PITTSBURGH -- The Atlanta Braves' appearance in this National League Championship Series is a testimony to how free agency can be as useful as a good plumbing supply store, stocked with just the right parts to fill holes and stop leaks in a ballclub. In three months of shopping, Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz came up with Sid Bream, Terry Pendleton, Juan Berenguer, Charlie Leibrandt, Mike Heath, Deion Sanders and Ed Magnan. Ed Magnan?
"My first free-agent signing," Schuerholz said. "First move I ever made with the Braves. I was on the job about a week."
Magnan is the Braves' groundskeeper. Schuerholz apparently is big believer in building a team from the ground up.
"I talked with as many people as I could when I first came to Atlanta," said Schuerholz, a native Baltimorean who was hired a year ago Thursday after serving nine years as general manager in Kansas City. "The one thing that every baseball official in the league told me was, 'You have the worst playing field in the National League.' Not some of them. Everyone told me the same thing. The problem was that baseball did not have a high priority in the stadium. There were other events going on."
At Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, moto-cross competitions and tractor pulls caused more excitement than the Braves, a last-place team for four of the past five years. The events also caused considerable damage to the playing field. So Schuerholz hired Magnan, who he said had "worked magic" at the Royals' spring training complex in Florida.
Magnan gave the Atlanta infield a makeover. In his own way, Schuerholz did, too. Pendleton and Bream, who is a wizard at saving throwing errors, stabilized Atlanta's inner defense. The Braves cut their errors by 13 percent, down to 138.
Whether they wielded bats or rakes, Schuerholz ventured boldly after free agents in his first winter on the job with Atlanta. If he had any hesitancy about proceeding with his new job in a league where he had no experience, it lasted maybe, oh, two minutes. The man acts with such suddenness that he bought a home in the Atlanta area almost immediately after taking the job, only to find out that it is too far from the school which his son, Jonathan, attends. The Schuerholz family is house-hunting again.
"I've been doing it all my life," Schuerholz said. "It's my nature. They called me a bantum rooster in college. They gave me an award, athlete of the year at Towson State, and called me the banny rooster."
The head baseball man in Atlanta is a brave general manager. His signing of Pendleton typified his daring nature. Pendleton was coming off the worst season of his career, a year when his skills appeared so depleted that the Yankees were the only other club to express genuine interest in him.
"Everyone said we were overpaying for waning talent," Schuerholz said. "I thought I'd get a good solid performance, maybe .270 if you want to put a number on it, good defense and good leadership."
He obtained a career year, and perhaps a Most Valuable Player season, out of Pendleton. That and his other maneuvers, including a trade for Otis Nixon, could earn Schuerholz the Executive of the Year award. In fairness, it must be remembered that the core of the team, including David Justice, Ron Gant, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, was homegrown before Schuerholz arrived. Schuerholz, who won the award in 1985, knows how fleeting a general manager's success can be, anyway.
"Did you see the Kansas City papers last year?" Schuerholz said. "I know both sides of it."
Schuerholz came under fire there after dishing out big contracts to Storm Davis and Mark Davis, who have been busts for the Royals. He left the Royals in last place. It was the first time in franchise history they finished that low. Schuerholz also is the same man who traded David Cone to the Mets for a backup catcher, Ed Hearn.
"I've made some deals that have worked out," Schuerholz said, "but no one deal was as good as the Cone deal was bad."
On the last day of the season, the Atlanta Stadium scoreboard flashed the news that Cone had tied a National League record with 19 strikeouts against Philadelphia. Jonathon Schuerholz, who was watching the game a few seats away from his father, nudged a friend and said, "Can you believe my dad traded that guy?"
When asked what he learned from the Cone trade, Schuerholz said, "How to disguise yourself in public. No, really, just when you think you have things figured out, they backfire on you."
In addition to Cone, Schuerholz also has traded Danny Jackson, Greg Hibbard, Melido Perez and Scott Bankhead. But that hasn't slowed his finger on the trade trigger. With only seven days left to this season, he parted with two of Atlanta's better pitching prospects, Turk Wendell and Yorkis Perez, to obtain Damon Berryhill and Mike Bielecki from the Cubs. His newest acquisitions are not eligible for postseason play. Schuerholz is just getting a jump on next year.
"I've been this way my whole life and I'm not going to change," Schuerholz said. "I'm not afraid to do what I think is right to strengthen the club. I'm not afraid to make moves. I guess you could say I'm more impulsive than I am patient."