Not since general William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union army visited in 1864 had Atlanta needed so much reconstruction. After winning a division title in 1982, the Atlanta Braves had plunged from America's Team to an American travesty, finishing the 1990 season last in the National League in pitching, fielding, stolen bases and attendance. What's more, for the fourth time in five years, they were last in the West. But thanks to a rejuvenated third baseman, a resolute leadoff man, a retooled stopper and a reconstituted management, Atlanta has risen from the ashes. Following a three-game sweep of the Houston Astros at home last weekend, the Braves were 59-50, second to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division and a mere 1½ games out of first. Yes, first. "Ask anyone how much we've improved, and you'll get the same answer," says pitcher Tom Glavine, "and that's 100 percent."
And that's lowballing the increase in fan interest. After failing to reach the million mark in attendance for the past three years, the Braves are on pace to pull in 2.1 million. The play has been the thing: No Chief Noc-A-Homa war-whooping in his leftfield wigwam, no noxious Ernest P. Worrell—KnowwhatImean, Vern?—fouling the promotional airwaves. Braves fans now have their own shtick, the Tomahawk Chop, a tribal rite that may have followed part-time outfielder Deion Sanders from his days as a Florida State Seminole. Ten times a game, thousands of short-sleeved arms are raised and extended in unison to a tom-tom beat from the P.A. system, generating what passes for a breeze in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
"When I started playing it, a few people would go woo-woo-woo, look around and clap," says stadium organist Carolyn King. "By mid-June, everyone knew what to do. It was like magic."
The Chop may look like a plea for a first down, but to the players it's a sign of life. "Some of the pitchers even do it," says infielder Jeff Blauser. This is indeed the Braves' new world. "It's really turned around," says second baseman Jeff Treadway. "I'm building a house, and some of the old redneck boys on the job site tell me, 'Y'all're doin' great.' It sounds corny, but it's really sincere."
Atlanta entered the season having racked up losing records in each of the past 22 months. Fortunately, just three current Brave players were around when the skid started in 1987: the lefthanded Glavine, 25, a Cy Young contender this season (14-7 with a 2.36 ERA through Sunday); centerfielder Ron Gant, 26, an MVP candidate (.272, 71 RBIs, 22 stolen bases and a league-high 25 homers); and Blauser, 25, a middle infielder with pop (.260, 46 RBIs). Bobby Cox, who became general manager in 1985, had accrued lots of young talent, particularly pitchers, but the team floundered. In June 1990 he was sent by club president Stan Kasten from the field level to the field, replacing Russ Nixon as manager. Able to lay waste but more likely to lay back, the 50-year-old Cox knew how to inspire this developing team. What Atlanta needed was a G.M. to develop it.
Enter John Schuerholz, 50, a longtime Kansas City Royals executive hungry for a challenge. Schuerholz, who joined the Braves in October, uses phrases such as "interdepartmental idea exchange" and sports suspenders over his crisply pressed shirts. "We needed organization, structure, discipline, a sense of direction, consistency and stability," says Schuerholz. "Having that in place, the next thing we needed was a new mind-set."
He refurbished the offices, instituted a coat-and-tie dress code for his staff and worked on the Braves literally from the ground up—he had the stadium resurfaced. The grass diamond, torn up by band competitions and football games and baked by the heat, had become a Bermuda Triangle for grounders and was the worst infield in the league. "I was told it was dirt and they just painted it green," says groundskeeper Ed Mangan, who was hired in December. "Once the ball hit, it was anyone's guess where it was going."
Mangan replaced the clay sod with a sandier base and shifted the field's crown for better drainage. Schuerholz then gave the roster an overhaul, spending more than $30 million on six free agents, all of whom had playoff experience. He also signed Sanders, who had been released by the New York Yankees. Despite paltry offensive numbers, Sanders was a positive influence on the Braves before leaving on July 31 to resume his second career as a cornerback with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Braves are now so deep that they lead the league in runs (525 at week's end) and batting (.267), despite the absence of cleanup-hitting rightfielder David Justice, who since June 27 has been out with a strained lower back. And with the emergence of 21-year-old lefty Steve Avery (13-5 after going 3-11 in his rookie season last year) and the signing of 36-year-old righty Juan Berenguer (16 saves in 17 chances) last winter, the staff ERA has dropped from 4.58 to 3.73. "In the past, we've been guilty of trying to make perfect pitches for a couple of reasons," Glavine says. "Number one, with the shape our infield was in, we weren't sure whether guys would make the plays. Number two, we weren't sure we'd get enough runs. All that is different now."
Third baseman Terry Pendleton, one of the free agents acquired in the off-season, has had a multiple impact. "He's been the cornerstone of change," says Schuerholz. After winning two Gold Gloves and batting .259 as a switch-hitter in seven seasons for St. Louis, the 31-year-old Pendleton felt unwanted by the rebuilding Cardinals. Schuerholz and Cox assured him in a three-way call last winter that he was badly needed in Atlanta, and they added that his warning-track power in Busch Stadium might be put to homeric use in the Braves' cozier park. A onetime member of the Cardinals' punchless Judy Club, Pendleton had a career-high 15 home runs as of Sunday to juice up his .540 slugging percentage and league-leading .335 batting average. "I've always been an aggressive hitter," he says. "Now I'm being more selective and being aggressive in the strike zone."