BRAVES' ELECTRICITY SOMEHOW SHORT-CIRCUITED.
Imagine the God of 20th Century Baseball created a franchise with the player talent, front-office brains and finances to win 90 games season after season for a decade.
Now suppose he plopped that team down in the decade in which the playoff and World Series showcases stretched to nearly a month, baseball television coverage rose to the saturation point, and the fascination with sports personalities reached insane levels.
That team couldn't help winning a place among the most revered - if not beloved - of our time, could it?
Yeah? Tell that to the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves have won 90 games in every full season since their worst-to-first leap in 1991, are closing in on a major-league-record, eighth-consecutive division title, and have tied the National League standard for pennants in a six-year period with four between 1991 and '96. None of which is a big secret.
Yet - I have no way of proving this - the Braves seem to inspire a sort of respectful boredom in the majority of fans. The Braves' uninterrupted success is almost taken for granted while nine-day wonders like the '98 Padres and playoff newcomers like this year's Diamondbacks spark more fascination.
I'm guessing that if you took a fan survey, the Braves could lose a ``Team of the '90s'' vote to the New York Yankees, who have won two World Series to Atlanta's one, even though New York didn't get over .500 for the '90s until 1995.
It's fitting that Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine's ``chicks dig the long ball'' commercials make fun of the Braves' shortage of sex appeal.
The irony is that if Heather Locklear and the average baseball fan don't give the Braves the attention they deserve, it's not in spite of the expanded playoff platform, nightly TV exposure and star-driven marketing. It's because of those phenomena of modern sports.
The playoffs? They've grown - from one first-place team going straight to the World Series, to two division winners meeting in the league championship series for the right to go to the World Series, and now to three division winners and a wild card playing off for the pennant.
As recently as 1968, only one in 10 teams played beyond the regular season. Now it's one in four. You don't have to be a first-place team - or even a very good team, as the 84-78 Astros of 1997 demonstrated - to make the playoffs. The achievement has been watered down.
What's overlooked, as reporters walk past the Braves to get to fresher subjects like the 1997 Marlins, is that Atlanta has won the most games in the league every year starting in 1992 (not counting strike-shortened 1994). Even in the old days of one division, the Braves would have made the postseason for seven straight years. The Yankees never did that.
Television? Having every game on the Turner superstation has cultivated some new Braves fans around the nation. It also has left the team overexposed.
Twenty-five years ago, the Braves were a dreadful club, usually lucky to stay out of last place in the NL West. But when they made the occasional appearance on the NBC Game of the Week, you watched because it was a rare chance to see Hank Aaron, Ralph Garr and maybe Phil Niekro.
The chance to see players you'd only read about was something special; they were mysterious and fascinating.
But these days, with every Braves game on TV, and highlights regurgitated all night on ESPN and Fox, there's no urgency to watch any of it. You can always watch tomorrow. Of course the Braves are boring. They're too much of a good thing.
Personalities? The first Braves World Series team of the decade was led by Terry Pendleton, Ron Gant and Otis Nixon with the bat and Glavine, Steve Avery, Juan Berenguer and Alejandro Pena on the mound. Of them, only Glavine is still with the team.
The Braves have been sustained by a remarkably steady personnel turnover - Greg Maddux (free agent) joining the team in 1993, Ryan Klesko (farm system) in '94, Chipper Jones (farm system) in '95, Denny Neagle (trade) in '96, Andruw Jones (farm system) in '97, Andres Galarraga (free agent), John Rocker (farm system) and Kevin Millwood (farm system) in '98, Brian Jordan (free agent) and Mike Remlinger (trade) this season.
But there's not a scoreboard-busting Mark McGwire or intimidating Randy Johnson in that group. The Braves' sure Hall of Famer, Maddux, is a technician, not a showman. Know anybody who roots for the ground ball to second when Maddux faces McGwire?
Maybe they bore the typical fan because they really are boring.
The best way to appreciate what the Braves have done in the '90s is to look at what has become of their playoff opponents. They've faced 10 different teams in the NL playoffs (the Pirates twice).
Of those, nine have since had a sub-.500 season, six sinking into the ``loser'' ranks the very next season after playing the Braves. Eight have yet to make the playoffs again and five have since had at least one last-place season. Six have since changed managers and four have since changed owners.
Of the six teams that defeated the Braves in the playoffs or World Series, only the Yankees and Padres have avoided finishing last in their divisions at least once since then. But give the Padres time; they beat the Braves just last year.
While other teams struggle to put together two back-to-back playoff appearances, the Braves get ready for - ho hum - their eighth in a row.
The decade belongs to them. But it's too bad they didn't come along earlier, when they might have been better appreciated.
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Sep 26, 1999|
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