Braves puzzled, but not panicked

Alarm bells are ringing in Atlanta, but the Braves' core insists they're not ready to surrender the NL East.

Originally Published: April 9, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Nothing lasts forever. Not Seinfeld or Cheers. Not Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Not even Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.

"You know what's funny," says Maddux these days, in his first season as a Brave without Glavine as his tag-team partner. "I always assumed I'd leave before him, just because it was a lot harder for him to leave than it would be for me. I'm from Vegas. That's my home. But he makes his home in Atlanta. He's got family there. He's got ties there. So I just always figured I'd be the one to leave first."

Chipper Jones
Chipper Jones has just four RBI in the first eight games.

Well ... wrong. But then again, there are a lot of things going on with the Atlanta Braves these days that no one would have figured on.

  • Like the standings -- which showed the Braves at 3-5 after eight games, fourth in the NL East.

  • Like Maddux's 11.00 ERA after two starts -- and an 0-2 record that marked the first time in his career he'd ever lost his first two starts in any season.

  • Like the Braves' 5.33 team ERA through eight games -- which was worse than 24 teams in the big leagues, including the still-winless Tigers.

  • Like the 12 errors the Braves made in those first eight games -- most in the major leagues.

  • Or like the first three games of their season -- in which they got swept by a Montreal team playing without Vladimir Guerrero, were shut out in two straight games for the first time in 11 years and scored two runs in the entire series (fewest by any team coming off a postseason appearance since 1943).

    So naturally, when you have a start like that, in a season in which you've just overhauled the best pitching staff in baseball, it's all the ammunition the National Conclusion Jumpers Society seems to need to pronounce the End of the Dynasty to be officially in progress.

    "Well," Chipper Jones said, "we sure played bad enough to give people the ammunition they were looking for. We got off to a horrible start. We were playing extremely bad baseball. It was something people aren't used to seeing, and we're not used to seeing from ourselves. So there was a lot of cause for concern. We had a bunch of people looking at each other saying, 'What the hell is going on here?' "

    And, matter of fact, that's a darned good question: What is going on here?

    Correct answer: Nobody knows yet. Including the Braves.

    "Right now," Jones said, "we still don't quite know what we've got ourselves."

    But how could they? They're the first 100-win team in history to change three members of their starting rotation (Glavine, Kevin Millwood, Damian Moss) the next year. And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, they're the first team since the 1902-03 Pirates to jettison two 18-game winners (Glavine and Millwood) in the same offseason.

    Now add in the departure of four members of the best bullpen in America (Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond, Kerry Ligtenberg, Tim Spooneybarger). Toss in the fact that, for the first time since they moved to Atlanta, the Braves have started a season with two established starters (Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd) on the disabled list. And here's what you've got:

    This team has taken the most dependable constant in any sport over the last decades -- the Braves' pitching staff -- and transformed it into a complete unknown.

    Smoltz
    Smoltz

    "Everyone realizes we're drastically changed, more so now than ever before," said John Smoltz, who joins Maddux as the strongest link between the Braves of the past and the Braves of the present. "But the feeling in here is not that we think we don't have a chance. We've just changed. So it will be an interesting year, a challenging year."

    Of course, "interesting" and "challenging" haven't been words often used to describe the Braves over the last 12 years. As long as Maddux and Glavine were around, winning their 19 or 20 apiece every year, "automatic" and "favorites" were more like it.

    The Braves have always made changes, even as they were collecting their 11 straight first-place finishes. But now they've reached a point where the only player left from the first of those championship teams is Smoltz. And even he is in a different job.

    So never in recent history has it been harder to know what to make of any Braves team than it is to know what to make of this one. But Smoltz says that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing.

    "I'm actually energized by it," he says. "It's not like it was before, where if we didn't win (the World Series), the universal reaction was always: 'There they go. They failed again.' To be honest, in some ways, I'd rather have this situation than the other one ... rather than always have to worry about defending something we shouldn't be defending."

    The question of whether the 1991-2002 Braves were a dynasty or the Buffalo Bills is one we've all debated a trillion times. But nobody is more tired of that debate than the Braves themselves. So maybe, if this is the year the Braves are no longer expected to win, that also means no one can accuse them of "failing" (or pick your own favorite verb here) if they don't.

