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Atlanta success isn't getting old Youthful mix keeps Braves set for future

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- The Atlanta Braves are the fluke of the free-agent era. They are the first team since Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of the 1970s to appear in four World Series in the same decade, and the '90s are far from over.

Dynasty? About as close as anyone is going to get in an age when home-grown players only are tied to their original teams for six major-league seasons.

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Oakland tried to establish a perennial winner, but the Athletics fragmented after three World Series appearances. The Toronto Blue Jays tried to take it from there, but could not -- or chose not -- to sustain the level of spending necessary to stay on top after world championships in 1992-1993.

The shelf life for both of those clubs was about five years, less than the length of the Braves' current National League reign (interrupted only by Philadelphia in '93), but there is no reason to believe that Atlanta will suffer the same competitive recession that sent both the A's and the Blue Jays to the other end of the standings.

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The difference: The Braves have been able to maintain a steady stream of minor-league talent, while concentrating most of their payroll on a core group of outstanding pitchers who still are in their prime. The renewed emphasis that the club put on player development in the mid-1980s has paid off handsomely.

"It's the cornerstone of any organization," said general manager John Schuerholz. "You can't have success with continuity unless you can bring up players to contribute at this level or players you can use to acquire the Fred McGriffs and the [Denny] Neagles. Other than Greg Maddux, our whole club has been built as the result of our scouting and player development."

The New York Yankees spent heavily during the past off-season to reach the World Series for the first time in 15 years. The Braves are here for the fourth time in six years, but haven't had to dig deep to buy a big-name free agent since making Maddux the highest-paid pitcher in baseball four years ago.

"We've been able to stay on top -- making tough decisions on guys like Ron Gant and Kent Mercker and Terry Pendleton every year -- and you've got to have people coming through the pipeline to do that," said club president Stan Kasten. "It all starts obviously with a full commitment to the minor leagues and player development which we made in the 1980s. It also took an owner with patience, because the first couple of years you're going to be fallow. He [Ted Turner] never wavered."

The Yankees felt the impact of that youthful lineup in Game 1 on Sunday night, when 19-year-old Andruw Jones hit two home runs and etched his name into the World Series record book as the youngest player ever to hit a home run in the Fall Classic.

Jones was just one of five players in the Braves' Game 1 lineup who are 25 or younger. Franchise third baseman Chipper Jones is 24, outfielder Ryan Klesko is 25, catcher Javy Lopez is 25 and outfielder Jermaine Dye is 22. They represent a home-grown nucleus that should keep the club competitive well into the next century.

"I think the young players we have are legitimate major-league players," said manager Bobby Cox, "so that means quite a bit for the future, but the future is only as good as your pitching staff."

There is no hurry, because the veteran core of the club isn't exactly over the hill. The starting rotation -- unquestionably the best in baseball -- averages 29 years of age, closer Mark Wohlers is 26 and center fielder Marquis Grissom is 29. The oldest star player is first baseman Fred McGriff, who at 32 still is at the height of his ability.

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It kind of blows Schuerholz's oft-stated theory that the window of postseason opportunity for a modern major-league team is about three years.

Of course, another reason the Braves have been able to hold their place is because they have created a symbiotic economic relationship between their high-priced players and their highly prized young talent. Their dominant starting rotation has allowed them to experiment with a less predictable offensive lineup, and the presence of several low-salaried prospects has subsidized the big-name players.

Andruw Jones is working for the prorated portion of the minimum major-league salary ($109,000), which means he likely will get more in postseason prize money than in regular salary this year. Dye is in the same situation. Chipper Jones, Klesko and Lopez are farther up the food chain, but the three of them combined to make $1.35 million this year, or about a fifth of the salary of Maddux.

"Whether you believe it or not, I do have a budget," Schuerholz said. "I don't know if I would say that anybody is subsidizing the rotation but you always need to have a blend of good young players and good veteran players. It's essential to have a good balance."

Pub Date: 10/22/96


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