Thursday, September 29, 2005

29 September 2005: Repeat

This blog suffers a little from seasonal repeats. Just like turning on BBC1 at Christmas and seeing Mary Poppins or Zulu, arrive at this blog in late September/early October and you'll find me talking about the Atlanta Braves.

For those who don't follow baseball, it's quite a remarkable story: the Atlanta Braves were, for a long time in the 1980s, a load of old rubbish. In 1990, they finished bottom of their division with the worst record in the whole of baseball. Then in 1991, with the same management staff of Bobby Cox, John Schuerholz and Leo Mazzone, they added a couple of young players and suddenly began winning games. Young pitchers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had break-out years, Glavine winning the Cy Young 'pitcher of the year' award, and the Braves won their division. They then went all the way to the World Series, losing narrowly to the Minnesota Twins in the final inning of the final game.

The following year, with much the same team, nobody expected them to win their division again. The Dodgers and the Giants were much too good, surely. Not a bit of it: the Braves won quite comfortably, leading from the front, and suddenly people began to take serious notice. Again a close World Series loss meant a sad end to the post-season, but the pattern was set. The Braves were a team who won their division.

And so here we are, fifteen years later, and the Braves have won their division every year since. Fourteen in a row (the 1994 season was shortened by a strike and never finished), and while most of the players have changed (only Smoltz remains of the original '91 miracle team), the Holy Trinity of Cox, Schuerholz and Mazzone remain in charge, bringing through a seemingly endless stream of young players who come in, do supremely well and lead the Braves to yet another division title. This years crop of rookie wonder-kids include catcher Brian McCann, infielders Wilson Betemit and Pete Orr, outfielders Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans, pitchers Kyle Davies and Blaine Boyer. Oh, and right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who played only half the season but ranks third in the Majors in outfield assists, and for a long time was hitting over .400, feats that earned him a solo-slot on the front cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

So, on Tuesday night, the Phillies lost and the Braves beat the Rockies, thus confirming the fourteenth title in a row. And here's where it gets weird. Next week, the post-season playoffs begin between the various division winners, and the Braves will do a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation into the most useless team of non-hitting, weak-pitching baseball players you'll have seen since watching the first half of movies like The Natural, Bull Durham and Major League. Yup, just like last year, it'll be Tumbleweed Week.

The Braves used to enjoy post-season. They'd fight through the NLCS and get to the World Series, usually losing a close encounter (1991, 92, 96) or, once, winning it (1995). Since losing to the Yankees in a series of blown opportunities in that '96 series though, there's been something of a shift. They've only made the world series once in eight tries since then, and even then (1999) they lost in four straight games to the Yankees. In the last few years, they haven't even made it to the NLCS, losing in the division series, often to the wildcard team. And in these games, they seem to just roll over and die, blown away like tumbleweed in a light desert breeze. They win their division every year, but the fact is this: they have not won a World Series game since 1996. That's almost a decade ago.

I know, I know, this is a good team, it's full of youth and hunger, the players know how to battle and know how to win in tough circumstances. Andruw Jones leads the league in home runs and RBIs. John Smoltz and Tim Hudson are two of the best pitchers in baseball right now, both headed for the Hall of Fame. But then you look at how the playoffs are lining up, and you realise the Braves will probably be playing a five-game series against the Houston Astros next week, who will send Pettite, Oswalt and Roger Clemens to the mound to pitch for them, and suddenly you remember losing to them at the same time last year, and the mountain grows in your mind.

I hope it's different, and maybe it will be. But the pattern is set: Braves win their division, then turn into lollygaggers. Right now, we don't need Andruw Jones or Tim Hudson or Jeff Francoeur.

What we need is Francisco Cabrera. And maybe a bat named 'Wonderboy'.

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