Who's sick of the Atlanta Braves? If I asked ten people, I bet nine would raise their hands. I was always sick of them. More than any Mets fan, Phillies fan or any NL East wanna be du-jour. They have been clogging up baseball's postseason since 1991, with only one championship to show for, in the post-strike 1995 season, when about three people cared outside of Cleveland and Atlanta.
I hated them. More than any professional franchise in sports. More than the Yankees, the Cleveland Browns or Philadelphia Flyers.
Flash back: October 14th, 1992, Game 7, NLCS
It was a beautiful fall day in Pittsburgh, the last traces of Indian Summer still hanging on. The gloaming in the city had a special buzz this Wednesday evening, as something special was about to happen. Our Pirates were about to complete an improbable comeback against the hated Braves.
Screw the Braves, I thought. Sure, their worst to first the year before was a nice story. To myself and the city of Pittsburgh, however, they quickly became an arrogant, obnoxious bunch of prima donnas. Whining over calls, strutting around the bases. I hated the smug, sweet-swinging David Justice, the moaning Terry Pendleton, who stole the MVP from Barry Bonds the year before. I despised the drug-addled Otis Nixon, the traitor (former Pirate) Sid Bream and the too-goddam good John Smoltz, who made a living off of shutting my team down. We DESERVED this pennant.
In the north suburbs, a 16 year old had a brilliant idea: World Series tickets. Instead of taking the bus to school, I would go down to Three Rivers Stadium and score 3 tickets to Game One, to be played on that Saturday. My two best friends, Pat and Matt, each entrusted me with $20, the price of an upper deck ticket. Hell, I would have hung from the flagpole to catch my beloved Bucs in the Series. As game 7 began, we settled into their living room, which had become somewhat of a good luck charm. The Buccos, left for dead at three games to one, dominated games 5 and 6 with us watching there. The crumpled, dog-eared twenties were secure in my front shirt pocket, much like a victory would be secure for the Pirates within three hours.
For most of those three hours, we were in good shape. Doug Drabek, the Pirate ace, was keeping the potent Braves' lineup off the board. The Bucs scratched across two runs, and appeared to have all the luck that eluded them in the first four games on their side, as they wiggled out of a bases loaded, no out jam in the sixth. Piece of cake. Can't wait to be the first in line to see my first World Series.
Even at the time, I knew it would be my only chance to see a Series game. Free agency was really taking off, and the Pirates were already being picked apart. It was well known that the following winter would see the last two pieces of their division winning puzzle, Drabek and Bonds, move on to the highest bidder. It truly was now or never.
Then came the bottom of the ninth. Oh, that cruel, awful bottom of the ninth. Everything that had been going right for the last three-plus days started to go wrong. Horribly wrong. A leadoff double, a walk and an error by the infallible Jose Lind at second loaded the bases with nobody out before I could say "looks I`m going to school tomorrow." Then big Ron Gant ambled up to the plate and crushed a pitch to the Fulton County Stadium left field wall that would have probably cleared earlier in the summer. But the heavier October air, along with Bonds playing deep, made it a 334 feet sacrifice fly. Good, I thought. 2-1 score, first and second, one out. "C'mon guys, get two more, I don't care how," I prayed to myself (not a single word was spoken in the room, as we were all paralyzed with fear). A pitching change brought star-crossed "closer" Stan Belinda in (why the hell manager Jim Leyland didn't go to rookie knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who completely shut down the Braves with two complete game victories still escapes me). Another walk, which was really a horrible missed third strike call by umpire Randy Marsh (who replaced the original umpire earlier in the game because of illness) loaded the bases again. Then Brian Hunter weakly flared out to Lind. Two outs and the Braves were down to their last possible bench player, some scrub named Francisco Cabrera. My brother and I opined earlier in the year that he was probably the worst player in the league, with his cheesy, gerry-curl mullet and all of three hits that season. Francisco Cabrera, the itty-bittiest of bit players, who had no business being at the plate in such an important situation.
Boston has Bucky F'n Dent, St. Louis has Don F'n Denkinger.
Pittsburgh, meet Francisco F'n Cabrera.
He slapped a sharp single to left. Dave Justice scored easily, Sid Bream, who had about 487,000 knee operations, who might have been slower than his own manager, Bobby Cox, lumbered home. Bonds, winner of a Gold Glove that year, whipped the ball to catcher Mike Lavalliere, who lunged to tag Bream...
He missed the tag, and the rest is miserable history if you're a Pittsburgher. We had three chances over the last two LCS' to eliminate the Braves. We were now 0-3. Now and forever.
I stormed out of the house. Pat and Matt stopped me to get back the money they had given me, and I threw it at them. I wasn't angry at them, I just didn't want them to see me crying. It was the first and only time an athletic contest would bring me to tears. I wasn't the only one. It was rumored that the local radio announcers could not do a post game show because of the emotion. Players cried in the locker room, including Bonds. As joyous as the Atlanta Braves and their fans were, I guarantee you that the pain the Pirates and the city felt was a hundred times worse.
It rained for the next three days in Pittsburgh, and the storm has lasted for the Pirates for the next 13 seasons. If only Gant would have hit it out, the pain would have not been so deep for so damn long. This one I'm taking to the grave.
