Here in the heart of the New South, where baseball has always played second fiddle to football, the long downtrodden Atlanta Braves have the best record in the major leagues (62-43) and are suddenly the hottest thing since buttered grits. So hot that their shoelaces are burning. So "in" that Chief Noc-A-Homa's tepee is out.
Perhaps it was inevitable they would hit the current snag of six defeats in seven games, but the young Braves maintain a 5 1/2-game lead in the National League West and the promise of a primarily home-grown lineup that revolves around the one-two punch of center fielder Dale Murphy (.295 batting average, 28 home runs, 74 runs batted in) and third baseman Bob Horner (.286, 23 homers, 66 RBI).
Growing faith in an offense that has outscored the opposition, 474 runs to 428, and has come from behind to win 31 games, and a defense that has turned a major league-high 126 double plays, has overcome early skepticism about the pitching staff.
The Braves believe in themselves, and are convincing doubters who thought their record 13-game winning streak to open the season was a fluke that would be exposed by the All-Star break.
"If people are surprised, I hope they're still surprised Oct. 4, when we walk away with the division," said Horner, noting the Braves now routinely expect to wipe out deficits and rebound from periodic slumps.
Atlanta's contented clubhouse has the mood of a pennant contender: a self-confidence bordering on swagger, togetherness and a touch of feistiness.
Rookie relief pitchers Steve Bedrosian (5-3, eight saves) and Carlos Diaz (2-1) reportedly scuffled in the bullpen at Pittsburgh two weeks ago, but came out of the spat with a better understanding of one another.
"That's good for a club--a little turmoil," said Dick Williams, the flinty manager of the second-place San Diego Padres, who were swept four straight games here last week. "It gets 'em closer together. Nothing wrong with that."
Outfielder Claudell Washington, back from a brief respite out of the lineup to rest, compares the Braves' esprit to that of the Oakland A's, whom Williams managed to successive World Series championships in 1972-73.
"I see the same ingredients here. We've got the attitude, the desire and the talent," says Washington, a rookie with the A's in 1974, the last year of their dynasty.
"Everybody's young. They've got a chance to play five or six years together and grow . . . It's not just come to the ballpark, play the game and go our separate ways. We have fun together. We've got a few practical jokers on this club to keep everybody loose, which you need."
The best pranks, Washington insists, are not for retelling in a family newspaper. But the most common is the burning shoelace trick, started by utility man Jerry Royster. During clubhouse card games, anybody concentrating too hard on his hand is likely to find a teammate under the table, putting a match to his laces, then impersonating a fire siren.
The Braves also have ignited the passions of fans who used to get a fever only for football. Attendance at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium already has topped 1.3 million for 55 days and is sure to break the season record of 1,539,801 set in 1966, the year the Braves moved here from Milwaukee.
Advance sales for the Dodgers series were so great that the red, white and blue tepee of Chief Noc-A-Homa, the Braves' redoubtable mascot, was removed from the left field stands to free 250 additional seats. It had been a fixture in an empty section of the stadium since the Braves came to town.
Atlanta also has become America's Team because its games are televised to all 50 states on WTBS, the "superstation" that is the flagship of owner Ted Turner's cable TV empire.
"In every town, we're recognized now," says Manager Joe Torre. "The 13-game streak is obviously what got people's attention. The problem with a streak like that at the beginning is it's like telling everybody you're going on a diet and are going to lose weight. Now everybody's watching you. But pride has driven us to prove that we're the kind of club that we started out the season being . . . .
"When we lost five in a row after the streak, some people said, 'That's it.' Some people are still saying that when we lose a few games. But I think we bottomed out on Memorial Day. The Mets kicked the stuffing out of us; we made errors and did a lot of things wrong. We had just lost two in Philadelphia. But from June 1, we've been 14 games over .500 and have played very well."
This is heady stuff for a team that hasn't finished better than fourth in its division in seven years. The Braves won only 266 games and lost 380 in the first four years of Turner's stewardship (1976-79), and finished last four years running.
Only three players--Royster, ancient knuckleballer Phil Niekro (10-4) and backup catcher Biff Pocoroba--have been with the Braves the whole time. They remember the embarrassment of playing to deserted stands in a city that didn't care, of losing 101 games in 1977, of being so pathetic that year that Turner appointed himself manager for one game, until Commissioner Bowie Kuhn shooed him from the dugout for making a mockery of the national pastime.
"You can't really appreciate being at the top unless you've been at the bottom," says Turner, who reconstructed the organization from the foundation up.
"The Braves didn't have good scouting. Bill Lucas, God rest his soul, was our minor league director, and he convinced me, when I bought the team, to quadruple the money we spent on scouting. Then we got the best minor league instructors we could find. I pay Johnny Sain a big-league pitching coach's salary to stay at Richmond and develop our young pitchers . . . you've got to build within your own system because you can't trade for great players unless you've got great players to give up. Of our 25 guys, 18 came up through our farm system."
True to the adage about solid baseball teams, the Braves are strong up the middle.
Murphy--6-5, 215 pounds, a devout Mormon who looks and acts like the all-American boy and speaks in sports cliches--has become an MVP candidate at age 26.
Shortstop Rafael Ramirez (.263, 17 stolen bases) and second baseman Glenn Hubbard (.273, 49 runs scored) hit at the top of the order and make difficult double plays look simple.
"They have won so many games for us, it's incredible," says Royster, who fills in at shortstop and five other positions. "You don't see in the box score where double plays win games, but we're getting two or three a game, sometimes on balls that shouldn't be double plays."
Bruce Benedict is hitting 22 points below his .251 career average but is an excellent defensive catcher. Pocoroba (.315), despite a weak throwing arm, has spelled him capably about once a week, since Torre believes in keeping his regulars fresh.
Torre, who brought most of his coaching staff--including pitching coaches Rube Walker and Bob Gibson--along from the New York Mets, also guards against what he calls "abusing pitchers."
The emergence of Bedrosian and other youngsters groomed in the minors by Sain and in the majors by Walker-Gibson ("I have Rube to teach 'em how to pitch and Gibby to teach 'em how to win," says Torre) has taken pressure off veterans such as Niekro, 43, who last week won his 250th major league game, and Gene Garber, 34, the bullpen ace (6-5, 19 saves).
"We knew the talent was here, and now we've got the right people at the helm and they've got the ship sailing," says Washington. He credits Torre for asembling the crew in Florida a week early and instilling an attitude that produced the best spring training record and fastest regular season start of any team.
Says Torre, who replaced the fired Bobby Cox during the offseason: "Basically, we've been aggressive. I've never worked with a bunch of guys who hustled more . . . now I'm just trying to make sure they don't look at the finish line. It's too soon. I keep telling them if we keep our composure and just win our share the rest of the year, we'll win the division."