A Brave team goes back for last stand

Friday, October 19, 2001

$$$Start

jlitke

They've been called the Buffalo Bills in stirrups, always good but never good enough.

They've been heckled as too old, too familiar or too corporate to justify keeping around.

And the thought of being subjected to another Turner Field crowd chop-chop-chopping its way through another postseason is reason enough to root against the Atlanta Braves.

But there's something fascinating about watching a regal franchise reduced to clawing and scraping for one more chance. Lord knows the Braves have squandered enough already. They've won 10 straight division titles, appeared in nine of the last 10 league championship series and have exactly one World Series trophy to show for it. They're like the English lord who runs through the family fortune and then turns the castle into a B&B to pay rent.

Wednesday's win over the Diamondbacks marked the 10th anniversary of the Braves' first pennant in Atlanta. The John Smoltz who came in throwing 98-mph heat at the end of the 8-1 win over Arizona is the same one who, in his first life as a starter, threw a six-hit shutout to beat Pittsburgh 4-0 in Game 7 of the NLCS on Oct. 17, 1991. And his was hardly the only familiar face. In that sense, at least, these actually could be your father's Braves,

"We know, we know," Atlanta reliever Rudy Seanez said the other day in Phoenix. "Everywhere we go, we hear the same old stuff. People tired of watching us, they want to see somebody else."

Those people might still get their wish. The pitching staff that made Atlanta the terror of every NL regular season for the last decade remains maddeningly ordinary in October.

Left-hander Tom Glavine's performance in Game 2 earned him a major league-record 12th postseason win. The Braves being the Braves, he needed a major league-record 29 postseason starts to pull off the feat. Sidekick Greg Maddux may someday be remembered as the best pitcher of his era, so long as you forget to flip the switch to fall. In the regular season, his career winning percentage is a scintillating .638; in the postseason, it's .455.

Look up and down the lineup and you'll see a pattern emerging. This is an outfit that can't seem to hit, throw or even run straight (see: Lonnie Smith, 1991 World Series) when it matters. And yet, like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," the Braves dutifully find themselves awake in another playoff series praying that the ending will be different.

"I guarantee if you took a poll of every major-league player and asked if they'd rather be in our position, they'd say yes," Glavine said.

But it's worth noting Glavine said that in 1998. That year, the Braves lost the NLCS to San Diego. The following year, the Braves lost the World Series to the Yankees. Last year, they lost to the Cardinals in the division series and the Mets saw to it that the Yankees had someone new to beat up.

It's been Atlanta's bad luck to build something resembling a dynasty just about the same time the genuine article resided in New York. When the organization was flush with Ted Turner's money, general manager John Schuerholz threw down with the Yankees dollar for dollar. He locked up a quality pitching staff for the long term and always had enough left over to buy someone like Andres Galarraga when the middle of the lineup needed some pop.

But those days are gone. These days, Atlanta shops at the bargain outlets. Instead of paying for a proven mercenary like Galarraga, Schuerholz scours the Mexican League and plucks out 40-something Julio Franco. Quilvio Veras struggled early at second base, he looked at the price tags for a veteran second baseman and settled on Marcus Giles, who was making Triple-A money and just happened to be under contract. Injuries have worn out the eraser on the pencil Bobby Cox uses to fill out his lineup and the best advice Schuerholz has given him is to requisition more pencils.

But that's precisely the appeal of these Braves. They're filled with old and replacement parts and still they refuse to break down. They would love to take the field with the confidence that Arizona's top two starters inspire or the power of the Houston lineup they just left in the dust. Instead, they do it knowing reinforcements aren't on the way and the Yankees wait in the distance.

Last stands don't get much better than that.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: