Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The times they are a changin'

There's a great clip from the great Vince Lombardi watching his team do something just god awful. The clip doesn't show the play, it shows Lombardi angry as heck screaming, "what the heck is going on out there?!"

Right now, I honestly think the Atlanta Braves fans (the ones that haven't jumped off the bandwagon) are thinking those exact words when watching their beloved baseball team.

If you haven't looked at the standings, the NL East looks reversed. The Braves are dead last in the division and have lost eight in a row and nine of 10. It may only be June to many of the faithful, but the fact remains that the team that has won 14 straight division titles is 14 1/2 games back of the New York Mets.

It's just not the same chemistry on this Braves team as in the past. It started when Leo Mazzone left. He's just a pitching coach. Then again, right now, looks like they could use him as much as they could use a bunch of guys out of the bullpen. But for years he would take chicken s*&t and make chicken salad. He is, was and always will be more than just a pitching coach.

The move that signified that the era was over to me was when Dayton Moore, John Schuerholz's right-hand man in the scouting department left to take over as the General Manager of the Kansas City Royals. No, I am not kidding, I typed it right the first time - Kansas City Royals. Been a while since they have been part of the living, breathing competition of the American League. They also are a small market ballclub that isn't going to spend nearly the coin that the Braves did.

Schuerholz and Bobby Cox have given the fans of Atlanta more than they deserve to be quite frank. This is a front-running sports town in every way other than in college athletics. The Braves were playing to a dinner-theatre type of crowd before 1991 (where were you when Sid slid in 1992? I was in the Lansing State Journal newsroom working on a headline for that game). The Atlanta Hawks play to less than dinner-theatre crowds unless Shaq, Kobe, LeBron or some other "one-namer" comes to town. The Falcons were playing to a lot of seats dressed-up as fans before the Michael Vick-Arthur Blank era. And now my beloved Atlanta Thrashers are the "hot ticket" for a lot of folks as they jump on the bandwagon before next year's playoff run towards Lord Stanley's Cup (ESPN's John Buccigross picked them to win in 2008!).

But before we put the Braves to bed - let's ponder what they have accomplished - 14 straight division titles. Now, I will always be the first one to say that it's all well and good, but they only won one World Series. Maybe that's a bit harsh, but look at it this way, the lovable loser Red Sox and White Sox have won that many titles in the same time period.

Compare it to what I call the greatest sports dynasty's of the Boston Celtics of the 50s and 60s. They won 11 NBA Championships in 13 years. Now mind you, it was a different league, not as many teams and no free agency. Still 11 titles in 13 years - WOW.

What about the NHL's Montreal Canadiens teams of the 50s through 70s? They won 16 Stanley Cups in 26 years. In 1976-77, arguably the greatest team ever in the NHL, went 60-8-12 during the regular season and then swept two of the three playoff series to win the Cup.

Both great accomplishments by two historic franchises, but because of free-agency and the crazy world of sports, the Braves are the "Last of the Mohicans."

What has always really bothered me about the 14 straight titles in my nine years here is that you could go to the first round of the playoffs and buy a face value ticket at the ticket window the day of the playoff game. Having spent time in New York, Chicago and Boston can you imagine that? It could never happen - EVER. Those are cities where you struggle to get regular season tickets, nevermind playoff seats no matter the record of the team.

I made a bet with a few friends down here for dinner at the Palm if the Braves finish below second place - so far, medium well looks good - maybe a little surf and turf. As much as I will enjoy dinner, it will be a sad day to see a streak this incredible come to an end. How often do we get to see history and know during that time we saw something special.

It is very rare and very special. Now pass the A-1.

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