Inevitable is a strong word that rarely applies well in sports – at least not in any positive sense. Death, taxes and age sapping your skills are the only sure things even the greatest athletes can count on in life.
You can’t guarantee championships. The best teams don’t always win. Atlanta Braves fans are painfully aware of those things.
But for one solid decade from 1993-2002, you were absolutely, positively, 100-percent convinced every single time you turned on the “SuperStation” or trekked down to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium or Turner Field that you were going to see five can’t-miss, sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famers wearing Braves uniforms.
Even in an era when nothing about Baseball’s Hall of Fame is a lock, you could throw around the phrase “future Hall of Famer” with relative assurance that every one of those five guys would back it up first chance they got.
So today’s Phase I induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., was quite frankly inevitable starting the moments pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and manager Bobby Cox retired. First opportunity the voters had to choose, you could buy the bronze and start casting their likenesses.
Maddux got an absurdly low 97.2 percent of the ballots cast his way, Glavine got 91.9 and Cox was a unanimous choice from the 16-member veterans committee.
Phase II should come this time next year when John Smoltz rejoins his rotation mates, likely clearing the 75 percent threshold even with fellow first-timers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez on the ballot. Smoltz basically combined Dennis Eckersley’s career with Curt Schilling’s postseason luster.
Phase III should be completed in 2018 when Chipper Jones adds his bat to the lot. If 468 home runs, a National League MVP and batting title spanning a decade, eight All-Star selections and a clutch diet of Mets (but not steroids) when it mattered don’t get you past the bouncers, what can?
You have a hard time finding precedents for these Braves in the modern era post-World War II. The only previous class to include three guys who spent a good chunk of their careers on the same franchise was the second installment in 1937 when Cy Young, Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie took their Cleveland ties from different eras to the Hall of Fame.
The only pitching rotation to feature three Hall of Famers at the same time (other than the 1966 Dodgers with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton) were the Cleveland Indians of the early 1950s that boasted Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn together for eight seasons (with some spot starts and long relief from Hal Newhouser during their 111-win season in 1954).
But what Braves fans were privileged to witness on the mound year after year in the midst of 14 consecutive division championships was largely unprecedented. You can quibble over the insufficient number of championships (only one World Series win in 1995) for a team that won 101 or more games six times from 1993-2003, but you can’t argue with the quality of the effort and show they provided.
Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz collected six consecutive and seven of eight Cy Young Awards from 1991-98 (Maddux’s first came in 1992 with the Cubs) and Jones backed that run up with an NL MVP in 1999.
Each pitcher was mesmerizing in their own way – Maddux confounding hitters with cerebral application of various pitches from the same delivery; Glavine painting the outside edge of the plate with left-handed precision; Smoltz overpowering with his uber-competitiveness that segued perfectly into a closer’s role for a few year’s after Tommy John surgery.
For his part, Jones provided consistent excellence at the plate and Cox the steadiest leadership over a 162-game season than anyone in history.
It was a pleasure to watch them ply their crafts together for so long, even if they came up frustratingly short in the postseason too often.
It was an even greater pleasure to get to cover them. A baseball clubhouse can be a most intimidating environment, especially for someone parachuting in periodically.
Yet the greatest players of a generation were the least intimidating guys to deal with. Nine times out of every 10 Braves games I covered, the only guys I would talk to were Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Jones or Cox.
They were the most approachable, the most thoughtful, the most accommodating with the most to say. They’d not only give you the story on the field but fill in the blanks on the reporter’s notepad in the clubhouse. (It didn’t hurt that most of them didn’t mind talking golf with a guy from Augusta every now and then.)
So today’s induction ceremony is one of the great days in Braves history. If you want to count Joe Torre, who spent the first half of his 18-year playing career with the Braves and three seasons as Atlanta manager from 1982-84 including the city’s first consecutive winning seasons, it’s an even bigger day for the ‘A.’ Torre’s induction is mostly based on his 12-year managerial reign with the Yankees, but he wore the Braves uniform for just as long and well before he donned pinstripes.
Whether you’re watching at home, in Cooperstown or joining the celebration with fellow Braves fans at Turner Field, it’s a perfect day to reflect on just how lucky we were to watch these guys be great together for so long.
That we knew this day was coming years ago only makes it more special.