In the last 15 years, baseball fans have discovered that what was once thought virtually impossible has become almost routine. For generations, a team that lost the first two World Series games at home was considered all but dead. Then, in 1985, 1986 and 1996, three teams--the Royals, Mets and Yankees--came back from such a deficit.

The Royals were distinct underdogs with a lineup of no-names such as Buddy Biancalana and Darryl Motley. The Mets were down to their last out yet survived, thanks to the Red Sox Curse. The Yanks didn't even need a seventh game to pull off their comeback. So, how tough can it be?

Let's not kid ourselves. After their dismal display Sunday night in an almost unprofessional 7-2 loss, the Atlanta Braves are more likely to be swept by the world champion New York Yankees than they are to win this Series. On Sunday night in Game 2, the Braves barely seemed to put in an appearance.

In Game 1, the Braves had as many errors as hits--two. You don't see that often. Who thought they could do it again? Yet, by the seventh inning, with Game 2 long since decided, the Braves had an error (plus several ugly miscues) and only one hit off victorious David Cone.

The Yankees' pitching is good. But not this good. They didn't even lead their league in pitching. New York gave up 731 runs and 1,402 hits this year. Maybe it's the weather. Let me chisel the ice off the ear of the reporter next to me and ask him. On these nippy Georgia nights, it's the Braves who look like they're frozen. Or perhaps that other New York team from Flushing left them totally exhausted. Maybe, for next Opening Day, the Yankees should give the Mets little pinky-size World Series rings.

Every Brave will be obliged to point out that, three years ago, they were in the same situation where the Yanks now find themselves--two up, going home and listening to everybody discuss their place in history. Why can't Atlanta just turn the tables? Except for their team hitting slump, their lousy fielding, their manager's mistakes, the shelling of Kevin Millwood on Sunday night and the general excellence of the Yanks, can't think of a single reason.

Drag out that "place in history" list. It's none too soon. The Franchise of the Century is very close to becoming the Team of the Decade, too. Weren't these same guys in contention for Best Team of All Time just a year ago? How much is enough for this team? The Yanks better hope there's no such thing in baseball as "reversion to the mean" or the 21st century could feel like it takes a millennium.

The stage for an atrocious Braves performance may have been set the night before, after Game 1, when Manager Bobby Cox turned into an Alibi Ike. A notorious ump baiter, Cox let his frustration overcome his judgment. It's an unwritten rule you never tarnish the World Series by blaming a loss on the umpires. That's a stunt for losers on almost all occasions. But to start a Series on that note shows a complete lack of class.

Yet Cox insinuated repeatedly that the umps had beaten the Braves. A team as superior as the Yanks can smell weakness in a foe. Lame excuses--a sure sign of flagging hopes and lost confidence--just feed their fire.

In particular, Cox claimed a walk to Darryl Strawberry--full of disputed calls with home plate ump Randy Marsh--was "the big play" of the game. Ironically, some thought that the "big play" of that inning was Cox's own failure to have lefty Mike Remlinger ready in the bullpen to face Strawberry.

Cox struck again before Game 2--benching three Braves starters. Bret Boone, Walt Weiss and Eddie Perez, grab some pine. Ozzie Guillen, Keith Lockhart and Greg Myers, save the sinking ship. When you make a move that drastic, and desperate, it better work. Otherwise, you look twice as bad. The implication is that the manager no longer has faith in the team.

The Braves seemed shocked. "It kind of surprised me, you know," said Atlanta's Brian Jordan. "It's unusual in a World Series to change the lineup so dramatically. I know the guys who aren't playing were pretty surprised."

It would be hard for a move to blow up more conspicuously. In the third inning, with a Yankee on third and two out, David Cone sliced a soft line drive directly at Guillen. It was an easy waist-high catch. Only seven people in Georgia above the age of eight could have missed it. Guillen joined them. He looked like a man trying--very casually--to catch a stick of butter tossed to him. Oooops. Welcome to the blooper highlight reel, Oz.

One inning later, the Braves new double-play combo of Guillen and Lockhart handed the Yanks another gift run on a play that should have ended the inning. On a perfect double-play grounder, Guillen threw too low to pivotman Lockhart who double-clutched awkwardly, then threw wildly into the dugout. Somehow, it didn't hit Cox.

Perhaps it was appropriate that a game which so deflated a Series that had such promise--and, of course, still may--began with a peculiar and unsettling moment. The biggest cheer of the night was a prolonged ovation for Pete Rose, who, as part of the All-Century team, was setting foot on a major league field for the first time in 10 years.

Nice hands were given to all the Spahns and Ripkens, McGwires and Musials. Ted Williams, whose gratitude is palpable for so much belated affection, got a huge warm hand. But Rose, banished from the game, perhaps for life, got the biggest reaction. And not a boo in the house.

Since gambling on baseball, especially on your own team's games, is the most serious offense in baseball, this universally warm embrace of the prodigal Rose leads to one of two conclusions: 1) Americans are the most forgiving people on Earth. 2) Americans have no memory, live in the instant, adore celebrity, talk about values but have few and will believe any brazen nonsense as long as someone such as Rose repeats it for long enough.

Personally, put me in the "very forgiving nation" column.

Earlier in the day, after doing a card show in Atlantic City, Rose gave a pre-Series news conference that took six single-spaced sheets to transcribe. In the same breath, Rose laid out which forms of gambling he still prefers and which he doesn't, then elaborated all the reasons he wants to be back in baseball as a manager or coach. Pretty chilling. But hardly the topper.

At one point, Rose said, hand over my heart, "Wouldn't it be nice if Bart [Giamatti] could be here tonight?"

Denial is a hard thing to watch. But then, to stay interested in the Braves chances of making this a great Series, perhaps a little denial is just what's required. Thanks, Pete, maybe we needed that.