Braves have set lofty benchmark

Braves have set lofty benchmark

ATLANTA -- As long as George Steinbrenner is still signing checks, there's at least one Major League organization capable of matching the longevity of success the Braves enjoyed over the past 15 years.

But even if Steinbrenner's money allows the Yankees to match the unprecedented streak of division titles captured by the Braves, the accomplishments won't be viewed in the same light. The Yankees have always been the Yankees and with a big payroll they've virtually compiled an annual All-Star team for the better part of the past decade.

While evolving from laughingstock into baseball's model organization, the Braves have benefited from Ted Turner's riches and also persevered through recent budget cuts. With great assistance from a fertile Minor League system that Bobby Cox had to begin rebuilding in 1986, they accomplished something no professional sports organization has ever done.

But like many other great things, their remarkable, unprecedented streak of 14 consecutive division titles has come to an end. With their win over the Marlins on Tuesday night, the Mets ensured the Braves have no shot of catching them in the National League East standings.

"For the guys who have been through it, when we're done [playing], it will be one of the most incredible streaks in sports history," said John Smoltz, who is the only Braves player who was around for the entirety of the streak, which began in 1991 with a climb from worst to first.

As for Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann, two key pieces to the success the Braves enjoyed while utilizing 18 different rookies last year, they were in first grade when the streak started.

"It's been a great streak," Francoeur said. "Records are meant to be broken and streaks are meant to be broken. If anything, it will make us realize how hard we have to work this offseason, and get the fans back to realizing we're not going to win it every year."

What Cox started as the club's general manager in 1986 was preserved with the arrival of John Schuerholz as general manager before the start of the 1991 season. Together they've found, located and developed championship-caliber talent with the annual success never enjoyed by any other manager/general manager combination.

"If there was a Pulitzer prize given in baseball, the Atlanta Braves, Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz would be the winners by a landslide," Mets general manager Omar Minaya said.

With a flurry of key offseason acquisitions over the past two winters, Minaya was able to do something that hadn't been accomplished in the past 15 seasons. Since Schuerholz arrived, no other division rival's general manager had been able to construct a team capable of finishing ahead of the Braves in the division standings.

"There's a whole generation of kids that went all the way through their school years that didn't see anything but the Braves finish in first place," current Met and long-time Brave Tom Glavine said. "That's remarkable. There's a lot of guys in that [Braves] clubhouse who haven't experienced anything but first place."

Record run comes to a close
Most consecutive division titles in Major League history
Team
Titles
Years
Atlanta Braves
14
1991-2005
New York Yankees
8
1998-2005 *
New York Yankees
5
1960-1964
Oakland Athletics
5
1971-1975
New York Yankees
5
1949-1953
* -- Current streak
Note: Divisional play began in 1969 and switched to three divisions per league in 1994. No division titles were awarded in '94 due to the strike which cancelled the postseason.

Both Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones have already surpassed the 300-homer milestone. But for the first time ever, the veterans, who have played only for Atlanta, will enter an offseason without having celebrated a division title.

"We were trying to ride it as long as we could, until somebody ended it," Chipper Jones said. "The Mets certainly had a great season. There really wasn't anything we could do about it."

Of the current Braves who have spent their entire Major League careers within the organization, Smoltz is the only one who has experienced a non-strike-shortened season that didn't include a division title. He was a member of the 1990 Braves team that endured the organization's third consecutive last-place finish and seventh consecutive losing campaign.

Entering this season, nothing but division titles had followed for Smoltz and the Braves. Those who don't believe the Braves would have won the National League East crown in 1994, must remember they faced just a six-game deficit when that strike-shortened season ended on Aug. 11. On that same date one year earlier, the Giants owned a nine-game lead over them.

"I'll never forget a conversation I had during the All-Star break with [Barry Bonds]," Smoltz said. "I said, 'Can we play a match of golf for this 9 1/2-game lead you guys have?' He said, 'No way. We're going to beat you and I'm loving it.' He had just came off two torturous years in Pittsburgh, and when we came back and caught the Giants it was pretty memorable."

While Smoltz knew the streak wouldn't prove eternal, he didn't envision it ending with the frustration this year has provided. The Braves essentially lost the division this season while winning just six of 27 games in June, and they have spent most of the past six weeks with only slim hopes of winning the NL Wild Card race.

"It's bitter in the sense that you know the playoff streak was going to come to an end sooner or later," Smoltz said. "But I never thought it would be with the way that we have played this year. That's been really frustrating."

Although they've been able to overcome a number of significant injuries over the course of the past 15 years, the Braves were unable to do the same again this year. An injury-plagued starting rotation, suspect bullpen and mighty Mets lineup proved too much for them to even put up much of a fight in the NL East race.

