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Brave raves

They're always good. They're rarely great. But maybe this season ...

Posted: Monday September 27, 2004 1:23PM; Updated: Monday September 27, 2004 2:41PM
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Every spring for the last five years, I've gone out and bought a new Atlanta Braves hat on opening day. It's usually just a regular cap -- red bill, blue top, white "A." Always fitted. I wear a hat nearly every day, rain or shine, and they tend to get a little gamey after awhile. When the new Braves take the field each spring, I need to be wearing my fresh gear, too. This means that I've spent roughly $100 on five identical hats. I don't have a problem with this, because I know what I'm getting -- a lid that matches most anything, that will withstand rain and sun, that advertises my favorite team.

Similarly, with the Braves themselves, you always know what you're going to get. The Braves are going to be really good but not truly great. Bobby Cox will be there, aw-shucksing his way out to the mound to pull the starters in the seventh. Chipper Jones will hit about 30 home runs, drive in 100 and run the bases with his shoulders twisted. Andruw Jones will put on clinics in the outfield and pull the ball every at bat. And the Braves will win the division and then get knocked out in the playoffs.

If consistency breeds trust, it can also generate indifference. When the Braves made their first charge to the postseason with a worst-to-first season in 1991, the city of Atlanta was electrified. For years, the Braves weren't just not good, they were terrible. No one expected Terry Pendleton to be an MVP, or Mark "the Lemmer" Lemke to hit .400 in the World Series. In '92 they maintained their excellence, but it still took an improbable dash home from Sid Bream to get to the World Series.

By 1993, Atlanta was buzzing for the Braves. Businesses incorporated tomahawks into their logos. Tom Glavine did commercials for Kia, and people believed a millionaire would really drive a budget car.

They won the Series in '95, and then things settled into the big blah. From '96 through '03, the Braves won the division every year but couldn't win the big one. Each season was Groundhog Day, and for the fans it was almost like experiencing a midlife crisis. Things were good, but could they be better? The Braves won and won and won, then lost when it counted. Instead of delving deeper, a lot of fans made like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty and just started lifting weights alone in the garage, tuning out the Braves altogether.

This year, though, everything was different. Greg Maddux and Javy Lopez joined Glavine on the free-agent wire, looking for greener (ca-ching!) pastures. General manager John Schuerholz was vocal about the Braves having their cash flow stunted, so Gary Sheffield was allowed to walk to the Evil Empire. Even TBS seemed to be skeptical, bumping dozens of games to the Turner South network so they could instead show "Sex and the City" repeats. (By the way, turns out the woman that played Miranda was a better actress than anyone suspected.)

I needed to do my part, too. Things were different in Atlanta, so I wanted to change things up. Instead of going with the normal cap, I went out this season and bought an all-navy blue model, kind of like the one Usher wears in all his videos lately. (I'm wearing it in my picture above.) I still didn't think it would work, though. Our starting rotation was a shadow of its former self, first and third base were shaky, and we were praying that J.D. Drew could somehow stay healthy all year.

What happened? Well, what always happens? The Braves just win, baby. They started slow, but they've been unstoppable since June 23 (60-26 since then). Leo Mazzone tricked Jaret Wright into believing he was a staff ace. Chipper  was flirting with the Mendoza line through the All-Star break, but he hit .337 in August and led the Braves' charge for the NL East. Still, the biggest surprise were all the rookies -- Charles Thomas, Adam LaRoche and Nick Green -- who came from nowhere and turned out to be crucial.

It's always that way with the Braves. Guys come in and out, do their job for a month or a season and then go away to have solidly mediocre careers. Remember Ryan Klesko, Jeff Blauser, Francisco Cabrera, Denny Neagle, Kerry Ligtenberg, John Rocker, Quilvio Veras, Luis Polonia, Jermaine Dye, Ed Giovanola, Mike Mordecai, Jose Oliva, Bill Pecota, Terrell Wade, Walt Weiss, Keith Lockhart? They all saw their best days in Atlanta.

For that, Braves fans can thank Schuerholz and Cox. Schuerholz doesn't get a lot of publicity, but he may be the best GM in sports. He's perfect at going out and getting just the right free agents, and even trades that don't seem so great at the time (Kevin Millwood for Johnny Estrada) look fantastic in hindsight.

And then there's Cox. As of today, he's two wins away from 2,000 for his career and a sure Hall of Famer. He's so set in his ways that he can be unbelievably maddening at times -- he manages by his own book, and not only do the fans know what's coming, so do the opposing teams. He occasionally errs, maybe leaving a pitcher in too long, but for the most part he's as steady as a metronome. That continuance is the backbone of the Braves.

One of these days, the Braves will win another World Series, perhaps even this year. It's easy to argue that the Braves aren't worthy of being counted among the greatest teams of all time by pointing out that they've only won one World Series. But history will smile on this franchise. Even though they haven't been able to win the big one, more often than not they leave me smiling. And so I will continue to wear my hat proudly.

Quote Of The Week

"Today is barbecue my feet. It's pretty warm here. It's soft (turf), but it's heat. But we're from Texas." -- Yao Ming, on working out outdoors in Houston.

Game Of The Week

My Dad submitted this game, noting that it should probably deserve an "R" rating for violence. He's right. Hasselhoff has a jaw like Roy Jones Jr.

No Comment Of The Week

Um ...

(And is that Steve Rushin in the front?)

Colin Pine Of The Week

According to Yao Ming, the Chinese script tattoo on Kenyon Martin translates into "indecisive" or "not aggressive." Who knew Kenyon was so into irony? I have a feeling there are a lot of people walking around with tattoos that don't quite translate like they believe.

Office Supply Links Of The Week

This auction has already ended, but trust me, it's worth reading the seller's comments.

And while we're talking about office supplies, be sure you stop by and use the virtual stapler.

Contest Of The Week

This is completely terrifying.

Come to think of it, I don't know that I could meet Fabio in person without imagining this incident the entire time. "No, it's nothing you said ... it's just, you know, a joke that I heard earlier."

Technological Advancement Of The Week

According to an announcement out of San Francisco, next season Giants fans will be able to use their laptops to wirelessly watch instant replays, and also to send instant messages to the beer vendors. What I don't get is how the vendors will balance a laptop with those huge trays of beer. Dan Hoyle, can you explain this?

The Week Ahead

LSU at Georgia (CBS, 3:30 p.m. EST) -- Here we go. Georgia starts a run of four teams in the top 16 in the next seven games. USC and Oklahoma, the two schools ahead of Georgia in the rankings, play a combined four Top 25 teams the rest of the way. It'll be a tough road for the Dawgs. It starts Saturday in Athens.

The Dirty Birds -- The Falcons rolled to 3-0 yesterday after squeaking out a 6-3 win over the Arizona Cardinals. Michael Vick was having one of those days -- one interception, two fumbles -- but when the Falcons needed a first down with two minutes left, Vick turned a bootleg into a 58-yard Nike commercial. Falcons take on the Panthers next week in Carolina. Time to raise up. And if you haven't seen it, check Nike's cool new "Michael Vick Experience" spot.

No, the audio isn't choppy, that's just the way Vick talks.

Lang Whitaker is the online editor at SLAM magazine and writes daily at SLAMonline.com. He hates that the Falcons have just one prime time TV appearance this season, while the Dolphins still have three more!

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