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The Braves and 14 Straight Division Titles

If the 1995 Atlanta Braves weren’t the only Braves team to win the World Series in 14 years of dominance, the team would be considered among the greatest in history by most. They should be anyway.

From 1991 through 2005, the Braves never finished second. In that 15-year period (interrupted only by the strike of 1994, when they were second), it became almost a given that at the end of the year, the Atlanta Braves would be the winners of a division title.

In the Turner Field E-Guide I noted that the Braves have never quite drawn the crowds that a team this successful should. Even during playoff games in those years the Braves came up short of sellouts. Part of the reason, some folks speculated, was the Braves apparent inability to finish the job, winning just one World Series in that span.

Recently I saw Braves great John Smoltz, one of the best pitchers of his era, being interviewed on the evening that the team retired his number. During the interview he affirmed what an incredible achievement it was for a team to win 14 straight division titles, and that the Braves didn’t get the credit they deserved for a long run of excellence.

Smoltz is right. Because like all sports, baseball has diluted the playoff system, and very often a team that ekes into the playoffs gets hot for a few games and becomes World Champions. 2010 and 2011 in baseball saw two teams with close to the worst records of all the playoff participants win the title. In 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals barely made it into the playoffs, but got hot at the right time…a time when a team needs to win only four out of seven. The worst team can do that.

As my father has recently said, once the playoffs start, it’s all up to the Baseball Gods. It certainly seemed that way in the 2011 World Series. Maybe the gods had it in for the Braves following some dominant seasons.

The Braves appeared in five World Series from 1991 to 1999, winning only in 1995 against the Indians. In every Fall Classic save for the 1999 sweep by the Yankees, they outscored their opponents. They also outscored the Phillies in the 1993 NLCS, after a superb pennant race where the Braves won 104 games to outlast the Giants. Four years later in 1997 they would outscore the Marlins in another losing NLCS effort.

The amount of games that the Braves lost in the playoffs in these series by one run is heartbreaking…maybe not as much so as the four World Series that the Red Sox lost in Game 7, but close.

Hey, Smart Fan! Want to take a trip to see the Braves this summer? Check out Kurt's complete guide to Turner Field - click here!

It isn’t necessarily the mark of a better team to outscore your opponent in a short series…some teams just aren’t that loaded with pitching and will have off days. But it is a general principle in baseball that the better teams will win the blowouts...which the Braves did most of the time…while one-run games can often turn on luck. A few lucky breaks at the right time, and John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Chipper Jones could be wearing six World Champion rings each instead of one.

It isn’t fair to judge a team as great as the Braves were for 14 seasons on the basis of winning the World Series only once. Any team can get hot—or cold—for seven games. The 1991-2005 Braves had a winning percentage of .606, which amounts to an average of 98 wins a season. They were one of the greatest teams in baseball history, and only a few bounces not going their way has been the reason they aren’t acknowledged as such.

You can make the “great teams win the games that matter” argument if you want. But I don’t buy that. Any team can get hot in a series and take down a heavy favorite. Americans love David vs. Goliath stories. To finish on top of your division for 14 straight years requires that a team be consistently and repeatedly great—that the pitching holds up, that hitters can still focus, that fielders don’t get fatigued. One hole-in-one does not a Masters Champion make.

Teams that stay on top for a full season have proven themselves. A team that did it 14 times in a row has achieved legendary status in the one attribute where athletic greatness is measured most: consistency.

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