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The importance of the one

It's been 25 years since the Atlanta Braves brought home the first -- and the only -- major sports professional title to the city. It was a dynasty that spanned two decades, but was punctuated by one ring.

Photo courtesy of Braves Archives

As Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium rocked around him, the roar of 51,875 fans mushrooming up, out, and over a success-starved city, a breath after Atlanta-born Marquis Grissom ran down Carlos Baerga’s drive in the gap, Bob Costas delivered his line.

“The team of the nineties has its world championship!”

Everyone who heard his words the night of October 28, 1995 understood. They remembered the gut-wrenching Game 7 loss to the Twins that ended 1991’s magical run, and falling to Pat Borders and the Blue Jays in ‘92, and seeing the 104-win ‘93 season go for naught with an NLCS loss to the Phillies. 

Disappointments all, even within the context of a team and a city that had accomplished little of note in the decades leading up to its first major professional sports championship. 

But now? A spellbinding performance from Tom Glavine, a solo home run from David Justice, and it was done. It was theirs.  

“It was a breath of fresh air. It was exultation,” said Wayne Coleman, who watched the celebration unfold from the same seat in the front row behind the third-base dugout he had held since 1982. “It was just delirium. It was joy.” 

Said Bill Hartman, an Atlanta television sports anchor since 1974: “It blew away the terrible reputation of never being able to win anything, and by God yes we did and guess what? The Olympics are coming next year! 

“It was just a great time to be in Atlanta and be a sports fan, let alone be a sports reporter. It was confirming that Atlanta was a great sports city all of a sudden. You had to win a World Series to do that, and they did that.”

The only comparable moment in the city’s sporting history had come six years before, on the day in September 1990 when International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch uttered two words in announcing the 1996 Summer Games had been awarded to Georgia’s capital city. 

“When he goes ‘It’s Atlanta’ — you go back and look at the film and people were just losing their freaking minds,” said Terence Moore, a sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1985 to 2009. “It was like, ‘Ahhh! We won something!’ 

“So there was that, but the Braves’ moment even topped that, because it was a team thing, it was definitely a city thing. It was bigger than that.”

Photo courtesy of Marc Lancaster

In the days to come, championship memorabilia would fly off the shelves and the victors would parade down Peachtree. Human nature being what it is, though, a question already hung in the air. 

“After we had won it, it had been such a long battle — years! — and us finally winning it,” said Braves reliever Greg McMichael. “And I remember people asking me, ‘Are you going to do it again?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Are you crazy? Give us a break, we just won the first one!’”

It’s the question every champion is obligated to field, and with these Braves it was hardly inappropriate. Though the core of the 1995 team had largely been together since the worst-to-first run four years earlier, they remained a relatively youthful bunch. 

Of the Braves’ regular position players, starting rotation and key relievers that fall, only a handful had even reached their 30th birthday: Mark Lemke hit the milestone in August, Fred McGriff would turn 32 just after the World Series, and late-season bullpen rental Alejandro Pena was 36. 

“We were young veterans,” said McMichael. 

And they were not built to be one-and-done. 

For a franchise that made two postseason appearances in its first 25 years in Atlanta — and won exactly zero of those playoff games — this group was unlike any they had seen before. 

From 1988 to 1990, the Braves went 182-300. 

Wayne Coleman served as president of the team’s official fan club — now called the Atlanta 400 Baseball Fan Club — the latter two of those seasons. The situation was bleak. 

Photo of Bob Horner and Wayne Coleman courtesy of Wayne Coleman

“You accepted the fact that the chances of winning were less than 50-50,” said Coleman. “Three hundred losses in three years is a lot.”

Terence Moore remembered shaking his head at Chuck Tanner, the team’s manager from 1986 through the first two months of the 1988 season, for dreaming out loud about the franchise enjoying a parade down Peachtree Street one day. 

“I was like, ‘Yeah, right,’” said Moore. “I used to call it ‘Mr. Tanner’s Neighborhood.’ He wasn’t very pleased with that, but that’s what it was — lollipops and ice cream sundaes when they were losing 100 games every year.”

Upstairs, though, general manager Bobby Cox was slowly assembling a group that would make Tanner’s fanciful visions a reality. From the time he rejoined the franchise in 1986 after four seasons as Toronto’s manager until he gave up the GM reins following the 1990 season to return to the dugout full-time, Cox laid the groundwork for a dynasty. 

He drafted Kent Mercker, Mike Stanton, Steve Avery, Mark Wohlers, Ryan Klesko and Chipper Jones, signed Javy Lopez out of Puerto Rico, and acquired John Smoltz from Detroit for Doyle Alexander. Glavine, Justice and Ron Gant already were in the system, and Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard and Charlie Liebrandt signed on as free agents in December 1990 shortly after John Schuerholz took over the baseball operations department from Cox. 

