Braves' choke label is hard to swallow

KEN ROSENTHAL

October 14, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

PHILADELPHIA -- The Buffalo Bills of baseball. That's what Tom Glavine feared the Atlanta Braves would become, and now that they've lost the National League Championship Series, some will say that's what they are.

Makes for a snappy sound bite.

Too bad it's not the truth.

The Bills earned their choker's label by dominating a weak AFC and then self-destructing in three straight Super Bowls. But even now, in their darkest hour, the Braves must be considered one of the best clutch teams in recent sports history.

Forget last night's 6-3 loss to Philadelphia, the dormant offense, the three errors, the six runs allowed by Greg Maddux. Indeed, forget this entire series, in which the Phillies elevated the national pastime by debasing it, to the delight of a nation fed up with WTBS' team.

"You can't say this is a team that choked when we put on a barrage in the second half to even get here," right fielder David Justice said. "That was the playoffs right there. This team just didn't play its best for six games."

And so Veterans Stadium was a giddy madhouse last night, the fans dancing in their overcoats, doing the tomahawk chop, chanting, "Whoomp! There it is." The rough-and-tumble Phillies were so happy, they gathered for a post-game burp.

Dave Hollins hit a two-run homer, Mickey Morandini a two-run triple, Darren Daulton a two-run double. Tommy Greene pitched seven strong innings, and the game ended in shocking fashion -- with Mitch Williams pitching a 1-2-3 ninth.

As we were saying, anything can happen in a short series. Everything happened in this one, and the scary part is, dominant teams like the Braves will be even more susceptible to upsets after baseball goes to expanded playoffs next season.

"I don't know which would have been worse -- losing to the Giants by one game after the regular season, or getting to this point and not going to the World Series," pitcher John Smoltz said.

How can a team straight out of a fantasy league lose to a team straight out of a beer league? Any casual fan knows the answer. Because this is the strangest, cruelest, most unpredictable sport on the planet.

The Braves captured three straight NL West titles without winning a World Series, so they won't get their place in history. But they compare with the 1969-70-71 Orioles and the 1988-89-90 Oakland A's. The best team of their time.

The question is, where do they go from here? General manager John Schuerholz estimates the payroll will reach $55 million if he keeps the Braves intact. In all likelihood, he'll part with one or two of their superstars this winter.

It happens to almost every championship team in this cost-cutting era. That's why the A's collapsed so rapidly, and why the Toronto Blue Jays' back-to-back American League pennants are so impressive -- they did it with two almost completely different clubs.

Schuerholz threw everything he had into this season. The Braves weren't satisfied with reaching the World Series. They added Greg Maddux and Fred McGriff, the game's winningest pitcher and leading home-run hitter over the past six years.

Still, they weren't perfect. The one recurring theme of the past three postseasons was Atlanta's lack of a dominant closer. Whether it was Alejandro Pena or Jeff Reardon, Greg McMichael or Mark Wohlers, late-inning relief was often a problem.

What are the dominant images of the Braves' postseason failures? The Kirby Puckett homer off Charlie Leibrandt in the '91 Series. The Ed Sprague homer off Reardon in the '92 Series. The Len Dykstra homer off Wohlers in this NLCS.

One way or another, the Braves will retool, and their decisions will be the talk of baseball all winter. The player most likely to be traded is left fielder Ron Gant, who followed a 36-homer, 117-RBI season by going 5-for-27 in the NLCS.

The Orioles no doubt will renew their pursuit of McGriff, but he probably won't be available if the Braves try first-base prospect Ryan Klesko in the outfield -- where he'd crowd a picture that already includes Gant, Otis Nixon, Deion Sanders and Justice.

"There are so many great options," Smoltz said. "It depends on what they want to do. If they want to spend money, we've got a lot of veteran talent. But we've also got some rookies ready to play. Regardless, this team will be right at the top next year."

They're not the Buffalo Bills, not even close. Only in baseball can a team experience this anguish. Only in baseball can a team rally from 10 games back, finish with 104 wins and then face the awful truth that it wasn't good enough.

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