Flash forward, thirteen years later
While I never have gotten over that game (and I never will), I have finally come to appreciate these Atlanta Braves. I respect their players, their general manager John Schuerholz and even Bobby Cox, the crusty old manager. Huh? This from a guy, who, had the internet been there back in those days, would have been the first to own the domain Ihatethebraves.com. So why the flip flop?
Well, I can't help but respect the Braves. Well-earned, begrudging respect. Of all the great dynasties in sports, no team has enjoyed a cycle of winning a division this long. Yet, their failures are even more profound. One World Series win, just one. The Florida Marlins, who came into existence the year after that awful game, have won two. The Yankees have won four. Even the Red Sox and White Sox , who treated winning like a disease for decades, broke through.
Still, the Braves are the best run organization in baseball, with the best general manager in all of sports (sorry, Theo) in John Scheurholz. They have done it every way and back, by building through the draft in those early years, to shrewd trades (Fred McGriff), spending big on free agents (Greg Maddux, Gary Sheffield), brilliant moves (moving John Smoltz to the closer's role and then back to the starting rotation) and building through the draft again (Jeff Francouer, Ryan Langerhans). Throw in the discovery of Andruw Jones, who went undrafted. All the while winning, winning and winning. But not a lot of winning.
Another reason for my new-found respect is Scheurholz's new book "Built to Win," a retrospect of his building and maintaining of the most consistent and smoothest run team in professional sports.
Scheurholz's philosophy is pretty simple: Only get players who want to be part of the team, who are only interested in buying into the Braves concept.
Here's an excerpt:
Bobby Cox: "We like them to be team-minded, civic-minded. If we have to show up at banquets, we want them there. Through the years, some people just don't want to be part of the team and they're better off being somewhere else."
This sentiment is echoed throughout the book, and it's why I have come to respect the Braves. Scheurholz and Cox not only created and maintained a team first attitude, but a team only attitude. That's high school stuff, any jaded sports writer would say. Once the scouts, recruiters, agents and entourage come along, it's usually me times three. Not if you want to play for the Atlanta Braves. Bat boy or cleanup hitter, you better fall in line. Scheurholz runs the team with a shape up or ship out attitude. He wasn't about Moneyball as much as character ball. Don't just do it, do it with class.
Bad attitudes didn't last on the Atlanta Braves. Just ask Deion Sanders, Kenny Lofton or Raul Mondesi.
It's not all about attitude, however. With the best scouting, manager, pitching coach (Leo Mazzone, now with Baltimore) and Scheurholz, the Braves kept on going, kept collecting division championships the way 50 Cent collects gunshot wounds or my dad collects those stupid state quarters. Their going away party has been cancelled for the last few years now. It seems every year, the Mets, Phillies and Marlins (even the Nats for a short time last year) seemed poised to overthrow the hated despots of the National League East, only to wilt by September as the Braves got stronger.
Only problem was, the Braves disappeared in October. They haven't been to the World Series since '99 and the NLCS since 2001. In fact they have lost an unprecendented four straight Division Series, including three times at home in the fifth and deciding game. Even more ironic, those aformentioned NL East counterparts (except Expos/Nats) have made a Series appearance at the expense of Atlanta. Don't tell me Scheurholz doesn't regret the wild card, at least a little bit.
There's a big problem in Atlanta. They have what I believe are the most complacent fans in pro sports. It seems like they don't appreciate winning these division titles anymore. Make the World Series, I can hear them saying, and then we'll get loud. They treat the first round of the postseason like the only child would treat their newborn sibling: they practically ignore it. Plus, the tomahawk chop is the most cliched, corny, annoying (even offensive to Native Americans) cheer in all of sports. When those red foam, hatchet-shaped monstrosities come out in October, flopping futilely, I want to vomit. I won't be rooting against the Braves, but the fans inside Turner Field. They don't deserve to have this winner.
So why does the best regular season team always seem to fold like a lawnchair come October? It seems that as good as the talent they have is, the other team has more talent, a little bit better pitching, timelier hitting. The Braves always seemed to be out-classed, out-hustled, out-chutzpahed.
Will this year be any different? The Mets are off to a hot start, the Phillies and Nationals are struggling early and the Marlins are trying really hard to become a triple-A team. This year could be different, but usually the NL East reverts to form by the time the temperatures hit their summer norms. Hotlanta, indeed.
The Metropolitans better be worried, however. Because "America's Team," as Ted Turner so mistakenly tried to sell to America, will always be lurking, ready to pounce on the weak and fading. Better get a 20 game lead. Better yet, just pray.
So, the hatred I felt at 16 has turned into respect at 29. I will have a hard time breaking the news of this new-found respect- no I like the Braves, there I said it - to my friends, especially Pat and Matt. They know that I tend to hold grudges about these things. I still don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive Cabrera or Bream for breaking a kids' heart.
I will, however, forgive Cox and Scheurholz. Good luck going for number 15 this year. I won't pick against you until another team's Magic Number has hit zero. In fact, I'll be rooting for you, even as you fail in the playoffs. Again.