John Schuerholz, Atlanta's venerable general manager, views his team's failure last season to win a 15th straight division crown as anything but a portent of a Braves-less New World in the NL East. "Last year was a bump in the road for us," he says. "We were able to feel what it was like not to win, and we didn't like it. Now we're back on track."
To jump-start their speedy turnaround, Atlanta will rely on a five-player Georgia-bred cadre, none of whom was older than 10 when the streak began. The group -- the fruit of a Schuerholtz epiphany 10 years ago that a disproportionate percentage of the game's top talent was emerging from the Braves' backyard -- includes starters Kyle Davies (raised in Stockbridge) and Chuck James (Mableton), and lefty specialist Macay McBride (Sylvania). The headliners, though, are best friends and longtime roommates who first played together on the 1996 Moores Mill Mustangs travel team: Lilburn-raised rightfielder Jeff Francoeur and Duluth-raised catcher Brian McCann.
Call the 23-year-olds -- with apologies to the ATL's similarly named platinum-selling crunk rappers -- the Yin Yang Twins because in most ways, says McCann, "we're about as different as you can get." Francoeur is gregarious and perpetually energetic, with a "How you doing?" for every reporter and clubhouse attendant, while the reserved McCann, Francoeur says, is "trying to sleep all the time."
"It's a symbiotic relationship," Francoeur says. "He keeps me relaxed, and I get him going."
Neither requires motivation when it comes time to compete -- particularly when the competition is between the two. Mario Kart sessions become hours-long battles; three springs ago a heated seven-game Ping-Pong series ended with Francoeur taking a swing at the victorious McCann. Their brotherly rivalry is more healthy on the diamond. Although McCann reached the majors a month ahead of Francoeur in 2005, Francoeur mashed 10 homers in his first 30 games while McCann toiled as a backup who mostly caught John Smoltz.
That Smoltz trusted the then 21-year-old McCann as his personal catcher hinted at the role reversal McCann and Francoeur would undergo in 2006. "When the veteran, the bell cow, the Mr. Reliable of this pitching staff says, 'I want this kid to catch for me,' that says it all," says Schuerholz. Francoeur put up solid power numbers but demonstrated an incomplete skill set. McCann, meanwhile, became baseball's best all-around catcher this side of Joe Mauer.
After starting 28-25 last season, Atlanta looked to be in contention behind its young Georgians. Then came a 6-21 June, a swoon that prompts Schuerholz to wax metaphorical. "June became the mirror of truth that reflected the deadly flaws of our team," he says. Chief among those flaws was a bullpen that Schuerholz called a "debacle"; it had a 5.13 ERA in the month and five of its NL-high 29 blown saves.
Schuerholz addressed the need by trading for closer Bob Wickman, once-and-future closer Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, who has closer's stuff. "Even in the years the Braves won, they did not have this kind of bullpen," says one rival G.M., who believes the upgrades make Atlanta a cofavorite, along with New York and Philadelphia, to represent the NL in the World Series. Braves fans may be cheering into October once more.
Cheering loudest will be McCann's Cans, a coterie that dresses up as beer containers to support their favorite catcher -- or will it be the hot-dog-costumed Francoeur's Franks? "I've met the Franks," says Francoeur. "They'd beat up McCann's Cans." Counters McCann, "Who wouldn't rather have a beer than a hot dog?" For the Braves, competition between their two young hot shots can only have positive results. -- Ben Reiter
Issue date: March 26, 2007