban Meyer in the GCL in 1983. The Braves had drafted him in the 13th round in 1982.

“He [Meyer] was a shortstop and I was a second baseman,” Lemke said. “He got released [after hitting .182 in 44 games over two seasons] and he went right into football. Obviously, he was very successful. I talked to him a lot. It was kind of a neat little thing.

“I didn’t feel like I was that far apart from the other players until I got to the Instructional League. Now I was with everyone from the organization and I was seeing older and bigger guys. Then I felt a bit of the age difference. It was intimidating in some ways.”

Lemke said it wasn’t until he was in his second season with Sumter of the Sally League in 1986 that he began to feel as if he could reach the Major Leagues. His manager in 1986 was the current Braves manager Brian Snitker while Leo Mazzone served as the pitching coach.

“Playing two years in rookie ball is never fun but when I went back to Sumter in 1986, that’s when I started hitting a few home runs,” Lemke said. “That’s when I started getting noticed. I was always a good defender. I was always a little ahead on that but I knew it wasn’t going to be good enough. I played up the middle but I wasn’t a shortstop. If you played defense there, they might give you a pass on the offense. If I could get some sort of offensive production there, it would help.

“Mazzone and Snitker were there, too, and I knew them and was comfortable with them. There is not much difference between Snitker then and now. They were a lot of fun.”

(Original Caption) Mark Lemke of the Atlanta Braves waves an axe after passing the State Capitol building (background) October 30th during a parade held for the World Series Champion Atlanta Braves in Atlanta, Georgia. (DOUG COLLIER/AFP via Getty Images)

Stops in Greenville and Durham followed over the next two seasons as Lemke continued to show some power.  He combined to hit 36 homers in those two years before the Braves called him up to the parent club late in 1988. He appeared in 16 games [after his scheduled debut was rained out] and hit .224.

Lemke was back in the minors in 1989 this time with Richmond of the Triple-A International League. He hit .276 with 61 RBIs and got another late season callup. This time he would be there to stay.

OH, WHAT A RUN

The Braves of the 90s were one of baseball’s most dominant teams. The Braves of the late 80s, however, were a different story. They were a last-place team when Lemke arrived but as the farm system began to produce and the pitching came around, Atlanta became a powerhouse. Richmond won an IL Division title in 1989 and many of those players, including Lemke, would form the foundation of the Braves team that would win 14 division titles in 15 years [excluding the strike-shortened 1994 season].

“Timing is everything,” Lemke said. “I did catch them at the right time. I caught them when they had good teams and I was able to fit right in. I was never anyone they were going to break the budget on so everything worked out fine. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to play on those good teams and with such good players.

“I made my debut in ’88, ’89 and ’90 and I was just getting used to playing in September when there weren’t a lot of fans. The football season was opening and there wasn’t a lot of interest. We were playing not to lose 100 games. The goal was not to finish last but to have it switch around that quickly…”

The Braves lost 97 games in 1990 but won 94 the following season to capture the NL West title. Lemke appeared in 136 games, hitting .234 in 269 at-bats. He hit .200 in seven games during the National League Championship Series but became a force in the World Series against Minnesota. He hit .417 [10-for-24] with three RBIs, collecting three triples to become the first player in 44 years to hit three triples in one World Series despite Atlanta coming up short.

“The World Series was crazy,” Lemke said. “I remember getting off the bus in Pittsburgh and I looked at Ron Gant and said, ‘We’re going to the World Series’. It was just crazy. I remember that road trip [to Pittsburgh]. We had to bring a winter jacket in case we got to keep going to start the 1991 World Series.”

Lemke finally got his chance to play full-time in 1992. Though he hit .227 during the regular season, he came alive during the post-season once again, hitting .333 [7-for-21] with five walks in another seven-game NLCS triumph over Pittsburgh. He went 4-for-19 in a six-game World Series loss to Toronto.

The Braves won their division again the following season as Lemke reached career highs in plate appearances [569], doubles [19], RBIs [49] and walks [65]. He hit .208 in the NLCS against Philadelphia, a series Atlanta lost. The questions as to whether the Braves could win a World Series were beginning to swirl after the defeat.

Mark Lemke of the Atlanta Braves bats during a 1991 World Series game against the Minnesota Twins at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

“For me personally, after we lost in 1992 to the Toronto Blue Jays, who had an excellent team, and then in the NLCS to the Phillies, you started hearing rumblings,” Lemke said. “You transfer that over to football. That’s when the Bills were losing four Super Bowls in a row. Now we have lost two. Are these the Buffalo Braves? I would hear that more than anyone else because I knew exactly what they were talking about [living in upstate New York]. They went to four Super Bowls and were never able to cash in.”

