The Braves dynasty Schuerholz and Cox built: Part 1 – The beginning 

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At the time of this writing — Friday afternoon — in a COVID-19-less world the Braves would be gearing up for its 7:20 p.m. (EST) first pitch against the Marlins in Atlanta, and in just a couple of hours Braves Live would air on FOX SportsSouth, just like it has for so many seasons now. But unfortunately, the current circumstances we face today have given us a very different Friday night schedule. Instead, we sit at home, given the majority of the U.S. has been issued some form of a shelter-in-place.

But with no Braves games being played right now, or any time soon, now’s the perfect time to look back at a period in the franchise’s history that permanently put the Braves on the map as a banner organization and established its place in the majors as one of the more prestigious teams. 

Today we begin a multiple-part series detailing the dynasty in Atlanta from 1991-2005, that featured an unmatched stretch of winning, thanks to a Braves’ brass led by GM John Schuerholz in the front office, and skipper Bobby Cox out on the field. The work those two men did while key decision-makers for the Braves as we know resulted in 14 consecutive division titles and an infinite list of memories. 

I want to relive those incredible seasons as detailed as possible, though there are portions of the Braves’ dynasty that were simply before my time. Also, to help make this series as readable as possible in terms of length, each column will incorporate multiple seasons, and as best as I can I have attempted to group each combination of seasons in its most relatable form. Fortunately for the Braves, the run was long, but for a writer wanting to recapture it… it makes for a rather bloated word count. 

 

A quick prelude

For those that forgot or weren’t alive yet (like myself), those Braves teams of the late-1980s were some of the worst years in franchise history, which makes what they did during the 90s and early 2000s even more impressive. 

After a three-year stretch of semi-contention from 1982-84, featuring win totals of 89, 88 and 80, respectively (including a trip to the NLCS in ’82), the Braves quickly took a dreadful dive into a gruesome six-year funk and never surpassed 72 wins from 1985 to 1990. As the cellar dwellers of the NL West, the team lost what fanfare it gained in the seasons prior, as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium went from annual totals of almost 1.5 million fans to less than 850,000 in 1988.

But roughly midway through the 1990 campaign, two determined men took hold of the reigns and almost overnight revolutionized a pitiful organization, and turned it into a self-sufficient dynasty for 15 consecutive seasons. 

From 1991-2005, the only thing John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox couldn’t quite master was the art of pushing a regular-season juggernaut into a dominating force in the postseason, as that extraordinary run of excellence only featured one World Series (1995) and five National League pennants — a hard pill to swallow for a team that rostered so many Hall of Famers during those years. 

Considering a stint of consistent winning like that may only come once in a franchise’s history, you won’t hear an argument from me that the team perhaps missed too many opportunities. Hell, some folks claim that the Braves’ inability to win multiple world championships during that 15-year run was more significant than the dynasty itself. But I disagree with the latter. Those Schuerholz and Cox led teams achieved something greater than a few more WS flags in the stadium. Those two legends — and the many key Braves’ players of that era — constructed an everlasting brand that to this day still exists in Atlanta.

From the farm system and the scouting, to even the organization’s player development — that regime of the 90s and 2000s built the unbreakable foundation that has and will set the tone for decades. Here’s how it all began and ended…

 

The beginning (1991-93)

  • 1991: 94-68 record / Lost WS vs. Twins
  • 1992: 98-64 record / Lost WS vs. Blue Jays 
  • 1993: 104-58 record / Lost NLCS vs. Phillies

A poor start to the 1990 season forced Cox to leave his post as Braves’ GM and take over for  Russ Nixon as skipper. The open GM spot resulted in the hiring of Schuerholz, and the combination of the two activated what would become a fruitful dynasty for the Braves. 

The signing of third baseman Terry Pendleton in December of 1990 turned out to be the Schuerholz/Cox duo’s first genius move, as Pendleton went on to win the NL MVP award in 1991, leading the league in hits (187), AVG (.319) and total bases (303) to post a solid 6.3-WAR season. Also, veteran righty Charlie Leibrandt found his once-dependable durability and gave the Braves’ nearly 230 innings in the starting rotation as the team’s no. 2 arm sandwiched in between Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. In fact, the entire starting staff provided 200+ innings, and with what was still a rather lacking lineup (but dominant bullpen), the Braves won eight of its last nine games to end the season and overtake the Dodgers in the NL West (after being down 2 games on September 27). 

