Change Is Good Though their roster keeps turning over, the Braves remain the class of the National League, and their 15-win streak suggests the best may be yet to come

May 14, 2000

Like the last living confederate soldier, ace Braves pitcher Tom
Glavine could tell his youthful teammates war stories of a bygone
era in Atlanta. Glavine, a 34-year-old lefthander, could tell
them he has been around so long that both he and the ancient
Warren Spahn can claim to have been teammates of Phil Niekro. He
could tell them of a season in which he lost 17 games and had
what was then an embarrassing 4.56 ERA (which happened to be the
National League average last year), about how he played with Ken
Griffey Jr.'s father and how he pitched for a Braves team that
fell 106 times. Glavine, however, chooses to spare them the Ken
Burns treatment. "They never ask, so I just don't tell them,"
Glavine says. "I think they know we once stunk, but they don't
know how badly we stunk, and they don't care. The only thing I
say is this: Once or twice a year I remind them that going to the
playoffs is not a part of the standard player's contract."

Atlanta has been so good for so long that trying to remember it
as bad is like trying to recall Bill Gates as poor. The last time
the Braves didn't make the playoffs--1990--their current starting
shortstop was 10 years old. The quick ascension of Rafael Furcal,
19, to the majors is typical of how Atlanta has remained at the
top while always retooling.

Ever since a young Glavine and Co. rose to prominence, in 1991,
the Braves have marched on like the guards at Buckingham Palace.
The cast may change, but darned if anyone can detect the
slightest dilution of standards. This season has been no
different. Half of Atlanta's starting position players didn't
play for the club last year. Nonetheless, the 2000 Braves have
one important characteristic in common with their nine
predecessors: They're the team to beat in the National League.

Before dropping two games last weekend to the Philadelphia
Phillies, these Braves became the first Atlanta team to start a
season 21-7. In doing so they ran off their league's first
15-game winning streak in 49 years as well as their first 12-game
home winning streak since they moved to Atlanta in 1966. At this
rate, or even a bit worse, the Braves would become the first team
in baseball to win 100 or more games in four consecutive seasons.
Even more astounding, in those four seasons the Braves would have
used four primary starters at second base, three at first base,
three at shortstop, three in leftfield, three in rightfield and
three as closers (chart, page 52). "I'm more proud of that than
anything else we've done," said general manager John Schuerholz
last Friday.

While it's way too early to tell if this will be the best
Atlanta team of the bunch, it's certain that it's the most
intriguing, as was apparent in the Braves' clubhouse after a 6-5
win over the Phillies last Friday night. On one side of the room
infamous reliever John Rocker attacked yet another splinter
group--the wooden director's chair at his locker--after he had
blown a three-run lead. On the other side 38-year-old cancer
survivor Andres Galarraga dressed in front of a foot-high
ceramic Virgin Mary in his locker, one of several likenesses of
the Blessed Mother he keeps near him at almost all times.
Somewhere in between, Furcal slipped out unnoticed, as if it
were perfectly natural for a kid who would be young if he were a
member of the Backstreet Boys, never mind the best team in
baseball, to rap two hits, steal a base and play spectacular
defense on his first day as Atlanta's every-day shortstop.
(Incumbent Walt Weiss is sidelined again, for at least two
weeks, with leg-muscle trouble.)

"I don't know if you can say it's our best team at this point,"
says Glavine, who stood to run his record to 6-0 before the
meltdowns by Rocker on and off the mound on Friday. "It's hard to
say any team is better than the 1995 team because it won the
World Series. It's hard to say any team can play better than the
'93 team did after the All-Star break [54-19]. That was ungodly.
It's hard to say any team is better than the '98 team, which won
106 games. But there are a lot of things I like about this team.
It's the deepest one we've ever had, and it's the most well
balanced we've ever had."

How have the Braves avoided even one season of retrenchment? The
foremost reasons for their success are:

--The Big Three. From the start of the 1993 season through Sunday,
Glavine and righthanders Greg Maddux and John Smoltz (who will
miss all of this season to recover from ligament surgery on his
right elbow) had started 62% of Atlanta's regular-season games
and 82% of its postseason games. Those three, with a combined
record of 349-167, had more than half the Braves' wins over the
past eight seasons.

