MANAGER BOBBY COX
18th season with Braves
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."
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.
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."
symbiotic relationship," Francoeur says. "He keeps me relaxed, and I
get him going."
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.
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 (box, below right).
McCann, meanwhile, became baseball's best all-around catcher this side of Joe
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.
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.
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. --B.R.
a modest proposal ...