By acquiring centerfielder Kenny Lofton six week ago in the most
significant trade in the history of Atlanta baseball, the Braves
replaced not only Marquis Grissom but also Michael Johnson.
Every time Lofton races homeward with another run in Atlanta, he
follows a line parallel to the one traveled down the final
straight by Johnson, the double Olympic champion sprinter, nine
months ago in the same venue. The torch has been passed.
Lofton has been the star of the 1997 Atlanta games. Through
Sunday he had batted .424, cracked more hits (42) than anybody
else in baseball, tied the Atlanta record for runs scored in a
game (five) and swiped 11 bases, creating more excitement with
his legs than Tina Turner. In the process he had led the Braves
to the best record in the majors--17-5, which equaled the
franchise's best start of this century--and, perhaps most
impressive, left his teammates in drop-jawed amazement. "He's
the best in baseball at what he does," says Atlanta righthander
John Smoltz. "Whenever Kenny comes to the plate, we feel like
we've got a rally going."
At Turner Field, the reconfigured Olympic Stadium--named for
Ted, not Tina--the track may be gone, but the running is not.
The 29-year-old Lofton, who bats leadoff for the Braves, is
usually followed in the order and on the base paths by fleet
outfielder Michael Tucker, who was acquired from the Kansas City
Royals on March 27, two days after the blockbuster deal that
brought Lofton and reliever Alan Embree to Atlanta from the
Cleveland Indians in exchange for Grissom and fellow outfielder
David Justice. The addition of Lofton and Tucker, plus the
presence of the fast and powerful 20-year-old rookie outfielder
Andruw Jones, have made the Braves more dangerous than ever.
Still blessed with its trademark power and the best starting
staff in baseball, Atlanta can now win games with its speed,
too. The latest edition of the Team of the 1990s is one that
Juan Antonio Samaranch could love.
"I think this team can be our best," says Smoltz, one of six
players who have been on board for the Braves' entire seven-year
run, which has yielded five division titles, four National
League pennants and one world championship. "A lot of times it
felt as if we'd wait for someone to hit a three-run homer. With
the power we had the past couple of seasons I believe we could
win our division every year. But when you get to the postseason,
especially with the kind of pitching you see at that level, you
have to ask guys to bunt and move people over, and we never had
that ability. We'd get to the postseason, and other teams would
beat us by creating runs. Now we can do that to go along with
Atlanta exhibited its versatility as it beat the San Diego
Padres three times last weekend, and Lofton figured in the
rallies that led to comeback wins on Friday and Saturday. In the
opener, after the Braves wiped out a 4-0 deficit with
back-to-back home runs by catcher Javy Lopez and second baseman
Mark Lemke, Lofton's two-out RBI single in the seventh inning
gave Atlanta a 5-4 victory. On Saturday, with the Braves
trailing 2-1, Lofton opened the bottom of the 10th inning with a
smash that knocked over Padres second baseman Quilvio Veras. San
Diego rightfielder Tony Gwynn, in his haste to hold Lofton to a
single, then bobbled the ball, allowing Lofton to continue to
second. After Gwynn's error, Padres closer Trevor Hoffman left a
fastball up and over the plate for Jones, who crushed a
last-at-bat, game-winning homer for the first time in his life,
including his Little League days in Curacao. "Who knows how much
Kenny had to do with that?" Smoltz said in the clubhouse
afterward. "The pitcher's got to be worried about Kenny stealing
and putting the tying run on third."
That victory left Atlanta 10-1 in the new home of the Braves. On
Sunday, with a 2-0 rain-shortened defeat of the Padres, Atlanta
ran its record to 11-1, the best ever by a club opening a
ballpark. With 26 steals and 18 homers in 22 games at week's
end, the Braves were on pace to break the Atlanta single-season
record of 165 stolen bases, set in '91. Whereas last year's
Braves scored only 60% of their runs without a home run, this
year's model had scored 75% of its runs without going deep.
"They're a better club than they were last year," Gwynn said
last weekend, "and we're talking about a team that went to the
World Series. Speed changes things entirely."
The Braves have looked so formidable that it seems odd that
general manager John Schuerholz took so long to pull the trigger
on the Lofton deal and then took heat from fans and the media
when he did pull it. Schuerholz says he and his Indians
counterpart, John Hart, began discussing the trade in November
at the general managers' meetings. In spring training Schuerholz
also lined up the swap with Kansas City for Tucker and infielder
Keith Lockhart in exchange for outfielder Jermaine Dye and a
minor leaguer. The 25-year-old Tucker could platoon with Jones
in rightfield, Schuerholz figured, if he traded Justice.
"We spent a lot of time pondering the Lofton trade because it
was so big," Schuerholz says. The franchise, which moved from
Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, had not traded two All-Stars in
the same deal since 1963, when it sent Del Crandall and Bob Shaw
to the San Francisco Giants in a seven-player deal that brought
Felipe Alou to Milwaukee. "The more we thought about it, the
more it made sense," Schuerholz says. "We got to the World
Series [last year] with Justice only playing 40 games. And we
freed up a chunk of money to re-sign [free-agents-to-be] Tom
Glavine and Greg Maddux or sign someone else. With our success
and this new park, I don't think we'll have much difficulty
finding someone to take our money."
