Of course they're going to be good. The Braves are always good.
Who's going to beat them? The denuded Marlins? We don't think
so. The Mets? Not likely. The Expos? The Phillies? Please. The
Braves will win the National League East, just as they've won it
every year since 1991 (excluding strike-shortened '94). As long
as the usual suspects are around--Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and
John Smoltz--Atlanta will win.

It is true that Ted Turner may not know who's who. ("Hey, hey,"
he said to Maddux, passing the pitcher on a walk through the
clubhouse during spring training, "there's the guy who keeps
winning those Cy Young awards.") But Turner is a big-picture
guy. Somebody must have told him early on that you win with good
pitching, and he took it to heart. Maddux (the guy with the
glasses, Ted) is signed through 2002. Smoltz (the big guy with
the facial hair, out until May recovering from arthroscopic
surgery on his right elbow) is signed through 2000. Glavine (the
guy who looks 12, although he's 32) is signed through 2001.
Remember how Clinton won the presidency the first time around by
reminding himself daily, "It's the economy, stupid"? Baseball is
about that complicated. Got a bad team? It's the starting
pitching, stupid.

The continued presence of those three pitchers creates an
impression of stability on the club. You think the Braves are
trotting out the same team year after year. Fans dig stability,
and more fans means more money, which, if you want to win, you
spend on players, those already accomplished and those still
developing. Anybody not getting this? Actually, Atlanta tinkers
like mad. There are only eight players on the current roster who
have been with the team for more than four years.

Along those same lines, the Braves pretend that money is no
object. It is true that they have one of the highest payrolls in
baseball, in the $65 million range. But when the Braves are
trying to save money, they wisely shut their mouths about it.
Why? Because if fans and players and agents think all a club is
trying to do is keep expenses down, they look elsewhere.
Remember the trade Atlanta made in spring training last year
with the Indians, shipping out David Justice and Marquis Grissom
for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree? Quality for quality, the
Braves said at the time. Now the truth is out. Orders came from
on high to make budget cuts. The Big Three are expensive, and so
is lefthander Denny Neagle, who went 20-5 last year, his first
full season with the Braves, and who is signed through 2000.

You can nitpick the Braves, if that's your thing. They don't
have a classic leadoff hitter. They don't have much speed (but
they rarely do). The players in leftfield and in right catch the
ball competently, no better. Maybe there are a couple of other
nits in there.

The significant question about the Braves is whether they will
become complacent. But manager Bobby Cox, general manager John
Schuerholz and president Stan Kasten--the brain trust--are too
smart to let that happen. Don't believe anything you read, hear
or see about how good your team is. That was a theme of spring
training this year. Prove yourselves nightly.

Cox is an interesting character. He can play avuncular uncle
like nobody in the game, but he's more complex than that.
Starting his 17th year of managing in the bigs, he's already won
1,312 games, which puts him 23rd on the alltime list. Another
four years of 90 wins per and Cox will be number 11th or 12th on
the list, depending on what Tony La Russa does. Cox will be 61
years old and is, most likely, Hall of Fame bound. How does a
manager get to Cooperstown? By having his team prove itself
nightly, April through October.

A few more wins in October would be nice--for Cox, for the
Braves, for the record books. Atlanta has been a superb baseball
team since '91, but not a dynasty, not in the classic sense, not
with just one world championship. The baseball psychologists
have been trying to make sense of the Braves' autumnal problems
for a while, but there's no there there. An extra base that
should have been taken. An injury. A call. A bounce. What can
you do?

You nurture good pitching and keep it. You create a loyal fan
base. You hire quality players and never complain publicly about
the expense. You play the games, one at a time. You see what
happens. Far more often than not, it's something good.

--Michael Bamberger

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO TOMMY GUN With four aces, including Glavine, the Braves hold all the cards in a division race that isn't a race at all. [Tom Glavine pitching] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [Michael Tucker]