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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- There won't be a trace of a southern accent on the podium when the Atlanta Braves' contingent delivers 30 minutes or so of speeches Sunday at the 2014 Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Greg Maddux spent his early years in Spain as a military brat before his family moved to Las Vegas. Fellow inductee Tom Glavine is a product of the Greater Boston suburbs, and Bobby Cox, their former manager, was born in Oklahoma before moving to California's San Joaquin Valley as a small boy.
But it will be perfectly understandable if a Tomahawk Chop breaks out at the Clark Sports Center or a "y'all" is heard on the Cooperstown streets this weekend, when memories drift back to a day when all postseason roads passed through Atlanta, the center of the baseball universe.
With all due respect to Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Frank Thomas, three of the six inductees to the Hall's Class of 2014, the main theme in Cooperstown this year will be honoring a team that spoiled its fan base rotten and defined the modern-day "dynasty" before the Yankees claimed four championships from 1996 through 2000. The Braves captured 14 straight division titles, with the only respite coming in 1994 when the season ended early because of a strike, with Montreal holding a six-game lead over Atlanta in the National League East. To this day, the Atlanta players and front office are convinced they would have made up the deficit and captured the division if commissioner Bud Selig hadn't canceled the season in August.
Even though Maddux will go into Cooperstown with a logo-free cap out of deference to the Chicago Cubs, the team that gave him his start in pro ball, he will join Glavine and Cox in the first wave of recent Braves mainstays who will be prominent in Hall voting over the next few years. John Smoltz, with his Dennis Eckersley-like pedigree, goes on the ballot for the first time in December, and Chipper Jones is considered a lock as one of the elite switch-hitters in history. John Schuerholz, who oversaw the construction of those Atlanta teams as general manager, is also a strong candidate to make it to the Hall through the Veterans Committee at some point.
Two other former Braves who won't make the Hall of Fame still generate some interesting conversation. Andruw Jones appeared destined for superstardom in 1996 when he became the youngest player to hit a home run in the World Series. He faded prematurely but still finished his career with 434 home runs, 10 Gold Gloves and a 62.8 career WAR, higher than fellow outfielders Gary Sheffield, Ichiro Suzuki, Sammy Sosa and Willie Stargell. Fred McGriff, a centerpiece of the Atlanta batting order for five years in the mid-'90s, also has a core of devotees. The Crime Dog is tied with Lou Gehrig on the career home run list with 493, but he's never cracked 25 percent in Hall balloting.
|There have been many congratulatory handshakes between Tom Glavine and Bobby Cox over the years.|
To put the Braves' star power in perspective, their pending surge of Hall representation matches or surpasses some of the most hallowed franchises in history. The Orioles have sent six representatives to Cooperstown (Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr.) since their move from St. Louis to Baltimore in 1954. The Dodgers also have produced six Hall of Famers (Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Walter Alston, Tommy Lasorda and Walter O'Malley) since their arrival in Los Angeles from Brooklyn in 1958.
Not that they dwell on such distinctions, but the Braves are finding some validation and love through the Hall of Fame electorate that they might have missed because all their first-place finishes produced only one World Series victory.
"I think it's nice because, the way the roll of the dice went in the postseason, we tend to forget how great those Braves teams were because they weren't winning a bunch of championships," said Craig Wright, a longtime baseball author, statistician and historian. "They really were a fabulous team, but you know how it can be in a short series. I really appreciate that we can recognize how great those stars were, and the longevity involved."
That sense of respect for the Braves was evident in the opposing dugout, as well as the press box and the stands.
"I know everybody likes to see the bottom line -- you know, 'How many World Series did you win?'" said Torre, who managed the Yankees past the Braves in the 1996 Series. "But getting in the position to be in the World Series is not easy. For them to compete every single year, change personnel every single year and still be there, I always admired that."
It would take more than the space allotted here -- even on the Internet -- to relive the memories that defined the great Atlanta teams of the 1990s and early 2000s. Their string of indelible moments included Francisco Cabrera's single and Sid Bream's slide against Pittsburgh in the 1992 National League Championship Series and McGriff's arrival the day the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium press box caught fire in 1993. Maddux won four straight NL Cy Young Awards, and Glavine dominated the final game against Cleveland in the 1995 World Series.
The images still linger of pitching coach Leo Mazzone rocking incessantly in the dugout, and Cox, cap askew and anguished look on his face, arguing with yet another umpire on his way to a record 159 career ejections. David Justice, Ron Gant, Mark Lemke, Jeff Blauser, Ryan Klesko and Javier Lopez were among a slew of other players who made significant contributions.
To gain a true appreciation for what the Braves achieved, it's instructive to reflect upon the late 1980s, when the losing at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was almost as oppressive as the heat and humidity. In 1988, the Braves went 54-106 under managers Chuck Tanner and Russ Nixon. The following year, they posted a 63-97 record and hit rock bottom when coach Roy Majtyka and reliever Joe Boever lost a cow-milking contest to Cincinnati's Tom Browning and Joe Oliver during Farmer's Night at Riverfront Stadium.
Stan Kasten, now president and CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers, laid the groundwork for the Braves' dominant run with a series of sage personnel moves after joining the organization in 1986. His first big decision was resisting the advice (from whom precisely, he will not say) to fire scouting director Paul Snyder. That steadfastness paid dividends when Snyder drafted Chipper Jones, Glavine, Justice and numerous other players who would play pivotal roles in Atlanta's division title run. Kasten made another seminal decision in 1990 when he shifted Cox from the general manager's seat to the dugout and replaced him with Schuerholz, who had built an impressive track record in Kansas City and was widely perceived as unattainable.
