Save for a couple of lingering players and the insects that make their homes in the nooks and crannies of the visitors' clubhouse at Wrigley Field, Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox was alone early last Saturday evening—only him, a smoldering cigar and the sweet taste of the Braves' 5-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs. Having just stepped out of the shower and into his tiny office, Cox had a towel wrapped around his waist as he reached for the stogie with his right hand and began humming. Softly, at first. "Naaaaah-nah-nah-nah-nah." Then louder. "NAAAAAH-NAH-NAH-NAH-NAH!"
The 60-year-old Cox, a quiet man (unless the topic is NASCAR), repeated the tune, over and over and over. It's astonishing to hear Cox singing the tomahawk chop chant (or anything else, for that matter). Then again, it's not often this season that he has had reason to warble.
He had more the next day, when Atlanta pounded out 16 hits and thumped Chicago 9-5, completing a weekend sweep and maintaining a 3�-game lead in the National League East over the resilient second-place Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves, winners of nine straight full-season division titles, finally seemed to be waking from a seasoning slumber that had exposed them as beatable. Nevertheless, Cox and John Schuerholz, Atlanta's general manager, still had to face the music. Why did they move their star third baseman to leftfield? Why on the last day of August did they sign a vagabond fortysomething Mexican Leaguer to start at first base? Why can't they win at home? "We are," responded Schuerholz, "figuring ourselves out."
"This has been a test, and maybe that's good," says righty reliever Kerry Ligtenberg of the Braves' failure to take command of their division this year, and their past shortcomings in the postseason, when they have won one World Series during a decade of regular-season dominance. "In the past we'd wrap things up early and then go on cruise control. Then we'd have to up the intensity for the playoffs. Now we're taking nothing for granted."
Nor should they. Despite Atlanta's wonderful Windy City weekend, it had become painfully clear that the Braves, intimidation-wise, have gone from Godzilla to Mini-Me. " Atlanta's fear factor isn't a factor anymore," says leftfielder Gary Sheffield of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who went 5-2 against the Braves this season. "What made their past teams so successful was the guys who brought attitudes with them—the Andres Galarragas. They used to be the type of team that would go out and get whatever they needed. Now it seems like they're trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together."
Some of those pieces have been mismatched. The pitching has remained Atlanta's bulwark. The rotation relies on its two aces, righthander Greg Maddux, who was 17-8 with a 2.93 ERA through Sunday, and lefty Tom Glavine (7-2, 2.42 since the All-Star break), and one of the season's surprises, 36-year-old retread righty John Burkett (11-10, 2.86). Over the past month erstwhile starter John Smoltz, still recovering from Tommy John surgery that had sidelined him for more than a season, has emerged as the unhittable closer—he'd converted seven of seven save opportunities—the Braves had needed since trading inflammable John Rocker to the Cleveland Indians in June. These arms have made Atlanta the most dominant pitching staff in baseball. The staff's 3.61 ERA is second in the majors, and its 13 shutouts top both leagues.
The Braves' attack, however, recalls the 1980s Ken Oberkfell-Andres Thomas-Terry Blocker Era of Doom. Through Sunday the Atlanta offense was ranked 13th in the league in runs per game (4.5). This wasn't the fault of any man but the cruel injustice of injury. Early in the season Schuerholz was excited by Atlanta's speed-tipped, power-centered lineup. Then, two games before the All-Star break, Rafael Furcal, the Braves' 21-year-old shortstop and leadoff hitter, dislocated his left shoulder while sliding into second base against the Boston Red Sox. Batting .275 with 39 runs and 22 steals at the time, Furcal was done for the season. "When Raffy went down, we lost speed, we lost spark," says Maddux. "That's a hard thing to recover from."
In early August, Schuerholz released second baseman Quilvio Veras, who had missed a lot of playing time with a sprained ankle and a strained rib cage muscle. At his best, Veras is the perfect number 2 batter, a speedy slap hitter with dazzling baserunning instincts. At his worst, Veras is on the disabled list. In 2000 a torn right anterior cruciate ligament limited Veras to 84 games. Atlanta had traded for him in December 1999, sending second baseman Bret Boone and first baseman Ryan Klesko to the San Diego Padres for Veras, first baseman Wally Joyner and outfielder Reggie Sanders, a deal that must give Schuerholz nightmares in light of the Braves' anemic offense and the production of Boone (now with the Seat-tie Mariners) and Klesko, who through Sunday had combined for 63 home runs and 236 RBIs.
"This team was constructed with the idea that Furcal would be the offensive catalyst and spark plug, with Veras hitting second and getting on base," says Schuerholz. "Those things haven't happened." To get a table setter, on July 20 Atlanta had to dip into its minor league system for second baseman Marcus Giles, a solid leadoff fill-in who through Sunday was hitting .297 but had stolen only two bases.
The absence of speed at the top of the lineup wouldn't be so disquieting were the Braves' sluggers producing. Except for third baseman Chipper Jones (35 homers and 93 RBIs), centerfielder Andruw Jones (31 homers, 90 RBIs) and rightfielder Brian Jordan (20 homers, 80 RBIs), Atlanta's lineup packs all the punch of a glass of skim milk. "We used to be able to count on Andres Galarraga for 30 to 40 home runs," says catcher Javy Lopez. "Now, we don't have that. No question, it hurts."