In front offices around the major leagues, executives must be
wondering why they even bother. The Braves have done more than
just build a team that in the last five years has won four
division titles, three National League pennants and one World
Series. The Atlanta brain trust has put on a clinic.
In assembling the team of the 1990s, Brave president Stan
Kasten, general manager John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox
did everything but splice genes. They drafted masterfully, they
signed the right free agents, and they made the right trades. If
this had been blackjack, the house would have begged them to
take their chips and go home. The Atlanta management didn't
throw together a pennant-winning club in '91 and then, after
falling to the Minnesota Twins in the 10th inning of Game 7 of
the World Series, sit around with fingers crossed, hoping the
boys would win it all the next time, or the next. Rather, Brave
executives committed themselves to an ongoing process that
culminated in Atlanta's six-game triumph over the Cleveland
Indians in the 1995 Series. The most telling evidence of their
dedication to that process: Only three position players who
started for the Braves in the '91 Series (rightfielder David
Justice, second baseman Mark Lemke and shortstop Rafael
Belliard) were in Atlanta's starting lineup against the Indians.
There were some controversial management moves along the way,
including decisions to let fan favorites Ron Gant and Terry
Pendleton go, but as the record shows, the Braves' toast rarely
landed on the buttered side. Atlanta put together a blend of
experience and youth, and with an eye to only one thing--the
Series--the Braves never stopped tinkering. "It was a difficult
task to maintain that level," said Schuerholz as Atlanta got
ready to take on Cleveland. "The economics of the game make it
possible, if not probable, that players will leave as free
agents or become too much of a financial burden to maintain."
Of course, the Braves had a knack for replacing their dearly
departed veterans with exciting young players before fans could
even voice their displeasure. This year rookie sensation Chipper
Jones was at third base, Pendleton's old post, while young
slugger Ryan Klesko inherited most of the workload in leftfield,
where Gant had starred.
Cleveland was the best team Atlanta has faced in the postseason
in the 1990s, but these Braves were also the best Atlanta team
of this decade. Number 1 starter Greg Maddux, cleanup hitter
Fred McGriff and centerfielder Marquis Grissom all made their
first Series appearances for the Braves this year. They were
among the most important players for Atlanta. "This is the best
team we've had in the World Series," said John Smoltz. "We have
it all covered. We have good pitching, a strong lineup and a
It wasn't always that way. While a lot of championship teams
start out on the bottom, the Braves took it to extremes. They
came in last in the National League West four times from 1986 to
'90, and from '85 to '90 they finished an average of 33 games
under .500. They went through four managers in 32 months from
'84 to '86. In '90 Atlanta finished last in the league in
pitching, fielding, stolen bases and attendance. The team failed
to reach the 1 million mark in attendance for three straight
years, including '88, when it attracted only 848,089 fans. Just
five years later, in '93, the Braves' attendance had increased
by more than 3 million. Remarkably, Atlanta, which now seems to
be too good for the rest of baseball, hadn't had a winning month
for 22 consecutive months as it entered the '91 season. "We
needed organization, structure, discipline, a sense of
direction, consistency and stability," said Schuerholz. Other
than that, Atlanta was in great shape.
Out of the fertilizer of the late 1980s blossomed the bumper
crop of the '90s. The Braves drafted Kent Mercker in '86, Steve
Avery and Mark Wohlers in '88, Klesko in '89 and Jones in '90.
They acquired Smoltz from the Detroit Tigers for Doyle Alexander
in '87 and signed a slew of key free agents: Javier Lopez ('87),
Belliard ('90), Greg McMichael ('91) and the incomparable Maddux
('92). Atlanta exhausted all means of building a winner.
The Braves also addressed a need to modernize their front-office
operation. In June 1990, Kasten shifted Cox, who had managed the
Braves from '78 to '81, out of the general manager's office and
back into the dugout, replacing Russ Nixon as manager.
Schuerholz, who had built a world champion in Kansas City, was
brought in as the new general manager, and the rebuilding
process began, literally, from the ground up: Schuerholz ordered
a new playing surface for Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, whose
field was the worst in the league because of wear and tear from
both baseball and professional football.
With the blessing of Kasten and team owner Ted Turner,
Schuerholz also began to fill holes in the lineup with free
agents, spending $30 million on just six players--all of whom, he
noted at the time, had postseason experience. Of the moves
Schuerholz made in his first year with the Braves, none
reflected his skill and sense more than the signing of
Pendleton. A .259 hitter in seven seasons with the St. Louis
Cardinals, Pendleton won a batting title (with a .319 average)
and an MVP award in 1991, his first season with the Braves. He
also brought with him a bright new attitude that seemed to lift
the pall of losing from the Atlanta clubhouse. To go along with
Pendleton's MVP, Tom Glavine (20-11), who had been drafted in
1984, brought the Braves the Cy Young Award. Atlanta won 94
games in '91, a stunning 29-game turnaround from the previous
season. Of course, it wasn't the only team to go from worst to
the World Series that season. The Twins did it too, rising from
the cellar in the American League West and prevailing over the
Braves in a dramatic seven-game struggle.
