1. ATLANTA BRAVES
TO BE CONTINUED
Over the past five seasons, Atlanta has been at least 52 wins better than every other team in baseball. And there's not even a hint of a decline. Among its starting eight, its five-man rotation and its closer, only one player, first baseman Fred McGriff, is older than 30. The entire world championship team is back except for three reserve players, the fifth starter and a reliever. The Braves are so well run that their 1996 payroll of $47 million, including bonus payments, is $200,000 less than last year's.
FAB FOUR FACTS
Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery already have 304? combined innings of postseason experience. (It wasn't until March that one of them, Glavine, turned 30.) They are a combined 19-12 with a 3.22 ERA in 50 playoff and World Series appearances. Smoltz, who never has won more than 15 games or been better than five games over .500, looks ready for a career year. He blew away spring training hitters with such force that manager Bobby Cox said he was "as close to unhittable as anyone I've ever seen."
THE FIFTH BEATLE
That would be Jason Schmidt, 23, who replaces Kent Mercker in what for every other team is the low-profile job of fifth starter. Not here. "It's a lot to live up to," says the hard-throwing Schmidt, who spent a couple of months with Atlanta in 1995. "Last year I was so nervous I could hardly stand up on the mound. Now I feel comfortable, like I belong here." Alas, Schmidt isn't a perfect fit—he doesn't play golf like the rest of the guys in the rotation. "He's a grunge rocker," Glavine says of Schmidt, who travels with his guitar.
SIGNS OF THE FUTURE
In an attempt to ensure that their dominance continues into the next millennium, the Braves signed third baseman Chipper Jones for four years ($8.25 million, with an option for a fifth year at $3.75 million) and tried to do likewise with leftfielder Ryan Klesko ($9 million over four years, plus an option for $4.5 million in the fifth). Klesko's agent, Randy Hendricks, rejected the deal, saying, "Just because Chipper Jones made a bad deal doesn't mean Ryan Klesko needs to make a bad deal."
Atlanta gets the Olympics and the World Series three months apart.
2. NEW YORK METS
Moises Alou of the Expos was walking behind the outfield wall at Municipal Stadium in West Palm Beach, Fla., last month when he heard one loud crack after another. "I thought, It isn't time for batting practice," said Alou. When he reached the end of the wall and peered into the stadium, he discovered it wasn't batting practice. It was the sound of New York rookie righthander Paul Wilson warming up in the bullpen.
The Mets are promoting Wilson, 23; righthander Jason Isringhausen, 23; and lefthander Bill Pulsipher, 22, who injured his left elbow and will be out a couple of weeks, as the Untouchables. With the nasty break on Isringhausen's knuckle-curve, the sizzle on Pulsipher's fastball and the decibel level on Wilson's heater, they could also be known as Snap, Crackle, Pop. "That guy Isringhauser looks like something special," says Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who'll quickly become more familiar with this kid's name.