Young Atlanta Braves look to forge franchise's new identity

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 12:25 AM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. - The Atlanta Braves, on their way to another early-spring, mid-morning practice, filed past the figure leaning on their dugout railing as if he were a standard piece of Florida scenery - a palm tree, maybe, or a golf cart. Clad in a polo shirt, khakis and loafers - no socks - the man paid the players no mind, either, instead launching into another story about the old days.

But to an outsider, the scene was jarring: The man in the street clothes was Bobby Cox, the Braves' manager for the previous 21 seasons, a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Still a ubiquitous presence at the team's spring training camp in his role as a consultant - thus, the lack of back-slapping greetings as the players passed by - Cox, 69, will still answer to "Hey, Skip." But seeing him out of uniform, on a baseball field, is a reminder of what a monumental change has taken place in Atlanta.

For the better part of two decades, the Braves' identity as a franchise was tied to a pair of towering triumvirates: Ace pitchers Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux; and management figures Stan Kasten, the Braves' longtime team president; John Schuerholz, the general manager and chief architect of the team that won 14 straight division titles between 1991 and 2005; and Cox.

But with Cox's retirement in October, all of them have now moved on, and for the first time since the early 1990s - when that group first came together and built a quasi-dynasty ("quasi" in that those 14 straight division titles produced only one World Series title) - the Braves must forge a new identity.

"I think we're going to struggle for an identity, to be honest," said veteran reliever Peter Moylan. "It'll take us probably a month to establish it. It's the end of an era, but it doesn't mean it's the end of a team. The Braves didn't fall off the face of earth."

The man who is taking Cox's place knows only that the Braves' identity will not be him. Fredi Gonzalez, 47, was groomed as Cox's successor, spending four seasons on the latter's coaching staff before leaving to serve a 3½-year apprenticeship managing the Florida Marlins.

When the Braves launched their first managerial search in 21 years, Gonzalez - conveniently fired by the Marlins midway through last season - was the only man they interviewed.

"It's not football - it's not like I'm going to bring the West Coast 0ffense in, or run the option," Gonzalez said. "It's baseball, and there's really not that many ways to change it. Maybe I emphasize one area more than [Cox] does, but there's no big overhaul.

"The names have changed, but the philosophy is the same. That's what makes the transition so easy, so far. I left, and was gone for four years, and when I came back the same people were here. Continuity is big around here."

Indeed, when Schuerholz was ready to retire as GM in 2007, he simply moved upstairs into the president's job once held by Kasten - and had already groomed his own successor, his former assistant Frank Wren.

Wren, who helped return the Braves to the playoffs in 2010 after a five-year absence, was recently rewarded with a contract extension through 2013 season.

"I think the identity of this team is simply the Braves - that it's a rock-solid, stable organization: the Braves," Schuerholz said. "It's not about an individual, or several individuals. It's about an organization with a sustained goal of excellence. There's a consistency, and people who come here feel that and become part of it."

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