BEN AFFLECK was getting into his car last week when a reporter from one of those star-stalking websites asked him what he thought of his beloved Red Sox's signing righthander John Smoltz, who spent the last 20 seasons with the Braves. "I like it," the actor said, and with that it was official: Smoltz, who with Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux once formed a trio of Atlanta aces so successful and stable that a writer dubbed them Mound Rushmore, had been sucked into the Red Sox--Yankees mosh pit, that world of free agents and free spending, of celebrity players and celebrity fans, where sports and show business are intertwined.
One day after Smoltz's departure the normally cost-conscious Braves signed free-agent starter Derek Lowe, 35, to a four-year, $60 million contract, outbidding the Mets by one year and $14 million. You do not have to be a Braves fan to bemoan the forces that have changed the team's approach. Dynasties inevitably die, and Atlanta, whose run of 14 consecutive National League division championships ended in 2005, has been in decline for the last three years. But just because death is expected doesn't mean it's any less depressing when the patient finally flatlines. Smoltz's exit and Lowe's arrival are signs that the days of consistently winning the understated Atlanta way are gone for good.
There was a time when the Braves were what almost every company aspires to be—a hugely successful enterprise that maintained a mom-and-pop feel (even though for a time Pop was Ted Turner and Mom was Jane Fonda). Their games were beamed across the nation on TBS, but they still fit right in with the reruns of The Andy Griffith Show that were the network's signature programming. Both possessed a certain Southern charm. "Nobody ever would have called the Braves an evil empire," says former Atlanta outfielder David Justice, who later played in the Bronx. "There wasn't that feeling of resentment that the big-market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox get nowadays."
Part of that was because the Braves rarely finished the job, winning their only World Series in 1995. But it was also that their success seemed attainable by any other medium- to small-market club, instead of reserved for those in markets so profitable that they could afford exorbitant payrolls. There was no panic when they lost, no blustering owner seeking headlines, no firing of manager Bobby Cox and no throwing money indiscriminately at free agents. (While they signed Maddux to a five-year, $28 million deal in 1992, that proved to be a bargain.) Atlanta merely fine-tuned around the edges, keeping its core intact. That seems downright quaint today, when a third-place finish causes the Yankees to spend more than $400 million in 19 days on slugger Mark Teixeira and starters CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
While A-Rod and Madonna appear in the New York City gossip pages and Derek Jeter squires starlets around town, Atlanta's stars have created little buzz. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz were better known for swinging golf clubs than hitting nightclubs. The Braves were sedate, button-down, and when someone disrupted the serenity, as reliever John Rocker did with his incendiary rant about New Yorkers, he was quickly excised. Few players left Atlanta voluntarily, certainly no one the Braves wanted to keep. During their primes, when the three aces or other All-Stars like Chipper Jones approached free agency, there was little speculation about whether they might leave, and big-market teams rarely bothered calling. There was nowhere else they wanted to play.
But Maddux moved on five seasons ago, once there were no more Cy Young Awards remaining in his right arm, and Glavine, who spent five years with the Mets before returning in 2008, is no certainty to make it back from left elbow surgery at 42. With Mound Rushmore crumbled, Atlanta seems more than a little flummoxed by this un-Brave new world. It's not just the Braves' desperate signing of Lowe; Burnett spurned them for Yankee dollars, and free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal, who spent his first five years in Atlanta, burned them by backing out of a deal and re-signing with the Dodgers. (Braves general manager Frank Wren was so incensed at what he considered dishonorable negotiating that he vowed never to deal with Furcal's representatives again.)
It may be that the franchise is just not used to a new era in which being the Braves isn't always enough to attract or retain players. The rules have changed, and quiet stability is no match for payroll and paparazzi. It's not easy for an organization that shuns celebrity to figure out how to compete in a world where photographers gather just to snap Ben Affleck opening his car door.
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There was a time when the Braves were what almost every company aspires to be—a hugely successful enterprise that maintained a mom-and-pop feel.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER