When the last of the Atlanta Braves had boarded the team buses, the vehicles pulled away from Yankee Stadium and into the belly of the beast. Thousands of delirious New York fans lined the streets and left the Braves with one final, unnerving snapshot of a trip they will never forget. Many in the crowd that remained outside the ballpark taunted the Braves, chanting as the fans do in Atlanta but extending only the middle finger in the accompanying tomahawk chop.
The New York police could keep crazies from attacking the buses, but the cops couldn't stop the nightmare that had descended on the Braves. The Atlanta players wouldn't have felt any worse than if the Buffalo Bills and Greg Norman had been sitting with them in the back of the bus.
The Braves ride into history as one of the great final-round flops of our time. Indeed, they go right to the front of the bus. Has there been a collapse so stunning, so surreal, so hard to believe? In New York last Saturday night the Braves lost their third World Series since since 1991, and they lost it in a way that will brand them forever. There is a new battle cry for teams that pull ahead in the playoffs and fear overconfidence: Remember the Braves!—the team of the decade that fell apart in five days.
When the Series moved to Atlanta after the Braves won the first two games in New York, pundits raced one another to the window to see who could take the most dramatic leap over the edge. A handful of New York writers kissed off the Yanks, declared the Series over and the Braves the world champions. Why bother making the trip? One Atlanta scribe wrote that baseball should call off the Series right now, while another wrote that the mighty Braves could beat the '27 Yankees. As it turned out, Atlanta couldn't handle the '96 version. "It was frustrating to see that," said Braves pitcher John Smoltz after Game 6. "Why not save all that until we're done? You look at sports history. There's always things like this happening, great comebacks. biggest chokes, so-called miracles. That's what sports is all about."
With three straight resounding victories against the St. Louis Cardinals to close out the National League Championship Series and two more to open the World Series against New York, the Braves put together the most dominant five-game streak in postseason history—then never won again. They beat the Cards and the Yanks in those five games by an aggregate score of 48-2 and soon thereafter went 17⅔ innings without scoring a run. It was a bizarre turn of events, and it was a reminder that behind all the spit and lawsuits and four-hour regular-season games, there is a magic in this sport that can be found in no other. The Braves are still the team of the 1990s, but only in the way that Tony La Russa's Oakland A's were the team of the '80s or Earl Weaver's Baltimore Orioles were the team of the '70s. They were fine clubs with just one World Series title, dynasties that fell' from grace quicker than Dick Morris.
"Because we lost, people will say there's a black cloud hanging over us. But there's no black cloud," said Smoltz. "When this is all over—when I'm gone or when all our pitchers are gone—I think our fans are going to appreciate what we had."
Against the Yankees, Atlanta was exposed as a team with a thin bullpen and a thinner bench. The bottom of the Braves' batting order was the place where rallies went to die. Jermaine Dye, Ryan Klesko, Terry Pendleton and Jeff Blauser were a combined 8 for 54 with three RBIs in the Series. Each time they stepped to the plate, you could almost hear the Yanks' pitchers breathe a sigh of relief. In Game 6 Pendleton was the starting DH, which is a problem when you can't H anymore. Then there was Klesko, who left many observers demanding to see videotape of his alleged 34 regular-season home runs. In the Series, Klesko played as if he had swallowed too much cough syrup.
The Braves insist they will return to the Fall Classic next year, and they have reason to be confident. They will most likely spend the titanic sum that will be needed to re-sign free agent Smoltz and exercise the option to keep lefthander Tom Glavine another year. Their logjam in the outfield will probably mean that David Justice, who missed most of the season because of an injured shoulder, will be dealt, while Klesko, Dye and 19-year-old phenom Andruw Jones will slug it out for the two spots alongside centerfielder Marquis Grissom. Don't be surprised if the Braves return to the Series next year, for the fifth time in the 1990s.
Next time, though, we'll wait until the Series is over before declaring a winner. The 1927 Yankees can rest easy. The Atlanta Bills still have some work to do.