Of all the strange things that happened in baseball from 1991-2005 — cattle steroids, soul patches, Baseball Night In America, Tom Sizemore playing Pete Rose, the tragic downward spiral of Mr. Met — I wonder if the one we'll look back at as the most improbable, the biggest historic anomaly, will be the run of Atlanta Braves division championships. (The 1994 season is not something that occurred in this plane of existence.) I followed baseball every day during that stretch, I saw it all happen, and I still don't quite believe it.
Now that we enter our fifth season since the Braves' amazing streak ended, it's worth looking back at just how odd it was. The only player to play for both the 1991 team and the 2005 team was John Smoltz. The following players were on the 1991 team: Sid Bream, Lonnie Smith, Mike Heath, Terry Pendleton, Jeff Treadway, Rick Mahler, and Doug Sisk. The oldest player on that team (Mahler) turned 53 the last season of the streak. Deion Sanders was on that team. Bobby Cox was 49 at Spring Training in 1991, and I could have sworn that guy was born at least 63 years old. (This is what Cox looked like when he was a rookie player.)
Think about how that worked. In 1990, manager Russ Nixon was fired 65 games into the season, and Cox took over. He went 40-57 the rest of the way. At the end of the 1990 season, the Braves had four winning seasons since 1969. They'd hadn't won a postseason game since 1958, when they were in Milwaukee. They were the joke of baseball, the perennial loser that played in the Launching Pad in front of indifferent fans and Chief Noc-A-Homa and his teepee, which, I'm sorry, has to be the most racist "mascot" of all time. (Barely beating out "Senor Sleepy." ) There was nothing to the Braves at all. They were Ted Turner's little cable experiment.
Then Cox took over in the dugout. For all the talk about managers not mattering — and by "the talk," I mean "things I personally have said" — something changed. Who on earth could have predicted that the Braves would win their division every year for the next decade-and-a-half? This team went from nothing to too much, overnight ... and then they just didn't stop. What does that do to a fanbase? What does it mean to have the monotony of losing morph into the monotony of winning out of nowhere? In a disparate metropolitan area without a history of devoting itself to much other than college football? The Braves went from scrappy underdogs to the team you were desperately bored of seeing in the postseason, and no one seems to have noticed. (The lone World Series win probably had a lot to do with that.) The end of the streak in 2005 should have felt monumental, but it didn't. The baseball world just moved on along. So that happened.
This is Cox's last year as manager of the Braves, unless the thunderous, giddy force that is Jason Heyward convinces him to give it another run. I can never quite tell what Bobby Cox does, exactly, that has made him so successful, which his low-key personality has a lot to do with; Tony LaRussa never tires of informing everyone that he is Making Decisions. The postseason is a crapshoot; what happens in October is out of anyone's control. The goal of any baseball team, heading into the season, is to navigate the crazy waters of a 162-game season and end up with a lotto ticket. It's all they can have much say over. Bobby Cox and the Atlanta Braves reached that goal, in a division that was anything but a pushover, every season from 1991 to 2005. In this day and age it is shocking and nearly impossible. And none of us particularly noticed or cared, because they were the Atlanta Braves, the Spurs of Major League Baseball (except with less passionate fans), plodding forward while everyone else flapped their arms and made a lot of noise. I would like to say it will feel strange not to see Cox in the dugout, but I am not sure: I would have thought it would have felt strange to see the Braves stop winning the division every year, but it didn't. It just happened. And so does this. It is the end of an era that wasn't, a tombstone for a man who wasn't there. One suspects Cox would have it no other way. And neither would we.