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Monday, February 26, 2007
Braves streak is over, but not hunger for October

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- John Smoltz played in a golf tournament in Connecticut. Bobby Cox puttered around his farm.

Chipper Jones packed up to travel to the ranch in Texas. John Schuerholz headed for the office to begin the quest for an October like the ones he used to know.

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The calendars on their walls and PDAs said it was October 2006. But for these men -- the pillars of an underappreciated dynasty -- it sure didn't feel like October.

For John Smoltz and Bobby Cox, for Chipper Jones and John Schuerholz, for the men who helped turn the Atlanta Braves into one of the great franchises in sports history, October always had been their time, their month.

It wasn't necessarily a month of happy endings. But from October 1991 through October 2005, there were two things in life they -- and we -- could count on:

Halloween candy on the 31st. And October baseball in Atlanta, Ga.

Until last year. Until a season when somebody else won the NL East, and these men were finally reminded that October could -- and did -- go on without them.

"You miss it," said Cox, whose 14 straight titles will transport him to the managerial wing in Cooperstown some day. "It's like an addiction. You've got to have that. It wasn't any fun not going. That's for sure."

"I watched all [of last season's playoffs]. I did. Probably more so, in fact, than in any of the previous years -- because that's part of the acceptance of losing. There wasn't that disappointment of losing in a Game 5 in the first or second round of the playoffs, where it takes you a week to get over it and you don't want to watch baseball. So I watched pretty much all of it."
-- Chipper Jones

"I watched it all," said Jones, a man who had never played a full big-league season that didn't include a ticket to baseball's Octoberfest. "I did. Probably more so, in fact, than in any of the previous years -- because that's part of the acceptance of losing. There wasn't that disappointment of losing in a Game 5 in the first or second round of the playoffs, where it takes you a week to get over it and you don't want to watch baseball. So I watched pretty much all of it."

"I went to a golf tournament I'd missed for 14 straight years," said Smoltz, the only Braves player left who was a member of all 14 playoff teams. "It's a buddy of mine's tournament that he holds the first week after the season's over. I did it in '88, '89 and '90 -- and hadn't done it since. …

"I remember having so much fun at those tournaments," Smoltz reminisced. "I remember being there, watching the Cubs and the Giants play for the pennant in '89, and thinking, 'Wouldn't that be fun?' and 'How far away am I from that?' "

He laughed at the memory.

"And lo and behold," he said.

Right. Lo and behold, his friends spent the next decade and a half watching him in the playoffs.

"Yeah," Smoltz said, chuckling. "For all those years."

For all those years. Through three presidential administrations and 13 Steven Spielberg flicks and 1,131 editions of "60 Minutes." For all those years, October meant gearing up for another postseason, another chance to validate their greatness.

And then it didn't.

It was strange. And it was empty. But it was something else, too:

Inevitable.

"Hell, we won for 14 straight years," said Schuerholz, the only GM in baseball history to preside over a streak like that. "Sooner or later, we weren't going to win forever. There wasn't going to be an infinity sign behind our record. So sooner or later …"

It turned out to be later, of course. Much later. But when "later" finally came, that empty October left an imprint on every one of them, left them reflecting this spring on what all those Octobers had really meant. Especially Smoltz, who admits he just might "love that time of year more than anybody in the history of the game."

"Since '95 [the year they won it all], every October has been painful," said a man who has a 15-4 postseason record in his 40 (yep, 40) trips to the mound in October. "To me, not getting there is no different than getting knocked out in the first round. … In my opinion, anything short of winning it all, short of at least getting to the World Series, is losing."

By the end, though, about the only connection between those early playoff teams -- the teams that played in four out of five World Series during 1991-96 -- and the last set of Braves playoff teams was a few familiar faces and the team name on the uniform. Players changed. Styles changed. Payrolls changed. Only the final standings stayed the same.

"So I considered the last three years -- 11 through 14 -- to be miraculous," Smoltz said, "because I didn't think we were very good. People didn't pick us, really [to win those postseason series]. … People would say it was our time, it was bound to happen, all those clichés. We just never figured out a way to improve in the areas that would take you to the next level."

As a man who had watched too many of those October chances slip away, Smoltz cringed with the pain of every lost opportunity. He especially cringed, he said, at the voices he heard around him saying, "Well, there's always next year."

