Win or lose, Braves are decade's best

October 24, 1999|By John Eisenberg

ATLANTA -- Who says the Braves and Yankees are playing for the honor of becoming baseball's "Team of the '90s"?

Even if the Yankees go on to win the 1999 World Series after rallying to take Game 1 last night at Turner Field, the Braves are still the team of the decade.

Yes, that obviously would be debatable if the Yankees ended the decade with a 3-0 Series record and the Braves ended at 1-4, with two of the losses to the Yankees.

But there's much more to the issue than that one statistic, as important as it is.

In a sport in which making seven outs in 10 at-bats is considered successful, and an industry in which hundreds of players change uniforms every year, winning it all isn't necessarily as difficult as winning, period, for as long as a decade.

And other than the Yankees during the glory years of Ruth, Mantle and DiMaggio, few teams have won, period, for longer than the Braves in the '90s.

The Yankees have crammed all of their success into the second half of the decade, making them, more accurately, the "Team of the Second Half of the '90s." They didn't even make the playoffs until 1995, and they didn't win a division title until 1996.

That's a team that dominated a decade?

The Braves' record of eight division titles, five National League pennants and one Series title (in 1995) is a better example of genuine, decade-long excellence.

They finished 74 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees in the decade's 10 regular seasons combined, their 925-win total was the second-highest in the past 40 years (behind the '70s Reds) and their five Series appearances was the most since the Yankees' eight in the '50s.

Detractors can rightfully point to the Braves' three National League Championship Series losses and three World Series losses -- an awful lot of playoff failure. There's no doubt the Braves haven't made the most of their success. They can look across the field and into the Yankees' dugout for a glimpse of a team that knows how to close a deal.

But it's flat-out wrong to characterize them as losers, baseball's version of the Buffalo Bills. They won a Series title in 1995. They got to the top.

And just as importantly, they have been near the top year after year, becoming an October fixture for an entire decade while others have come and gone.

"It's purely a subjective thing, but the Braves, for me, are the team of the decade, regardless of who wins this World Series," Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week. "Yes, getting to the Series is the goal of every team, but consistency is more important. That's the No. 1 criteria for evaluating a franchise. It's not by a landslide vote, believe me. But I do feel the Braves are clearly the team of the decade."

Granted, the Yankees are held to a higher standard as the "Team of the Decade" of the '20s, '30s, '40 and '50s, and the undisputed "Team of the Century," with 24 World Series titles.

You can bet Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wouldn't celebrate "consistency" or any other measurement that didn't include World Series titles.

"When you work for George, just getting to the postseason isn't enough," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

But Torre also said he believed the Braves -- a team he managed in the '80s -- were the decade's best team.

"They're there every single year," Torre said.

Anyone who has followed the Orioles in the '90s knows how difficult that is. Putting together a winner and keeping it together for more than a year is a feat with the highest degree of difficulty. The Braves have done it for a decade despite constant change.

Only Tom Glavine and John Smoltz are left from the team that lost the 1991 Series. And only seven Braves are left from the team that lost to the Yankees in 1996.

Granted, the load-carrying pitching of Glavine, Smoltz and Greg Maddux has remained a constant, making staying on top easier. But the Braves' organization has supported that pitching with the development of home-grown stars such as Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones, and the signings of free agents such as Maddux and Brian Jordan.

So confident was the franchise of its ability to keep winning that it had "Team of the Decade" engraved on the World Series rings after beating the Indians in the 1995 Fall Classic.

That was quite a move, especially since the Blue Jays had won two Series in the '90s at that point and the Braves had won one.

"Just words on a ring," Glavine shrugged recently, trying to downplay the gesture.

Four years later, the Braves' competition for the title is now the Yankees, not the Jays. The Yankees surely will claim the title, in fact, if they beat the Braves again this year.

"We're playing for one year, but really, for 10 years," Yankees pitcher David Cone said.

They have every right to believe that, and the record to back it up. But a team of the decade should be just that -- a team that sustained excellence through a whole decade, not just half. And that's the Braves in the '90s, regardless of what happens in the coming week.

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