--Player development. Atlanta has brought impact players to the
big leagues on an annual basis: catcher Javy Lopez (1994), third
baseman Chipper Jones ('95), centerfielder Andruw Jones ('96),
righthander Kevin Millwood ('97), reliever Kerry Ligtenberg
('98), Rocker ('99) and now Furcal.

--A near-perfect batting average in trades. Schuerholz has made 60
deals as the Braves' general manager. Only once has he been
burned: his March 1997 trade of outfielder Jermaine Dye, along
with a minor league pitcher, to the Kansas City Royals for
outfielder Michael Tucker and infielder Keith Lockhart. (As
K.C.'s cleanup hitter, Dye had a .374 average, 13 home runs and
33 RBIs through Sunday; after two seasons Tucker was traded to
the Cincinnati Reds; Lockhart is a Braves backup.)

Schuerholz identifies two other players whom he regrets trading:
pitcher Rob Bell, who was sent to Cincinnati in a 1998 deal to
get infielder Bret Boone and reliever Mike Remlinger ("Bell was a
young talent we knew hadn't blossomed yet," Schuerholz says); and
outfielder David Justice, who was included in the '97 swap with
the Cleveland Indians that brought outfielder Kenny Lofton to
Atlanta ("Just because of David's spirit, winning mentality and
contributions to us over the years," Schuerholz laments).

On the plus side, several players that Atlanta brought in--like
Remlinger, whom manager Bobby Cox calls "our MVP so far" for his
1.47 ERA and four saves out of the bullpen; outfielder Bobby
Bonilla, who was hitting .311; and lefthander Terry Mulholland,
who was 3-3 with a 5.18 ERA--have been better than advertised.
"This is the place I always wanted to play," Remlinger says.
"Guys get better when they come here. There's no doubt. Just
watching Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz and talking to them is reason
enough."

--A perfect batting average in getting top-shelf free agents.
Players signed as free agents include Maddux, Galarraga, Weiss
and outfielder Brian Jordan. When asked to name the last player
he tried to sign and didn't, Schuerholz thought for half a minute
and said, "I can't come up with a name."

Also, no player the Braves wanted to keep has left as a free
agent. That streak could be jeopardized by Chipper Jones, who is
eligible for free agency after this season. "So far the numbers
haven't been remotely close to what it will take to get it done,"
Jones says of the figures Atlanta has thrown out thus far. "The
bottom line is, if the Braves don't step up, I might have to test
the market."

No player has been more instrumental to the success of Atlanta
2000 than Galarraga, the 38-year-old first baseman who led the
Braves with 10 homers and 26 RBIs. CAT scans on the Big Cat done
every two months show him to be cancer-free, which he attributes
to the divine intervention of the Virgin Mary. Galarraga has
turned his locker into a religious grotto and accumulated many
icons of Mary, including a travel-sized one he sets on his hotel
nightstand. "She watches over me," Galarraga says. "What happened
to me was a miracle."

As Schuerholz began to tweak the roster last November, he took
the advice of doctors and assumed that Galarraga would not be
available and swung a deal with the San Diego Padres for first
baseman Wally Joyner, as well as second baseman Quilvio Veras and
leftfielder Reggie Sanders, both of whom Schuerholz figured would
give Atlanta an upgrade in speed and on-base percentage over
Boone and outfielder-first baseman Ryan Klesko, who were shipped
to the Padres. Veras's .397 on-base percentage and eight steals
while batting first or second in the Atlanta lineup has been
exactly what Schuerholz had in mind. "And more fastballs for the
middle of the order," says Chipper Jones, who bats third.
Sanders, who was batting .139 before a sprained ankle landed him
on the disabled list on Saturday, has been a disappointment,
while Joyner is hitting .286 as a reserve. "We need to get
Sanders and Jordan [.228] going--at least .280--before we can say
we are a plus offensive team," says hitting coach Merv
Rettenmund. Through Sunday only two National League teams had
scored fewer runs than Atlanta.

