Streak ends, but not memories

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 14, 2006

The King is dead.

On Tuesday night in steamy Miami, Cliff Floyd doubled in the winning run in the eighth inning as the New York Mets came from behind to beat the Florida Marlins, 6-4.

So what….it was just another in a long season of Major League Baseball games. However, this one game, highlighted by one key hit in the top of the 8th inning, proved to officially kill the King.

With Tuesday’s win, the Mets, who sit atop the National League’s East Division, mathematically eliminated the Atlanta Braves from winning their 15th consecutive divisional title. It only took the Mets 15 years, and perhaps a billion-or-so dollars spent on high-profile talent, to accomplish a task no one else seemingly could.

The Braves (who, as of Wednesday, have a 69-74 record and trail the Mets, Phillies and Marlins in the division standings) have struggled all season to maintain any type of consistency. Their starting rotation was hit hard by the injury bug and their bullpen was suspect. That, plus the fact that the Mets and the Phillies had opened their wallets to attract key players, spelled doom for Atlanta.

Current Atlanta centerfielder Andruw Jones was 13 years old the last time the Braves didn’t win a division title (that was in September of 1990). Since that time, baseball fans have come to expect Bobby Cox and his Braves advancing to the post season.

Personally, I became an Atlanta Braves fan in 1979, the year I was married. Deborah and I moved to Tarboro where we both worked at The Daily Southerner.

Cable TV was making a huge splash at that time and one of the biggest players in that business was Ted Turner, who owned both the Braves and WTBS, one of the big cable super stations of that era. In other words, the Braves were on the tube every night.

Names such as Bob Horner (3rd base), Dale Murphy (1st base), second baseman Glenn Hubbard, catcher Bruce Benedict, the “ironman” Gary Matthews in rightfield and the old knuckle-baller Phil Niekro on the mound still remain fresh in my mind from 1979.

The Braves finished 66-94 (6th place in the division) that year.

Slowly and surely, the Braves began to improve, eventually becoming one of Major League Baseball’s best organizations. They were able to climb from the outhouse to the penthouse thanks to perhaps the best two hires ever n Bobby Cox, who came aboard in 1986 as general manger, and John Schuerholz, hired as general manager just prior to the start of the 1991 season with Cox moving to the dugout as manager.

Those hires were a match made in heaven with Schuerholz’s knack for finding and developing championship-caliber talent and Cox pushing all the right buttons on the field.

Aiding in Atlanta’s run to the history books was a great minor league system, overhauled by Cox in 1986. It remains today as one of the best in professional baseball.

To put the Braves 14 years of dominance into prospective, no, I repeat, no professional sports organization has ever won 10 consecutive divisional titles. Not the mighty Los Angeles Lakers (9 straight at one point) or NHL powerhouse Colorado (9) has ever reached that level of success.

Even the storied New York Yankees with bucket loads of cash to spend and every conceivable superstar on their star-studded rosters year after year, have ever won more than eight straight division crowns.

And the Braves accomplished this feat with a variety of players. When the streak first began, it was pitching mainstays such as Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux who set the tone. Last year, Cox shuffled 18 rookies in and out of the line-up as Atlanta won again.

&uot;If there was a Pulitzer Prize given in baseball, the Atlanta Braves, Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz would be the winners by a landslide,&uot; Mets general manager Omar Minaya said.

The only downside to this success story is that the Braves, as good as they were over a 14-year period, only have one World Series championship (1995 over the Cleveland Indians) to show for all that great effort. But they did reach the pinnacle of their sport five times during that stretch, losing twice each to Toronto and the Yankees.

Despite that fact, the ride has been fantastic for this Braves fan. Who will ever forget the ’92 season where the Braves started out with only 20 wins in their first 47 games and then rallied to win the division. What about the ’93 campaign where Atlanta faced a 10-game deficit to the Giants on July 22 before edging San Francisco by one game to claim the division.

In 1998, the Braves set a franchise record with 106 wins en route to another divisional title. It wasn’t until the 2000 season that the Braves failed to advance to the National League Championship Series.

Now, with their fate sealed and their record run of divisional titles ended, how will the Braves respond in 2007? In my opinion, that’s a great year to start another streak.