In 1992 the Braves won 98 games, another pennant and one more
trip to the World Series. This time they bowed out in six games
to the Toronto Blue Jays, and some observers began to wonder if
Atlanta could ever close the deal. So what did the front office
do in the off-season? Well, nothing much--unless you count
signing the best righthanded pitcher of his time, Maddux, who
left the Cubs after winning his first Cy Young.
The Braves gave Maddux a five-year, $28 million deal. The
Yankees offered him more money, but Maddux wanted to pitch on a
staff that was already loaded and wouldn't require him to be a
star. Times had changed indeed. For the rest of the league,
watching Atlanta sign Maddux was like seeing Bill Gates scratch
off a winning lottery ticket. The rich had just struck gold.
"It's good to be rich," said Kasten. "It's better to be smart
and rich. We were smart before we were rich."
For a while it seemed as if the best pitcher in the game might
not be enough to help the Braves maintain their white-hot pace.
They were eight games back in their division halfway through the
1993 season, and Schuerholz knew he had to do something else. A
couple of pennants don't make a dynasty. His next move turned
out to be one of the most significant in recent National League
history. The Braves sent three minor leaguers (Donnie Elliott,
Vince Moore and Melvin Nieves) to the San Diego Padres in
exchange for McGriff, who could be penciled in on Opening Day
for 30 home runs.
On McGriff's first night in a Brave uniform, the Atlanta-Fulton
County Stadium press box caught fire, and so did the Braves.
They went 51-17 the rest of the way and beat out the San
Francisco Giants for the National League West title on the last
day of the regular season. Unfortunately for Atlanta, it met up
with yet another team of destiny in the playoffs and fell to the
ragtag Philadelphia Phillies in six games.
After a forgettable second-place finish in the strike-shortened
1994 season, the Braves returned to prominence this year,
running away with their division by 21 games. Since '91 they
have gone 454-290 (chart, above). The only other big league team
to win 400 games over that span is the Chicago White Sox
Before the 1995 season began, the Braves acquired All-Star
Grissom from the Montreal Expos for Roberto Kelly, Tony Tarasco,
Esteban Yan and cash. Grissom had an off year at the plate,
hitting just .258, but he continued to shine in centerfield,
giving Atlanta pitchers even more confidence. "Marquis Grissom
is the best centerfielder in the game," says Maddux. In another
significant move, the Braves made Wohlers, a 25-year-old
fireballer, their closer, and he came through, saving 25 games
in 29 opportunities. "Their bullpen is the best I can remember,"
said Davey Johnson, who managed the Cincinnati Reds in their
disastrous Championship Series showdown with Atlanta.
This year the Braves took no chances. To load up their big
league bench with experience, they tapped into their deep farm
system for trade fodder. In August alone they acquired
outfielders Luis Polonia and Mike Devereaux and pitcher
Alejandro Pena in exchange for an assortment of minor leaguers.
They gave up outfielder Andre King for Devereaux, who turned out
to be the MVP of Atlanta's four-game sweep of Cincinnati. "Andre
who?" said Schuerholz. "Was it worth it? Oh, yeah, it was worth
In their drive toward the elusive World Series crown, the Braves
have been more than willing to take big salaries off the hands
of their cost-cutting competitors. And though it may have looked
as if they were draining their minor league system, the Braves
have never stopped bringing up young studs such as rookie of the
year front-runner Jones.
"We've lost some fine young prospects," says Schuerholz. "And I
know some people are concerned about that. But it doesn't
matter. We haven't had a high draft pick in the last five years,
and we've done all right in the farm system. We're very
aggressive in international signings. We take chances on guys
who are deemed unsignable. For the most part, we're successful."
For the most part, they are the standard by which other clubs
are judged. The discouraging thing for the rest of the major
leagues is that the Braves may just be warming up. For some time
now it has been widely believed that this franchise is capable
of winning the World Series three or four times in the 1990s.
Well, one down ...
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Showing savvy on all fronts, Atlanta's brain trust acquired free agent Lopez (left), traded for Grissom (top) and drafted Mercker. [Javier Lopez]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: V.J. LOVERO (2) [See caption above--Marquis Grissom; Kent Mercker]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM Lemke started in all three Atlanta World Series in the '90s. [Mark Lemke]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO They finally got it: (from left) Kasten, Schuerholz and Cox. [Stan Kasten, John Schuerholz, and Bobby Cox holding World Series trophy]
TEAM OF THE '90S
From 1991 through 1995 no team has been a match for the Braves.
Here are the top 10 records over that period of time.
Team Wins Losses Pct.
Atlanta Braves 454 290 .610
Chicago White Sox 402 341 .541
Montreal Expos 392 351 .528
Toronto Blue Jays 393 352 .528
Cincinnati Reds 388 356 .522
New York Yankees 384 359 .517
Pittsburgh Pirates 380 364 .511
Boston Red Sox 377 368 .506
Baltimore Orioles 375 367 .505
Cleveland Indians 375 368 .505