The last time they were within five games of the lead was May 31, when they trailed the Mets by 4 1/2 games.

"I think for a while everybody has realized we weren't going to win the division," Francoeur said. "I think people were kidding themselves for the last three weeks and maybe even longer if they didn't think the Mets were going to win the division."

Where were they?
A list of where some current and former Braves were in September 1990, when the club last didn't win a division title.
Person
Age
City
Status
Jeff Francoeur
6
Lilburn, Ga.
Kindergarten student
Brian McCann
6
Huntington, W.Va.
Kindergarten student
Andruw Jones
13
Curacao
2 1/2 years from signing
Chipper Jones
18
Bradenton, Fla.
Gulf Coast League
John Smoltz
23
Atlanta
With Braves -- 28 wins
Tom Glavine
24
Atlanta
With Braves -- 33 wins
Dave Justice
24
Atlanta
NL Rookie of the Year
Greg Maddux
24
Chicago
With Cubs -- 60 wins
Julio Franco
32
Arlington, Texas
With Rangers
Bobby Cox
49
Atlanta
Braves GM and manager
John Schuerholz
49
Kansas City
Royals GM

The fact that it took 15 years for a team to finally prove capable of dethroning the Braves is nearly unbelievable. Dating back to 1995, the first full season the three-division format was used, eight different teams have won the NL Central and West titles. Until this year, only one had captured the NL East crown.

"It's strange," Schuerholz said. "I can't deny that. But I don't want to sound pompous or expecting. I'm not that. We're not that as an organization. But it is different for us and not particularly pleasant."

What should be pleasant are the memories of a streak that began when Chipper Jones was completing his first full Minor League season and Andruw Jones was still a teenager in Curacao.

Schuerholz has felt great pride over the past few years when the likes of Bill Parcells, who has guided two teams to Super Bowl titles, and Cal Ripken Jr. have expressed disbelief in regard to the streak.

"It's remarkable," Schuerholz said. "Everyone who has ever pointed it out to me is incredulous about the accomplishment."

Both the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have enjoyed the satisfaction of winning nine consecutive division titles in the National Basketball Association. The Colorado Avalanche has recently done the same in the National Hockey League.

As mighty as the Yankees have been over the past decade, they've positioned themselves for what will be just their ninth consecutive American League East title.

When the Braves won the National League East title in 2001, they became the first, and still only, professional sports franchise to win as many as 10 consecutive division titles.

"Who could ever imagine something that magical, winning 14 consecutive division titles?" former Brave and current Met Julio Franco said. "That's a lot of games. That's a lot of divisions."

Those who could have envisioned such a run would have likely been the same ones projecting somebody like Franco could still be a productive Major Leaguer at the age of 48. His contributing presence in Atlanta from 2001-05 further solidified the belief that everything the Braves touched turned to gold.

There's no doubt a large part of this run's success had to deal with the fact that for 10 straight years the Braves rotation included Greg Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine. But without the revitalization guys like John Burkett, Mike Remlinger and Chris Hammond experienced in Atlanta, the streak may have died sometime earlier in this decade.

"What makes it special is that we did it with different variables, many different players and in many different ways," Smoltz said.

While Schuerholz has landed top free agents like Maddux and landed the likes of Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff through trades, Cox's work as the club's general manager from 1986-90 can't be ignored. He used Turner's funds to improve the developmental system and made sure the Minor Leaguers understood the importance of professionalism.

Mark Lemke, who played in Atlanta from 1988-97, remembers how impressed he was when Cox delivered a speech to the organization's players before the start of the 1986 season. At the time, Lemke was hardly a prospect. But he remembers feeling a sense of confidence that hadn't been present during his previous three years with the organization.

"Really, Bobby is the one who set it all up," Lemke said. "He's the one who put the wheels in motion."

Cox's 1986 proclamation that it would take five years for the Braves to become a winning organization proved to be off by a year. But after starting to win in 1991, they won with the consistency never experienced by any other professional sports team.

Throughout the success, Cox always deflected all of the attention to his players, who in turn returned just praise toward the man who provided them daily confidence in their abilities.

Thus, it's not surprising that Cox has chosen not to provide much reflection on the streak. While he understands its importance, he's chosen to reflect only on the present and what improvements can be made for the future.

"I haven't really thought about all of the years," Cox said. "I can't remember yesterday hardly."

Like they won't forget the countless years of success they've had, the Braves too have proclaimed they won't forget the frustration this year brought.

Schuerholz, Cox and many of the players have already started thinking about starting another streak. If they are able to start another one, only the dreamers could envision it lasting as long as this one did.

"Our fans should not worry, because the spirit of the organization isn't broken, nor is the mechanism that has built this grand run over 15 years broken," Schuerholz said. "It just needs a tune-up."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.