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All Is Forgiven In Atlanta: The Redemption of the ’90s Braves

From 1969-1990, the Braves went through a dry spell aptly named “the rotten years.” The years were so rotten it became a badge of honor as a Braves fan, claiming that you suffered “through the rotten years,” so much so that it is a lyric in the song “My Kind of Girl” by Colin Raye. During these years, the team went 1502-1825, making the playoffs only once, in which they were quickly disposed of by a Cardinals team that was led by former NL MVP Keith Hernandez and future Brave, former NL Cy Young Bruce Sutter. But come 1991, the team was ready to turn the corner, with new skipper Bobby Cox having just resigned as GM after putting together his ideal club to become the first team to go from worst to first in the history of baseball.

The team was led by Ron Gant (32 HR) and the 1991 NL MVP Terry Pendleton (.319/.363/.517), but featured young slugger David Justice, who had just won the NL Rookie of the Year in 1990. In ’91, he was limited to only 109 games, yet still hit 21 HR, complimented by his 87 RBI (which is a stat we frown upon today, but heavy focus was on in Justice’s era) and an .880 OPS. He gave Atlanta 3.3 wins above replacement per Fangraphs measurements and had a 13.9% walk rate, although struggled just a bit with the strikeouts on a 17.3% K rate. 21-year-old top prospect Steve Avery had arrived, Pete Smith was expected (but ultimately did not) to turn the other corner, the Braves had signed Charlie Leibrandt, pitcher on the ’85 champion Kansas City Royals, to anchor the staff. For Atlanta, Pete Smith started 14 games on the season with a 5 ERA, Steve Avery gave us a solid 18-8 and a 3.38 ERA campaign while Leibrandt ate innings going 15-13. The two starters they expected the least from gave them the most. Tom Glavine, who didn’t have dominating stuff and was mediocre for Atlanta since 1987, put himself on a path unparalleled to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, and gave them a 2.55 ERA in 246.2 IP as a 20 game winner to win the NL Cy Young. John Smoltz, flamethrower acquired in a throwaway Doyle Alexander trade, pitched 230 innings. The team finished 94-68, after acquiring closer Alejandro Pena down the stretch from the Mets. Pena went perfect in save opportunities down the stretch with a 1.40 ERA. A young Mark Wohlers was in his rookie year.

Then they ran into the Minnesota Twins, a series that many thought they shouldn’t have lost. The series wasn’t without controversy, as many still believe Kent Hrbek cost the Braves the series when he arguably pulled Ron Gant off of the first base bag. The Braves lost the game by 1 run, and killed a late threat.

Another controversy was that of Cox’s management regarding the rotation. Charlie Leibrandt started Game 1 over Tom Glavine, the future Hall of Fame ace who was baseball’s best pitcher in 1991. This set Glavine up for Game 5, which the Braves scored 14 runs in, and left them with Leibrandt in the all-important Game 6. In Game 7, John Smoltz pitched the game of his life and shut the Twins out, but the Braves ran into fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Jack Morris, who pitched 10 masterful innings, and Alejandro Pena blew it in the 10th.

For David Justice, he played through a back injury after missing the NLDS. He played through the rest of the postseason at far less than 100%.

The next few years, the Braves promise was up in smoke. After a legendary Game 7 against Pittsburgh where Sid slid, following the Bonds flip off of Andy Van Slyke, they lost the 1992 World Series to the Blue Jays. In 1993, the Braves ran into a ‘roided up Lenny Dykstra. The tune had changed from “future champions” to “the team that can’t win the big one.” The Atlanta Braves were now…the Buffalo Bills.

The 1994 postseason did not happen because of the baseball strike. For the Braves, the team leader was the heart of the team, Tom Glavine, who fought the league. Atlanta, upset with the lack of baseball, pushed all of this on Glavine, who got booed for most of the 1995 season and in the postseason, just because he wanted the players to have better rights and unselfishly put himself in the unenviable position for his teammates and drew the ire of the Atlanta faithful.

After the 1991 season, Pena was broken. He had a 4.07 ERA for the Braves in 1992, a 5.02 ERA for the Pirates in 1994, and jumped around in 1995 when he had a 7.40 ERA for the Red Sox, 1.50 ERA for the Marlins and returned to the Braves to pitch to a 4.15 ERA down the stretch.

For the 1995 Braves, they had a lights out closer in Mark Wohlers, Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, and a young phenom in Chipper Jones, who had finished second in NL ROTY voting to the Dodgers’ Hideo Nomo. They dominated the Rockies and Reds in route to their third World Series berth of the decade.

In route to that berth was the great postseason by…Alejandro Pena?

In his final hurrah (1996 with the Marlins was his final season, and he only played in 4 games) he had an impressive and stunning postseason, getting 2 of the 3 wins late against Colorado and giving up just 1 earned run all postseason. The journeyman who blew it for Atlanta at his peak in 1991 helped take them all of the way in 1995 when nobody expected it.

