A Sept. 9 Sports article incorrectly said that Kent Mercker pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals. Mercker is with the Cincinnati Reds. (Published 9/14/2005)
There are two possible starting points for any discussion of the Atlanta Braves' run of success since the start of the 1991 season: There are the wins, and there are the losses. There are the 13 straight division titles, with a 14th seemingly on its way this fall. And there is the lone World Series title, 1995, in that span. Both are remarkable, defying the principles of logic and history in a game where entire rosters generally turn over every few years and any team with a couple of stud pitchers and a little luck can win it all.
Where would you like to begin, with the wins or the losses? Baseball insiders, who understand the difficulty of winning even a single division title over 162 games with a constantly evolving roster of fragile bodies and fragile egos, hold a deep appreciation of the wins -- particularly this season, as the Braves march toward another National League East title (they hold a six-game lead) with a roster that, at times, has included almost as many rookies as non-rookies.
"There's nothing to measure them against," said Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, whose team will open a three-game series against Atlanta at RFK Stadium on Friday. "It's a tremendous accomplishment, and they don't get enough credit because they don't have enough rings to satisfy people. But I'll tell you what: There are a lot of people in this game who would trade places with them."
Fans, however, tend to focus on the losses, tagging the Braves with the derisive nickname, "the Buffalo Bills of baseball," likening them to the team that made four straight Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s and lost them all. And even some key figures in the Braves' own organization question whether the franchise has sacrificed October success for April-to-September consistency.
John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox would appreciate it greatly if you started with the wins, thank you very much.
The Braves' general manager and manager, respectively, beam as they describe the mixture of solid personnel, precise organization and confident decision-making that has been the foundation of the team's success and bristle at any suggestion that the team's failures in the postseason carry any meaning beyond someone always being hotter than they've been.
"I can't say we have more passion than anyone else," Schuerholz said. "I can't say we have more intuititiveness. I can't say we have more creativity or more imagination, or we work harder. Our own internal expectation is to do those things better than everybody else we're competing against. I'm sure everybody else says the same thing, but our guys have found a way to do it."
It is a formula that is decidedly anti-"Moneyball" -- in that the Braves value the judgment of scouts over the conclusions of statistical analysis when it comes to personnel decisions.
"If somebody guarantees me that the only way they'll put a roster together is by analyzing stats," Schuerholz said, "I'll face them every day for a month of Sundays, and take my chances."
If it is possible to assign degrees of satisfaction to one's own accomplishments, Schuerholz admits this one, should the Braves pull it off, would top them all.
The Braves began this season with a typically solid game plan -- they would stake their title hopes on a deep, veteran-laden starting rotation and a potent, veteran-laden lineup. But then 60 percent of that starting rotation went down with injuries, as did lineup cornerstone Chipper Jones. New corner outfielders Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan, veterans signed as free agents over the winter, flamed out, as did closer Dan Kolb, whom the Braves had acquired in a trade.
"So, in midseason, going full-speed ahead, we had to change our plan and reconstruct our team," Schuerholz said. "We didn't have the money to go out and get like kinds of players -- we couldn't double-pay at those positions. So we had to go young. And I said, If we're going to go young, we're going to go young with our own guys, because we know them, we know their work ethic, their character. And they know us.
"Is it my most rewarding, my most exciting one of all? Yeah, it is."
The Braves' youth movement this season has been nothing short of staggering. They have used 17 rookies, 12 of whom are currently on the roster. All were either signed or developed, or both, by the Braves.
"Two months ago in Texas, we started a lineup with 10 homegrown players on the field, including the designated hitter," Schuerholz said, his voice nearly choking up. "I called our scouting and player-development people and left a message telling them how proud I am of what they've done. That's almost impossible to do in this day and age."
Baseball is a game of few secrets. Everybody knows everybody else's players, from the lowliest rookie leagues up to the majors. Any edge that another team gains is quickly copied by 29 other teams. The list of things the Braves do differently than other teams is very short. But the list of what the Braves do better than anyone else is very long.
At the top of that list, surely, is consistency. Cox and Schuerholz assumed their current jobs in June and October of 1990, respectively -- not coincidentally, just before the franchise began its run of division titles. No other GM/manager duo in baseball has been together so long. Pitching coach Leo Mazzone, the third member of Atlanta's holy triumvirate, came aboard at the same time as Cox.
It is entirely possible that all three are the best in the game at what they do. At the very least, both Cox and Schuerholz seem destined for the Hall of Fame.
So give the credit to Schuerholz. . . .
"He's the best I've ever seen," said John Boles, who served as the Royals' farm director when Schuerholz was their general manager in the 1980s, and who is now a scout for the Seattle Mariners. "He's smart. He's competitive. And he wears it on his sleeve. We could always tell by the way he walked down the hallway whether we had won or lost the night before."
Or give the credit to Cox . . .
"He is to managing what Greg Maddux is to pitching," said Mark Lemke, the Braves' starting second baseman from 1990 to '97, and who now hosts pre- and postgame shows on the Braves' radio flagship. "No matter how long you played behind Greg Maddux, you could never guess along with him. Same thing with Bobby. You just can't out-think him. You'll think you know how he's going to do something, and he'll surprise you."
"He's a players' manager," said pitcher Tim Hudson, in his first season with the Braves. "He's fighting every pitch with you. He's top-stepping it in the dugout. He's in the game. It's amazing he still has the passion and energy that he does after so many years as he's been in the game."
Or give the credit to Mazzone . . .
"I love Leo to death," said former Braves pitcher Kent Mercker, now with the St. Louis Cardinals. "I played in Colorado with Mike Hampton, and I remember telling him when he got traded there . . . I said, 'Wow, dude, you're going to get your stuff back. Leo is going to figure it out, I promise you.' And I was right."
