Sunday, November 16, 2014

Almost a Dynasty: 1990's Atlanta Braves Part 2

What actually makes a sports dynasty?  Obviously a teem needs to be successful for a continuous amount of time.  Every sport has that one iconic dynasty that fits the Dynasty category.  The NBA had the Boston Celtics who won nine out of ten championships.  The Montreal Canadiens won 7 of nine Stanley Cups (including six straight).  The NFL had several dynasties including the 49'ers, the Steelers, the Cowboys and, most recently, the Patriots.  Baseball itself has had the Yankees dynasties in several incarnations including the 1930's, 1950's and 2000's.

So what actually makes a team a dynasty?  There can of course be several definitions since there are varying levels of success.  A team can dominate their division for a decade but be bounced out in the first round of the playoffs year after year.  We could of course consider that to be a divisional dynasty but you wouldn't call it an overall baseball dynasty.  So let us set the parameters for this series of articles.  A dynasty, for our purposes here, is a team that wins multiple World Series championships (above two as back to back is nice but not a dynasty) within a 5-10 year period.  That being defined, this series will explore those teams that may have been a divisional or league dynasty but for whatever reason could not get over the hump to that World Series dynasty.

This series will show an array of near dynasties.  Some are teams that made the World Series year after year but fell short.  Others will be teams that competed right down to the end of the regular season year after year just to be beaten out.  It will be a series of near misses and what could have beens.

Don't miss the other almost dynasty articles: The Detroit Tigers of the 1900's, The Chicago White Sox of the 1910'sthe Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1920's, the Boston Red Sox of the 1940s ,Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s the Milwaukee Braves of the 1950s, the Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1970's, the Oakland A's of the 1980's, the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s Part 1.  Now let's get started with this weeks "almost dynasty": The Atlanta Braves of the 1990's Part 2.

Defending Champs:
Little tinkering was done with the World Champion Braves.  Terry Pendleton was still there but Chipper Jones was now playing most of the season at third base.  Mike Deveraux was gone but he was not a key player in the regular season.  They were replaced by youngsters Jermaine Dye and Andruw Jones.  When David Justice battled injuries Ryan Klesko got plenty of playing time in right field.  It almost seemed that the Braves were too powerful.  Steve Avery struggled with arm problems again but with young pitchers Denny Neagle and Jason Schmidt coming up it was clear that the team was building for the future while winning now.

The Braves, led by Smoltz (24-5), Maddux (15-11) and Glavine (15-10) again breezed through the regular season and swept the Dodgers in the ALDS with Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine each winning one game.  Smoltz took on the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS and kept the pattern going.  It ended abruptly with an 8-3 loss for Maddux in Game 2.  Glavine lost Game 3 by a 3-2 count and young Denny Neagle lost Game 4 by a 4-3 count.  Suddenly the Braves' championship pleasure cruise had hit some rough waters.

Smoltz started Game 5 with the season now hanging in the balance.  Whatever it was that snapped the Braves back to life it had an immediate impact.  They scored three runs before St. Louis could record a single out.  They scored 5 runs in the first, another 2 in the second and they never let up. With 22 hits, 5 walks and 14 runs the Braves made a loud statement.  It was loud and clear.  We're still the champs.

Maddux pitched Game 6 and although he did not have the run support that Smoltz had gotten in Game 5, the three runs that he was given were enough.  The Braves won 3-1.  Now they had St.Louis on the ropes.  It was a showdown for the NL pennant in Game 7.  The Cardinals started young Donovan Osborne in Game 7.  He was in his 5th, and best, Major League season but he had never faced pressure like this.  The Braves had Glavine on the mound.  Glavine got the Cardinals 1-2-3 (including a ground out by Ron Gant) in the first. Osborne did not fare quite so well.  He gave up a single and a double.  After a ground ball and an RBI sac fly it looked like he might settle down.  A 1-0 game wouldn't be so bad.  He walked Lopez to load the bases and then the rookies took over.  Jermaine Dye and Andruw Jones hit back to back singles to make it 3-0.  Jeff Blauser was hit by a pitch to reload the bases.  Still, 3-0  was OK.  They could get past that and with Glavine stepping up to the plate there was still a chance for Osborne to do something.   He did.  He gave up a bases clearing triple to Glavine making it 6-0 Braves.  Osborne left the game after 2/3 of an inning having allowed 6 runs on 5 hits.  The Braves won 15-0 and advanced to the World Series for the fourth time in six years and with their bats on fire.