Any chance the Braves had at redemption was shattered by the 1994 strike. Lemke was hitting a career-high .294 when the strike hit while Atlanta was in second place, six games behind Montreal, in its first season in the National League East.

The strike ended the following season, costing the Braves 18 games in 1995. Atlanta, however, continued to prove its dominance, winning the NL East for the first time. They were the only team in the division to finish above .500, finishing with a 21-game advantage.

Lemke did his part, hitting .253 during the regular season. While he struggled a bit during the first two rounds of the playoffs – he hit .211 and .167 in the National League Divisional Series and the NLCS, respectively – he was much more productive in the World Series, hitting .273 as the Braves defeated a stacked Indians team in six games.

“Number one, that win was a relief for me personally,” Lemke said. “And number two, that [Cleveland’s] lineup might have been one of the best lineups top to bottom ever seen in Major League Baseball. They were just loaded. The only way we were going to beat them was with pinpoint pitching because we weren’t going to outscore them. That whole lineup could hurt you.”

The Braves went back to the World Series in 1996, this time losing to the Yankees after winning the first two games. It marked Atlanta’s third World Series loss in six years and the last time Lemke would see the post-season. He was once again productive in the post-season, hitting .308 [20-for-65] after injuries limited him during the regular season.

“All the World Series losses are the same but the Yankees would have been special to me,” Lemke said. “When you look at winning championships, you don’t really worry about who the opponent is. Obviously being from New York, that’s Yankees country though in upstate New York the Mets and Red Sox are mixed in. After you look and see what the Yankees did [after that, winning four World Series in five years], they were on a run. But we had them on the ropes.”

Injuries limited Lemke again in 1997 – he appeared in only 109 games. He became a free agent after the season and signed with the Red Sox but the injury bug had taken hold. Lemke appeared in 31 games for Boston before a concussion brought an end to his season and ultimately his career.

Ralph Garr (L) and Mark Lemke (R) are seen during the 2012 First-Year Player Draft Monday, June 4, 2012, at MLB Network's Studio 42 in Secaucus, New Jersey. (Photo by Paige Calamari/MLB via Getty Images)

A COMEBACK AND THE RECORD THAT SHALL NOT BE NAMED

While injuries may have curtailed Lemke’s Major League career they didn’t completely drive the desire to be around the game and play. He signed with the New Jersey Jackals of the independent Frontier League as a part-time player and coach. Lemke appeared in 12 games over two seasons in an attempt to make it as a knuckleball pitcher. He went 5-2 with an 8.17 ERA in 36 1/3 innings.

The stadium was on the grounds of Montclair State University in northern New Jersey. It also houses the Yogi Berra Museum.

“I loved the Jackals; I still talk to those guys,” Lemke said. “I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do and have some fun. I wanted to do something that made baseball feel like fun. It was a fantastic place and the field was 12 miles from Yankee Stadium. I never imagined they would put a field there.

“I got to talk to Yogi and Pete Rose, Jr. was on the team so Pete, Sr. would come to the games. It was like a dream. Pitching was okay, something I wanted to do but more so I wanted to see if I could hang around in the game. I enjoyed it. I was back home in New York and met some great people.”

The one anomaly regarding Lemke’s career is the fact that he had 3,664 Major League plate appearances without getting hit by a pitch. That’s an MLB record but one which Lemke doesn’t particularly like discussing. He doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as the guy who didn’t get hit by a pitch because there was infinitely more to his career than just one obscure statistic. His worth to the Atlanta teams on which he played was measured more by what he brought to the field and the clubhouse than whether he took one in the ribs.

“I can’t account for it,” said Lemke, who was hit 23 times in 3,309 minor league plate appearances. “I was hit by a pitching machine in Spring Training. The ball bounced off the ground and hit me in the eye. I was lucky I was wearing glasses. I got hit more in batting practice. I had fastballs go behind me and breaking balls go between my legs.”

Lemke ultimately returned to the Braves and did radio pre- and post-game work for the club for 15 years before his job became a “Covid casualty”. Now, he splits his time between his homes in Georgia and Florida. He still watches the Braves closely but says you can’t really compare this version of the team, which has won five consecutive division titles and a World Series, with the great Atlanta teams of the 90s.

“I don’t really compare them but these guys are pretty darn good,” Lemke said. “They have talent everywhere and are doing a heck of a job. We did a good job back in the day but the game was different back then. The similarities they do have to us is that they have really good pitching like we did.

“Year after year someone gets hurt or leaves and they have someone ready in the minors. That was one of the things that kept us going. We’d pick up a few people along the way but mostly it was from our system, guys like Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones. The organization has done a great job and I can’t say enough about them but I don’t like to make comparisons. They are a good team and I can see them being that way for quite some time.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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