Losing its leader can never be a good thing for any team. That's especially true for one so young that it needs chaperones on road trips. So certainly, if the Atlanta Braves had a magic wand, they would have waved it to steer that wicked ground ball in some direction other than square into Chipper Jones' knee.
His foot or hip or elbow would have provided a less vulnerable contact point. But no, the baseball gods cannot be so generous. The ball had to square up with his knee. Rock, meet glass.
The result was yet another trip to the disabled list. This came when Freddie Freeman couldn't see straight, Brian McCann couldn't sit up straight because of the flu, and relievers Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty couldn't throw straight.
Those of us who follow the Braves daily understand that the eight-game losing streak that followed Chipper's injury could not be a mere coincidence.
But something funny happened on Jones' way back to the active roster. This team learned how to win without him.
Martin Prado transitioned from left field back to third base about as smoothly as Andrelton Simmons turns a 4-6-3 double play. Jason Heyward has transformed himself from someone who appeared to need a refresher course in the minors to one of the better right fielders in baseball. The starting pitchers have strung together more zeroes than the national debt. Venters and O'Flaherty have rediscovered the art of throwing first-pitch strikes.
And speaking of the kid Simmons. The Braves brought him up from the minor leagues to shore up the defense up the middle. They have received an unexpected bonus from his bat.
Suddenly, a team that appeared headed for another collapse has re-emerged as a legitimate contender in the tightest division in the National League, and probably all of baseball.
Sunday's loss to Toronto halted a six-game winning streak but still left them firmly in second place in the NL East. If this continues and the Braves wind up back in the playoffs, it's not a stretch to say that Chipper's absence, if not the injury itself, could turn out to be a mixed blessing.
They had to face up to playing without their leader. That's inevitable, of course, as Jones is retiring after this season. And deep down, they have known since spring training that Jones' brittle knees had limited tread wear left. But knowing this and accepting it are two different things entirely.
A major league baseball team is a fascinating fraternity. The game itself spotlights individual achievements. Those individual achievements will lead to a lot of wins. That's obvious. What's less obvious, but just as real, is that selfishness will lead to a lot of losses.
Every big league player has some level of physical ability. What separates the journeymen from the starters, the average starters from the All-Stars, the All-Stars from the Hall of Famers is the immeasurable quality of confidence. It has been noted recently that Mike Minor's statistics through this point in his career are very similar to Tom Glavine's at the same early stage of his career.
Glavine transformed himself from a kid trying to survive in the big leagues to a capable starter, then an All-Star, and ultimately a Hall of Famer not because he discovered a new pitch or gained five miles per hour on his fastball. Rather, Glavine developed because he learned how to win.
These Braves are, for the most part, a young team still learning how to win. Aside from Jones, Dan Uggla and Tim Hudson are the only starting position player and pitcher, respectively, over 30. Jason Heyward already ranks ahead of two starting position players (Freddie Freeman and Simmons) in tenure. Heyward is 22.
It's great to see Chipper back in the lineup. They need his leadership and his production. But whatever Jones has left in the tank, the team around him is growing up.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org