GOING DOWN IN HISTORY THE BRAVES MAY BE REMEMBERED AS THE BUFFALO BILLS OF BASEBALL

November 04, 1996

When the last of the Atlanta Braves had boarded the team buses,
the vehicles pulled away from Yankee Stadium and into the belly
of the beast. Thousands of delirious New York fans lined the
streets and left the Braves with one final, unnerving snapshot
of a trip they will never forget. Many in the crowd that
remained outside the ballpark taunted the Braves, chanting as
the fans do in Atlanta but extending only the middle finger in
the accompanying tomahawk chop.

The New York police could keep crazies from attacking the buses,
but the cops couldn't stop the nightmare that had descended on
the Braves. The Atlanta players wouldn't have felt any worse
than if the Buffalo Bills and Greg Norman had been sitting with
them in the back of the bus.

The Braves ride into history as one of the great final-round
flops of our time. Indeed, they go right to the front of the
bus. Has there been a collapse so stunning, so surreal, so hard
to believe? In New York last Saturday night the Braves lost
their third World Series since 1991, and they lost it in a way
that will brand them forever. There is a new battle cry for
teams that pull ahead in the playoffs and fear overconfidence:
Remember the Braves!--the team of the decade that fell apart in
five days.

When the Series moved to Atlanta after the Braves won the first
two games in New York, pundits raced one another to the window
to see who could take the most dramatic leap over the edge. A
handful of New York writers kissed off the Yanks, declared the
Series over and the Braves the world champions. Why bother
making the trip? One Atlanta scribe wrote that baseball should
call off the Series right now, while another wrote that the
mighty Braves could beat the '27 Yankees. As it turned out,
Atlanta couldn't handle the '96 version. "It was frustrating to
see that," said Braves pitcher John Smoltz after Game 6. "Why
not save all that until we're done? You look at sports history.
There's always things like this happening, great comebacks,
biggest chokes, so-called miracles. That's what sports is all
about."

With three straight resounding victories against the St. Louis
Cardinals to close out the National League Championship Series
and two more to open the World Series against New York, the
Braves put together the most dominant five-game streak in
postseason history--then never won again. They beat the Cards
and the Yanks in those five games by an aggregate score of 48-2
and soon thereafter went 17 2/3 innings without scoring a run.
It was a bizarre turn of events, and it was a reminder that
behind all the spit and lawsuits and four-hour regular-season
games, there is a magic in this sport that can be found in no
other. The Braves are still the team of the 1990s, but only in
the way that Tony La Russa's Oakland A's were the team of the
'80s or Earl Weaver's Baltimore Orioles were the team of the
'70s. They were fine clubs with just one World Series title,
dynasties that fell from grace quicker than Dick Morris.

"Because we lost, people will say there's a black cloud hanging
over us. But there's no black cloud," said Smoltz. "When this is
all over--when I'm gone or when all our pitchers are gone--I
think our fans are going to appreciate what we had."

Against the Yankees, Atlanta was exposed as a team with a thin
bullpen and a thinner bench. The bottom of the Braves' batting
order was the place where rallies went to die. Jermaine Dye,
Ryan Klesko, Terry Pendleton and Jeff Blauser were a combined 8
for 54 with three RBIs in the Series. Each time they stepped to
the plate, you could almost hear the Yanks' pitchers breathe a
sigh of relief. In Game 6 Pendleton was the starting DH, which
is a problem when you can't H anymore. Then there was Klesko,
who left many observers demanding to see videotape of his
alleged 34 regular-season home runs. In the Series, Klesko
played as if he had swallowed too much cough syrup.

The Braves insist they will return to the Fall Classic next
year, and they have reason to be confident. They will most
likely spend the titanic sum that will be needed to re-sign free
agent Smoltz and exercise the option to keep lefthander Tom
Glavine another year. Their logjam in the outfield will probably
mean that David Justice, who missed most of the season because
of an injured shoulder, will be dealt, while Klesko, Dye and
19-year-old phenom Andruw Jones will slug it out for the two
spots alongside centerfielder Marquis Grissom. Don't be
surprised if the Braves return to the Series next year, for the
fifth time in the 1990s.

Next time, though, we'll wait until the Series is over before
declaring a winner. The 1927 Yankees can rest easy. The Atlanta
Bills still have some work to do.

--Gerry Callahan

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMONNeither an agitated Cox (top, right) nor an acrobatic Chipper Jones could keep the Braves from losing their third Series of the '90s. [Bobby Cox (accompanied by two others) arguing with umpire] COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA [See caption above--Chipper Jones diving toward base]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)