Their World Series opponent would be the New York Yankees. It was a rematch of the 1957 and 1958 World Series.  The Braves had won the 1957 and the Yankees the 1958.  That was back when the Yankees were unbeatable and the Braves were the "almost dynasty".  Now the Braves were the dominant team and the Yankees were the ones with the questions.  While the Braves had the strongest pitching, possibly ever, the Yankees had two strong veterans (David Cone and Jimmy Key), one unproven rookie (Andy Pettite) and one pitcher that some considered the weak link (Kenny Rogers).  The rookie, Pettite, started Game 1 against Smoltz.  Pettite got Marquis Grissom, Mark Lemke and Chipper Jones in order to start the first.  Smoltz put himself in a tough position with two walks but he got Cecil Fielder to fly out to end the inning.  A swinging strikeout by McGriff started the Braves second and people were slightly impressed with the poise of the young pitcher.  Javy Lopez singled and when that was followed by a long fly ball for out number two it seemed to settle any nerves.  Stepping to the plate was Andruw Jones.  He had played in only 31 games in the regular season but with David Justice out of action Jones got  the start in the World Series.  And what did the player who was technically not even a rookie yet do in his first World Series at bat?  In a 6 pitch at bat Andruw Jones gave the Braves a 2-0 lead.  He launched a ball to left field and as Darryl Strawberry went back to catch it he knew before reaching the warning track that it was out.  The Braves 3rd inning was even more fun.  Four singles, a sacrifice, a walk and a stolen base gave the Braves a 5-0 lead and showed Pettite the way out.  They weren't done yet.  Jermaine Dye flew out for the second out and Jones stepped in for his second World Series at bat. It landed in the netting that protected Monument Park in left-center field.  The Braves took Game 1 12-1.

Maddux took the mound in Game 2 against Jimmy Key.  Maddux allowed 6 hits and walked none in 8 innings.  The Yankees offense had now scored only 1 run in 18 innings at home.  The Braves scored 4 runs against Key and looked like the unbeatable champions.  They were on their way home for three games.  The way they had played in the first two games and with Avery and Glavine still to come they were on top of the world.

The Yankees were not about to go quietly.  With David Cone, the veteran ace on the mound, the Yankees were far from defeated.  Glavine pitched well in seven innings allowing only 4 hits, and walking three.  He allowed only two runs, one of them unearned.  The key inning was the 6th with the Braves behind 2-0.  Glavine led off and Grissom followed that with a single, one of his three hits on the day, and Lemke failed to advance the runners when he popped up a bunt.  Chipper Jones walked and loaded the bases for the heart of the lineup.  Fred McGriff, the teeth of the Braves attack, stepped in and Atlanta fans were sure this would be the moment that things worked themselves out.  McGriff popped up the second pitch for the second out.  Next up was Ryan Klesko, the power hitting star of the 1995 World Series, Klesko drew a walk forcing in Glavine with the opening run.  Most managers would have pulled Cone at this point.  Joe Torre decided to win or lose with Cone.  Cone faced Javy Lopez.  A base hit would give Atlanta the lead, the momentum and probably the series.  On an 0-1 pitch Lopez swung and connected. The ball popped up in the air for a final out. The Yankees went on to score three more runs  and save their season, for a day.

