Braves to celebrate ‘91, season that redefined franchise

Nineteen-ninety-one was the baseball season that changed everything in Atlanta.

Entering it, the Braves had finished in last place and drawn fewer than 1 million fans for three consecutive years, and posted winning records in only seven of their 25 seasons in Atlanta. They went from worst to first and drew 2.14 million tomahawk-waving fans and launched an unprecedented stretch of 14 consecutive division titles.

This weekend, amid another pennant race, the Braves will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the season that aroused a city and redefined a franchise.

The ‘91 team will be honored at Turner Field before Saturday night's game against the Cubs, rekindling memories of that surreal, significant season.

"It was so much fun to come to the ballpark," said Ron Gant, an outfielder who hit 32 home runs and drove in 105 runs for the worst-to-first Braves.  "We were used to having 10,000 or 15,000 fans there at most, and, all of sudden, there were 30,000 or 40,000 fans there. Every day, I would get to the ballpark earlier. It got to the point I almost slept there a couple of times."

Said Mark Lemke, a second baseman on the ‘91 team: "We knew we were going to be better that year, but how much better, I don't think anyone knew."

There was no more clarity when the Braves, briefly in first place in the season's second month, arrived at the All-Star break with a 39-40 record and were 91/2 games behind the first-place Dodgers in the NL West, Atlanta's division in 1969-93.

"We went into that slide before the All-Star break, and I remember one day sitting on the end of the bench, not knowing what to do, thinking, ‘Will we ever be able to compete?'" Lemke said. "Terry Pendleton was walking up and down the dugout, telling everybody, ‘This isn't over. This isn't over.'"

The Braves won nine of their first 11 games, quickly slicing the Dodgers' lead to 2 1/2 games.

"I don't think we sold any fans," Lemke said. "They still were probably [thinking], ‘Oh, well, it's a good run coming out of the break, but they'll fold.' We just kept playing good. [We] went into August, and it started to liven up."

From Aug. 10 to the end of the season, the Braves and Dodgers were always within 2 1/2 games or less. On Aug. 27, the Braves moved into a first-place tie.

Through September, the bicoastal pennant race had Braves fans chanting and chopping and believing.

"The city caught on fire as far as Braves baseball was concerned," Gant said.

On Oct. 5, the next-to-last day of the regular season, the Braves beat the Astros before 45,000 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and the Dodgers lost to the Giants in San Francisco, and the Braves clinched the NL West.

The Braves went on to beat the Pirates in the NLCS and moved into the seventh game of the World Series -- Atlanta's first -- before losing to the Twins 1-0 in 10 innings.

The Braves next won division championships in every completed season through 2005, and a World Series in 1995.

"If ‘91 had come and gone and nothing else good had followed, it would have been one thing," said Stan Kasten, the Braves' president in 1986-2003. "But it has become much more significant and much more meaningful in light of what it foretold."

Said Gant: "I feel really proud to be one of the guys that started that run, and the other thing I'm really proud about is the way the city changed as far as baseball in general. ... I am proud of how we transformed baseball in the city. ... For me, seeing the transformation was the most exciting thing.""

Gant wonders if Atlanta-produced players -- Brian McCann,  Jeff Francoeur and Jason Heyward among them -- would have become major-leaguers if not for the Braves-fueled boost in baseball popularity here.

The foundation for the ‘91 season and ensuing success was laid in the late 1980s. Braves owner Ted Turner retreated from hands-on involvement with the team after the ‘86 season and turned the operation over to Kasten, the general manager of the Hawks, also owned by Turner at the time.

"By the time I got there, [the Braves] were a last-place team with the highest payroll in baseball," Kasten said.

Bobby Cox, who became the Braves' general manager after the 1985 season, and Kasten shared a vision of building a pitching-centric team through the farm system. Kasten braced Turner for several seasons of growing pains.

"I told him that on the radio talk shows, which weren't nearly as wild then as they are today, you're going to have to be the village idiot for a couple of years as we're coming in last and building our farm system," Kasten said. "Ted, to his eternal credit, said, ‘Stan, I don't need any speeches. Just do what it takes.'"

While cultivating their young pitchers, the Braves lost 92 games in 1987, 106 in 1988 and 97 in both 1989 and 1990. In June 1990, Kasten moved Cox from the front office to the dugout; in October 1990, Kasten hired John Schuerholz away from Kansas City as general manager.

Great fun was coming.

Twenty years after going worst to first, many of the ‘91 Braves will reconvene at the ballpark for a nostalgic weekend that will include Friday night's retirement of Cox's No. 6.

Lemke has a hard time saying which season was more special, ‘91 or ‘95.  "[But] I don't think, in the energy and fanfare and excitement of a city, you'll ever be able to duplicate ‘91," he said. "Winning a World Series [in '95] was kind of the icing on the cake, I think, to the ‘91 season."