Wednesday, October 15, 1997
Braves may be remembered
as baseball's Bills

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - October notwithstanding, the Braves are the best team in baseball.

Ryan Klesko ponders the Braves' fate.
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They prove it each season, from April to September, routinely overwhelming their opposition, maintaining a level of baseball excellenceunmatched in the free agent era.

The Braves win more than anyone else. Their problem is that they don't win the World Series as often as they're supposed to. They are too good for their own good.

"This is the sixth straight year of doing this," John Smoltz said Tuesday afternoon. "Unfortunately, it seems like we're always answering questions of why we're not the team of the '90s or why we haven't won more than one world championship . . .

"Certain things happen that don't allow us to win a championship, but it doesn't mean that this team doesn't have what it takes."

Smoltz was speaking before the Braves' 7-4 elimination loss to the Florida Marlins Tuesday night, but it sounded as if he were rehearsing a concession speech. He should know it by heart by now, for the Braves' results have not matched their reputation for most of this decade.

Great? Or underachieving?

They have won six division titles in succession, but only one World Series. At this, their postseason record exceeds that of the Buffalo Bills. Still, unflattering comparisons continue.

"You can't put us in the same class (with the Bills) because we've won one," said third baseman Chipper Jones. "The people that say that don't know what they're talking about. The Buffalo Bills, they get up to play once a week. We get up to play every night and win 60-70 percent of our games.

It might be argued that preserving a dynasty is more difficult in pro football than baseball, given the comparative constraints on spending and free agency. Yet neither achievement is easily diminished. It takes a mighty good team to come so close so often.

"When we get to this level, there's always complaints of what we don't have to make it, or why we haven't won more world championships," Smoltz said.

"What I've said is we keep getting back to this point. We keep proving the resiliency this organization has to not die and fold like other organizations have.

"There's a certain level of expectations that are high. We expect to meet them. If we don't win . . . we're not going to quit. I'm not going to retire. The pitching staff's not going to retire. We're going to put on our uniforms next year and try to get back to this point."

So long as the Braves' pitching rotation runs as deep as Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Denny Neagle, they can be counted on to contend almost annually.

Pitching edge countered

But the advantage four top-shelf starters provides during the regular season is not nearly as great during the playoffs. The frequency of off days nearly eliminates the need for a fourth starter, and enables pitching-poor teams to get more mileage out of fewer aces. Neagle went 20-5 for the Braves during the regular season - usually matched against some other team's fourth starter - but he made only one of the Braves' nine post-season starts.

Over 162 games, the Braves are nearly unbeatable. In a best-of-seven, though, their pitching only goes so far. The Yankees exposed the shortcomings of Atlanta's bench and its bullpen in last year's World Series. The Marlins have been able to exploit shaky defense and Eric Gregg's strike zone.

"We've learned in this series we just can't show up and expect to win," Chipper Jones said. "Plus, we've discovered that there are definitely things out of our control."

There's no shame in that. Trouble is, there's not much satisfaction in it, either. The burden the Braves must bear is believing they're the best and being unable to prove it.