The Braves were angry.  They knew they should be ahead three games to none.  They took their anger out on Kenny Rogers.  McGriff led off the second with a solo Home Run.  That inning ended with the Braves leading 4-0 and when they added another run to give them a 5-0 lead Kenny Rogers was told it was time to fold 'em.  In the 5th the Braves added a run to go ahead 6-0 and the Braves were getting fitted for rings.  There was no chance at losing now. The Yankees cut the lead to 6-3 in the 6th but the Braves were still confident.  The Yankees had just six outs left to keep their chances alive.  Charlie Hayes led off with a single and was followed by a Darryl Strawberry single.  Hayes advanced on a Mariano Duncan fielder's choice but there was now 1 out.  In a now legendary, dramatic 6 pitch at bat Jim Leyritz launched a game tying, season saving, three run Home Run.  The game remained tied into the 10th when Wade Boggs, fighting for his first World Series title, gave the Yankees the lead with a bases loaded walk.  The Yankees added a run on an error by Ryan Klesko and suddenly the series that should have been a laugher was tied at 2.

Andy Pettite started for the Yankees in Game 5.  John Smoltz, who had not lost a game in the postseason this year, looked to give the Braves control of the series.  With Maddux and Glavine to follow the Braves still believed they had the advantage. Smoltz was spectacular.  He struck out 10 and walked only three and allowed only 4 hits.  The only glitch came in the 4th.  Charlie Hayes hit a ball to Center Field that Marquis Grissom could not handle and the error left Hayes standing on second.  A Bernie Williams ground ball moved him to third and a Cecil Fielder double scored Hayes giving the Yankees one unearned run.  With an offense as good as Atlanta's and as bad as the rookie Pettite looked in Game 1 it was time for the Braves to go to work.  What happened instead was the first great moment of Andy Pettite's career.  Pettite pitched 8 1/3, allowed 5 hits, walked three but kept the Braves away from home plate.  The Yankees took a 3-2 lead in the series on a 1-0 victory earned on an unearned run.

Suddenly, the Braves, who just a few days before were 5 outs from taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the series were now on the brink of elimination. The Yankees did not make this one quite as dramatic.  They got to Maddux early with a three run 4th.  Paul O'Neill opened the inning with a double and moved to third on a Mariano Duncan ground ball.  Joe Girardi then tripled to score O'Neill (that's right a triple from a slow running catcher).  He then scored on a Derek Jeter single.  Jeter stole second and after a Wade Boggs pop out Jeter scored on a Bernie Williams single.  It was 3-0 Yankees.  The Braves had a chance immediately to cut into that lead.  Chipper Jones opened the 5th with a ground out but McGriff walked Javy Lopez singled and Andruw Jones repeated the feat, loading the bases.  The Braves outfielders had been the surprise stars in the first three games with dramatic Home Runs and tremendous fielding plays.  Dye connected on the first pitch and sent bodies moving in all directions.  It was down the right field line.  Paul O'Neill tore towards the wall.  The runners were tearing around the bases and Dye was sprinting, dreaming of a bases clearing, game tying base hit to turn the tables.  As O'Neill sprinted towards the line he slowed up.  It was nothing more than a foul ball.  Dye managed to draw a walk from starter Jimmy Key and the Braves had their first run.  Manager Joe Torre made a decision to stay with Key, just as he had with Cone in the tight situations.

Walking to the plate was Terry Pendleton.  Braves fans thought back to the 1991 season.  It was Pendleton who had instilled hope. He was the MVP that year.  He was the one who brought the winning attitude from St. Louis.  Pendleton had been their saviour when the Braves organization was at rock bottom.  Now he had a chance to save them again.  Pendleton was a smart veteran.  He was not going to let a pitcher who was clearly struggling off the hook.  Key was looking wild and had just walked in a run.  Now it was time to make him sweat it out.  The count went to 2-1 and Key looked to the Yankee bench almost asking Mel Stottlemeyer what he was doing wrong.  The next pitch was in the exact same spot as the previous two.  Well off the plate outside.  Key was now one pitch away from walking in a second run and with only one out the Braves bench started smiling, clapping.  Stottlemeyer got on the phone and started chewing his gum a little more intensely.  Key delivered a pitch on the lower outside corner.  Pendleton was looking to drive it right back up the middle.  He thought it would score McGriff and with Andruw Jones's speed he might have a chance too.  The runners were off at the crack of the bat.  Jermaine Dye ran well and was off like a shot from first base.  The problem was Pendleton caught the ball on the end of the bat.  It didn't connect well enough to get through.  Dye ran as fast as he could as McGriff crossed the plate.  Derek Jeter fielded the ball just a few steps from the bag.  Dye ran harder, if it's possible, thinking to break up the double play but Jeter was quick.  He stepped on the bag before Dye even had a chance.  Jeter threw on to first base for the inning ending double play.

