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Column: A most improbable team brings Atlanta a title

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During three decades of nearly uninterrupted excellence, there were so many Atlanta Braves teams that seemed more championship worthy than this one.

The 1993 squad chased down the San Francisco Giants to win one of baseball’s last great division races. The ’96 group wiped out the New York pinstripers in the first two games of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. The ’97, ‘98 and ‘99 teams all won more that 100 games.

Yet it was these Braves — who didn’t climb above .500 until early August, who endured a devastating rash of injuries and other setbacks, who had to wheel and deal ahead of the trade deadline to assemble a whole new outfield — who finally brought the tortured A-T-L another title.

No one could’ve seen it coming.

Well, except for those players dancing in the center of Minute Maid Park early Wednesday morning.

“These guys never gave up on themselves,” manager Brian Snitker said. “We used a lot of guys, we lost a lot of pieces over the course of the summer. It was just the next man up. These guys never stopped believing in themselves.”

If they were the least bit familiar with their team’s history, they had to know how fickle the baseball gods can be.

The Braves won 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005, a staggering streak that may never be eclipsed. They got back to the postseason as a wild card in 2010, Bobby Cox’s final season as manager. They claimed another wild card in 2012, followed by a return to the top of the NL East in 2013. A painful rebuilding job came next, but it paid off with another streak of division titles that has grown to four.

When you add it all up, that’s 21 postseason appearances in the last 30 completed seasons — a run that meets nearly every requirement to be called a dynasty except the only one that really matters.

Championships.

The ’95 Braves had been the only team to win it all during those 20 previous trips to the playoffs.

And even that victory, as glorious and satisfying as it was for a city that has known so much heartache, wound up feeling a bit hollow because of the four other times Atlanta lost the World Series during that single decade, a lone triumph nearly obscured by all the gut-wrenching disappointments.

To this day, it’s hard to fathom that a team assembled by a Hall of Fame general manager (John Schuerholz), guided by a Hall of Fame manager (Cox), led on the mound by three Hall of Fame pitchers (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz), with a lineup that included yet another Hall of Famer (Chipper Jones) and at least two other guys who can make a pretty good case for Cooperstown (Fred McGriff and Andruw Jones) contributed just one title to the franchise resume.

Now, finally, they’ve got some company.

Shaking off the disappointment of Game 5, when they squandered a 4-0 lead and a chance to celebrate in front of their home fans, these Braves romped past the Houston Astros 7-0 to finish off the World Series four games to two.

It didn’t matter that they won just 88 games during the regular season, fewer than every other playoff team and even two teams that didn’t make the postseason.

It didn’t matter that they were mired in mediocrity much of the season, finally climbing above .500 for the first time on Aug. 6 in their 111th game.

It didn’t matter that they had to go down to the final week to finally clinch first place in a division derisively known as the NL Least.

“You boys are going to be world champions the rest of your lives,” Snitker told his team in the champagne-soaked visiting clubhouse, holding up the trophy that every team has their sights set on from the first day of spring training.

All that bubbly had to feel cleansing in a way, exorcising the demons of not only a team, but an entire city.

The Braves are the only Atlanta team to win a championship in the four major American sports, which first arrived in the Deep South in 1966.

That was the year the Braves moved in from Milwaukee and the Falcons took flight as an NFL expansion team. The NBA’s Hawks would come from St. Louis two years later, followed by the NHL’s Flames in 1972.

Those franchises provided a huge boost to Atlanta’s fragile self-image, stamping a growing city just emerging from the civil right movement as truly major league. But, as the losses piled up and occasional shots at glory crashed in inevitable defeat, all four teams would come to be viewed as more trouble than they were worth.

Atlanta, which liked to market itself as the “City Too Busy To Hate,” earned another embarrassing moniker.

Loserville, U.S.A.

The Flames didn’t stick around very long, moving to Calgary in 1980 after whiffing on all six of their playoff appearances. Of course, they would go on to win a Stanley Cup title in their new home.

The NHL sent Atlanta another team, the Thrashers, but they left, too, bolting for Winnipeg after just 11 seasons. They never even won a playoff game, much less a series.

While the Braves had all those close-but-no-cigar moments in the 1990s, the Hawks and Falcons have barely even sniffed at a championship.

Atlanta’s NFL team did reach the Super Bowl in 2017, only to suffer what is surely the most infamous defeat in the game’s history.

After carrying a 28-3 lead on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots deep into the third quarter, the Falcons frittered it away and lost in overtime.

Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, who grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, attended that Super Bowl to cheer on his hometown team.

It wasn’t lost on him that the Braves clinched their championship in Houston, of all places.

Yep, the same city where the Falcons lost the Super Bowl.

“God bless my soul, but I was here when the Falcons got beat in the Super Bowl. I was at the game in Houston,” Swanson said on Fox’s postgame show. “So we’ve kind of come full circle, right? It felt like destiny a little bit, being back here and winning.”

Yep, the circle is complete.

This Atlanta team is headed home from Houston with a championship.

A championship that none of us saw coming.

___

Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press who grew up in suburban Atlanta and has covered sports in the city since 1996. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry

___

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Columnist

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