The only downside to the Braves' start has been Rocker's
radioactivity. He has been busting Geiger counters ever since his
December remarks to SI, and his first road trip after sitting out
a 12-game season-opening suspension was no different. In Los
Angeles last week fans pelted the Atlanta bullpen with food,
cups, coins and balloons filled with paint. One fan ran on the
field while Rocker was on the mound and mooned him.

Rocker has refused to answer questions from reporters since
spring training--and did so then only because Cox insisted--but he
has insulted, mocked and taunted members of the media. A teammate
quoted Rocker as saying to him, "You watch. I'm going to have a
big year, and it will all go away." The teammate says he replied,
"No, it won't. You could save 45 games, and your value won't be
any higher."

Rocker had allowed just one run this year until the Phillies lit
into him for four runs, as many as he'd allowed in 65 career
innings at Turner Field. The same man who entered the game to the
loudest cheers of the night left to boos. No teammate spoke to
him or gave him the obligatory pat on the back when he returned
to the dugout. He sat between two coaches, Rettenmund and
pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Later, after Andruw Jones rescued
Rocker and Atlanta from defeat with a game-winning homer, Rocker
split his chair in two.

Beyond the lightning rod that is Rocker, the Braves have
exhibited few obvious warning signs through what will be a
powder-puff schedule through May 25. (All but six of their first
46 games are against teams that had losing records last year.)
The offense, when healthy, has more weaponry than in past years.
Glavine (armed with a new cut fastball), Maddux and Millwood were
12-2 combined while pitching at least seven innings in 18 of 21
starts. Atlanta continually won in crunch time, outscoring
opponents 85-42 after the fifth inning.

If Version 10.0 is the best Braves team yet, however, no one
among them is saying so. Atlanta started 22-8 in 1997 with a
newly acquired catalyst, Lofton, wreaking havoc. Those Braves
went home without a world championship, just as Atlanta has
every other year but one in the last nine years. "It's way too
early to ask that question," Maddux says of how these Braves
measure up. "Around here the season doesn't begin until
October."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Suddenly Andres The Braves may have gone to the 1999 World Series without Galarraga, but they're more potent with him back in the lineup. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Chipper Jones is a rare longtime Braves regular. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Trading up Veras, acquired from the Padres, is yet another player who seems to have improved just by putting on a Braves uniform.

Interchangeable Parts

Much like the Yankees' dynasty of 1949 to '64, in which second
baseman Jerry Coleman gave way to Billy Martin who gave way to
Bobby Richardson, the Braves have stayed atop the National
League while artfully reloading their lineup. Although it has
enjoyed continuity at some positions, such as third base and
catcher, Atlanta has had to adjust repeatedly at others. Listed
below are the Braves' primary position players each of the last
10 years, including this season through Sunday.

'91 '92 '93 '94

1B Brian Hunter Sid Bream Bream/Fred McGriff McGriff
2B Mark Lemke Lemke Lemke Lemke
SS Rafael Belliard Belliard Jeff Blauser Blauser
3B Terry Pendleton Pendleton Pendleton Pendleton
CF Otis Nixon Nixon Nixon Roberto Kelly
LF Ron Gant Gant Gant Ryan Klesko
RF David Justice Justice Justice Justice
C Greg Olson Olson Damon Berryhill Javy Lopez

'95 '96 '97 '98

[1B] McGriff McGriff McGriff Andres Galarraga
[2B] Lemke Lemke Lemke Keith Lockhart
[SS] Blauser Blauser Blauser Walt Weiss
[3B] Chipper Jones Jones Jones Jones
[CF] Marquis Grissom Grissom Kenny Lofton Andruw Jones
[LF] Klesko Klesko Klesko Klesko
[RF] Justice Jermaine Dye Michael Tucker Tucker
[C] Lopez Lopez Lopez Lopez

'99 2000

[1B] Ryan Klesko Galarraga
[2B] Bret Boone Quilvio Veras
[SS] Weiss Weiss/Rafael Furcal
[3B] Jones Jones
[CF] Jones Jones
[LF] Gerald Williams Reggie Sanders
[RF] Brian Jordan Jordan
[C] Eddie Perez Lopez

Atlanta has been good for so long that trying to remember the
Braves as bad is like trying to recall Bill Gates as poor.

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)