Schuerholz identifies two other players whom he regrets trading: pitcher Rob Bell, who was sent to Cincinnati in a 1998 deal to get infielder Bret Boone and reliever Mike Remlinger ("Bell was a young talent we knew hadn't blossomed yet," Schuerholz says); and outfielder David Justice, who was included in the '97 swap with the Cleveland Indians that brought outfielder Kenny Lofton to Atlanta ("Just because of David's spirit, winning mentality and contributions to us over the years," Schuerholz laments).
On the plus side, several players that Atlanta brought in—like Remlinger, whom manager Bobby Cox calls "our MVP so far" for his 1.47 ERA and four saves out of the bullpen; outfielder Bobby Bonilla, who was hitting .311; and lefthander Terry Mulholland, who was 3-3 with a 5.18 ERA—have been better than advertised. "This is the place I always wanted to play," Remlinger says. "Guys get better when they come here. There's no doubt. Just watching Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz and talking to them is reason enough."
?A perfect batting average in getting top-shelf free agents. Players signed as free agents include Maddux, Galarraga, Weiss and outfielder Brian Jordan. When asked to name the last player he tried to sign and didn't, Schuerholz thought for half a minute and said, "I can't come up with a name."
Also, no player the Braves wanted to keep has left as a free agent. That streak could be jeopardized by Chipper Jones, who is eligible for free agency after this season. "So far the numbers haven't been remotely close to what it will take to get it done," Jones says of the figures Atlanta has thrown out thus far. "The bottom line is, if the Braves don't step up, I might have to test the market."
No player has been more instrumental to the success of Atlanta 2000 than Galarraga, the 38-year-old first baseman who led the Braves with 10 homers and 26 RBIs. CAT scans on the Big Cat done every two months show him to be cancer-free, which he attributes to the divine intervention of the Virgin Mary. Galarraga has turned his locker into a religious grotto and accumulated many icons of Mary, including a travel-sized one he sets on his hotel nightstand. "She watches over me," Galarraga says. "What happened to me was a miracle."
As Schuerholz began to tweak the roster last November, he took the advice of doctors and assumed that Galarraga would not be available and swung a deal with the San Diego Padres for first baseman Wally Joyner, as well as second baseman Quilvio Veras and leftfielder Reggie Sanders, both of whom Schuerholz figured would give Atlanta an upgrade in speed and on-base percentage over Boone and outfielder-first baseman Ryan Klesko, who were shipped to the Padres. Veras's .397 on-base percentage and eight steals while batting first or second in the Atlanta lineup has been exactly what Schuerholz had in mind. "And more fast-balls for the middle of the order," says Chipper Jones, who bats third. Sanders, who was batting .139 before a sprained ankle landed him on the disabled list on Saturday, has been a disappointment, while Joyner is hitting .286 as a reserve. "We need to get Sanders and Jordan [.228] going—at least .280—before we can say we are a plus offensive team," says hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. Through Sunday only two National League teams had scored fewer runs than Atlanta.
The only downside to the Braves' start has been Rocker's radioactivity. He has been busting Geiger counters ever since his December remarks to SI, and his first road trip after sitting out a 12-game season-opening suspension was no different. In Los Angeles last week fans pelted the Atlanta bullpen with food, cups, coins and balloons filled with paint. One fan ran on the field while Rocker was on the mound and mooned him.
Rocker has refused to answer questions from reporters since spring training—and did so then only because Cox insisted—but he has insulted, mocked and taunted members of the media. A teammate quoted Rocker as saying to him, "You watch. I'm going to have a big year, and it will all go away." The teammate says he replied, "No, it won't. You could save 45 games, and your value won't be any higher."
Rocker had allowed just one run this year until the Phillies lit into him for four runs, as many as he'd allowed in 65 career innings at Turner Field. The same man who entered the game to the loudest cheers of the night left to boos. No teammate spoke to him or gave him the obligatory pat on the back when he returned to the dugout. He sat between two coaches, Rettenmund and pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Later, after Andruw Jones rescued Rocker and Atlanta from defeat with a game-winning homer, Rocker split his chair in two.
Beyond the lightning rod that is Rocker, the Braves have exhibited few obvious warning signs through what will be a powder-puff schedule through May 25. (All but six of their first 46 games are against teams that had losing records last year.) The offense, when healthy, has more weaponry than in past years. Glavine (armed with a new cut fastball), Maddux and Millwood were 12-2 combined while pitching at least seven innings in 18 of 21 starts. Atlanta continually won in crunch time, outscoring opponents 85-42 after the fifth inning.