Marcus Giles was almost lost. He was walking around, almost wondering if he should start packing up his things, or wondering if he should go out and look at the field in dismay. All he could say as the reporters approached him for reaction to another Braves postseason loss, well, let's just say it rhymes with "suck." He wasn't saying it at us. He was just saying it – out loud.
Giles was simply in pain. He could have said "damn" or the word that players say a lot that rhymes with "fit," but he chose a stronger word. The strength of it indicated the level of his pain. He just couldn't believe the Braves were out of it.
There was something magical about this team. They simply weren't supposed to be here. Most thought October 11th would find the Braves already on the 16th tee, already out on a lake fishing for bass, or already riding the carpool to school. But this was a special season. It is anytime a team overachieves as this one did. But it sure doesn't make the pain any different or less severe.
It's easy to say, "This team has won the World Series only once over the last fourteen years." Well, that's correct to a point. This team, the 25-men that comprised the 2004 Atlanta Braves, has only won a division crown. Yes, this organization has only won one World Series in its Atlanta history. But to say that this team has only won a World Series is simply incorrect.
John Smoltz and Chipper Jones did. They were apart of the 1995 Atlanta Braves that won it all. But other than that, and Bobby Cox and the remaining coaches, there is nothing that can relate this team or associate this team with the 1995 team that won it all. Adam LaRoche was a sophomore at Fort Scott High School in Kansas that year. J.D. Drew was at Florida State, and Andruw Jones was playing A ball in Macon, Georgia. This 2004 Braves team had little to do with the World Series winners nine years ago.
But that's not going to keep people from saying that the Braves continue to disappoint only because they've only won it all only once. It's going to happen. The players even know it. But after the pain of another postseason wears off, there should be tremendous pride for what this team was able to accomplish. Yes, it hurts like hell to lose, but you can't say this was not a great year.
There was never more uncertainty coming into a season than last winter. 115 home runs and 397 RBI had to be replaced from 2003. Gary Sheffield had fled to New York, Javy Lopez to Baltimore, Vinny Castilla back to Colorado, and Robert Fick to Tampa Bay. There was a lot of production that had to come from somewhere. Then you have to go out and replace the best pitcher of our generation in Greg Maddux.
We didn't know what we had with Adam LaRoche at first, Mark DeRosa at third, and Johnny Estrada behind the plate. We didn't know if J.D. Drew would stay healthy, or if John Thomson could realize his potential. We didn't know if a rotation without a Maddux or Tom Glavine for the first time in 17 years would be worth anything.
We just didn't know.
The first twelve weeks of the season made us all believe it was all over. The streak would end with a young team that would not embarrass itself, but was simply not going to do what all the other Braves teams of the John Schuerholz era had done. But that all changed on June 26th. That morning had rumors floating the Braves interested in dealing away Russ Ortiz and/or Andruw Jones to the Chicago White Sox. Some believed that maybe they just needed to look ahead to the future and plan for 2005.
But the players, the ones that mostly had nothing to do with the loss in 2003 to the Cubs or the 1995 World Series win, decided they were better than that. They won that day in Baltimore, and then had a great comeback the next day. They won 32 of their next 40 games after that Saturday in Baltimore, and would go on to win 70% of their games for the rest of the season. From a team desperate for an identity, 5.5 games back and 6 games under .500, to a team 30 games over .500 and ten games better than anyone else in their division.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
As John Smoltz put it Monday night, winning the division simply "let everybody else believe that we were the old Braves of the past." But they weren't. This was a different team with different players. Young players.
What can be said of the contributions of Nick Green and Charles Thomas? When Marcus Giles was injured in Milwaukee in mid-May, most believed that was it. There was no way the Braves could replace the hitter that had been the best since the start of the season. But Nick Green stepped in and saved us. He played great defense and held his own in the lineup. If there had been a drastic downgrade in the offensive performance from Giles' replacement, it could have killed the team.
