Braves bow out reluctantly, respectfully
14-season run as division champ ends

By THOMAS STINSON
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/14/06

At 44 minutes after midnight, with the stadium empty and the gates locked, a throne was quietly abdicated Wednesday morning. A 14-season you'll-never-see-this-again run of achievement ended in the rain and without an audience.

Six hundred fifty miles to the south, the New York Mets, completing the inevitable, defeated Florida 6-4 to officially eliminate the Braves from the division race, words that had not been spoken in Atlanta since 1990.

The Braves, sent home at 5 p.m. when their game with Philadelphia was called, had left Turner Field suspecting the worst, yet knowing full well this night eventually would come.

"We've been knowing it's going to happen for some time, so we've prepared ourselves," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "It's the end of the string. They played well. They played better than us."

While the Mets inched closer to becoming the first team to secure its division, the Braves were reassessing their grim circumstances: 6 1/2 games back in the wild-card race with 17 games left.

Jeff Francoeur had begun his Tuesday by clicking on ESPN, the crawler across the bottom of the screen declaring the Braves to be one game from divisional elimination.

"That's no new news or something," he said "There isn't anybody who thought it wasn't going to happen. It is what it is. You can't change anything now. We might be 5 1/2 back [in the wild-card race] and 19 to go, but the way I look it, we've got some big series coming up."

Yet, at the other end of the clubhouse, GM John Schuerholz talked about something he has never had to since coming to Atlanta after the 1990 season: another division champ.

"I don't want to sound pompous, but it's different for us," Schuerholz said. "And not particularly pleasant."

The 14 consecutive division titles will not share the same tier with the New York Yankees' 20 World Series titles in 39 years. But for consistent winning over the regular season, it remains unparalleled in any of the major North American professional sports. Since divisional play came to the majors in 1969, the only team that comes close is the Yankees' current streak of eight (soon to be nine).

It began when Francoeur was 7, when Turner Field was a parking lot, when John Smoltz, the lone holdover, had hair. During the streak, 272 players appeared in at least one game for Atlanta, from Kurt Abbott to Jaret Wright.

"If anything, hopefully it will make us realize how hard we've got to work this offseason," Francoeur said. "And hopefully get the fans back to realizing that we're not going to win it every year, that it's not just official that we're the Braves and we can just show up."

Anticipating this night last week, the Mets' Tom Glavine, who won 242 games for the Braves, understood better than most what New York was finally able to do.

"It's not going to be like beating any other team," Glavine said. "It'll come with a different sense of accomplishment because of what the Braves have done. Being able to win the division is one thing; doing it in a year when you can unseat the Braves, it adds a little bit more meaning."

Manager Bobby Cox estimated three or perhaps four more losses and his club is out of the postseason. That's .790 baseball, which tests the game's reality. But then, so does 14 consecutive titles, an achievement that will grow in significance with the passing of time.

"Everybody in this clubhouse knows that," Jones said. "It probably won't be properly recognized until 10, 20 years from now. But we can't do anything about that. We just tried to ride it as long as we could, until somebody ended it."
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