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.