The dynasty of the '90s? No contest -- it's the Braves; Baseball


The New York Yankees get all the ink, but let's be honest. The true dynasty of the 1990s is -- and always has been -- in Atlanta, where the Braves have won their division so routinely over the past decade that baseball fans have started to take them for granted.

Take this year, for instance. The early loss of first baseman Andres Galarraga and the occasional struggles of some of the elite members of the starting rotation created the notion that the Braves are in decline.

You might want to ask the New York Mets about that.

The Braves, finally faced with a challenge after all these years, matched up with the emergent Mets in a showdown series this past week and proved again that they are still the team to beat in the National League -- three games to none.

Third baseman Chipper Jones proved something, too. He proved that he should be the NL's Most Valuable Player after using the Mets series to put an exclamation point on one of the greatest all-around seasons in the history of the game.

Jones drove in two runs in Tuesday's series opener to reach 100 RBIs, all but guaranteeing that he will become the first player in history to bat .300, score 100 runs, hit 40 doubles and 40 home runs, drive in 100 runs, draw 100 walks and steal 20 bases.

"As a player, I shoot for no weaknesses," Jones told reporters afterward. "I want all facets of my game to be strong. I take pride in being a guy who can do all those things. The only thing missing is being in the running for a Gold Glove one of these years."

The Braves do have some weaknesses. Premier starters John Smoltz and Tom Glavine are having off years, and the offense ranks in the lower half of the league in combined batting average and runs, but that hasn't kept them from running up the best record in baseball.

They have rolled into the postseason the past two years only to lose the League Championship Series to the Florida Marlins (1997) and the San Diego Padres (1998), both times with seemingly superior teams to the one that hopes to go farther this year. This year may be different.

The Braves appear to be gathering momentum at just the right time, and they have an answer to those who point to the struggles of Smoltz and Glavine as cause for great concern -- Kevin Millwood.

The 24-year-old right-hander is 18-7 and has been the most effective starter, particularly during the final weeks of the regular season. He has a six-game winning streak and ranks second only to Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson with a 2.69 ERA.

Though future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux (19-8) still is the undisputed ace of the staff, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if Millwood were to start Game 1 of the Division Series. That's the way the rotation stacks up at the moment.

Is Pedro MVP material?

Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez turned in another signature performance on Tuesday night, striking out 12 and recording his 300th strikeout of the season during an impressive shutout victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.

The fans at Fenway Park responded by giving him a new set of initials -- chanting "M-V-P! M-V-P!" throughout the evening -- but it remains to be seen if the voters who actually pick the American League Most Valuable Player are going to agree.

Martinez is a lock to win the American League Cy Young Award, but it's much tougher for a pitcher to win MVP honors. It happens, but the award usually goes to an everyday player.

The favorites appear to be former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and Cleveland Indians outfielder Manny Ramirez, both of whom are at or near the top of the league rankings in all three Triple Crown categories. Roberto Alomar and Derek Jeter also are strong candidates, as is Martinez, who has been the cornerstone of the most efficient staff in the league.

Prediction: Palmeiro to win. Ramirez to place. Martinez to show.

Hispanic hit parade

Though the road to the major leagues is sometimes a difficult one for Latin players, they have not let that keep them from dominating the American League offensive rankings.

Entering Friday's games, nine of the top 10 hitters in the American League were of Hispanic descent, and Latin players made up more than half the names on the entire AL offensive leader sheet.

Renegotiating Sammy

Superstar Sammy Sosa is contractually tied to the Chicago Cubs for another three years at an average salary of $11 million, but don't be surprised if the club agrees to renegotiate that deal this off-season.

The contract was signed before Sosa's 66-homer performance last year, so agent Adam Katz reportedly thinks he can make a case for a raise to $15 million a season or more.

The Cubs could just say no and let the contract run its course, but look for general manager Ed Lynch to try to accommodate one of the game's most popular players.

"If Sammy has concerns or thoughts," Lynch said recently, "we have to try and do what we can. Sammy obviously is one of the great players in baseball. When Sammy talks, we listen."

Safe in San Diego

San Diego Padres manager Bruce Bochy apparently does not have to worry about his job security, even though the defending National League champions will finish the season well below .500.

"I love Bochy," Padres owner John Moores told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "He thinks he's borderline insecure, you know, but you talk about a guy who has job security. If Kevin [Towers, general manager], Larry [Lucchino, team president] and I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, we still wouldn't do anything with Bochy. Becky [Moores' wife] would take my head off. I hope the guy's here until he doesn't want to be here anymore.

"The Dodgers had a tradition of stability, and we hope to come out at least that well 25 years from now. Bochy and Kevin are so young, and they have that fire in their bellies. In 15 years, Bochy is going to be like a Tommy Lasorda. What will make me happy is if in the next 15 years we go to the playoffs and Series with the same guys. I can't see any way for that not to happen."

Now, that's a vote of confidence.

Tough crowd

What usually happens when you help build the best team in baseball, go to the postseason every year and set an all-time club attendance record?

Well, if you work for the Yankees, you get demoted.

Owner George Steinbrenner recently reshuffled the club's chain of command to place Tampa-based vice president of player development Mark Newman above general manager Brian Cashman.

Cashman has done an outstanding job after replacing Bob Watson two years ago, but Steinbrenner apparently was unhappy that Cashman couldn't prevent the Indians from acquiring Harold Baines and also harbors some frustration over arbitration losses to Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter last off-season.

Then there is the Roger Clemens deal, which will have to be blamed on someone if Clemens fails to produce in the postseason. Cashman is the obvious choice, even though that deal had Steinbrenner's fingerprints all over it.

Stat of the week

Sosa has a chance to do something else that no major-league hitter has done -- end the season with more home runs than his team has victories. Sosa has 61 homers. The Cubs have 64 victories. It's too close to call.

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