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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 Kastenthe brain trustare 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 nicefor 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.
by Michael Bamberger
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