Let’s take a walk down memory lane. Not many people are aware of the deep history of the Atlanta Braves. This is a team whose roots go all the way back to 1869, in Cincinnati, where they were the first established baseball team in the history of the game, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. After trips to Boston—complete with a name change to the Braves in 1912—and Milwaukee in 1953, they moved to Atlanta in 1966 and settled into their new home where they would stay.
They have seen many of the greatest baseball players mankind has ever seen: Warren Spahn, Henry Aaron and even the greatest that ever played, George Herman “Babe” Ruth.
Fast forward to 1992. The Toronto Blue Jays were the dominant force in the American League that year and handily rolled through the Oakland Athletics four games to two and then the Atlanta Braves by the same tally. Those same Atlanta Braves were at the beginning of building one of the greatest playoff runs in the modern era, in the second year of a historic 14 straight division titles that finally ended after the 2005 season.
Under the tutelage of Bobby Cox, serving in his second stint as Braves manager, they had built what was one of the most formidable pitching staffs in baseball, with young hurlers Tom Glavine (22 wins and a Cy Young award in 1991), Steve Avery (18 wins) and a young fireballer by the name of John Smoltz (15 wins). These three pitchers had pitched the Braves to the World Series each of the past two years, but both were losses, and more work was needed to be done.
Greg Maddux had just completed a season in which he won the National League Cy Young award for the first time and would not relinquish that award for the next three seasons—winning it four years in a row from 1992 to 1995. He was one of the best pitchers in the game—if not the best—and was hitting the free-agent market with a fever pitch. Teams lined up for his services, including the most storied franchise in sports: the New York Yankees.
The Yankees had a run of bad luck; and for this particular franchise, it was a run of very bad luck. They had not been to the World Series since 1981 where they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers and had not won a World Series since 1978, the year of the fabled Bronx Zoo. They had a young prospect by the name of Bernie Williams who was at the cusp of becoming a household name.
Donald Arthur Mattingly, a veteran player who was already a household name, was respected by many inside and outside the city of New York. The pieces were being laid out for a turnaround; all they needed was a man to lead a dismal rotation. The man that they targeted was Maddux.
As the Yankees had done before (with varying degrees of success), they threw money at Maddux. They presented an offer worth $34 million to include a $9 million signing bonus. Since he was a Scott Boras client, one would think that deal could get the job done. Instead, Maddux took $28 million from the Atlanta Braves to join a rotation that was dominant before his arrival and became superhuman afterwards. $6 million is still a lot of money, especially when one considers his salary.
It was not until three years later, in 1995, that the Braves finally won their World Series beating the Cleveland Indians. That would be the only World Series win during that remarkable 15-year playoff run. Three Cy Young awards for Greg Maddux in an Atlanta Braves uniform; one World Series win!
What happened next is etched in baseball history forever. A series of well thought out signings, crafty trades and budding young stars put the Yankees back on the map. So, much so that in the strike-shortened season of 1994 they had the best record in the American League before the strike destroyed the season (70‐43, second to Montreal at 74‐40). The seeds of a turnaround were in place and they did not include Greg Maddux.
In 1996 the Yankees won their first World Series in 18 years against those very same Atlanta Braves. Against all odds, facing what was perceived as perhaps the greatest pitching staff of the modern era, the Bronx Bombers overcame a 0‐2 deficit in the series. Who was on the mound for Atlanta for the clincher in Game 6? Greg Maddux himself. Sweet redemption.
Then there was the magical season of 1998 when the Yankees posted 125 wins total in the regular season and postseason—a record that will be quite difficult to break. Then in 1999 they faced those very same Braves, featuring Greg Maddux, and demolished them four straight games. The Yankees two, Greg Maddux nothing.
There is a similar formula in the mix in these modern times. Already, fans are seeing the fruit of Brian Cashman’s labors coming up through the system to become impact players. Robinson Cano looks like a perennial MVP candidate and Gold Glove winner at second base. Brett Gardner emerged as a very capable left fielder in his first full season. Ivan Nova showed enough to make us believe he will be a serviceable back end starter, and Phil Hughes made his face known to the world and showed everyone why he was ranked as the best pitching prospect in baseball just a few short years ago.
Reminiscent of some players from those great Yankee teams post‐Maddux that featured up‐and‐coming‐players such as Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Derek Jeter. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?
It does not end there either. There are potential stars in the making waiting to get their shot. Catcher Jesus Montero, regarded by some as the best catching prospect in baseball, will get a chance to taste the majors this year. Austin Romine, another hot catching prospect known for his defense, is not far behind. Manuel Banuelos is perceived to have top‐of‐the‐rotation stuff. Dellin Betances is in the same category.
Andrew Brackman started showing us the reason the Yankees drafted him and waited through his Tommy John rehab. Slade Heathcott, the 2009 No. 1 draft pick, may be a few short years away. These are just naming a few of the many rising potential players in the years to come.
Gamers like Nick Swisher take me back to the days of Paul O’Neill. Curtis Granderson showed at the end of the season, and all through the playoffs, that he is willing to learn and adjust and it paid dividends. Mark Teixeira does more for the Yankees than just slug homers. Just ask Derek Jeter and his polished Gold Glove.
Maybe this is merely a one‐year blip until the talent is here. These prospects could have an impact this year. The score is already Yankees 1, Cliff Lee 0. If the 10 years have taught us anything, it is there is more parity in baseball than people think. It’s still anybody’s game.
The Braves won one World Series, just one, for all that star pitching. The Phillies have won one World Series, although without Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. Maybe they win in 2011, and Lee, Halladay and Oswalt finally get that elusive ring. So far Halladay has one Cy Young award in a Philly uniform, and no World Series wins.
All the pieces are there for the next great Yankee Dynasty. A rotation of homegrown talent, started with Hughes and now Nova, reminds me of the talent influx from the 1990s. True that the Yankees pitching isn’t any better off than it was at the end of last season, but it is not worse after. Is a rotation that features CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, AJ Burnett and perhaps Andy Pettitte any worse than the 1995 team that made the playoffs featuring Jimmy Key, David Cone, Jack McDowell and Andy Pettitte?
Look what happened to that team in 1996 against Greg Maddux. They have weathered much worse staffs than this to playoff contention, and that was when help was not in sight. The horses are in the stable, now let’s see when Cashman and Joe Girardi decide the time is right to trot them out.