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Braves' patient approach on historic streak unmatched

Cox led efforts toward player development en route to 14 consecutive first-place finishes

When "Moneyball" was published, the "in" thing among Major League teams was to focus on on-base percentage, and ramp up their analytical efforts, hoping to follow an approach that A's general manager Billy Beane credited for the franchise's run of division titles.

This offseason, the "in" thing is to add power arms for late-inning bullpen work, trying to duplicate the road to success that the champion Giants and AL pennant-winning Royals followed to the World Series.

Funny thing is that a decade ago, teams weren't buying into the approach of the Braves, even if it did allow the franchise to set a professional sports record with 14 consecutive first-place finishes.

But then, this is an instant gratification society, and what the Braves created wasn't an overnight sensation.

After a decade of Ted Turner as a hands-on owner with the Braves, including at one point naming himself manager, Turner decided to step back in the mid '80s, hiring Bobby Cox, a former Braves manager who in 1985 led the Blue Jays to their first division title, to be the Braves general manager. Turner gave Cox total control of the operation.

There was no quick fix.

In Cox's five years on the job, the Braves focused on drafting and developing players, and then, after Cox returned to managing midway through the 1990 season (the team's seventh consecutive losing season and fifth in six years with at least 92 losses) the commitment to develop a homegrown foundation began to pay off.

John Schuerholz was hired away from the Royals to replace Cox as the GM, and with the addition of free-agent infielders Sid Bream, Terry Pendleton and Rafael Belliard to provide defensive support for a young pitching staff, the Braves embarked on their long-run success story in 1991.

The Braves were hailed for their player development.

They were given rave reviews for their strong-armed rotation.

More than anything, what underscored the Braves' ability to sustain their championship run was the way Schuerholz and Co. were able to manipulate the roster, constantly tinkering to avoid having a core that became old all at once.

They avoided the common trap of being afraid to "break up" the gang, much like what happened with a Tigers team that won a World Series championship in 1984 and the AL East in 1987 and then suffered 103 losses in 1989, the first of 15 losing records in a 17-year stretch.

The Braves were constantly tinkering with success, revamping the lineup annually.

John Smoltz, a Double-A pitcher whom Cox acquired from Detroit in the midst of the 1987 season in exchange for veteran Doyle Alexander, was the only player with the Braves in each season during the championship run, moving from the rotation into the bullpen from 2001-04 and returning to the rotation in 2005.

The only other players who appeared in as many as 10 of the postseasons during that stretch were left-hander Tom Glavine (1991-2002), right-hander Greg Maddux (1993-2003) and third baseman/left fielder Chipper Jones (1995-2005).

Video: [email protected]: Glavine, Maddux and Cox honored in Atlanta

The Braves did not constantly shuffle the roster in the season. They never used more than 47 players (in 2000 and '01) and used as few as 31 players in 1994, 33 in '93 and 34 in '03.

They did, however, rework the lineup each year. They never featured the same primary lineup in back-to-back seasons. The changes ranged from the arrival of rookie right fielder Jermaine Dye in 2006, replacing David Justice, and making five changes each in 1999, 2000, '02 and '04, including the move of Jones to left field in '02 and his return to third base in '04.

They inserted a rookie into the starting lineup, rotation or closer's role in all but three seasons, featured 19 homegrown regulars in their lineup, nine in the rotation and five as closer.

Out of those 14 postseason appearances, however, the Braves won only one World Series, something that has hung over the franchise, and something that Schuerholz admits is his biggest disappointment in 47 years of professional baseball.

"It's a disappointment, not for myself," Schuerholz said, "but for the people who put so much into making all that happen and may not be recognized for what they did over that period of time."

Those Braves, however, did something no other pro sports team has done.

And they did it so well, nobody has even tried to duplicate the patience and persistence the Braves embraced.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for
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