Like Glavine and Maddux, Lofton is eligible for free agency
after this season. That was the main reason that Cleveland was
willing to trade the best leadoff hitter in baseball, a player
Cox has called "Rickey Henderson of 15 years ago." The deal
capped a stunning turnaround in which the Indians purged their
three cornerstone players, Lofton, Carlos Baerga and Albert
Belle, within eight months.
"What bothers me," Lofton says, "is that [Hart] lied to my face.
I flew into Cleveland in the winter and asked him if I was
involved in trade talks, because I'd heard about something
involving Roberto Alomar. He told me there was nothing going on,
that I was not involved in any deal."
The Braves, especially the pitchers, welcomed the trade, though
they felt they would miss Justice's bat and Grissom's
professionalism. "I liked it before," Maddux says, "and I like
it even better now. Plus, you have to give Andruw Jones a
chance. I love to watch him play. He's liable to hit one three
miles or to gun somebody down from the outfield, and he can
steal a bag."
No team in the National League stole fewer bases (83) last year
or had a worse success rate (66%) than the Braves. "Taking
nothing away from the guys we traded," Smoltz says, "we added a
dimension that's been missing. Marquis had some leg injuries
that kept him from running." Grissom had only a .349 on-base
percentage last year and stole just 28 bases. It was the fourth
straight season his steals total declined. Says one Brave,
"Bobby gave him the green light, but he never ran. Bobby would
say, 'Why won't he run? He ran against us all the time when he
was with Montreal.'"
Lofton already had attempted 16 steals by week's end; Grissom
tried 39 all of last season. While Tucker had only one stolen
base, he was hitting .377 and had advanced an extra base on all
seven occasions that he was the lead runner and one of the other
Braves hit a single or double. Both Lofton and Tucker are free
to steal anytime.
Schuerholz made the Tucker trade exactly 10 years after, as
general manager of the Royals, he had traded pitcher David Cone
to the New York Mets for catcher Ed Hearn. "I'd like to think it
was the yin and the yang of my career," Schuerholz says, "except
I'm afraid I'll have to make a lot more deals to make up for
that one involving Cone."
Tucker has played so well that Cox often sits lefthanded-hitting
leftfielder Ryan Klesko against southpaws. Tucker, however, did
not start last Saturday against Padres righthander Andy Ashby
because of a sore left hamstring. That allowed Jones to improve
upon what had been a checkered start this season. Cox had
scolded Jones in a private meeting earlier last week after Jones
ran lackadaisically on the bases during a game. Lofton, too, had
been imploring Jones to sharpen his mental approach. While
taking their outfield positions on Friday night, for instance,
Lofton had congratulated Jones on drawing a two-out walk and
coaxing an errant pickoff throw the previous inning. "Keep that
same intensity and have that same focus all the time," Lofton
had said. Maddux says, "Lofton hasn't just played great. He's
been great in the clubhouse."
Atlanta's pitching staff, as if buoyed by the more versatile
offense, has been even more brilliant than usual, pitching to a
2.50 ERA through Sunday. According to pitching coach Leo
Mazzone, in recent years no staff endured more "stress innings"
than the Braves' pitchers, meaning that they were usually asked
to hold the opposition long enough for one of the Atlanta
batters to hit a ball out. Says Glavine, "The good thing about
having speed is that it should keep us out of prolonged slumps,
which can happen when you rely on home runs."
Indeed, the aggressiveness of Lofton, Tucker, Andruw Jones and
third baseman Chipper Jones, who had six steals at week's end,
has compensated for a lack of pop from the middle of the lineup
that might have doomed previous Braves teams. Chipper, first
baseman Fred McGriff and Klesko, the 3-4-5 hitters who combined
for 92 dingers last season, had only six in their first 225 at
bats this year.
"Freddie, Klesko and I haven't done squat," says Chipper, even
though he admits he is seeing more fastballs hitting behind
Lofton and Tucker. "When we start swinging, watch out. With
Lofton and Tucker on base so much, I'm going to be the guy up
there in that swivel at bat. If I get a hit, it can turn the
tide of the game."
Lofton and Tucker may have arrived just in time, considering
that Turner Field, with its swirling winds, plays much larger
than the Braves' previous home, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
"It's more of a pitcher's park than even in St. Louis," Maddux
"Got to do something," McGriff cracks, "to get Glavine and
Maddux to come back here." Indeed, in the shadow of the cauldron
where the Olympic flame once burned, the Braves have retrofitted
the stadium to their pitchers' liking. They have made the field
dimensions generous, installed an indoor putting green off the
clubhouse and, best of all, put together the most versatile
offense their staff has ever played with. "The stress factor,"
Glavine says, "has gone way down."
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Even Smoltz, who was tagged out here, got caught up in the Braves' aggressive baserunning. [John Smoltz sliding into home plate in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID GONZALES/RICH CLARKSON & ASSOCIATES Fleet Feet: Led by former Indian Lofton, who had 11 stolen bases at week's end, the Braves had twice as many thefts as they had at the same time last season, and they had been successful stealing 9% more often. [Kenny Lofton baserunning in game]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS The Table Setters: With former Royal Tucker batting behind Lofton most of the time, the on-base percentage of the Braves' 1-2 hitters had improved to .430 from .299 in '96. [Michael Tucker batting in game]