ATLANTA BURNS. BRAVES ON THE WARPATH. SWEET GEORGIA BRAWN. JOSEPH AND HIS AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMTEAM. TORRE, TORRE, TORRE.
And that may be only the beginning, because the headlines won't stop until the Atlanta Braves do. They beat the Houston Astros 6-5 on Sunday for their 11th victory in a row to tie the modern major league out-of-the-gate record set by Oakland last season. It's only April, but pennant fever is rampant in Atlanta—a rabid crowd of 2,500 was at the airport Sunday night to welcome the Braves back from last week's road trip. It's only April, but most of the fans knew that the Braves were four games up on the San Diego Padres in the all-important loss column and five up in the not-so-important win column. It's only April, but the magic number is 148. BRAVES OFF TO TORRED START.
Yes, this is the same team that seemed forever doomed to be the turkey in the middle of the club sandwich that is the National League West. How the Braves got to be the toast of baseball is beyond everybody except themselves. They have a new manager, Joe Torre, and a new outfielder, Brett Butler, but otherwise the starting cast is pretty much the same one that finished fourth and fifth last season, TURNEROUND IN ATLANTA.
It may be only April, but on Sunday it seemed like October when the Braves started pouncing all over each other after defeating Houston in the Astrodome. Atlanta came from behind for the fourth time in five games as Dale Murphy tripled in two runs in the sixth and pinch hitter Biff Pocoroba doubled in the winning runs in the eighth. Rookie Joe Cowley started and was followed by relievers Larry McWilliams, Al Hrabosky and Rick Camp. After Camp retired Art Howe for the final out with the tying run on third, the Braves came streaming out of the dugout. "I tried to get them inside," said Torre. "It's a little early for that stuff. We should save some for October." When Torre got back to the clubhouse, there was a call waiting from Jimmy Carter, HAIL FROM FORMER CHIEF.
"We have a right to be excited," said First Baseman Chris Chambliss. "But we also have a long way to go."
The Braves' 2-1 victory over the Astros on Saturday had tied the NL mark held by the 1955 Dodgers and the 1962 Pirates. Choose your omen: Those Dodgers went on to win the pennant and the World Series; those Pirates finished fourth. With that victory, the Braves also surpassed the best start in the history of the franchise. The Boston Beaneaters, led by two Hall of Famers, 33-game winner John Clarkson and Catcher Mike (King) Kelly, won nine in a row to open the 1888 season—and also finished fourth. Phil Niekro didn't come up until September of that year.
"These guys really believe," says Niekro, who actually has been in the organization for only 24 years. "This team hasn't felt this good since we won the division in 1969, and even then we didn't feel like winners until three-quarters of the way through the season. These kids don't care what time of the year it is. They're beautiful to watch."
The Braves' early success is attributable partly to talent, partly to psychology and partly to dumb luck. They've gotten their share of the breaks during the streak, but the biggest break may have come back in October when Ted Turner, owner extraordinaire, ignored his staffs recommendation and chose Torre to be the manager, ANOTHER CAPTAIN OUTRAGEOUS DECISION.
John Mullen, the general manager, favored Eddie Haas, the Braves' Triple A Richmond manager, to replace Bobby Cox, and the four other top front-office people agreed. "Even Ted agreed," says Mullen, "but then he decided that with the team on television all the time, he needed a personality. Joe had played here, he was a former MVP and he could attract the attention of the New York media. Ted wanted him, and he's the boss; he's the one with the money. It couldn't have worked out better."
Hrabosky, the Hungarian mad about his lack of pitching time the last two years, was overjoyed when he heard Torre would be the manager. Says Hrabosky, "I told a club official over the winter, 'You may have hired him because of a TV decision, but you're going to be thankful you did.' I played with Joe in St. Louis, so I knew what kind of guy he is."