And then Mr. Thomas arrived on the scene. Who? Who in the hell is Charles Thomas? Well even Bobby Cox wasn't so sure when Thomas strolled through the dugout on June 23rd in Miami. Thomas spent the second half of that game introducing himself to all his new teammates. But it didn't take long for Thomas to make a difference. When he got his first start, ironically on that same Saturday in Baltimore on June 26th, he got two doubles. He also backed up third base on a throw from right field. Then Bobby Cox decided to give the kid a chance. Chipper Jones was back at third base, doing well offensively and defensively. So someone had to take over in left field. Thomas did it. He went .342 in the month of July, and that was all she wrote. The Braves had themselves a new leftfielder, even if many of his teammates really didn't know who he was.
And don't forget about the situation at first base. Adam LaRoche was tremendous in the second half of the season, after he returned from a separated shoulder. He hit .301 with 11 homers, 33 RBI, and 15 doubles (in 196 at bats). His on base percentage also increased 100 points from before his injury (.371 from the .271 OBP pre-injury). LaRoche cemented his future in the minds of Braves fans with his three-run home run on Sunday against the Astros.
And then there's Julio Franco. Simply giving all 40-year olds hope for their future, Mr. Franco continued to defy odds with a terrific season. You think he'll be back next year? Probably so.
The script at the end could have been written a little better. The number one starter, Jaret Wright, would get hit on the right foot in his last game of the regular season. It would affect him in the playoffs. Mike Hampton, arguably the number two starter, would tear his meniscus in his knee on September 11th. While he pitched great with the injury when he came back, the injury was not something you wanted your starter to have in the postseason. And then John Thomson, probably the best pitcher in the second half on the staff, would leave his last start of the season with a pulled muscle in his left side and not make it through the first two batters of his first postseason start.
If the Braves had beaten the Astros, the pitching staff would have been shakier than Ralph Nader's presidential campaign. But it was just too tough a task. The Astros were simply a better team. The magic ended with a blowout in Game Five.
It hurts. For those of us who have watched this team from 1991 through today, and even further back from that, it is painful. We get excited, anxious to watch the team that gives us so many thrills, and then the disappointment outweighs the enjoyment. It just plain hurts – even physically – when we lose.
But again, after the pain subsides, we must all appreciate what has been accomplished, not only for the streak, but also for the 2004 season. This group of guys gave us tremendous baseball. It was fun. It is why we love baseball, and it is why we love the Braves.
The future is tremendous and the lineup is young. Not counting J.D. Drew, who is eligible for free agency, the returning seven members of the main starters (of course not counting Julio Franco – who shoots the average age to hell when he's in there) will average 27.6 years old next season. Most of us all know about Andy Marte and Jeff Francoeur, two great young players who are on the horizon and could be around for the next decade. And the pitching, well, we are the Braves and the pitching will be good.
That's not to say tough decisions must be made. Will J.D. Drew re-sign? Is Charles Thomas good enough to play everyday? What about the three free agent starters? Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright, and Paul Byrd may all leave. They've got to decide whether Chipper Jones is back at third base for good, or if Andy Marte's presence could force Jones back to the outfield. What about Juan Cruz? Is he a starter or a reliever? Which young pitchers will battle for spots in the rotation next season? Jose Capellan, Dan Meyer, and Kyle Davies are three of the best pitching prospects we've had in many years. Can they contribute in 2005 at the major league level? What about Horacio Ramirez? Can he return after missing most of the season with tendonitis?
2004 was supposed to be a transition year, but instead the Braves won the division and again made the playoffs. The pieces are in place to have 2005 be just as exciting, but hopefully, the ending will be a bit different.
But it doesn't mean it doesn't hurt like hell to lose in the playoffs once again. It does. But judge the 2004 Braves on what they did, and not the past failures of other Braves teams. They deserve that respect, especially since many of these players will be around for many years to come and provide many more games like this past Sunday. That is the hope that keeps all Braves fans going through the offseason.
Bill Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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