For the Braves, though, getting to the World Series was one thing, but winning was a different ballgame. They went up against the best team in many eyes, as a team who couldn’t win, and balled out. They played the Cleveland Indians, a team that had won 100 games, despite the shortened season due to the strike. They had dismantled the Red Sox in the ALDS, and took care of a Mariners team in the ALCS that had a load of momentum following Edgar Martinez’s double against the Yankees. Their lineup consisted of legendary hitter Manny Ramirez, Carlos Baerga who had hit .314/.355/.452 in 1995 and Albert Belle who had an OPS over 1.000 (.750 is league average). Their lineup had 3 first ballot Hall of Famers in Jim Thome, Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield, while also featuring Omar Vizquel, who is on Cooperstown trajectory (over 50% in his first 3 ballots). The pitching staff was aced by “El Presidente” Dennis Martinez and the legendary Orel Hershiser. Closer Jose Mesa had a 1.13 ERA and 46 saves that season. Nobody expected Atlanta to stand a chance.

In Game 1, Greg Maddux and Orel Hershiser matched pitch for pitch as Atlanta won 3-2. All eyes were on Tom Glavine for game 2, with the Braves winning 4-3 after Atlanta took the lead in the 6th off of a Javy Lopez homerun. Lopez’s pick of Manny Ramirez in the 8th was also key. Glavine didn’t have his best stuff, but being regarding as the smartest pitcher of his generation, didn’t need it. Greg Maddux has been quoted saying “he had beaten the Indians in Game 2 without his best stuff. I’ve seen him throw 50 or 60 games better than that one, but he stilled pulled it out, which is the sign of a great pitcher. It also led me to believe that if he was just a little bit sharper the next time he pitched, he would have fewer problems and win the game.”

In Game 3, The Indians won late, 7-6. It was a 5-2 Atlanta victory in Steve Avery’s Game 4 start, which put Atlanta one win out from the chip, with who many think was their best pitcher, Greg Maddux, on the bump for Game 5. It was a surefire clinch, until Cleveland scored 2 in the first, 2 in the 6th and again in the 8th to win 5-4 behind Hershiser. The Atlanta fanbase grew weary, having seen the story time and time again on a long, arduous road to their first championship since 1957 for the franchise, while they still located in Milwaukee.

But never fear, it was the always reliable, steady hand Tom Glavine airing it out in the crucial Game 6. Greg Maddux quote from earlier, the foreword of Glavine’s “Inside Pitch”, was “sure enough, he was razor sharp. His pitches were so well crafted that the Cleveland Indians, with one of the best lineups I’ve ever seen, couldn’t touch him.”

Game 6 was the dream of every Atlanta fan after years of frustration, and it came from the hands they wanted to stay mad at and couldn’t. David Justice sparked anger amidst the fanbase on October 28th, 1995. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution headlined “Justice takes a rip at Braves fans.” Dave Justice ripped into the fanbase for what World Series? 1991. Justice went to the media and said the team didn’t support them nearly as much as they did in 1991 when Atlanta failed.

“What happens if we don’t win? When’s the parade then? They’ll run us out of Atlanta. If we don’t win, they’ll probably burn our houses down. It’s us against the world. I’m the only guy who will sit here and say it, but there are a lot of people that feel this way.”

More of the comments from Justice.

It was Game 6, the starter was Tom Glavine, a man who had given Atlanta the best pitching they had seen since Phil Neikro the last 5 seasons, and he was booed because the fanbase was unforgiving that he stood up for every one of his teammates. They booed David Justice his first few at bats, because he was absolutely right. But, that’s irrelevant. Because Tom Glavine pitched 8 innings of 1-hit ball, a game only suitable for a true Hall of Fame ace.

The Braves scored 1 run, and it was all they needed. That run? A homerun from a previously struggling Dave Justice in the 6th inning off of Indians’ Jim Poole.

It was that moment that Bob Costas had one of my favorite calls in sports history. “A long drive to right, Ramirez turns, to the track, she’s gone…Dave Justice…all is forgiven…in Atlanta.” Then he pauses to let the crowd tell the stories. The villains that shouldn’t have been vilified in Glavine and Justice had redeemed themselves as the heroes they truly were for the Atlanta Braves.

With 2 out in the ninth, Mark Wohlers got Baerga to fly out to centerfielder Marquis Grissom to send Atlanta-Fulton County stadium into a frenzy. In his book, Glavine wrote “in the pile of bodies were Mark Lemke, Jeff Blauser, Johnny Smoltz, Mark Wohlers, David Justice, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker. They more than any of the others understood how incredible this moment was. I was feeling a range of emotions: excitement, happiness, accomplishment and most especially, vindication and validation. No longer would we have to hear about how we were the unfortunate bridesmaids, or the Buffalo Bills of baseball. We were now, without question, the best….in 1991 we watched the Minnesota Twins celebrate. In 1992 we watched the Toronto Blue Jays celebrate. This was our turn.”

Despite not being as beloved as say, Chipper Jones or Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine was undoubtedly the heart and leader of the ’90s Braves, and led the turn around in 1991, before leading the championship in 1995 as the 1995 World Series Most Valuable Player. It was full circle for Alejandro Pena, who redeemed himself that postseason, and despite not bringing the chip that was expected 4 years earlier, he had finally won his ring. For Dave Justice, the postseason woes and the media headlines didn’t matter, he will forever be the hitter who won them the World Series in a game where nobody else in the Atlanta lineup—not McGriff, not C. Jones, not Lopez—but Justice who had been with the big league club since late ’89 and had become the face of the franchise during the years that they were so close. The 1995 Braves redeemed years’ past, and as Costas aptly put, “the team of ’90s have their championship.”

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Jameus Mooney