"What I didn't want to buy into personally," he said, "is, we were owed one of these years. We had that luxury. We'd get that mulligan. To me, that's bad theology. That would be like me saying, 'So what if I have two bad years in a row? I had 17 good ones.' You can't buy into that."

But lots of the men around him bought into it anyway. Heck, it was way too easy a rationalization when one October kept leading to another and another and another.

"Do you know how many guys have been in this locker room who have lost before [last year] with this team?" Smoltz asked. "None. I'm the only one. … '88, '89 and '90, I was not in the playoffs. Everybody else who has donned this jersey has known nothing else but being in the playoffs.

"So I don't know if that's going to resonate. That's all they know. That's all Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones know. I don't like the word 'complacency.' But if that's all you know, I don't know exactly how you're going to feel if you don't go one year."

But in fact, Smoltz understands exactly how Chipper and Andruw feel. How the masses feel, however, about a season with no October -- he can't predict that.

"The complexity here is, Andruw and Chipper and myself, being the guys with the most years here, have had the job of talking to everybody else about how to sustain it," Smoltz said. "And that's a lot of pressure to put on a select few guys.

"And now we've brought in players from other organizations. We've got a lot of young guys. And in their short tenure here, they've experienced something that nobody in this locker room had experienced in a long time. So I know how Andruw and Chipper are going to handle it. But I don't know how some of these other guys are going to handle it."

"I don't think what we did will be really revered, the way it should have been, until 20 years down the road. I think, when a new generation comes along, and anybody who's a historian looks back and sees a 14-year streak of winning your division, that's when it will be really respected. We take a lot for granted nowadays."
-- Jones

Cox and Schuerholz, of course, never would express those doubts. They talk about the 29 saves their bullpen blew last year. They talk about the trades for Mike Gonzalez (Pirates) and Rafael Soriano (Mariners) that appear to have plugged those bullpen leaks. They do the mental calculations on how many games last year's team would have won if it had blown five fewer saves. Or 10. Or 20.

"I'd characterize last year as a bump in the road, not a dead end," the GM said. "I think the attitude we take is, we're still the Braves. We still have that yearly, relentless pursuit of excellence. That's what we talk about every year, every spring. And that hasn't changed."

They've all noticed, of course, the difference in the NL East predictions and conversations this spring. Those conversations always began with the Braves. This year, it's amazing how many of them don't even include the Braves.

"I think they think that last year starts the slide downward, back to where the Braves were in the '80s," Chipper Jones said. "But that's not going to happen. Too many good players. Too much pride. Too much chemistry. And Bobby."

Yes, the manager is the best in the business -- still. That hasn't changed. About the only thing about Bobby Cox that has changed this spring was his first-day-of-spring-training address to the troops. He couldn't help that change.

For all those years, he told them: "We can do it again. Don't get lax," he said. This year, he had to rewrite his script -- finally. This year, he reminded them of how thin that line was -- a blown save here, a blown save there -- between their silent October and division title No. 15. So why, he wondered, couldn't this year be the start of a whole new streak?

But the truth is, something bigger has changed, even if it's difficult to admit or describe.

"I don't think what we did will be really revered, the way it should have been, until 20 years down the road," Jones said. "I think, when a new generation comes along, and anybody who's a historian looks back and sees a 14-year streak of winning your division, that's when it will be really respected. We take a lot for granted nowadays."

We do, you know. We took those Braves of 1991-2005 so much for granted, in fact, "that it wasn't even a big thing," Smoltz said. "It wasn't even a feat. Only when you lose … [does the world] seem to take notice of how good the run was -- now that it's over.

"So it won't just take one year of not playing in October," Smoltz said. "It will take a multitude of years of not playing in the playoffs for people to realize what we did."

It's easy to get used to the constants in sports, even if we have so few of them. But this wasn't Duke basketball, or Cal Ripken heading for another All-Star Game. This was a baseball team that finished first in 14 straight non-strike seasons.

Nobody voted for them. Nobody chose them on Selection Sunday. They had to survive 14 six-month marathons to earn their annual passage to October.

So this is a fascinating time in the life of this franchise. What did that vacant October signify, anyway? Was it just a salute and a wave farewell? Or does the removal of that boulder from all their shoulders make the Braves more dangerous than ever?

"This year we get to start fresh," said Smoltz. "Let's see whether or not we've got that weight. I think it's gone."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.