If Bobby Cox and John Smoltz have anything to say to each other after 17 years with the Atlanta Braves, it’s probably something like, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
When Cox took over from Russ Nixon 65 games into the 1990 season and inherited a team with young hurlers like Smoltz and Tom Glavine and sluggers like David Justice and Ron Gant, he had to know despite their abysmal record the future looked bright.
And of course it was. Thanks to men like Dale Murphy, Jeff Blauser, Steve Avery, Greg Maddux, Chipper and Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez and of course Leo Mazzone, the Braves were unstoppable (at least in the regular season) for a decade and a half.
World Series rings are the bottom line, but 14 straight division titles is an astonishing streak when you consider how many things have to go right just to win one.
But now for all intents and purposes it’s over. And that my friends, has got to hurt.
Imagine the feeling of failure that surrounds the Braves clubhouse right now as they sit 13 games under .500 and 15 games behind the first-place New York Mets. So many teams before them entered seasons with pundits predicting it would be the year the Braves finally relinquished their stranglehold. And yet every year, somehow someway, they’d manage to win it just the same.
For so many seasons the organization seemed impervious to the negative effects of age, expectations, injuries and talent deficits. But as long as you were wearing a Braves uniform and some idiots were going “OHHHHHH-OH-OH-OH” while swinging foam tomahawks, everything was just fine.
Hot-lanta made Julio Franco look young again. Even Steve Karsay had a little extra spring in his step while he was there.
So how bad does Jeff Francouer feel right now? What’s going through Ryan Langerhans’ head as the crowd at the Turner Field thins with each spontaneous bullpen combustion?
It’s a somewhat unexpected turn of events, and one wonders how Bobby Cox can even mentally prepare his team given that the last time he faced such turmoil Mariah Carey was picking up the Grammy for Best New Artist.
(That’s kind of shameful in itself – I think Carey’s had more hits in 2006 than the bottom three in the Braves order).
Even though more than half the season’s left to be played, Atlanta’s chances of a surge back to the top of the division appear slim, even if the team they’re chasing IS the Mets, whose stretch of disappointment is rivalled only by the New York Knicks on draft night.
(Then again maybe Renaldo Balkman could be a good closer, because I don’t think he’ll be spending too much time on the floor at Madison Square Garden.
So the real question for Atlanta is what’s next? Are they rebuilding? Are they contending? Is Hank Aaron busy?
All worth asking, but answering them won’t keep the streak alive, and that reality alone could disrupt the organization for at least a couple of seasons.
And so they’ll stagger forward, blindly feeling for solid ground in a sport where such a thing doesn’t exist. And when they come to as an organization, the reality of just how difficult it is to make the playoffs and the fact that they may not do so any time soon will set in and leave them shivering – standing on the verge of a Brave new world.
Sorry, I had to.