The 1995 Braves: A subdued season, a giddy ending

Tom Glavine, the World Series' Most Valuable Player, waves to some of the estimated half-million fans, on the Braves’ victory parade on Monday, Oct. 30,1995.
Tom Glavine, the World Series' Most Valuable Player, waves to some of the estimated half-million fans, on the Braves’ victory parade on Monday, Oct. 30,1995.

Credit: Renee Hannans

Credit: Renee Hannans

Over time, the Braves’ 1995 season has become an Atlanta sports fan’s kneejerk rejoinder. No, our teams DON’T always choke! That one didn’t! Over time, 1995 has been etched in the civic archives as that one shining moment when everything went absolutely right, when one stout-hearted team embarked on a crusade that ended, miracle of miracles, in glory. That’s what winning it all can do: It can paint everything in the rosiest of hues

Those of us who tracked the ’95 Braves know better. The team was good, yes, but not as good as the 104-win Braves of 1993. As of June 14, they were third in the National League East, trailing Philadelphia and Montreal, the latter of which had spent the spring dumping players, not the least of whom was Marquis Grissom, who on Oct. 28 would glove the final out of the World Series.

The Braves didn’t take first place for keeps until the Fourth of July. They would win the East by 21 games. Nobody else in the division finished above .500. We’d grown accustomed to stirring pennant races on annual basis — the Braves trailed the Dodgers by 9-1/2 games in 1991, the Reds by six the next year and the Giants by 10 in ’93 — but there was no such drama in 1995. Maybe there couldn’t have been. By 1995, the wild card had arrived, obviating the need to finish first.

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Knowing what we know now makes a recheck of the 1995 stats doubly jarring. The Braves finished 23rd among 30 MLB teams in runs, 28th in batting average. (They hit .250; the average team in 1995 hit .267.) They won because their pitching, duh, was matchless. Only four teams had an ERA under 4.00; the Braves’ was 3.44. Greg Maddux, with an ERA of 1.63, was the unanimous winner of a fourth consecutive Cy Young.

If you ask for the most memorable moment of the 1995 regular season ... well, there wasn’t one. There was nothing like David Justice taking Rob Dibble deep in 1991, nothing like Otis Nixon climbing the wall against Pittsburgh to secure a 13th consecutive victory in 1992, nothing like the Braves sweeping the first-place Giants at Candlestick Park in 1993. Even if there had been, it wouldn’t have resonated. Apologies for burying the lede but, come 1995, an awful lot of Atlantans felt differently about the team they’d taken to their collective bosom.

The players’ strike hit on Aug. 12, 1994. The 1994 World Series was canceled. As of spring 1995, MLB was making noises about starting the season with replacement players, which the NFL had done to disastrous effect for three weeks in 1987. That didn’t happen. The strike ended on April 2, 1995. Players scrambled to a shortened spring training. The Braves’ opened at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on April 26. Attendance was 32,045. It marked the smallest home gathering since the final game of the 1992 regular season.

Yes, there have been years where you couldn’t give away Braves’ tickets. From the 1992 postseason — when the club could have sold 2 million tickets for eight potential NLCS/World Series games — through the strike, it got darn hard to buy them. The Braves’ average attendance was 47,960 in 1993 and 47,023 in the truncated 1994. As team president Stan Kasten said in October 1993: “From the start of June on, we couldn’t have sold another seat.”

The Braves’ second post-strike home game drew 26,120. They wouldn’t break 40,000 until June 3. By September, with school back in session, they were down to midweek crowds under 30,000. Average home attendance for 1995 was 35,581. That was the power of the strike on the Atlanta audience.

Georgia is essentially a right-to-work state. Unions hold no great power here. The thought of millionaire players holding out for more money — the players insisted, correctly, that their walkout involved more than that — didn’t sit well in a Southern city that had just fallen in love with a team that had arrived in 1966, and some of those disgruntled folks found a convenient outlet for their disgust.

Tom Glavine was the Braves’ player representative. He wasn’t the head of the players association, though sometimes it seemed that way. Through force of personality, he became the players’ most visible spokesman, putting himself front-and-center at the most fractious time in the sport’s history. He had guts. Even he, though, was surprised by the backlash.

When the Braves convened in West Palm Beach, Glavine said: “You get the feeling something has changed. It’s a different atmosphere … There’s been a lot of damage done. When you think there’d never been a World Series missed even during World Wars, that in itself does damage.”

Then: “People are tired of it, and I don’t blame them. I’m sick of it, too. It’s been a tedious, tiring, sickening process.”

Then, of the reaction in Atlanta: “As hostile and as negative as anywhere.”

Glavine started the season’s second game. “They were waiting for me down there,” he said of his warmup in the bullpen. He said he heard “anything from ‘I hope you get shelled’ to ‘I hope you get hit in the head.’ ”

This wasn’t a great Braves pitcher getting razzed in New York or Philly. This was a great Braves pitcher getting razzed in his home park, a great pitcher who’d symbolized the team’s rise from late-’80s oblivion. Atlanta fans rarely boo an Atlanta player, but here they were hooting at one of their best and brightest.

The hooting, it must be said, didn’t last. Glavine had one of his best seasons. (Did we mention he had guts?) Had he had a bad year, he allowed that September, “it would have been unbearable. And I know there are people who probably wish that had happened.” But it didn’t. He went 16-7 with a 3.08 ERA. He finished third in Cy Young voting.

By October, those who’d sworn off the Braves because of the strike had receded into the background. Playoff tickets were softer than in previous years — it was possible to buy World Series tickets at the box office after the playoffs began, something that would have been unthinkable from 1991 through 1993 — but the stands were full for the first two rounds, in which the Braves beat Colorado 3-1 and swept Cincinnati in four. After the latter series, John Smoltz said: “We need to win the World Series. There’s a feeling on everyone’s part that it’s time.”

It was. The Braves, who didn’t hit much during the season, didn’t hit much against Cleveland. Thing was, they allowed the brawny American Leaguers — the Cleveland of Belle and Manny and Thome and Lofton led the majors in homers, batting average and OPS – to hit but .197 in the Series. The ALers managed  five runs over the three games in Atlanta, two of which were won by … well, it had to be him, didn’t it?

A season that began with Tom Glavine getting jeered at home ended with him working eight one-hit innings in a Game 6 that saw his team win 1-0 and seize the championship that had slipped away in 1991, 1992 and 1993. Years later, Bobby Cox would say, “We played better in three of the World Series we lost than in the one we won,” but none of that mattered that October night. All that mattered was the outcome. Maybe that’s all that should matter today.

On the night an Atlanta team finally became a champion, general manager John Schuerholz grabbed Glavine’s shoulder and said, “I’ve never seen you better.” And Glavine said to a reporter, “Sorry, but I’ve got to get my trophy.” He meant the one for being World Series MVP. It hadn’t been the happiest or most memorable of seasons, but the ending was perfect.

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