    But they still have Maddux, who has pitched as a Brave in nine postseasons. And Smoltz, who has pitched in 10. And Jones, who has played in eight. And Andruw Jones, who has played in seven. And Javy Lopez, who has played in seven. So no matter how many faces have changed around them, there's a value to having men around like this who have known nothing in this uniform but all-expenses-paid trips to October.

    "We know," said Chipper Jones, "that this run, just like this pitching staff, eventually is going to end, because everything has to end. But nobody here wants it to be on their watch."

    RECENT STARTS
    How the Braves began each of their seasons dating back to 1991:
    Year Record
    2002 4-4
    2001 3-5
    2000 4-4
    1999 5-3
    1998 5-3
    1997 6-2
    1996 4-4
    1995 6-2
    1994 7-1
    1993 5-3
    1992 4-4
    1991 3-3

    So on Sunday morning -- with their record at 1-4, after a 17-1 loss to Florida the night before -- Chipper Jones, Smoltz and Gary Sheffield convened a team meeting. You don't have to be a clairvoyant to figure out the topic of the day.

    "We just said to ourselves, 'People can't wait to bury us, and they're not going to feel sorry for us because we're playing like crap,' " Jones said. "So we said, 'We've got to take it upon ourselves to take the bull by the horns and make things happen.' "

    They won their next two games, 13-4 and 3-0, before losing an extra-inning game Tuesday night in frostbitten Philadelphia. But that meeting, and the response to it, was a reminder that there is still a larger core group of winners in this clubhouse than you will find in any clubhouse in baseball, except possibly the Yankees.

    "You need your core guys at times like this," manager Bobby Cox said. "But you also need good players. And we've got good players here, man. We've got a real good team. We've just got to get some guys healthy."

    Health -- even in the second week of April -- is one of this team's biggest worries. It was going to be tough enough to perform what general manager John Schuerholz calls a "reconstruction project" on the rotation if Hampton and Byrd felt fine. But Hampton is still at least a week away from returning from a calf injury, following an up-and-down spring. And Byrd's ETA from elbow soreness is uncertain, after lingering soreness forced the Braves to scratch him from returning Thursday against the Phillies.

    That isn't the only question, though. Robert Fick is the only change to an offense that scored 111 fewer runs than the Diamondbacks last year. The remade bullpen had a 6.59 ERA after eight games. And the whole team has been wildly inconsistent -- outscoring its opponents, 28-11, in its three wins but getting outscored, 37-6, in the five losses.

    But anyone drawing conclusions from that, Smoltz said, is just getting sucked in by "the dangers of the beginnings of years. Not just the dangers of the first week -- but the dangers of the first month. I know I'd love to look back and see what everyone said about us after the first month last year, when we were 12-15."

    In fact, the history of these Braves is filled with comebacks from all kinds of early holes -- from 10 games out one year (1991), from eight out on June 1 as recently as two years ago, from 4 out on May 1 last year. And there are a lot of men wearing this uniform who remember that. Of course, those memories could be dangerous, too.

    "We know we can't rely on the pitchers of the past now," Smoltz said. "We know we can't rely on the home run. We have to do things different. But we still have the same common goal ... find a way to fight and battle and get to the end and don't worry about what we haven't done (i.e., win more than one World Series). And you never know. This could be the year."

    Or maybe not. It could be the year the dynasty crumbles. It could be the year the Phillies or Expos or somebody in a tough division just passes this team by. It could be Maddux's grand finale as a Brave.

    Or it could be Hampton's triumphant comeback year. It could be a year of surprises from mysterious folks like Horacio Ramirez and Jung Keun Bong, who currently populate this pitching staff. Or any combination thereof. But we don't know yet what this year is, for the Braves or the NL East. And there's something fun in that.

    We just know it's way too early to pronounce this team dead or reborn or anything in between. And that's why even the Braves had to chuckle when they rolled into Philadelphia this week and read headlines suggesting their reign was "dismantling." "It's still going, man," Cox laughs. "And we'll show up. I know that. I think we'll complete the schedule."

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    Jayson Stark | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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