Nothing ever changes in the National League East, going back to 1991. Since then the Florida Marlins have won two World Series crowns. The New York Mets fell apart and bottomed out, rose again in a new era, and then fell apart and started over again. The Philadelphia Phillies escaped mediocrity and formed a loveable and grimy squad that almost won it all, imploded and started rebuilding with new stars. The Montreal Expos sent future Hall of Famers to every other team except their own, and never took a step in the right direction. There was a strike that cancelled the World Series. The wild card was invented and Major League Baseball went to three divisions per league from two. But nothing has changed. Every year over that extended span, the Atlanta Braves have always wound up as champions of their division.They are overlooked because out of all their trips to the playoffs, which is in every year that there has been a postseason, the Braves have failed to win the biggest series of them all except for in 1995. It seemed at the time to be the arrival of a budding dynasty at the next level, finally ready to climb the mountain. But it wasn’t. The next year, after throwing away a 2-0 series lead earned in the infamous house that Ruth built, with the next three games to be played in Atlanta, the Braves could not seal the deal. They returned to the series in 1999 to face the Yankees again, only to be swept away. For all of their playoff appearances, the Braves have never returned to the series since. Not only that, but their failures to make the series have become forgettable, baseball postseason showdowns that don’t bring to mind the classic moments that define the sport. It was in 1999 when John Rocker was their closer, that the Braves played in their last memorable playoff series, nearly losing a 3-0 lead they held over the New York Mets, but escaped with a walk courtesy of Kenny Rogers. Since then, the Braves postseason has gone the following way: A sweep at the hands of the Cardinals where their precious pitching was torched, a sloppy, error-filled and offensively challenged showing against the Johnson and Schilling Arizona team that won the whole thing, a blown 2-1 series lead in the best of five to Barry Bonds’ Giants when the legendary slugger finally delivered in the playoffs, and last season when Mark Prior and Kerry Wood took all of the bite out of the Braves team that was supposed to be the explosive offensive unit they always lacked. None of those series are particularly memorable. No one even seems to wonder what happened to the mighty Braves. They were expected to fold in the post season.
Since their incredible run of division championships began, the Braves have constantly morphed into new identities. With the pitching rotation of Glavine, Maddux, and Smoltz as their backbone, they always ended up on top. The offensive stars that made up the heart of their order is a long, continuous list of overlapping players that helped each other to grow. Terry Pendleton, Ron Gant and David Justice became Justice, Fred McGriff and Chipper Jones, which became Chipper, Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones. There were always players that complemented the evolving nucleus and sometimes became an integral part of the team like Brian Jordan, Andres Galarraga, Ryan Klesko and Gary Sheffield. Role players came and went, from Mark Lemke and Jeff Blauser to Otis Nixon and Deion Sanders, Marquis Grissom and Keith Lockhart to Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal. Through all those players, Atlanta has still managed to keep its focus as the king of the NL East.
And now, coming off of those three forgettable losses in the NL playoffs, the Braves, who have not been shy about shedding parts of their nucleus over the years, really took it to an extreme. Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez, both coming off monstrous seasons were let go, as well as an aging Greg Maddux who was one of the cornerstones of their run of supremacy. All that remains from the beginning of the run is their familiar manager Bobby Cox, hard rocking pitching coach Leo Mazzone, and John Smoltz, who has transformed from the top money-on-the-table starter in the sport to one of the most dominant closers. With all they have lost this year, and with their best hitter, Chipper Jones, having the worst season of his life, the Braves are still in their familiar spot; first place. It might not last, since the Phillies and Marlins have just as much talent, perhaps much more. But until Atlanta finishes anywhere other than the top of the east, it’s nothing new.