Unfortunately, after defeating Barry Bonds and the Pirates in 7 games to win the pennant, the Braves ran into a scorching hot Jack Morris (who finished 4th in the AL Cy Young vote that year) and the Twins in the ’91 World Series, eventually losing an all-time great series in back-to-back extra-inning losses in Games 6 and 7.

It was a heartbreaking way to end such a magical season, but as we now know… the Braves were just getting started.

After the Braves’ first taste of success in ’91 — winning the most games since 1957 — the team shot even higher in 1992. The lineup received contributions from a few players coming into their own, featuring a 5.1-WAR season from 26-year-old right fielder David Justice and another 5+ WAR year out of Pendleton. Also, Otis Nixon (signed that previous winter) gave the team an actual running-game at the bottom of the lineup and paired well with Ron Gant as the two combined for 73 stolen bases. And out of nowhere, Deion Sanders hit .304 with an MLB-leading 14 triples as the Braves’ go-to fourth outfielder. 

Again, the starting pitching was incredible, even though the bullpen took a massive step back, and the Braves ripped off 98 wins to take the division with room to spare. Again, though, the postseason featured an NLCS victory over Pittsburgh and then a loss in the World Series to… this time Jack Morris and the Blue Jays (though, the Braves beat Morris in Games 1 and 5, scoring 10 runs combined in his 2 starts).

Smoltz never lost a postseason start that year (3-0) for the Braves, and at 25-years-old he put together the best regular season of his career at the time with 5 WAR and an NL-high 215 strikeouts.

Two-straight shots at a World Series title, but unfortunately the Braves couldn’t finish. Perhaps it was time to start making some moves?

December of 1992 was quite a month for the Braves. First, Schuerholz traded Leibrandt and Pat Gomez to the Rangers for basically nothing, receiving an unproven 21-year-old third baseman, Jose Oliva, in exchange. As questionable as the trade was at the time, Oliva didn’t do the Braves’ GM any favors when he went on to total -0.8 WAR in what was a forgetful 2-year MLB career.

A determined Schuerholz was desperate to add talent during the offseason before the 1993 season, and he had his sights on a former opponent from the last 2 postseasons — outfielder Barry Bonds (the reigning NL MVP winner). However, Pirates’ manager Jim Leyland talked the Pittsburgh brass out of a deal, so Schuerholz was forced to go a different route, which wound up perhaps being the best thing that could’ve ever happened.

On December 9, 1992, the Braves signed the reigning NL Cy Young winner, 26-year-old Greg Maddux, to a 5-year, $28 million contract, which would go down as the franchise’s most successful free-agent signing of all-time. “We worked hard to get the best hitter in the game, and ended up with the best pitcher in the game,” Schuerholz said after completing Maddux’s deal. 

Just think… it was supposed to be the Yankees that signed Maddux.

With a ridiculous three-headed monster at the top of the starting rotation — Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine (who combined for 57 wins and a 3.06 ERA in ’93 — good for 14.7 WAR collectively) — the Braves did the unthinkable given the team’s performance just a few seasons ago — they surpassed 100 wins. 

The no. 1 rotation in the majors (perhaps ever) carried the team to a 104-58 record, and with Ron Gant’s career-year (36 HR / 5.7 WAR) at the plate, the Braves scored the most runs as a team since 1973. Although, the postseason woes continued as Curt Schilling and the Phillies somehow stole a 2-1 series lead and won the NLCS in 6 games. 

Of course, there was a silver lining. Schuerholz and the Braves finally had an impressive Draft that June, selecting righty Kevin Millwood (11th round), outfielder Jermaine Dye (17th round) and lefty John Rocker (18th round). Also, the Braves’ GM followed up that haul by signing a 16-year-old kid from Curacao in the July international signing period, outfielder Andruw Jones. 

This was no longer about winning the division. No, the regime in Atlanta had their sights on a ring, and Schuerholz was willing to do whatever it took to get the Braves one. From one of the worst teams in the league to one of the best, the Braves organization had raised its standards, and very soon the work of its two leaders would pay off. 

Next: Part 2 — “Crime Dog” and The Strike

 

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