The Braves had one last chance.  In the top of the 9th Andruw Jones struck out swinging but Klesko and Pendleton hit back to back singles.  Luis Polonia, once the symbol of the Yankees underachieving 1980's to early 1990's teams, pinch hit for Jeff Blauser.  With a chance to prove to Yankees fans that they had let him go too soon, he instead struck out.  The Braves were now one out away from disaster.  Marquis Grissom was determined not to let that happen.  Grissom shot the first pitch into right field scoring Klesko and putting the tying run on third base.  Yankees fans had seen their closer John Wettelend blow saves before, including in the 1995 ALDS against the Mariners.  He had come a long way since then but there was always that worry in the back of their head. "This would be the worst time for him to blow one..."  At the plate was Mark Lemke.  Like Pendleton, Lemke was the symbol of this Braves team.  In 1991 he had been the surprise star  The man who seemed to come up with the big hit whenever they needed it.  Like Pendleton he would not make this easy.  The at bat seemed to take forever. On a 3-2 count Lemke popped the ball along the third base line.  It was right at the dugout.  Charlie Hayes tracked the ball and fell into the dugout trying to catch the final out.  He emerged from the dugout with an empty glove. How many times have you seen it?  A seemingly game or inning ending near out and the batter redeems himself with a base hit.  Not this time.  The baseball gods rewarded Hayes's efforts with a seemingly identical chance, only this time without the necessary dive.  The Yankees were World Champs.  The "team of the decade" the year before were now second.

A Pattern Forms:
The next few years seemed to set a pattern.  The Braves were clearly head and shoulders above their division. In 1997 they won 101 games and although the Marlins were a Wild Card team, the Braves were 9 games better in the regular season.  The Braves were a different team by now.  Terry Pendleton was gone.  David Justice and Marquis Grissom  were traded to Cleveland.  Greg McMichael had been sent to the Mets. Avery was injured.  What had not changed was the pitching, the foundation of this team.  Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux.  The 1997 Braves swept through the Astros in the ALDS with seeming ease and it was thought they would have no trouble making it back to the World Series.  The Marlins had other ideas.  Before they knew what had happened the Marlins had won the NLCS in six games and the Braves were home scratching their heads.

The 1998 Braves were even stronger.  They won 106 games.  The Marlins were no longer a threat after being dismantled.  The Braves had what could be considered the greatest rotation in history with five starters above 15 wins and the realistic possibility at mid season of having five 20 game winners.  Andres Galaraga was now playing first base in place of McGriff and a resurgent Walt Weiss was playing short stop.  Chipper Jones was now widely accepted as one of the best players in the league and the Braves rolled to another division title by 18 games ahead of the Mets.  The Cubs offered little resistance in the NLDS and the Braves quickly won the series 3 games to 1.  They were seemingly toying with the Cubs in Game 2, going 10 innings before taking the game 2-1. Their next opponent was the San Diego Padres.  No one gave the Padres much of a chance except the Padres and their fans.  San Diego shocked the Braves.  They jumped out to a 3 games to 0 lead before the Braves knew what had hit them.  Led by Ken Caminitti, Steve Finley, Greg Vaughn and Mr. Padre Tony Gwynn, the Padres advanced to the World Series for only the second time in their history.  The Braves, again, went home for the winter.

