John Donovan
Thursday January 20th, 2005

Head down, feet shuffling, shoulders bowed, I showed up for my whupping.

There's an old Bill Cosby routine about an angry dad who tells his kid "Go get me something to beat you with!" And the poor, brainless kid runs out and returns with a tree or a belt or something.

"If my father ever told me that," Cosby said, "I'd tear the corner off a piece of paper and say, 'There you are, Dad. Go ahead. Wail me.'"

Well, I came back with my notebook.

Back in May, I wrote off the Braves. Scratched them from an impossibly early list of postseason possibles. Buried them alive. I knew it was way too soon for that. I knew they were beat up, but it wasn't just the injuries. They were beaten. You could see it in the way they played. You could hear it in their frustrated voices.

So I called them done. Yes, it was way early. Too early, as it turns out, by at least a year. But let's face it. When you wait 'til September to throw dirt on a bad team, it's a little late.

I was wrong, all right? I couldn't have been wronger. More wrong. Whatever.

The Braves are back. All the way back. They have an 8 1/2-game lead in the National League East, the best team ERA in baseball and a tough, smart lineup. They have -- good god, how much penance does a man have to do? -- a good bench, a better bullpen than anyone thought they would have and they're well on their way to winning the division. Again. It will be the 13th straight division title they've won.

I needed to talk to John Schuerholz, the team's general manager, about this. I needed to explain to him why I put the Braves six feet under back in May.

I needed to take my whupping.

"The thing about those who called for our demise, so early on in this whole process, was that, after 12 years of doing this in a variety of different ways, up against a variety of different challenges, that we didn't get any more credit than that," Schuerholz said.

It had to be, I figured, the setup. He was waiting before he really let me have it.

"After 12 years," Schuerholz continued, "somebody might say 'You know, those guys down there, they certainly know what they're doing.'"

OK, OK. Everybody knows the Braves have a pretty good idea of how this game is played. But the Braves of mid-May looked nothing like the Braves of the past decade. Honest.

Not only were they hurt -- shortstop Rafael Furcal was down, second baseman Marcus Giles went down on May 15, then-left fielder Chipper Jones was limping through a bad hamstring, starter Horacio Ramirez was hurt -- they were just plain awful. Mark De Rosa, the third baseman at the time, was terrible. The Braves, clearly, missed Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez. Heck, they even missed Vinny Castilla.

Their pitching, too, was awful. Mike Hampton was 0-4 with a 7.41 ERA in mid-May. Jones sounded off publicly about the sorry state of the team. Closer John Smoltz pretty much stamped it as the end of an era.

It wasn't just me, you know.

"They weren't being critical," Schuerholz said of Jones and Smoltz. "They didn't see what I could see. They shouldn't be able to see what I can see. They're not general managers. They don't have overview looks. I can't expect them to be able to see all the pieces, looking through the prism that I look through.

"I knew that, in time, they and everyone else on the team was gonna see what we had put together."

The Braves stumbled through a losing May, and a losing June, dropping 6 1/2 games back and six games under .500 on June 23. But they won four of their last five in June, and in July they became the Braves again, going 20-6 to take over first place. They haven't been out of it since. They won't be out of it for the rest of the season.

There are a dozen reasons the Braves started so badly and at least that many for their resurgence. Second baseman Nick Green and outfielder Charles Thomas, guys nobody saw coming -- not even Schuerholz -- came through. Hampton started to pitch effectively again. Jaret Wright, the Indians phenom of many moons ago, did too, better than anyone could have imagined. The bullpen, the shakiest part of the team in spring training, became one of its rocks.

And, yes. The Braves know what they're doing. Schuerholz said back in spring training that it would take a couple of months for this Atlanta team, radically changed like no other in the past decade, to find its way. It took a little longer. But they're there.

Are they gloating about it? No. The Braves don't gloat. Champions don't. But there's a lot of satisfaction there.

"It's very rewarding, for all of us. It was a real challenge, and more daunting challenge, than we've faced in the past. We're trying to make up for the loss of all that All-Star talent [Sheffield, Lopez, Castilla, Greg Maddux] and do it with far less money to spend [the Braves cut payroll by some $15 million before the season].

"I think we did the right thing. The way we're playing right now is the verification for that. Let's hope that another month from now is the ultimate verification."

Well, then, are they at least hacked off at those who doubted them?

Guys, you know, like me?

"Irritation. I'm too old to get angry. Anger, that's an emotion for more serious things," Schuerholz said. "But irritation is real.

"Again, I think we've earned more than that. It hasn't been just one year, or two years. It's been 12. Consecutive, record-breaking years. That buys a little credibility."

I can't say that I'll never doubt the Braves again. It's getting harder and harder for them, as even Schuerholz admits. I can't promise that I'll never bury them again before their time.

But I will say this: If I do, and they prove me wrong, I'll show up for my next whupping with a tree.

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