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Smoltz left to close out dynasty

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The question we asked the folks in Section 103 used to be one of the easiest trivia questions in sports:

Just name the starting rotation of the Atlanta Braves.

That's all we asked.

Had this been 1993, or 1995, or even 2001, we have no doubt those loyal Braves fans in Section 103 of Disney's Cracker Barrel Stadium would have aced this quiz.

Unfortunately, it's now 2004. And in 2004, apparently, this question is just as big a stumper as: Name the prime minister of the Netherlands.

"If they're real Braves fans, they should be able to do it," John Smoltz predicted. "They know who's gone. I know that. And if they know who's gone, they should have an idea who came in."

Well, he was half-right, anyway. They definitely know who's gone.

"Millwood left. Maddux left. Glavine left," said Ron Dunaway of Huntsville, Ala., a fellow who described himself as being a Braves fan "since they wore those funky blue uniforms."

So he was 3-for-3 on former Braves starters. But current Braves starters? Trouble.

"They've still got, um ... Ortega?" he said, not particularly confidently.

Uh, close. Kind of. We gave him Russ Ortiz.

"And that guy they got from New York," he went on. "The left-handed guy. ... Come on. I know this. ... Mike Hampton."

Right again. That was two out of five. And at that point, Ron Dunaway was done. He turned to his brother-in-law, Barry Stevens, sitting next to him, wearing a Braves cap.

"Smoltz," Stevens guessed.

Nope. Hasn't started a game in almost three years, we reported. But thanks for playing, guys.

"I love the Braves," Dunaway said. "I'm still a big fan. But I think the dynasty's over."

Well, the dynasty isn't over. Not yet. The Braves are still the reigning champs of the NL East. Nothing new there. Whether that will still be true a year from now is the reason they're about to line up for 162 games.

But our conversations with the occupants of Section 103 did prove one thing:

The days when the starting rotation of the Atlanta Braves was one of the few remaining constants on the American sports scene -- they're over.

No Maddux. No Glavine. No Millwood. No Avery. No Smoltz. They all translate to: No identity. It's hard to believe, but the face of one of sports' most visible franchises is now just about as unidentifiable as the rotation of the Rangers or Brewers or Reds.

For the record, we had to poll eight people -- every one of them a self-professed Braves fan -- until somebody could name the whole rotation. That somebody, for the record (and because we promised him some minor Internet fame as a reward), was Tom Thompson, of Parkersburg, W. Va.

He rattled them off in mere seconds: Ortiz, Hampton, Horacio Ramirez, John Thomson, Paul Byrd when he gets healthy and, tentatively, Jaret Wright in the current lead for the No. 5 spot over Bubba Nelson and Andy Pratt. Way to go, Tom.

We then reported the results of our survey to Braves GM John Schuerholz.

"Eight?" he chuckled. "I actually think that's pretty encouraging."

Schuerholz laughed again.

"It a good thing you didn't ask me the first week I was here," he said. "I probably would have gotten three. Maybe four."

Yeah, he was kidding. With a hint or two, he'd have been a lock to get four.

"You understand," Schuerholz philosophized, "that it's more unusual that we were able to do what we did, in terms of continuous pitching excellence, than that you had to go to eight people to get the right answer in your poll."

Heck, yeah. We understand. That's the reason we took that poll at a Braves game -- and not, for instance, at a Devil Rays game.

In this modern free-agent sports world, there aren't many things you can depend on anymore. The Braves rotation was always one of them. Who among us didn't recognize that? Who among us, at some level, wasn't grateful for that?

  • For 11 straight seasons, from 1992 to 2002, the Braves led the major leagues in starting-pitching ERA. To give you an idea how long that streak ran, the leading rotation the year before it began -- the '91 Dodgers -- included names like Mike Morgan, Tim Belcher and Kevin Gross.

  • Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz won 416 games in their nine seasons (1993-2001) together as starters (even though Smoltz missed the entire 2000 season). In those same nine seasons, three fairly recognizable guys who were never teammates -- Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens -- won 10 Cy Young awards, but only 411 games.

  • Over the eight seasons in which Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz all started games for the Braves -- from 1993 (when Maddux joined the band) to 2001 (when Smoltz headed for the bullpen), and not counting 2000 because Smoltz was out -- those three started a combined 735 games. For just this one team. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the next-closest threesome on one staff (the Giants' Kirk Rueter, Mark Gardner and Shawn Estes, with 470), wasn't even within 250 of them.

    Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. They were just about as enduring a trio as Manny, Moe and Jack.

    And then, a year ago, Glavine was gone. But at least there was Maddux. Until now.

    "Know what I miss about him? Just seeing him around," said manager Bobby Cox, when Maddux's name came up. "Just BS-ing with him.

    "That," Cox laughed, showing off his box-score reading skills, "and eight strikeouts in three innings."

    Cox will manage what he has now, of course. He's one of the best ever at that. But he wouldn't be human if he didn't miss what he had. And he does.

    "Sure I do," he said. "Greg -- and Glavine, too. He was here for so many years. And Millwood. It's strange, not seeing any of those guys."

    There is probably no place in spring training where you feel the absence of the missing more than you do at Lake Buena Vista, where the Braves have long been the other Magic Kingdom.

