Sports Outside the Beltway

John Smoltz Melancholy over Braves’ Missed Playoff Opportunities

Atlanta Braves veteran pitcher John Smoltz talked about his long run with the team and its lamentable playoff performance with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s David O’Brien.

You might think coming back to play in Cleveland for the first time since the 1995 World Series would cause a flood of great memories for John Smoltz. You would be wrong.

This correspondent was quite surprised by the initial reaction when I asked Smoltz for memories of the ’95 World Series, which the Braves won in six games for Atlanta’s first and only World Series championship. Instead of smiling and excitedly recalling how the Braves captured their sport’s ultimate title, Smoltz seemed almost melancholy. He really did. Then I began to realize that, viewed from another perspective, that ‘95 memory could conjure visions of all the unrealized opportunities rather than the one the Braves actually fulfilled. Stay with me here. I’ll explain.

Smoltz said the Braves viewed the 1991 World Series vs Minnesota as a “win,” though they had lost the series seven games. A win because of how far they had come, from last in their division in 1990 to NL pennant winner. “It’s a little bit different there [in the 1995 Cleveland series],” Smoltz said. “Because it’s about in ‘95, the year we won, and what we’ve done since. “It’s our only one [World Series title]. Everybody knows the story on that. It’s neat that we won one, but we had a lot of chances to win more. So when you think about Cleveland, that’s when we won. It’s the only time you can feel good about a city or a team, when you think, that’s when we won.”

But at the same time, Smoltz was saying, he couldn’t think of winning vs. Cleveland without also thinking of losing the last game of every other postseason they went to over 14 years. After losing to Minnesota in ‘91, the Braves also lost in return trips to the World Series vs. Toronto in 1992, and to the Yankees in 1996 (ding-ding-ding, huge disappointment alert) and 1999. The Braves haven’t been back to the World Series since, and they lost in the first round of the playoffs in four consecutive years (2002-05) before ending their streak of 14 consecutive division titles last season.

“In ’91, we don’t feel like we failed,” Smoltz said. “’Ninety-one felt like a win. ‘92 was the closest thing to feeling like we failed, then ‘93 was, of course, the first real major disappointment [six-game NLCS loss to Philadelphia, after the Braves had a 2-1 series lead]. To win it in ‘95 was so gratifying, took all the pressure off. But then ‘96 was horrific [the Braves’ epic World Series collapse vs. the Yankees, when they lost four consecutive games after winning the first two]. “And really,” Smoltz said, “nothing’s been the same since then.”

Wow. You want candor, you got it. I’m standing in a hallway outside the visitor’s clubhouse at the Metrodome in Minnesota on Thursday, listening to Smoltz. And I’m thinking, damn, the only player who’s been through every one of the Braves’ postseasons isn’t glossing over anything. Sure, it’s nice to have the unprecedented run of division titles. But if you don’t think there’s a hole in Smoltz’s competitive heart where another couple of World Series championships belong … folks, he feels this.

“The last few years we were in the playoffs and World Series, a lot of things had to go right [if the Braves were to win],” he said. “In ‘95 and ‘96, those were two of the toughest [best] teams that we’ve had.”


There’s no disputing one thing he said: It’s never been the same for the Braves since they blew that 2-0 lead vs. the Yankees in the ‘96 debacle. The Braves went 35-24 with a .262 batting average and 2.61 ERA in postseason games from 1991 through the first two games of the 1996 World Series. Beginning with the four straight losses to the Yankees in ’96, the Braves have gone 28-38 with a .239 batting average and 3.71 ERA in their past 66 postseason games.

Not much doubt about that. The Braves should have won the 1995 Series, having started up 2-0 and truly dominating the Yankees on the road. Instead, they had a monumental collapse in Atlanta and limped back into Yankee Stadium to lose game it in Game 6.

Smoltz is right, too, that the teams that went back to the playoffs after than just weren’t as good. Ted Turner sold the team and after that everything had to be done on a budget. Soon, they were being outspent 2-to-1 and then 3-to-1 by the likes of the Yanks and Red Sox.

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