Clubhouse bond a major factor
Pitching isn't the only reason why the Braves keep on winning
Since they began their current run of 14 consecutive division titles, the Braves have appropriately seen their stellar pitching staffs receive most of the credit.
But the one consistent element that shouldn't be overlooked is the harmonious clubhouse that is annually created by manager Bobby Cox and upstanding veterans like John Smoltz.
As the Braves begin their quest for a 15th consecutive division title this year, they once again have guys like Smoltz and Chipper Jones around to nurture the development of Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann and Kyle Davies, who have been assigned the responsibility of carrying the organization's winning tradition into a third decade.
"With the core group of leaders we have on this team, it has an uplifting effect on all of the rest of the roster," Braves general manager John Schuerholz said. "The environment, which they and Bobby and the coaches create, also has an uplifting impact. People rise with the tide of professional expectations. It's happened here for 15 straight years."
It's with this history the Braves enter the 2006 season with overwhelming confidence that new shortstop Edgar Renteria will rebound and that the standout members of last year's memorable rookie collection will prove to be special yet again.
"I think chemistry is probably our greatest asset right now," Chipper Jones said. "It can only be a good thing. These guys are close knit."
It's that good chemistry that has allowed guys like Chris Hammond, John Burkett and Jaret Wright to regain the confidence they needed to resurrect their careers in Atlanta. It's also that chemistry that allowed Francoeur, McCann, Davies and the rest the first-year players to have such an immediate impact last year.
"Some people come here and play better than a lot of people expect that they will," Schuerholz said. "It's because they're in this environment."
Back in 1991, when the Braves began their impressive and improbable streak of consecutive division titles, Francoeur and McCann were in first grade, learning how to read and not quite understanding about chemical terms like neutrons and electrons.
Now 22, they've come to better understand the periodic table and at the same time understand the clubhouse bond that has enabled the Braves to confidently enter every year with the belief that their winning tradition will continue.
"We want to get to the [National League Championship Series] and give ourselves a chance to get to the World Series and win it," Francoeur said. "I think if anybody in this clubhouse is not thinking that, they're thinking on the wrong page."
And if they're not on that same page?
"We don't allow that to be the mindset," Smoltz said. "It might happen. Those are the guys we call the cancers of the clubhouse. Those are the clubhouses that have talent, but don't win."
Smoltz, who will once again head a solid starting rotation with Tim Hudson, is the only Braves player who has been around throughout the streak. When it began, he was a 24-year-old who had been fortunate enough to have already learned a sense of professionalism from Dale Murphy, who is widely considered one of the greatest citizens to ever be a part of professional sports.
Despite having played in Atlanta during the leanest years in the organization's history, Murphy proved to be the consummate professional on a daily basis. With help from Rick Mahler, he showed youngsters like Smoltz and Tom Glavine what it took to be the complete big leaguer on and off the field.
As a youngster, Smoltz watched from afar and marveled at Murphy's actions on and off the field. When he arrived in Atlanta during the 1988 season, the young right-hander found that all of his beliefs regarding the legendary Braves outfielder were true and that he was indeed a true leader.
"My definition of a leader is he doesn't have any rights," Smoltz said. "How can you lead somebody if you're already in a special category and have all these extra special rights? Once you think you're entitled and have the right to do something, you can't be an effective leader."
Whether it's Smoltz or some newcomer like Chuck James, they can expect to be treated the same by Cox, who has proven to be one of the greatest clubhouse leaders ever. His clubhouse doesn't include music or recliners in front of the stars' lockers. Consequently, his players are able to enter a harmonious, distraction-free environment on a daily basis.
But there is much more to Cox's leadership than simply his clubhouse rules. His greatest asset is his ability to provide each and every one of his players with a wealth of confidence. His latest reclamation project appears to be Mike Remlinger, who will begin this season with James as the left-handers in the Atlanta bullpen.
"He's the best I've ever seen or been with," said the 40-year-old Remlinger. "Whether you're a starter, closer, reliever, bench player or starter, he gives you the best chance to win and succeed on a daily basis."
But in order for the Braves to win again, they'll need more than simply a harmonious clubhouse. For their offense to be successful, they'll need Marcus Giles to make a smooth transition to the leadoff role and for Andruw Jones to build upon the success he had during his MVP-caliber campaign last year.
"We're going to score some runs this year," Chipper Jones said. "If Gilly can flourish in the leadoff role and keep his on-base percentage up, I think our offense will be just fine."
Contrary to last year, it also appears their bullpen will be just fine. Chris Reitsma is determined to keep his job as the closer. If he would falter, Oscar Villarreal or 2005 top draft pick Joey Devine -- who was sent to Triple-A Richmond on Friday for a bit more seasoning -- appear quite capable of assuming the role.
As for the starting rotation, it might once again prove to be the difference throughout the course of the season. With Smoltz, Hudson, Davies, Horacio Ramirez and Jorge Sosa, it may be the deepest one in the National League -- so deep that longtime starter John Thomson was sent to the bullpen on Friday.
"We're going to go as far as our pitching staff takes us," Chipper Jones said. "It's been that way around here for years. If we pitch well, we're going to win a lot of games."
This year, the Braves' biggest threat appears to be a much-improved Mets team.
But with quiet confidence, the Braves once again welcome the challenge and expect to be enjoying another September champagne shower in the harmonious clubhouse yet again.
"We'll see what happens," Andruw Jones said. "All these other teams are getting good and we still have the same team. We're the team to beat and we'll see what happens."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.