The phrase “Braves Way” seems to carry two meanings in the Atlanta Braves’ fanbase.
When used seriously, it expresses a desire to return to the team’s glory days, when our beloved Braves rattled off 14 straight division titles, five National League pennants and a World Series title. It’s a desire to regularly be considered one of the league’s top teams and a threat to win the World Series with a high-class team.
When used sarcastically, it’s a nod to the fact that those same Braves spent a lot of time underachieving in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s a way to plant a tongue firmly in cheek to point out that the franchise blueprint hasn’t resulted in a playoff series victory since 2001.
So is there anything worth salvaging from the “Braves Way?”
Unless you go back more than 20 years, the answer is “no,” honestly. So that’s what I’ll do.
The Actual Braves Way
Let’s go back to the way the Braves built an actual championship team in the first half of the 1990s. For anyone who needs a reminder, the Braves went from worst in the NL West to first in the division in 1991 and made it all the way to the World Series. They went back to the World Series in 1992, came up short in 1993, came back in 1995 to win it all and then held a two-game lead in the 1996 Series before succumbing to the New York Yankees.
So how did the Braves go from surprising success story – similar to the 2018 Braves – to World Series champions? They went and got big-name players in free agency and the trade market.
Those Big Name Players
What is seemingly forgotten about the 1990s Braves is that some of the biggest pieces of their World Series run got their starts elsewhere. Marquis Grissom caught the last out of the 1995 Series in his first season in Atlanta after being part of an offseason trade with the Montreal Expos. In an effort to get over the hump after back-to-back World Series losses, the Braves brought in starting first baseman and cleanup hitter Fred McGriff during the 1993 season.
And while ace Greg Maddux is best-known by many as a member of the Braves’ “Big Three” with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, he was a free agent acquisition before the 1993 season. Yes, a team that already had a Cy Young Award winner in Glavine, a two-time All-Star in Smoltz and another young stud that received Cy Young votes in Steve Avery went out and ponied up the cash to sign the reigning Cy Young honoree.
The deal to bring in Maddux was no quick team-friendly affair either. At five years and $28 million, it was the largest ever signed by a pitcher at that point in terms of guaranteed money to a free agent. While a far cry from the massive dollars that went to Gerrit Cole before the 2020 season, the Braves spent big for that era to land a big fish.
Those expenditures paid off in the World Series, too. While the homegrown youngsters like David Justice, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez more than carried their weight in defeating the Cleveland Indians, Grissom and McGriff were integral. The “Crime Dog” carried a .955 OPS with two homers in the series, while Grissom hit .360 at the top of the order with nine hits, three runs and three stolen bases.
We need to stop here to appreciate Klesko, who really doesn’t get enough credit for an absurd statline in his first World Series. This dude hit .313 on baseball’s grandest stage with a 1.296 OPS and three homers at the age of 24. My goodness.
In the rotation, Glavine rightfully won the Series MVP with a pair of absolutely insane performances. But Maddux set the table for it all with a Game 1 complete-game gem.
On top of all that, those mid-90s Braves teams carried a top-5 payroll in all of baseball.
Two Decades Later…
Fast forward more than two decades, and the thought of Atlanta being in the mix to sign the top free agent in the game is laughable. Fans are wise to write the Braves out of the discussion for the likes of Cole and Stephen Strasburg immediately, even if the rotation is an area of need. And trading for a player like Grissom, who was still under 30 years old and had made four straight All-Star games? That’s not what the Braves do.
But if the current front office hopes to replicate what their predecessors did all those years ago and take a young core to the top of the sport, that needs to change.