But it didn’t. The Braves have since reached the World Series only twice — in 1996 and 1999. They last won a Series game on Oct. 21, 1996. They would go 19 years without advancing in the playoffs, 21 without reaching the NLCS. Even as we pay homage to the Braves who went the distance, we can’t help but recall the many others who tripped and fell.
Funny thing about the 1995 World Series champs. Going by winning percentage, they were fifth-best among those Braves who took 14 division titles over 14 completed seasons. They hit .250, ranking 26th among MLB’s 28 teams. (Cleveland, which the Braves would beat in six games in the World Series, hit .291.) They did lead the majors in ERA; with three Hall of Fame starters in their prime, how could you not?
The ’95 regular season, which started late because of the players' strike, was a subdued thing. The Braves were no longer selling out every game. They won the National League East without strain. They didn’t claim first place for keeps until the Fourth of July; they won the division by 21 games. None of the other NL Easterners finished above .500.
Say this for those Braves, though: They were different when October arrived. They’d had to stew over their galling loss to Philadelphia in the 1993 NL Championship Series for two years, there having been no 1994 postseason. They would go 11-3 in the ’95 playoffs, two losses coming in extra innings. They never trailed in a series. They went 6-1 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. This wasn’t the best Braves' team ever, but it was the most ruthless. The starting pitchers kept it in every game, and its hitters provided late-inning lightning. And the bullpen, for once, was stellar. (Braves relievers finished fourth in the majors in ERA.)
David Justice watches his sixth-inning home run go out of the park as Cleveland catcher Tony Pena watches.
Credit: DAVID TULIS
Credit: DAVID TULIS
For the one and only time in their Atlanta existence, the Braves of ’95 never gave you the feeling they were about to blow it. These guys were primed for October. Two of John Schuerholz’s late-seasons acquisitions rose to their moments. Luis Polonia hit .316 in postseason and drove in seven runs. Mike Devereaux was MVP of the NLCS sweep of Cincinnati. Everything clicked. Charlie O’Brien, Greg Maddux’s personal catcher, hit a tie-breaking three-run homer against the Reds. Lefty reliever Pedro Borbon Jr. closed the vital Game 4 in Cleveland. (He would retire with seven career saves.)
Twenty-five years on, we’re still unsure what to make of 1995. Yes, the Braves won the World Series, which places the year on its own high shelf. Much later, though, Bobby Cox would say: “We played better in three of the ones we lost than in the one we won.” And the subsequent failure to win it all again has attached an asterisk to the feat – “only,” as in, “That’s the only World Series the Atlanta Braves have won.”
The 1995 postseason was the first to include wild cards. By 1997, the Marlins were champions as wild cards. The addition of non-division-winners soon led to those playoffs being characterized as a crap shoot, which might have been some solace to the Braves, but the team they led 2-0 in the 1996 World Series served as stark counterpoint. If the postseason was indeed random, why did the Yankees win four times in five years?
The Yankees played no role in the Braves' march to the 1995 title. They were eliminated in the wild-card round by Seattle. That said, the team in the infernal pinstripes came to cast a shadow over the Braves. The Yankees beat them in 1996 when the Braves coulda/shoulda made it two in a row; they swept them in 1999 just to rub it in. By decade’s end, the Braves were no longer what Costas dubbed them.
Said Chipper Jones: "It like my dad says: ‘Jim Leyritz stole ‘Team of the ’90s’ from you.’”
I know this seems an unkind way to recall maybe our city’s happiest sports memory, but let’s face it: We’re Atlanta. We never get to enjoy anything for long. Was it great that the Braves broke through in 1995? Absolutely. Can we recall that moment of deliverance without thinking of other moments that never were? Maybe you can. I’m sorry, but I can’t.