All these years later, it is still incredible to think that the Atlanta Braves won 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005. The Braves won the World Series in 1995, played in the Fall Classic five times in the 1990s and had a roster that featured four Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame manager. Yet this was a dynasty that was supposed to win multiple championships. The Braves lost in extra innings of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series and blew a 2-0 series lead against the New York Yankees in 1996.
A new documentary “Atlanta Rules: The Story of the ’90s Braves,” produced by MLB Network, includes interviews with Hall of Famers Chipper Jones, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Bobby Cox and several others who helped transform Atlanta from one of the worst teams in baseball into a perennial championship contender.
Smoltz chatted with CBS Local Sports about how the Braves won it all in 1995, why they didn’t win multiple championships and how the Braves should’ve been the Yankees.
CBS Local Sports: In the documentary, you said it was the thrill of the lifetime to play for the Atlanta Braves. What specifically made this your greatest baseball experience?
John Smoltz: I look back on it and think, wow. It’s hard to enjoy it when you are going through it, because every year was something different. The first three years we stunk. We lost 100 games each year and never thought we were going to win. Then you get a taste of winning, and that was something I always wanted to be a part of. Then you get it over and over again, and then you get the ultimate prize in 1995. And then it continued 10 more years. Each year, you try to be better and the team is trying to continue what seems like an improbable run. You don’t fully enjoy the journey as much until you step away or until it is taken from you. That’s what the documentary reinforced for us who’ve answered more questions about what we didn’t do versus what we did do. That’s just the nature of sports. It’s hard to deny that this is something we can safely say will never happen again. From that standpoint, it’s certainly a model that the 90s represented.
CBSLS: How did you guys go from being one of the worst teams in baseball to playing in Game 7 of the World Series in 1991?
JS: In 1988, we lost over 100 games and in 1989 and 1990 we lost 90-something games. In 1990, there was the transition of Bobby Cox coming from the front office to the manager’s seat, and some of the young guys started to develop. Baseball back then was nowhere close to what it is now. Guys didn’t get thrust into the big leagues until they had the ability to learn in the minors. We developed Steve Avery, Pete Smith, Tommy Greene, David Justice, Ronny Gant and Ryan Klesko. All those guys got the time they needed in the minors while the big league club was not doing very well with a lot of veteran players holding spots. Then there was me, Tom Glavine and a sprinkled [in] veteran in Charlie Leibrandt. We had enough to what we could learn from, but it was really about making the defensive transition once we got Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream and Raphael Belliard. When you think about how the teams were constructed back then, there were very few young teams that ever won. You had to have some sort of veteran presence to help you off the field and on the field learn how to play the game. That’s why it’s rare that young teams without some veteran leadership win.
CBSLS: After losing two times in the World Series, the Braves finally won it all in 1995. What is your lasting memory from that season?
JS: It felt like we held our breath from 1993 on and then we could finally exhale. It was such a rollercoaster of coming close. In 1991, it was a toss up. Game 7, 10 innings, one run. Nineteen ninety-two was tough, we lost to a great Blue Jays team. Nineteen ninety-three we no doubt should’ve been in the World Series and lost to the Phillies. Nineteen ninety-five was our year to where we felt like we had to get it done. By the way, we had to go through two of the greatest teams we had seen that year in Colorado and Cleveland. We beat who we felt were the two best offensive teams in that year, and it represented where we had come from and how much we had accomplished. It was the greatest feeling in the world. What it meant was that we could no longer be compared to teams they were trying to compare us to. Like I said in the documentary, why are the Buffalo Bills considered failures when they went to four straight Super Bowls? They didn’t win one, but that is such an unbelievable accomplishment.
CBSLS: Part of this documentary spotlights the consistency of Atlanta’s winning culture and the other part brings up a lot of what ifs. So what’s the bigger what if: Barry Bonds being traded to the Braves or winning it all in 1996?
JS: By far 1996. Nineteen ninety-six changes everything. You could go through the course of history and go through every sport and every organization and find a team who’s hanging in the balance and could go one way or the other. That’s who we were. That was the most dominant five-game stretch in baseball you could ever imagine. When you think about playing great teams and you’re in the NL Championship and down three games to one, and you are going to outscore your opponents the next five games like 51-4, that’s unheard of. That’s what we did. We won the three games we needed to against St. Louis, crushed the Yankees in the first two games and primed to win back-to-back World Series, and who knows how many after that. I can’t answer what a general manager’s response would be, but I would pretty much guess it would be hard to trade away pieces if you win back-to-back World Series. I don’t think we would’ve lost some of the players we lost had we won the 1996 World Series. That’s my contention. The Yankees went on to win four of the next five, and I’ve maintained that would’ve been us.
CBSLS: Your pitching staff with you, Glavine and Greg Maddux is up there with the all-time great pitching staffs in league history. It seemed like ego didn’t get in the way of this staff’s greatness. What made you guys so special?
JS: Lack of ego was the biggest component. There was competition without it being spoken about. We loved golf, and our personalities worked together. Nobody really tried to be the guy. We all had our strengths. I was certainly looking at two future Hall of Famers in the middle of their careers, and their careers started to unfold. They started piling up wins and ridiculous statistics. I was trying to survive, stay healthy and overcome surgery. I was able to deliver in the postseason in areas that gave me strength. I never dreamt that we would only accomplish one championship, but the greatest feeling in the world is going to the park every day and knowing there’s a chance that something spectacular might happen. We had a blast. I was the golf concierge and set up golf everywhere. We realized that our time in the big leagues was extended by playing golf and sticking together. It was the three of us for 10 straight years and me and Glavine for 15 years. I ended up staying the longest, but those are things you can’t measure and probably can’t duplicate. Those days and [that] age are over.