    Gary Sheffield. Javy Lopez. Vinny Castilla. That's 104 missing homers and 321 missing RBI right there. The Braves won 101 games last year with that thunder. They'll need a new magic formula this year, as J.D. Drew, Johnny Estrada and Mark DeRosa ease into those spots.

    But mostly, it's all those missing pitchers whose ghosts you see winding up every time you look at the mound. From the 2002 Braves -- the last Atlanta team to lead the big leagues in staff ERA -- the only pitcher left who started a game is Jung Bong. Who started precisely one.

    Meanwhile, all that's left of that spectacular bullpen are Kevin Gryboski, who may have to begin this season on the disabled list (shoulder) ... and, of course, Smoltz.

    He's the answer to the question: Who is the only Brave left from the first World Series team (1991) in this astonishing run? But if you don't count Eddie Perez (who left and then came back this spring), Smoltz also joins just Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones as the only Braves left from their most recent World Series team, in 1999.

    Smoltz admits he still feels the sting of Glavine's exit, because "I never thought I'd see him in another uniform." But this winter, when Maddux and Sheffield and Lopez headed off the exit ramps, the parade out of town was even more painful.

    "So many players," he said. "It was tough. But you go on. Some things here have changed. I think people understand that. They don't like it, but they understand."

    Smoltz's favorite bridge in America, he says, is located on The Bridges Golf Club in San Ramon, Calif., -- because "it's a self-suspending bridge. There's nothing under it. You can't believe it till you see it."

    Now, however, it's Smoltz who might be the most famous bridge on the other coast -- because he has become the human bridge between one generation of Braves pitchers and the next.

    "I hope I can pass a lot of things on," he said, "and give the ball to the next Greg Maddux, the next Tom Glavine, the next John Smoltz. I'd love to see this organization flourish. If we could prove a lot of people wrong ... That would be great."

    They've been known to do that, of course. But what seems different this spring is that some of those people they would need to prove wrong include themselves -- because they've consistently said the NL East favorites are now the Phillies.

    "Their team this year is so much stronger than last year's," Smoltz said of the Phillies. "And somebody's got to be picked. And it can't be us. You can't lose all the Hall of Famers we lost and be the favorites."

    Oh, Smoltz likes his team. He likes his teammates. He sees what's possible. But he is also one of the most honest and realistic people in sports.

    "I don't think this club will be able to look past one of those sluggish starts and overcome it with a 60-15 streak," he said. "Don't look for that."

    The difference between this Braves team and the last 13, he said, is that "people do not fear the Atlanta Braves anymore. That doesn't mean we can't win. But when people have fear of a certain part of your ball club, it gives you an edge before you ever take the field. Now our goal has to be to regain that edge, to find that new edge."

    For most of these last 13 seasons, we wouldn't have needed to poll anybody to figure out where that edge came from. It came from the five men who went to the mound every day and weaved all that Cy Young magic.

    Now, just one of those men remains. And he does his work at the end of the game, not the beginning. Not of his own volition, either. Still.

    His record says he has been one of the best closers alive these last two years. But his head, his heart and the latest scar on his elbow still tell him he wants his old job back.

    "I play the game to win championships," he said. "If this is a formula that works to win a championship, great. ... But the last two years, we haven't won. We didn't get out of the first round. I understand the need and the criteria for a closer, and even a great closer. But we've got to get there."

    In the beginning, when Smoltz made that move to the bullpen, he was coming off Tommy John surgery, and the Braves said their doctors had recommended it as the best way for Smoltz to stay healthy. But Smoltz respectfully disagrees.

    "The whole notion that it's 240 innings vs. 80 innings is not a fair argument," he said. "People don't understand what goes into the 240 innings and what goes into the 80 innings. But there's structure to one job and no structure to the other."

    Schuerholz has too much respect for Smoltz to debate him. So the GM says the doctors now say that "if his arm's healthy, he can do either." Which means the reason Smoltz will continue to close is because "we think his best value to our team is to have a healthy John Smoltz save 50 games for us."

    "I won't argue that, for 162 games, I contribute as a closer," Smoltz said. "But in the playoffs, if you look at what's beaten us, it's been dominating starters. So either we need to get that dominating starter back at playoff time, or ..."

    Fill in the blank. Or move one of the most dominating October starters of modern times back to the rotation from whence he came. To a rotation that suddenly has faded into a pack that once toiled in its shadow.

    "What we really need to do," Schuerholz concluded, "is to clone John Smoltz. If we could clone him, he could be in the rotation, he could be the closer and he could probably be our third baseman or first baseman or center fielder. He's that great an athlete. And he could probably handle (public relations)., although he might be a little too glib for that job. We might have to tone him down. But we could solve all our problems if we could clone him. It would be like Gregory Peck in 'Boys from Brazil.' "

    Except Gregory Peck wasn't about to turn 37 years old in May, with a year (and an option) left on his contract, and only one World Series ring on his finger. He wasn't the last pitcher standing on a staff that once was more identifiable than Julia Roberts.

    "I never thought that would happen," Smoltz said of his lonely lot. "But it just worked out that way."

    Some day, he'll be gone, too. And we bet we'll need to poll a lot more than eight fans in Section 103 to find the correct name of the man who replaces him.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.