‘Cursed’ locker lives on in Braves lore

ATLANTA – The locker stands empty, like an abandoned building in the midst of a thriving neighborhood.

Players, clubhouse attendants, coaches and media walk past it on their way to other areas of the Atlanta Braves’ clubhouse. They head to other wooden stalls with occupants who have crammed their mostly messy cubicles with clothes, shoes, sunglasses, gloves, paperwork and whatever helps them pass the time before and after games.

But this locker remains alone, deserted, an outcast in a room where superstitions can run deep.

It’s called the Cursed Locker, and it has claimed many victims since Turner Field opened in 1997, if you believe in such things.

Most of the players who have sat there didn’t last much longer with the Braves, finding themselves cut, traded, injured, demoted or allowed to sign elsewhere after spending time in the Cursed Locker.

“It’s kind of like a running joke, but I don’t think anyone wants to go in that locker because of what’s gone on in there,” rookie infielder Tyler Pastornicky said. “When something has been going on over there, it’s not a spot anybody wants to be. That’s for sure.”

General manager Frank Wren joked last year the locker should be boarded up after Julio Lugo was released, its fourth victim of 2011.

It wasn’t, and this year it’s claimed two more.

Veteran pitcher Livan Hernandez was part of the opening day roster, but was cut on June 15.

Rookie pitcher Todd Redmond was promoted on June 17 and spent three days there before being sent back to the minors.

On July 14, he was gone from the franchise, traded to Cincinnati for shortstop Paul Janish.

Young or old.

A full season or a few days.

Position player or pitcher.

The locker knows all, sees all.

It doesn’t discriminate.

“I’m very superstitious, but I don’t believe it’s a bad locker,” said Chris Van Zant, the assistant clubhouse manager who has been with the Braves for 22 years and helped put together the list of players who have sat there. “Obviously, it’s really odd, that of all the lockers, it’s one locker.”

The hot seat

It started so innocently with longtime Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser, who was the locker’s first resident when Turner Field opened in 1997.

The Braves’ clubhouse has a distinct design.

There are several lockers on a straight entryway that originally were used for the coaches, but they’ve since moved to their own area.

The room then expands into a circle, with cubicles lining both sides of the wall, a baseball equivalent of King Arthur’s round table.

The Cursed Locker is the last one on the right side, where the opening of the circle meets the straight wall.

Van Zant said it’s an excellent location because there’s no neighboring locker on one side, but it’s also tough to see the clubhouse TVs, which hang from the ceiling nearly directly overhead.

It’s also the 26th locker in the semicircle, if you start from left side of the room, and MLB rosters are limited to 25 players most of the season.

So when new players are added, they’re often placed there. The curse grows when they are sent down, released or included in a trade, as happened this year.

“A part of that is a product of who has gone in there,” Van Zant said. “If we call a guy up and we put him in that locker, most often he’s a call up, he’s not part of the regular team anyway, so when he leaves, it’s natural.”

It didn’t begin that way, though.

Blauser had spent 10 seasons with the Braves and took his spot in the new locker, right next to Greg Maddux. He had one of the best years of his career, hitting .308 with 17 home runs and 70 RBIs.

But he was a free agent at the end of the season and signed with the Cubs. Two years later, he was out of baseball.

Veteran pitcher Dennis Martinez spent his last season in the majors in the locker in 1998.

Bret Boone was next, making his home there in his one season with the Braves in 1999. He was traded to the Padres in the offseason.

The curse was on.

“Why it became that locker and not one in the middle of the circle, is the luck of the draw, more than anything else,” Van Zant said. “We’ve had players sit there who stayed in the game for a long time. They had a career, but they didn’t last long here.”

Curse lives on

Only two players have made it through one year sitting at the Cursed Locker and returned for a second season with the Braves.

Catcher Johnny Estrada was there in 2004 and excelled with a .314 average and 76 RBIs in his first full season in the majors.

He was only 28 years old and it appeared the hex would be halted, but he took the brunt of a collision at home plate in 2005 and missed part of that year with a concussion.

Brian McCann was called up, making Estrada, who never fully recovered, expendable.

Pitcher Kenshin Kawakami arrived from Japan with much fanfare in 2009 and moved into the spot, but lasted only 50 games.

He struggled throughout his time with the Braves and spent part of 2010 in the minors before being released at the end of that season, his time in the majors done.

“Yeah, it’s weird,” reliever Jonny Venters said. “People who have been there have certainly moved around. I think it’s just one of those things. It’s just the way it’s worked out.

“But I’m not going to switch there. I’m not going anywhere near it. I’m good.”

The locker briefly had an occupant when the Braves signed pitcher Ben Sheets in July, but he asked to be moved to another one on the straightaway because he couldn’t see the TVs.

That’s his story, anyway.

It has remained empty since, despite recent roster shuffling and the trade deadline deal for outfielder Reed Johnson and pitcher Paul Maholm.

Pastornicky started the season several lockers away, but was sent down and lost his spot to Andrelton Simmons, his replacement. When Pastornicky was recalled, he was placed on the straight part of the clubhouse, next to Sheets, which is fine with him.

Reliever Cristhian Martinez, one of last year’s four victims of the curse when he was sent down, now sits in the neighboring locker, Maddux’s old one. He has been with the team all season.

Johnson occupies the one on the other side, the first locker on that straight wall, and Maholm was placed next to him.

Pitcher Kris Medlen doesn’t believe in the curse, but it might be easy for him because he sits on the opposite wall. Plus, he’s in his fourth season with the club and hasn’t witnessed the long-term turnover.

But Medlen offered a drastic solution to stop the jinx.

“Let’s put (Craig) Kimbrel there,” he said. “He ain’t going anywhere.”

That won’t happen.

Kimbrel, one of the majors’ top closers, is ensconced on the opposite wall.

Van Zant isn’t sure what the future holds for the Cursed Locker.

It’s sat empty for more than two months, but rosters expand on Sept. 1, which means there’s time for it to claim another unfortunate soul this season.

“Everybody says it’s cursed. It’s not like Maddux cursed it. It’s not a Babe Ruth thing,” he said. “It’s a locker where there’s constant turnover and it feeds into this myth, this urban legend. It just perpetuates itself.”