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Suddenly, everything changed. The 1991 Braves reached first place briefly in mid-May before faltering a bit, but even an early summer swoon that had them below .500 and 9½ games out at the All-Star break didn’t see them revert to perennially low expectations. Atlanta won seven of eight coming out of the break, the Dodgers started losing, and from August 22 through the end of the season the margin between those two teams would never be greater than two games. 

You know the rest: Atlanta won the division, then a playoff game and a playoff series for the first time, and was a game away from winning the whole damn thing. But Kirby Puckett got them in Game 6 and Jack Morris in Game 7 and that was it. But things just felt different heading into ‘92, and they were. 

“That was the transition,” said Coleman, “because after ’91 we expected to win.”

Aside from brief downturns late in the Cox and Fredi Gonzalez eras, that hasn’t really stopped. A franchise that for decades was an afterthought at best, a laughingstock at worst, has now finished lower than third in its division only three times in the last 30 seasons while making the postseason 20 times in that span. 

And yet …

The team of the nineties has its world championship.

Just the one. 

Of course that wasn’t how it was supposed to go. They were right back in the World Series in ‘96, winning the first two games at Yankee Stadium and primed to take a 3-1 lead in the series before, well, Jim Leyritz. 

Then the upstart Florida Marlins in the ‘97 NLCS and another perennial-loser-turned-contender, the Padres, in ‘98. Then the Yankees again in ‘99 and suddenly the decade was gone and it was Joe Torre’s men who turned out to be the real dynasty, the following season giving them four titles in five years. 

“After that,” said Moore, “that’s when the chokes began, when they started losing in the first round at home, except for 2001. It just became psychological after that, and it all went back to ’96 — ’96 killed them forever. They were done.”

Photo courtesy of Marc Lancaster

As Greg McMichael put it in referring to that opportunity that slipped away, “we dominated and then, just, something happened.” 

So began one of the most curious fades in sports history. For years to come, you knew there would be postseason baseball at Turner Field. The tomahawks would be out and the chop would be going and, well, it all got to be routine. The sustained success across the 162-game grind and the hasty exit thereafter. October baseball with good seats still available. 

This carried on across a decade, through 2005, when the Braves won the last of their 14 consecutive division titles. 

Looking back on that era now, this is what Braves fans tend to point to, and understandably so. Certainly everyone expected more than one title, but few teams in sports history have been able to match the Braves’ consistency across that span. 

So you’re sayin’ there’s a chance? For this team, yes. 

“It was wonderful,” said Coleman. “… We finished first every year, and we expected to be in the postseason. And in the postseason, be it a three-game, five-game, or best-of-seven series, anything can happen. I look at it as, we had a shot every year.”

It can become a thought exercise in exceptionalism: If you’re not first, you’re last, right? Well, the Marlins finished second to the Braves in the NL East twice during that run and won the World Series both times. But those were the only two postseason appearances in franchise history until this year, and they’ve lost at least 90 games in a season nine times since their first championship in 1997. 

Which would you prefer? Boom and bust or consistent opportunity with minimal payoff? 

Bill Hartman felt fortunate to be chronicling the Braves’ path. 

“They only won once, that’s the number that’s out there and it’s on paper in black and white, but the thrill of those years of the ’90s was well worth two more World Series championships,” said Hartman. “The fact that they were so good through that period of time and then finally won it in ’95 — if you said could I have that, or could I have mediocre years over 14 years and maybe win two or three World Series, I’ll take 14 years of excellence. I prefer this way, I really do.”

Atlanta sports fans really haven’t had much choice. In the quarter century since that lone Braves title, they’ve witnessed plenty of October heartbreak at Turner Field and SunTrust Park, lost their NHL team for a second time, watched the Hawks get swept by the Cavaliers again and again, and, well, 28-3 Falcons. 

Sure, Atlanta United has been a welcome addition to the landscape, but the city has half a century invested in each of its other three major league teams, so their shortcomings invariably cut deeper. And even though they have been by far the most successful of the trio by any measure, the Braves will just have to wear their legacy as the franchise that probably should have accomplished just a little bit more — while at the same time remaining grateful for what they have. 

“Ask Tom Brady, I’m sure he would say six is not enough,” said McMichael, who is now the Braves’ director of alumni relations. “Jordan and LeBron — there’s never enough. People always want to complain and say, well, you only won one, and I’m like, hey, I know what it took to win one, and what it took to win 14 straight (division) championships, and even if we’d won two (World Series), two wouldn’t have been enough. It’d have to be three, then four. … 

“All of us would say, yeah, we know we should’ve had more, we know we wanted more, but you cherish those competitive moments because now, at age 54, you don’t have those competitive moments anymore. You don’t have the ability to take the mound. So win or lose, you look back and, yeah, it hurt, but man it was fun competing and you’re thankful that you’re able at least to have a World Series ring.” 

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Marc Lancaster is a writer/editor/photographer based in Charlotte. He was born in Michigan and has lived in seven states (plus D.C. for a bit), but has called the South home for most of the last 30 years. After covering just about everything in 25 years in sports media, the NCAA tennis championships in Athens, Georgia, remain his favorite event.