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Original Issue

End of the Slide

After going four years without so much as a winning month, the Atlanta Braves are serious contenders in the National League West

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."

Along with his leather and his lumber, Pendleton has brought leadership. When Gant struggled early in the season, Pendleton was in the clubhouse to give him a pat on the back. When Glavine returns to the mound after running to cover first base, Pendleton is there to chat and let him catch his breath. With a nickname like TP he's a natural fit in the Braves' scheme, and he fills the void of consummate professionalism created by the trade of slugger Dale Murphy to the Phillies last season. Pendleton is never too high or too low. "It was easy for me to walk into the clubhouse," he says. "They could have said, 'Here comes TP, making all that money.' But instead they said, 'Here comes TP, he can help us win.' "

When Justice got hurt, Pendleton pressed and heard a cautionary word. "Hey, homey," said Otis Nixon, "you can't do this by yourself." Nixon, who has replaced Justice in rightfield and will probably replace Lonnie Smith in left when Justice returns, then lent a hand and a couple of legs to the cause. The Braves, who needed more speed after stealing only 92 bases in '90, acquired the 32-year-old Nixon from the Montreal Expos in April for catcher Jimmy Kremers and a minor league pitcher. Nixon, playing part-time for most of his career, has reached 200 steals in fewer games than Lou Brock did. "We figured he'd get about 180 at bats, play defense late in the game and steal a key base in the eighth or ninth inning," says Cox. "But we got more than we bargained for." Indeed, Nixon's .318 average at week's end was 90 points above his career mark, and with a league-high 63 thefts, Atlanta's club record for steals had already gone with his wind.

Nixon attributes his improved average to hitting guru Harry (the Hat) Walker and to Hal McRae, the Royals manager who was Nixon's batting coach in Montreal. "Stay back, stay compact, keep your stroke short, be selective, be patient," says Nixon, rattling off his plate routine. He attributes his speed to a five-minute pregame stretching regimen and to genes passed on from his mother, Gracie.

When Otis and his younger brother, Donnell, a Triple A outfielder in the Cleveland Indians' organization who once stole 144 bases in the minors, were in their teens, Gracie could spot them a healthy head start on an Evergreen, N.C., playground and still catch them. "She ran until she was 38," says Otis. "Whenever we got together with other guys, they'd say, 'Get your mother. She's faster than everybody.' "

Better speed, hitting and defense have certainly helped the Braves, but according to Cox, "It'll come down to pitching. It always does." Schuerholz, who had bid a premature farewell to such young arms as David Cone and Danny Jackson while in Kansas City, made sure to avoid the same mistake with the Braves. Atlanta named its rotation in spring training and stuck with it. That meant standing by John Smoltz, 24, who was 2-11 on July 7. But things started to change when he began working with sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn. Last Saturday, Smoltz allowed just two hits in seven innings in a 4-0 win over the Astros to raise his record to 6-1 since the All-Star break. "In a nutshell, I needed a chance to open up," says Smoltz. "Before, I didn't feel like it was my job to bring anyone down with my problems."

Last spring, Cox also cast Berenguer as his stopper. Billed at some of his six major league stops as Señor Smoke, the Bandido and the General, Berenguer had always filled the role of setup man, with only 14 saves in 13 seasons. "All the time I've been dreaming, saying I can do it, I can handle the pressure," he says.

What may have held him back so long is his inability to hold back; he is prone to dramatic gestures. After fanning a hitter, Berenguer sometimes "shoots" him with his index finger, and then blows away imaginary gun smoke. These days after every whiff, he does an overhead maneuver, disdainfully slapping the back of his glove on his right hand.

Through the Astro series, Berenguer had allowed only one of the 27 runners he has inherited to score. "I think the main reason Juan's doing what he's doing is he doesn't care who's hitting, he's going to attack him," says pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "That mental approach helps. So does his 90-mile-per-hour fastball."

Some strikeout victims have suggested that Berenguer is fortunate he doesn't often have to face fastballs himself—he might find more than a few aimed at him. Still, he isn't about to stop his flamenco flourish. "People say I get too wild in there," says Berenguer. "When I strike them out, I get excited. There's nothing I can do."

And who in Atlanta can help getting excited these days? Well, maybe Braves owner Ted Turner, who put in a cameo appearance at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with his fiancèe, Jane Fonda, on July 31. The couple left in the third inning with his club losing 6-1 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Braves rallied to win 8-6. Though he continues to spend liberally on the team, Turner keeps his hands off the day-to-day operations. Nonetheless, he found time to thank the team for its competitive play in a clubhouse speech on May 8. The Braves responded to Turner's oratory by beating St. Louis 17-1. It was a far cry from some earlier Turner talks. Recalls Blauser, "Near the end of one year he came in and said, 'Look at the bright side. If you finish last, you get the first pick.' "

The local papers now can't write enough about the Braves. By contrast, when Gant reached 30 steals and 30 homers last year, the feat was buried on page 5 of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports section. The local economy can't milk enough from them, either; the city's troubled rapid transit system stands to make $200,000 more from its game-day shuttle to the stadium than it did last summer. But the players think they haven't achieved enough. They dwell not on how far they have come, but on how far they want to go. No team has rocketed from last to first in successive seasons. "For the most part, guys are relaxed and enjoying the season," says Pendleton. "We aren't bouncing off the walls, but we aren't scared to death either."

Wherever the Braves wind up in the standings, General (Manager) Schuerholz is already counting his 1991 Atlanta Campaign a smashing success. "Could things really be better?" he says. "I don't think so. Just remember: Last year, we were the laughingstock of baseball."



Tim Teufel and the Padres recently found out why Gant, who has stolen 22 bases and hit a league-high 25 homers, is an MVP candidate.



Nixon, who was supposed to be a part-time player, has become a full-time scoring threat.



Glavine no longer feels that the Atlanta staff must always make perfect pitches.



Pendleton's .335 average is only one of the reasons he's vital to the Braves.