In 1999 they again won the east with 103 wins.  The Mets finished a "close" 6 1/2 games behind them and won the Wild Card.  Again the Braves won the NLDS with seeming ease against Houston, although they did actually lose one game this year,   They looked to break the pattern of the past few years against the Mets in the NLCS.  In a series that would usher in an intense Mets-Braves rivalry, the Braves triumphed.  The Braves jumped out to a 3 games to 0 lead but a 3-2 win in Game 4 kept the Mets alive.  In the pouring rain of Game 5 the teams needed 15 innings to decide the game.  The Braves scored one in the top of the 15th but the Mets won in the bottom of the inning with a walk off grand slam that turned into a walk off single when the team celebration stopped the runners from advancing.  Regardless the Braves advanced the next game when they walked off in their own fashion.  With the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th, Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones to score the NLCS winning run.

Now the almost dynasty had a direct challenge.  The Yankees had beaten them in the 1996 World Series in what should have been the second crown (or third or fourth or fifth) in the dynasty.  Since then the Yankees had won the 1998 World Series and now faced the Braves again.  On the line was the title of team of the decade.  The Braves were now in their 5th World Series in a 9 year period.  They had only won once.  The Yankees had not even reached the playoffs in the decade until the Braves were already being handed the title of team of the decade.  Since then the Yankees had won two World Series and were going for their third.  Except for a 10 inning loss the Braves never really had a chance.  They were swept out with relative ease ending the decade in the heart breaking fashion that had become their trademark.

The Continuing Saga:
As the years went on the pattern remained.  2000 was 95 wins, a close division win over the Mets by 1 game.  They were swept out of the first round by the Cardinals.

2001 saw the Braves in a hot pennant chase with the Phillies.  They put the Phillies away on the last weekend of the season.  They swept the Astros in the first round but were knocked out by the Diamondbacks in the NLCS.

In 2002 they won 101 games, best in the NL and 19 games ahead of second place Montreal.  They lost in the first round to the San Francisco Giants.

In 2003 they were 10 games better than the wild card Marlins.  The Cubs knocked them out in the NLDS.

In 2004 they were 10 games better than the improving Phillies.  They lost to the Astros in the NLDS.

In 2005 the Phillies again pushed the Braves to the limit and finished only 2 games back.  The Astros knocked them out in the first round.

Year after year the Braves dominated the regular season.  No one could question that this was a great team.  Star after star played for the team.  Gary Sheffield.  Brian Jordan.  Andres Galaraga.  Bret Boone.  Rafael Furcal.  J.D. Drew, Vinny Castilla.  Julio Franco.  B.J. Surhoff.  Reggie Sanders. Ozzie Guillen.  Maddux moved on.  Glavine moved on.  Smoltz became a closer and then a starter again.

In 2006 it ended.  The Mets overtook the Braves and it would be a totally different Braves team that  reached the playoffs in 2010.  The almost dynasty that won 13 division titles and 5 National League titles won only one World Series.

Bobby Cox was in his second stint as manager of the Braves during the "almost dynasty" of the 1990's/  Originally hired in 1978 as the Braves manager he left after the 1981 season.  From 1982 through 1985 Cox led the Blue Jays, taking them just one game short of the World Series in 1985.  Cox returned to manage the Braves part way through the 1990 season and remained until 2010.  When Cox left following 1981, who replaced him as the Braves manager?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
Many people remember Deion Sanders as a Hall of Fame Defensive Back for the Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys (and near the endof his career the Redskins and Ravens).  It would be hard to decide who was the better two sport athlete between Deion and Bo Jackson.  Jackson's injury deprived us of the opportunity to see what the man could really do.  Sanders played with the Braves and Falcons during the almost dynasty and made 8 Pro Bowls during that time.  The Braves had another two sport star who made an impact on both the Atlanta Football and Baseball franchises.  Although his career in football was much shorter (1989-1991) Brian Jordan was a big part of a strong Atlanta secondary.  Jordan played for the Falcons and even had a playoff interception against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins.  Jordan played 15 years in the majors for the Cardinals, Braves, Dodgers and Rangers.

1 comment:

  1. Good article.
    When Andruw Jones first started playing in the majors, i thought he was hall of fame material.
    I never knew that Kenny Rogers played with the Yankees. Of course I think he played with every team.
    My guess fir the trivia is Joe Torre.



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