Or, spread the credit around, if you wish. The fact remains, it is a model franchise -- at least from April to September. Their pipeline is always stocked with prospects, many of whom eventually help the big league team, others of whom are traded away for critical parts.
"This is not a unique formula," Schuerholz said. "It is the people. I can't underline that enough. Good people make this work. And those good people in scouting and player development do their work, and hand the players off to Bobby Cox and his lieutenants -- good people there as well -- and this thing perpetuates itself."
When the Braves traded a pair of pitching prospects -- Roman Colon and Zach Miner -- to the Detroit Tigers for reliever Kyle Farnsworth on Aug. 1, you could be sure of two things: First, Farnsworth would be a better pitcher with the Braves than he was with any other team in his career. And second, neither Colon nor Miner would amount to anything.
The Braves make personnel moves as if they have both ESP and ESPN.
They can take pitchers who were retired and out of baseball for a year or two (such as lefties Chris Hammond and Darren Holmes in recent years) and turn them into successful relievers. They can take one look at a washed-up veteran (like John Burkett, whom the Tampa Bay Devil Rays released in the spring of 2000), and squeeze 22 wins out of him over two seasons. They can sign a 43-year-old former slugger out of the Mexican League (like Julio Franco), and he will still be producing for them four years later at the age of 47.
As for Farnsworth, he is a career 23-38 pitcher with a 4.47 ERA, but since coming to the Braves he has an ERA of 1.13 and is 5 for 5 in save opportunities.
"You simplify the game to this: throw the fastball down and away, and change speeds. And you convince them there's nothing more to pitching than that," said Mazzone, freely offering up his "secret." "It's not rocket science. It's common sense."
Conversely, as longtime baseball executive Pat Gillick once said, if the Braves offer to trade you one of their pitching prospects, you should run the other way. In the past two winters, they have given up top pitching prospects Dan Meyer, Jose Capellan and Adam Wainwright for deals to acquire Hudson, Kolb and J.D. Drew, respectively. Meyer and Wainwright are still in the minors, and Capellan was recently called up by the Brewers after spending much of the season in the minors.
In fact, in 15 years of trading away prospects to fuel the quest for division titles, the Schuerholz-Cox-Mazzone regime has only been burned once -- by Jason Schmidt, whom they traded to Pittsburgh in 1996 for Denny Neagle.
It is not unusual for a team to have to defend itself against pointed questioning about the trades it has made. But the Braves are the only team that goes on the defensive because their trades have worked too well.
"Hey, look, Jason Schmidt became a great pitcher," Schuerholz said, racking his brain for more "mistakes." "Odalis Perez [sent away in the Gary Sheffield trade] had a great year for the Dodgers. Jason Marquis [also in the Drew deal] had 15 wins for the Cardinals. They're not bad pitchers. Dan Meyer is going to be a good pitcher some day."
"It's not that we didn't rate those prospects highly ourselves," Cox said, sheepishly. "Those are the ones the other teams asked for. We're not going to lead them the other way."
And yet, there is a dark side to these dealings; there is always a dark side when it comes to the Braves. Like everything else in the organization, the trades seem to work from April to September, but never in October. They find the pieces that are required to get to the postseason, but never the pieces that help a team win it all.
"If you're trying to build a championship, there's a certain formula," said pitcher John Smoltz, the only player left from the original 1991 pennant winners. "If you're trying to build a team with a chance to win every year, there's a different formula. If you look at our formula here, in my mind, it's never been to win one championship. It's been to keep it going."
Smoltz was not trying to make a value judgment about the Braves' front office. But the fact remains, the proven formula for a World Series champion in this era begins with power pitching at the top of the rotation. And even at their pinnacle, the Braves rarely had more than one power pitcher -- Smoltz. In the postseason, even the greatest finesse pitchers in the world, such as Maddux and Tom Glavine, are somehow neutralized.
Smoltz rattles off the names of the power pitchers who have beaten the Braves in Octobers past: Houston's Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt (2004), Chicago's Kerry Wood and Mark Prior (2003), Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling (2001). And on and on.
"For 13 years, it's been the same formula," Smoltz said. "By chance alone, you flip quarters enough, you're going to come up with a certain number of heads. By chance alone, we should have at least three world championships. So I keep coming back to the fact that something is not allowing you to win championships."
What is unspoken, for fear of jinxing themselves, is the Braves' belief that their team this fall -- with Smoltz and Hudson representing perhaps their most formidable pair of front-end power starters since Smoltz and Steve Avery in the early 1990s -- is their best built-for-the-postseason team in years.
Or is that a mere buildup to another crushing October defeat?
In the eighth inning of a scoreless Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Lonnie Smith should have scored easily from first base on Terry Pendleton's double in the gap, but failed to because he fell for a deke by Minnesota Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch.The Braves lost in the 10th, and a ghost was born.
In every October, save one, the ghost has returned to haunt the Braves. In the eighth inning of Game 4 of the 1996 World Series, with the Braves about to take a commanding lead over the New York Yankees, it compelled Mark Wohlers to throw an 0-2 slider to fastball-challenged Jim Leyritz, who hit a three-run homer that started the Yankees toward another championship and the Braves to another heartbreak.
Such is the legacy of the Braves. The past both validates them and condemns them.
"I can see the play where Lonnie could score," Schuerholz said. "I can see the Wohlers slider. But remember, we had a 6-0 lead in that game and Neagle couldn't hold it. If Lonnie Smith scores, and the slider isn't hung, we win another one or two, and we are validated in even the biggest cynics' eyes as one of the legitimate, classic, championship-caliber major league franchises of all time.
"I can't say I never think about them. Once in awhile they'll go flashing through my mind. And when that happens, I have another glass of wine."