The way the Atlanta Braves were celebrating Sunday afternoon here, you would have thought this was their first National League West title in 13 years.
Of course, it was.
Never one to wallow in mere mortal terms, owner Ted Turner drank champagne during his team's celebration and said, "This is just the start of a dynasty. This team is going to win a lot more championships."
Before a dynasty -- or even a National League pennant -- settles in the Confederacy, however, the Braves must first win the league championship series.
Atlanta will be in St. Louis Wednesday for the 3:15 p.m. opener of the NL's best-of-five championship series.
But for the merry moment Sunday, the Braves enjoyed their party. Although Atlanta lost, 5-1, in the final game of the regular season, San Francisco defeated second-place Los Angeles, 5-3, so the defending World Series champion Dodgers finished the season one game behind Atlanta.
"The most gratifying part of it," said Atlanta Manager Joe Torre, a former New York Mets manager, "is winning it in my first full year of managing after being fired. This team bounced back so many times."
Now, these Braves must bounce forward to St. Louis, champion of the NL East. The Cardinals clinched the title a week ago, becoming baseball's only division winner to breathe easily in October's early days. They finished three games ahead of Philadelphia.
This will be a series of intrigue: St. Louis is a team of speed, defense and reliever Bruce Sutter (36 saves), a team sculpted for spacious Busch Stadium.
Atlanta is a team of power, defense and relievers Steve Bedrosian (11 saves) and Gene Garber (30 saves), a team sculpted for cramped Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The Cardinals are the team of AstroTurf; the Braves are the team of astrowars. Lonnie Smith (68 steals) runs for St. Louis, the league leader in stolen bases. Dale Murphy (36 home runs) sends rockets into the southern skies for Atlanta, the league leader in home runs.
In the second half of the 1981 split season, the Cardinals finished a half-game behind Montreal. So they knew about things like pressure entering this season. "That makes a difference," said catcher Darrell Porter. "We were tense last year; this year we are loose."
The Braves are youthful in years of contention. Pressure? "We don't even know how good we are," said first baseman Bob Watson.
The Cardinals' Joaquin Andujar (15-10) will face Phil Niekro (17-4) in the opener. Andujar became the St. Louis life raft down the stretch. He has not lost since Aug. 6, and leads a rotation about which first baseman Keith Hernandez says, "We're here because of our pitching. I never would have thought it would have done this well."
This will not be Niekro's first championship series start. He lost, 9-5, to the Mets' Tom Seaver in the opener of the 1969 league series, which New York swept in three games. The 43-year-old knuckleballer is the only Atlanta player remaining from that team. He says, "I don't have good memories from the last playoffs. I want a World Series ring."
St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith--"the best in the game," says Cardinals' reliever Jim Kaat--and Atlanta third baseman Bob Horner (32 home runs) are expected to start Wednesday, despite nagging injuries. Smith has a bruised thigh and Horner has a hyperextended left elbow.