(Atlanta, Ga) – With the first pick in the January 1973 MLB Draft, the Atlanta Braves needed a cornerstone player the Atlanta fans could call their own. The 1972 Braves finished 70-84 and with Henry Aaron, Rico Carty, Orlando Cepeda and Phil Niekro all in their 30s, they needed youth to go along with a pair of 23-year-old emerging stars, rookie of the year catcher Earl Williams and outfielder Dusty Baker.
All the way across the country in Santa Ynez, California, just north of Santa Barbara, Brian Asselstine was destined to be a star the Braves coveted. He was a standout at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in California in both basketball and baseball. He hit .432 for the Pirates during his high school career and was a back-to-back all conference player.
After leading the Alan Hancock College Bulldogs to the Small School Junior College State Championship as a freshman, he was drafted in the 4th round of the 1972 Summer MLB draft by the San Francisco Giants. Undaunted, he returned to school and was drafted again in the January 1973 draft in the first round by the Atlanta Braves. After an even better sophomore season, Asselstine signed with the Braves in May 1973 and was assigned to their Southern League team in Savannah, Georgia.
He reported to the Georgia Coast at the tender age of 19. By contrast, Tommie Aaron (Hank’s brother) and Savannah’s starting first baseman was 14 years older. After being overmatched in 15 games, he was moved to the single A Greenwood Braves where he played two games for Hall-of-Fame pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm who was the manager.
Asselstine returned to Savannah to start the 1974 season and was ready. He had a solid season where he hit .262 and was named an All-Star by Montgomery Rebel Manager Jim Leyland. Tommie Aaron, who was the Savannah manager, said of Asselstine’s hitting style, “Brian does spray the ball all around, so you can’t play him a certain way. He is one of the reasons we are where we are today.”
He spent the next two seasons with the Braves AAA affiliate in Richmond, Virginia where he improved each season and got his major-league call-up September 1976.
His first MLB at bat was on September 14, 1976 against Mark Lemongello and the Houston Astros in Game 1 of a double-header, he flied out to right field. He started Game 2, and in the second inning, after a leadoff single form Dave May, Asselstine followed with his first major league hit against Astro starter Bo McLaughlin.
His big day came just two weeks later, on September 26, 1976. Asselstine hit his first major league homerun in the first inning against Rick Sawyer and the San Diego Padres in front of 4,642 fans at Fulton County Stadium.
After spending most of the 77 Season with the big club, 1978 brought new optimism. Bobby Cox was named manager for the upcoming year and the pieces that would eventual make up with 1982 Western Division Champions were being put into place. Cox penciled in Asselstine to start in centerfield and he was up for the challenge.
The Braves got off to a rough start, but from April 25 through May 30, they played .500 ball and were starting to get noticed. On May 31, in the final game of a three-game series against Cincinnati, the Braves were getting roughed up by Tom Seaver and the Big Red Machine. Dick Ruthven started for the Braves and gave up five in the top of the third, but the Braves followed with four runs of their own in the bottom half to pull within one, including a sacrifice fly by Asselstine.
In the ninth inning, and now trailing 9-4, Reds centerfielder Mike Lum hit a drive to centerfield that Asselstine tracked all the way to the fence but just missed the catch. What he didn’t miss was the chain link fence in centerfield – where his cleat got caught, mangled his leg and broke his ankle, finishing his promising season.
Asselstine came to spring training in 1979, but the ankle was still not there yet. With his mobility cut down, he was moved to first base where he shared time ironically with Mike Lum, who had signed with the Braves as a free agent. It just didn’t come together, he only played in eight games and only got one hit.
He spent the 80 and 81 seasons as a backup, and when Joe Torre took over in 1982, Asselstine was released. When reflecting on the 1982 Western Division Championship team, it is compelling to think of how a healthy Asselstine and his left-handed bat would have fit in the righty dominated lineup. We will never know.
After sitting out the 1982 season, Asselstine signed a AAA contract with the San Francisco Giants (who originally drafted him). He had a good season with the Phoenix Giants but hung it up afterwards. Baseball is famous for all of the “what-if” scenarios, and the question here is, If Asselstine had not gone all out on a meaningless homerun in a blowout game, what would his career if healthy look like. While speculation is sometimes overused, it is easy to see Asselstine put up Ender Inciarte numbers over a 10-year career, which would have really helped give Dale Murphy and Bob Horner some support.
The Braves needed a star, the chain link fence at Fulton County Stadium robbed everyone of that. What could have been.