Schuerholz gave the Braves credibility, a sense of direction and a long-term vision, not to mention a school teacher's vocabulary and a sense of sartorial elegance with his suspenders and color-coordinated socks. Kasten still remembers the incredulous feeling he shared with Cox in the fall of 1990, when Cox was in the hospital recovering from knee surgery and Kasten broke the news that the Braves had landed Schuerholz. "When we finally had all the right pieces in place, we just needed the guy to come in and make it all work,'' Kasten said. "John and I still laugh about it to this day. There were 100 candidates mentioned for who we were going to hire as GM, and his name never once saw the light of day. John and I went to the press conference announcing him, and no one had ever used his name. It never occurred to anyone that he would leave Kansas City.''
|Greg Maddux earned 194 of his 355 career wins in an Atlanta Braves uniform.|
Pitching was the foundation for Atlanta's success, with the Big Three at the center of it all and Steve Avery, Denny Neagle, Kevin Millwood and Kent Mercker taking turns as trusty sidekicks. Maddux and Glavine generated lots of laughs in a classic "Chicks Dig the Long Ball'' video, and they bonded on the golf course and in friendly competitions. Maddux won 18 Gold Gloves, but Glavine wouldn't hesitate to point out that he won three more Silver Slugger Awards (four) than his fellow rotation-mates combined.
"When you're a starting pitcher, life can get pretty boring sometimes, because you pitch and then you sit around for four days,'' Glavine said. "But on those teams, it was always a little bit more fun. You knew when you were going to the ballpark and you weren't pitching, you were going to get a chance to watch somebody that was really good.''
Cox oversaw it all with a reliance on some bedrock principles. He once pulled Andruw Jones midgame for a lack of hustle, but 99.9 percent of the time he went to great lengths to provide cover for players and put a happy face on poor performances. Cox had few rules, but he steadfastly prohibited music in the clubhouse. Players were free to indulge their tastes while wearing headphones, but Cox didn't want them arguing over the merits of metal versus country versus rap when they should have been focusing on that night's game.
Cox also managed to inspire devotion from his players while maintaining the requisite distance as an authority figure. He never took part in those celebrated golf games with his star pitchers, and he rarely if ever dined with an Atlanta player.
"If I had a beef with a certain player, I always made them get up at 7 o'clock in the morning and come down for breakfast and we would talk about things,'' Cox said. "But that was as close as I ever got to a player off the field.''
The Braves wouldn't be human if they didn't feel some regret over their failure to collect more than one title. In Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Minnesota's Jack Morris beat Smoltz 1-0 in one of the greatest postseason pitchers' duels in history. The Braves' most devastating loss came in the 1996 World Series, when they outscored the Yankees 16-1 in the first two games in the Bronx and then lost four straight. The pain from Jim Leyritz's Game 4 homer off Mark Wohlers will never completely heal.
That lone title is the Braves' one soft spot and a bit of a hot button when it's mentioned in their presence. They continue to maintain that it's unfair for a handful of October failures to tarnish their long-term achievements.
"I would hope people talk more about the success and the consistency of winning than they do about how many world championships we won or should have won," Glavine said. "I would argue that it's tougher to win 14 straight division titles than it is to win two World Series in a given time. The Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series, and then they were gone. The Marlins have won a couple World Series, and look at everything that's happened in between.
"Do we feel like there's some disappointment that we didn't win a bit more? Sure. We were right there on the cusp in '91 and fell a little bit short. In '92, we just got beat. If there's one World Series that I think any of us feels like we let get away, it was the '96 World Series. To come home from Yankee Stadium up two games to nothing, you couldn't have asked for anything better than that. But we didn't close the door."
Kasten wholeheartedly agrees. He has gained perspective through the years in conversations with John Hart, Bill Polian, Mike Krzyzewski and other friends who have achieved major success in the sporting world coupled with some major disappointments in their quest to go the distance.
"Yes, I would have liked to win more," Kasten said. "But that's because I want to win everything every day. It doesn't diminish the pride I have long-term over what we put together. John [Schuerholz] and I talk about it from time to time, how even one more [title] would have changed that narrative. But it's not something we dwell on."
It's natural to wonder: In a new era marked by revenue sharing, luxury taxes and increased baseball parity, will another team come along and match the Braves' standard for consecutive division titles and so many Hall of Famers? Cox, for one, won't rule it out.
"I think it's a record that's probably going to be broken someday," Cox said. "I never thought that Lou Gehrig's record would ever be broken. I didn't think anybody would get close to that, and Cal Ripken did it. So I think anything is possible in the game of baseball."
Possible? Yes. But it's about as probable as Ben Revere winning a home run title or a Molina brother leading the majors in stolen bases.
Kasten still reflects on a quote from baseball executive Walt Jocketty during Jocketty's former tenure as GM of the St. Louis Cardinals. It neatly summarizes his feelings on the vagaries of October baseball.
"Walt had a great quote that I love," Kasten said. "He said, 'This year will be more special for us because we will have won our division two years in a row.' And you know what? He was exactly right, because it's hard. I think that was a great quote to put in perspective what our teams did in Atlanta."
Individually and collectively, the great Braves teams made their mark over a decade and a half with class and a penchant for winning baseball games. Now it's time for them to be celebrated in Cooperstown.