Tuesday, October 12, 2004

12 October 2004: Tumbleweed

There used to be three certainties in life, according to the great Todd Macklin. Death, taxes and the Braves in the NLCS. No longer is that the case.

Early October has instead become tumbleweed week. The Braves have developed a habit of, no matter how weak their team appears to be, winning their division with at least a week to spare. They then tell everyone that 'this is the year', they get home-field advantage and get drawn for the first round of the playoffs against a team with a worse record but who happen to be hot (Cubs, Giants, Cardinals). The Braves then proceed to roll over and die like a suicidal hedgehog on a motorway, usually getting blown away faster than tumbleweed on a warm desert evening in Joshua Tree. The Braves reached every NLCS from 1991 to 1999; since the years started beginning with '2', they've done it only once, beating the Astros in the 2001 NLDS before rolling over against Arizona in the NL Championship Series. With last night's defeat at the hands of those same Astros, the Braves have extended their losing record to three consecutive NLDS defeats, and indeed have won only one of their last seven post-season series, going back to that disastrous 1999 World Series 'Team Of The Nineties' decider against the Yankees, where the Braves rolled over in four straight games with barely a whimper.

What's caused all this? Is it that they are so relieved to win the NL East that they relax for a week and can't re-focus? Is it that they just come up against hot teams and are thus unlucky? Is it that they just don't care, having been in the playoffs for so many years?

That last explanation is one given by many people, but it doesn't hold true for the 2004 Braves. This was a team full of rookies and imports, many of whom had never seen post-season play before. Johnny Estrada, Adam LaRoche, Charles Thomas, Eli Marrero all came through their first full year with the club, and others like John Thompson, Paul Byrd and Chris Reitsma were new to the set-up. This was a team that had to fight for the NL East, and were a dynamic, exciting young side, one of the best defensive teams in baseball. The batting wasn't bad either, with Estrada, Marcus Giles, the ageless ancient Julio Franco and Rafael Furcal augmenting a sub-par but still not-too-shabby season from the Jones boys and an amazingly fit-all-year J.D. Drew. This was a team that had the excitement of the 1991 team, the maturity of the 1995 team and a defensive prowess unmatched by any of the preceding thirteen division champion teams.

But this was October, so they rolled over and died. There was a bit of fire, a bit of fight, but nothing to speak of. The pitchers kept giving up home runs, and that's not how you win games.

So, on to next season. No doubt the payroll will be slashed again and Bobby Cox will find a way to mould a bunch of high school seconds into NL East champions, before they blow it against the Padres or someone in the NLDS next year.

Death, taxes and the Braves in the NLCS. Oh that it were.

Postscript: Car has been in for five days now. Still no phone call from any car hire firms.

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