Despite a shrinking payroll and an especially fluid roster, the Atlanta Braves have collected division championships the way Condoleezza Rice amasses frequent flier miles. One reason is that through the Braves' unprecedented 14 straight division titles, leadership at the top has remained constant: General manager John Schuerholz, manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone have all been with the team since 1990. So when Mazzone said last week that he was headed to the Baltimore Orioles, the interesting question wasn't how he would do at homer-happy Camden Yards, but whether the move signaled the end of Atlanta's astounding run.
After being wooed by the Yankees, Mazzone left Atlanta--where he coached nine 20-game winners and resuscitated countless careers--for a pitching-starved franchise with eight straight losing seasons. It may seem like a curious marriage, but Mazzone's parents and three children reside in Maryland. And in Baltimore, where he signed a three-year contract that doubles his salary to nearly $500,000, Mazzone will be reunited with a longtime friend, manager Sam Perlozzo. (The two grew up together, and Perlozzo was the best man at Mazzone's wedding.)
Yet the chief factor in Mazzone's decision may be that the contracts of Schuerholz, 65, who is baseball's oldest and longest tenured G.M., and Cox, 64, expire after the 2006 season, and the landscape in Atlanta could be changing radically. Said Mazzone, 57, last week, "I know that pretty soon Bobby and John will retire."
By picking Baltimore instead of the Yankees, Mazzone, famous for his habit of rocking on the dugout bench, is also giving himself a chance to cement his reputation as the best handler of pitchers in the game. Skeptics might say that anyone would look like a genius with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz on his staff for nine seasons. But in his 15 full seasons in Atlanta, the Braves were first or second in the National League in ERA 12 times. Now Mazzone oversees a staff that hasn't had an ERA under 4.46 since 1997. Says an AL scout, "It's not like he won't have talent to work with. [ Baltimore starters] Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Hayden Penn are some top young arms. That said, Mazzone has a huge challenge ahead of him."