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World Series 2001
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10/13/2001 03:18 PM ET
Bauman: Give the Braves their due
The architect of the Braves' success is General Manager John Schuerholz.
Bauman: Same 'ol Braves
Braves sweep Astros out of playoffs
Full postseason coverage

ATLANTA -- It is National Get off the Atlanta Braves' Backs Day.

True, this is not exactly an officially declared, federal and state celebration. But it is time.

I say this not because this is an easy time to say it, after the Braves have swept the Houston Astros in their Division Series. This circumstance merely helps us recognize the Braves for what they have been and what they still seem to be.

They have won 10 straight division titles. This is a record unmatched in major American professional sports. Those 10 division championships have led to five National League championships. Here is where the bliss largely comes to an end. The five NL pennants have led to only one World Series championship, and that means that the Braves have been open to charges of postseason under-achievement or something like that.

The only thing the Atlanta Braves are guilty of is that they are not the New York Yankees. But year in, year out, neither are the other 28 Major League franchises.

(The Braves are also guilty, by association, of the Tomahawk Chop. But that is a far different column.)

Year after year, the Atlanta organization has been in a position to win. And every year it has won something. If it has not won everything all the time, this is probably not cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth. John Smoltz, formerly a terrific starting pitcher, now converting into a first-rate closer, put it in perspective, saying:

"I think the last 10 years have been incredible. Every year, the process as a player, when you go to spring training, they've given us a chance to win every single year. That's all you can ask for. I've been spoiled in that regard."

Other franchises look at the Atlanta organization with a mixture of admiration and envy. But the admiration is a larger part of the mix.

"To me, this organization over the last decade has been the model organization," Astros General Manager Gerry Hunsicker said Friday. "I've always had the utmost respect for (General Manager) John Schuerholz and (Manager) Bobby Cox. Yes, they've had the money to spend. But it's pretty obvious that that in itself doesn't make you a winner. You've got to use it wisely and their track record speaks for itself. They find a way to win. That's the mark of a true champion. Regardless of what adversities come your way, you find a way to win.

"I know that they haven't been to the World Series and won the World Series as much as I'm sure the people here in Atlanta would like to see, but it's just like us. You're always victims of your own success. Everything is relative. When you put it all together, I think they've done a great job here."

The architect of the Braves' success is General Manager John Schuerholz, who not at all coincidentally arrived on the scene in October, 1990. The 1990 campaign was the Braves' last losing season.

"I think the last 10 years have been incredible. Every year, the process as a player, when you go to spring training, they've given us a chance to win every single year. That's all you can ask for. I've been spoiled in that regard."

--Braves closer John Smoltz

There have been numerous reports of slippage in the Atlanta empire. The Braves' 88 victories this regular season were the fewest since, of course, 1990. Not surprisingly, Schuerholz has a different view.

"I think the opposite, I think to the contrary," Schuerholz said. "I think it's been a remarkable season. I think with all of the adversity that we've had in terms of losing players to injuries and some under-performance of some players, but mostly injuries, over the course of the year we end up with a new shortstop, a new second baseman, a new first baseman, a new catcher and six new members of our bullpen.

"And making that number of changes on the run and still being able to win our division for the 10th consecutive time, I think it's a remarkable accomplishment. I don't think it's a disappointment at all. I'm as proud of what Bobby Cox and his coaches have done and what our players have done this year as any one particular year."

Schuerholz doesn't say this, but the job the general manager did was also impressive, particularly under these circumstances. It is this sort of thing that has kept Atlanta winning since 1991.

The loss of Rafael Furcal, shortstop and leadoff hitter, was particularly damaging. Schuerholz brought in Rey Sanchez to play short. Sanchez obviously has fewer dimensions than Furcal, but he is more than reliable at short.

Quilvio Veras was at second base, but he had become injury-prone. Rookie Marcus Giles took over at second and at the top of the order. Giles has not been a classic leadoff hitter, but he has not been an easy out, and his defense has continued to improve into the playoffs.

Catcher Javy Lopez, a mainstay of the Atlanta offense for years, has been out with a high ankle sprain. But behind him the Braves had Paul Bako, a definite upgrade defensively. Although Bako is obviously valued more for his defensive work, he came up big in the NLDS clincher Friday with a home run, a double and a squeeze bunt, and three runs batted in.

Let us count the first basemen. Rico Brogna didn't hit and retired. Longtime prospect Wes Helms didn't hit, either. The Braves swung and missed on Ken Caminiti. The lifetime third baseman couldn't cut it defensively at first and also didn't hit. So Schuerholz went all the way to the Mexican League to get former big-leaguer Julio Franco. Many of us scoffed at the acquisition of the 40-something Franco. But he hit .300 in 25 games with Atlanta, and fielded much better than either Caminiti or Helms.

The bullpen may have represented an even larger coup for the GM. The trade of John Rocker to Cleveland for Steve Karsay and Steve Reed did subtract a closer from the Atlanta pitching staff. But it also subtracted a headache, a source of embarrassing publicity and a guy many of the other Braves felt could no longer be relied upon in clutch situations. And Schuerholz picked up two talented relievers in the bargain.

When asked about the deal, Schuerholz touches only lightly on Rocker's personality, choosing instead to focus on the search for more bullpen depth. He does say: "We also felt like the make-up of our bullpen and the make-up of our team would be more solid as a result of that deal. I think that proved to be true."

Schuerholz passes on the possibility of looking like a prophet. The Braves had contemplated the possibility of Smoltz becoming a closer, but this was not a primary part of the thinking that went into the June 22 trade.

"We had some thought that might happen because we weren't certain how much John could pitch after coming back off the (elbow) surgery," Schuerholz said. "And we did give some thought to the fact that he might be a closer when he came back, but that was so distant a thought that it wasn't something that motivated us to make this move, trading our then-closer. We just felt like the bullpen would be better suited to make this deal, and it was."

No matter how the remainder of this postseason progresses, the Braves will face major challenges in the off-season. Some key players are coming to the end of their contracts. Changes seem inevitable. Schuerholz does not seem panic-stricken.

"I don't think any general manager expects to keep their complete team together," he says. "That's one of the great challenges of this job. And there is great pride in accomplishment here that in the face of all the changes that are brought to bear by the system we're in that we're able to keep winning.

"I suspect there will be at least as dynamic a number of changes as we've had in the past, if not more. I don't think we'll be able to keep THIS team together, no. But I think we'll have a winning team."

The record would support no other conclusion. The Braves have built a consistent winner around the tangible quality of strong pitching and the less tangible quality of not only being willing to accept change but to seek out change when it can lead to improvement. If they don't win big in this postseason, the usual complaints will surely follow. But for a moment here, let's just go with sincere congratulations.

Mike Bauman is a columnist for based in Milwaukee.