The Braves, Yet Again, Where They Belong

9/23/2004

The Atlanta Braves have done it again. They’ve thrown to the ground the latest trendy pick to dethrone them for their remarkable string of division titles. Year after year, there’s a new team on the horizon that surfaces, wins the hearts of all the Brave bashers and causes the baseball world to proclaim “This year the Braves’ streak ends!”

In spring training, the trendy pick to beat Atlanta was the Philadelphia Phillies. And if it wasn’t the Phillies, it was the defending World Series Champion Florida Marlins. The Phillies fell short of expectations. The Marlins couldn’t quite recapture the same magic.

Back in 1994, it was a young Montreal Expos team lead by Felipe Alou that was on its way to thwarting the Braves from winning another division title after finishing first in the West Division the previous three seasons. The infamous strike kept the Expos from fulfilling their goal and they were not able to duplicate that success the following season. A decade later still no one beaten the Braves.

The Braves’ dominance of the National League East Division continued through the ‘90s. By the time Y2K rolled around it was the Mets who were the trendy pick to knock off Bobby Cox and his boys. New York’s window of opportunity came and went. Atlanta still survived on top.

The Phillies of 2001 were the next team expected to do it. They couldn’t pull it off, fell back to mediocrity and then rose up yet again as the trendy pick. The Braves still stand.

The Florida Marlins have won two World Series titles, both as wildcard entries. Why only as wildcards? They’ve been playing in Atlanta’s division.

All along, the heart of the Braves was the overwhelming starting pitching built around Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. The team maintained a revolving door for several others to come in and help round out the rotation. From Damian Moss, John Burkett and Odalis Perez to Kevin Millwood and Denny Neagle back on through to Kent Mercker, Steve Avery and even Charlie Leibrandt, the Braves have remained on top for the duration.

An entirely new rotation takes the mound now and pitching coach Leo Mazzone has worked wonders pulling Jaret Wright from the midst of the garbage heap, able to resurrect the young arm that once showed so much promise in the playoffs seven year ago. The popular thought has been “Once the Big Three are gone, they will crumble.” Well, Glavine and Maddux have signed elsewhere as free agents and Smoltz was moved to the bullpen. None of the Big Three remain. Yet the dynasty continues.

From Terry Pendleton to Ron Gant to David Justice to Fred McGriff to Andres Galarraga to the Jones’, the Braves lineup has been turned over a couple times. Yet there they are. The only constant has been General Manager John Schuerholz and his staff who have done a truly remarkable job.

It’s been nearly a generation since the before the Braves’ streak started. The last time Atlanta failed to win its division Andruw Jones was 13 years old and Rafael Furcal was 12.

Papa George Bush was President. The Dallas Cowboys had bounced back from a 1-15 season with a couple young players named Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith who had yet to win a Super Bowl. Michael Jordan hadn’t even won an NBA title yet. Aikman and Jordan have retired at least once each and Smith should be retired. Bush’s son is already concluding his first term.

Yet there they are. It’s 2004 and the Braves are still on top nearly a generation later. Who will be the next team to be given the baton to try to take them down? The Marlins…again? The Phillies…again? The Mets…again? The Expos…again? Each division foe has had its chance and not been able to do it.

It will happen one day. Someone other than the Braves will finish first. Who? We don’t know. How long will it take before it happens? Maybe next year. Maybe the year after. Maybe the year after that. Their window of opportunity can stay open only so long. And long seems to be the appropriate word.

After all, this year was supposed to be the year. Just like last year. And the year before. And the year before that. And the year before that…