Even while they were rolling up an unprecedented 12 consecutive division championships, the brain trust behind Atlanta Braves had a hard time getting any respect. It wasn't only the fact those 12 titles produced only one World Series championship. There was also a perception that any team that keeps running Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz to the mound three out of every five days could be run by chimpanzees and still win titles.
What this season has shown about the Braves -- who entered Saturday with a commanding seven-game lead in the National League East, closing in on title No. 13 -- is that perhaps their success was not only the result of the talent, but also of the system in place.
"We didn't get enough credit for what we have done for, now, 13 seasons," said John Schuerholz, the Braves' GM and principal architect. "That was frustrating. You don't bring in as many players as we have over the years -- an average of 10 new players per season -- and keep winning if it's only those three guys."
Smoltz, who is now a closer, is the only player left from the start of the title run, and only he and Chipper Jones have been with the team for the last decade. Glavine departed via free agency following the 2002 season, and Maddux did the same after the 2003 season.
This winter, in fact, tested Schuerholz's personnel skills more than any past winter. Not only did they lose Maddux, but also slugger Gary Sheffield and all-star catcher Javy Lopez. The losses were part of a mandate from ownership to trim $15 million from the team's payroll, which Schuerholz dutifully did.
"It was more challenging," Schuerholz said. "When you see those kind of players walking out the door of your clubhouse, it's pretty daunting. We always think we're going to make the right decisions, and we've done that. But we also do it with comfort of knowing we're putting them in the hands of the guy who does the best job of molding disparate parts into a winning unit. And that's [Manager] Bobby Cox.
"Even after we lost the guys we lost and reduced payroll by 15 million bucks, I felt really good about this team. I said this team was good enough to win our division."
No one else thought so. Most prognosticators had the defending World Series champion Florida Marlins or the beefed-up Philadelphia Phillies winning the division.
"They've been the most amazing story of the year," Phillies slugger Jim Thome told reporters during the all-star break in Houston. "Honestly, we didn't think the Braves would be anywhere near the threat they've been."
As recently as June 25, the Braves were floundering at six games below .500, as injuries to Jones and second baseman Marcus Giles left their offense largely in the hands of rookies and role players.
"We were written off by the world in the first two months of the season," Schuerholz said. "Our struggles were protracted because we suffered injuries to those two key guys. So it took a little longer to come together, that's all."
The Braves' pitching this season has been a revelation. Never in all their years together did Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz combine for more than 11 wins in a single month. But in July, Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright combined to go an amazing 14-0 with a 1.87 ERA.
The question for the Braves, then, is the same one that has dogged them every year at this time: Can they win in October? Schuerholz bristles at the suggestion that past Braves teams weren't built for the postseason, chalking up the Braves' October heartbreaks to the vagaries of short-series baseball, rather than some organizational flaw.
"Nobody on this planet is smart enough to convince me of that," Schuerholz said. "Any person who has ever put on a uniform will tell anybody that, when you get in the postseason, it's like a tournament, and the odds are thrown out the window, and anything can happen to any team. The most difficult thing to do in baseball is succeed over 162 games. Not over five games. Not over seven games."
Unworthy of Honor
The Seattle Mariners used the news conference announcing Edgar Martinez's retirement on Monday as a launching point for their well-coordinated campaign to get him into the Hall of Fame. There were plenty of impassioned pleas and reasoned arguments.
However, the feeling here is that Martinez, the incomparable longtime designated hitter, not only likely won't win approval from the required 75 percent of HOF voters, but that he is also undeserving of the honor.
One can appreciate Martinez's rare gifts -- such as his career .312 batting average, .420 on-base percentage and 306 homers (all numbers through Thursday) -- without placing him among the game's all-time greats.
I'm not advocating a blanket rejection of designated hitters from Hall consideration -- Harold Baines, in fact, has a much stronger case -- but defense is one of the criteria by which the greats are judged, and Martinez has nothing to offer in that regard.
If Dale Murphy -- with 92 more homers than Martinez, plus two MVP awards and five Gold Gloves -- is not worthy of the Hall, there is no way Martinez is.
The Chicago Cubs have been caughtby the San Diego Padres in the wild-card race, and one of the big reasons is the mysterious lack of production from slugger Sammy Sosa.
Sosa was in a 5-for-39 slumpentering Saturday -- including an 0-for-5, four-strikeout performance in a critical 5-4 loss in 11 innings to the Padres on Thursday -- which has sent his batting average plummeting to .259. Manager Dusty Baker implied that he would drop Sosa down in the batting order, were it not for Sosa's stature and sensitivity.
"You just can't lose him psychologically and spiritually," Baker told reporters this week. "Sammy is a warrior. He's very proud. He's also sensitive too. We all know that."