When they go to sleep on late October nights, the veterans of a decade of Atlanta Braves heartbreak surely must be visited by the ghosts of postseasons past. Lonnie Smith, forever glued to second base. Jack Morris, forever throwing zeroes at them. Jim Leyritz, still jogging around the bases with his fist in the air.
Another excellent Braves season ended in disappointment Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium with a 4-1 loss to the New York Yankees, giving the Yankees back-to-back sweeps in the best-of-seven World Series and dooming the Braves to another offseason spent reflecting on their shortcomings.
Despite an unprecedented eight consecutive division titles, the Braves have only one world title (1995). That means seven times--including the last four seasons--the Braves have walked off the field on their final day as losers. And despite posting 103 wins this season, most in the major leagues, the Braves were thoroughly outclassed by the Yankees.
"I've never been emotional in any of these things when they were over," Braves Manager Bobby Cox after the Game 4 loss, struggling to contain himself. "And this year, for some reason, I was."
Perhaps that's because Cox and the Braves can see themselves running out of chances. Although they never took their postseason appearances for granted, it was easier for the Braves of 1993 to imagine their success continuing than it is for the Braves of 1999. For the first time, the Braves' unmatched Cy Young trio of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine have appeared, well, old.
To the roll call of Braves-haunters, add the names of Chuck Knoblauch and Chad Curtis. No loss hurt the Braves more than the pivotal Game 3, when they had a 5-1 lead and Glavine on the mound, only to lose. Knoblauch's "315-foot pop fly," as the Braves called his home run, tied the score in the eighth, and Curtis's home run won it in the 10th.
As he sat on the team bus, headed back to their hotel after the Game 3 loss, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones had a startling and disturbing thought. "I was thinking," Jones said, "that this was the first time since I've been in the big leagues that we played exactly the way we were supposed to play--we pitched well, we played good defense, we hit well--and we still lost. They still beat us. That was a little bit scary."
On Wednesday night, as he sipped a beer in the Braves' mostly empty clubhouse almost an hour after the Braves were eliminated, Jones knew what the explanation was, but it is not an easy thing to admit. "We're not the team that they are," Jones admitted. "We have to play a perfect game to win. They have the personnel to be able to overcome mistakes. . . . From one to 25, the better players were over there."
In hindsight, it almost seems preposterous that this team--having lost key players Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez and Kerry Ligtenberg to injuries--could make it this far and consider itself championship-worthy, with a lineup featuring only one .300 hitter, a bench without a fearsome late-inning bat and a bullpen that, while solid, was largely untested in pressure situations.
Perhaps it is time for the Braves to look at how they are built. This is a team that is engineered perfectly if what you want to is win 100 games every season. The Braves' lone, undeniable advantage every season is its pitching staff. Four out of every five days, the Braves can send a true ace to the mound. Most teams, who have one such pitcher if they are lucky, simply can't match the Braves for 162 games.
However, in a postseason series, when almost every team has at least two, often three, top starting pitchers, the Braves' lone advantage is negated, their aces matched by aces. And it is here, in the bullpen, in the batter's box, on the base paths, on the bench, that the Braves' hopes seem to die every year.
"You can't play the season one way and expect to turn it on," said Smoltz, one of only two Braves players (Glavine is the other) who have been with the team for all eight division titles. "Over the next few years as the pitching staff gets older, toward the end of the season we may have to rely more on creating opportunities and not rely so much on the three-run homer."
CAPTION: Braves coach Don Baylor, left, and players John Smoltz and Chipper Jones watch during Game 4 as another World Series opportunity slips away.