Long-time Atlanta Braves scout Rod Gilbreath of Laurel has helped mold the current Braves into a playoff-caliber team at least a couple years ahead of what most baseball folks thought possible. The surprising Braves were set to play Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Monday night and would force a deciding Game 5 on Wednesday with a win.
And we’ll get to that, but first, a story about how Gilbreath became a Brave in the first place 48 years ago.
Any sports fan who lived in Mississippi’s Pine Belt region in the late 1960s will remember young Rod Gilbreath as one of the most skilled, versatile high school athletes in Mississippi history. Certainly, this old Hattiesburg Tiger remembers him.
In football, he was the Laurel Tornadoes’ quarterback, a three-year starter who could pass it or run it and beat you either way. In basketball, he was Laurel’s point guard, who could score and orchestrate the offense, dunk and play the baseline in an effective 1-3-1 defense. In baseball, he played shortstop, pitched and knocked the stitching off the ball. Rod Gilbreath beat our Tigers so many ways, it is painful to remember.
Gilbreath could have played collegiately in any of the three sports. He signed with Ole Miss to play football for Johnny Vaught, a lifelong dream. He wanted to be the next Jake Gibbs or Archie Manning.
But then the Atlanta Braves, in the spring of 1970, drafted him in the third round of the free-agent draft (the 69th pick overall), and Gilbreath had a decision to make. Vaught, himself, helped Gilbreath make the decision. Wednesday morning, Gilbreath recalled his phone conversation with Vaught all those years ago a day or two after the draft.
“I still want you to be our quarterback,” Vaught said. “What are you thinking, son, baseball or football?”
Gilbreath: “Coach I love playing baseball and enjoy playing football, too. If you’ll let me play both, I’ll come to Ole Miss and play both sports.”
Vaught: “I’m sorry, son, I can’t do that. If you come here, it will be to play football and only football.”
Gilbreath: “But, Coach, you let Archie (Manning) play both.”
Vaught: “But, son, you ain’t Archie.”
Says Gilbreath, “I told him I might could be like Archie Manning if I was given the chance, but he said he just couldn’t do it.’”
And that was that. Gilbreath signed with the Atlanta Braves a few days later for a $25,000 signing bonus — a lot of money back then. “I probably could have bargained for more, but I just wanted to play ball, the sooner, the better,” Gilbreath says.
And he rose through the Braves’ minor league system like few have before or since. He graduated from high school in May of 1970. He joined the Braves Major League club in June of 1972. He was 19 years young. Think about that.
“I moved up so fast,” Gilbreath remembers. “Rookie League one year, Double-A the next, then I skipped Triple-A to Atlanta.”
He hit .237 in 18 games as a rookie, but then was hitting .284 in his second season when a leg injury ended that rapid rise.
“I was slow to come back from that, spent some time in Triple A,” Gilbreath says.
He was back with the Braves full-time in 1975. He played with the Braves through 1978, mostly as a second baseman. He was released in the spring of 1979 and played two seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization before retiring.
In 1980, he hired on with the Braves as a talent scout. He has been with the club ever since. He was there through the glory years of Bobby Cox, through the down years that followed and through this recent rapid reclamation project.
His current job — that of pro scout — mostly has him scouting the Braves’ own minor league talent, helping determine who’s ready for promotion and who’s not and keeping tabs on progress at all levels.
For instance, he has watched the Braves’ young double-play combination of Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies advance through the Braves system — not nearly as fast as he once did — but quickly, just the same.
Gilbreath, who lives in the Atlanta area, visits all the Braves’ minor league teams at least two times a year, including the Mississippi Braves in Pearl.
“I love the young talent we have in the organization both at the major league level and then below,” Gilbreath said. “We are definitely headed in the right direction. You’re going to see this team get better and better.”
Two of his favorite prospects are third baseman Austin Riley, the 21-year-old from Southaven, who projects as the Braves’ power-hitting corner infielder of the future, and pitcher Touki Toussaint, who actually made the Braves’ playoff roster after a late-season call-up.
“Riley can hit it a mile and can really play third base,” Gilbreath said. “Touki’s stuff is just electric.”
Gilbreath, just turned 66, has no plans to retire. And all these years later — after that memorable phone call from Vaught — he says he has no regrets.