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True boys of summer scoff at losing image

Over the past six years, the Atlanta Braves have won a baseball-best 550 regular-season games, five straight division titles, four National League pennants, and the 1995 world championship.

But it is the 12 World Series games _ and thus three potential championships _ that they lost during that span that have come to tarnish the franchise luster.

They have been called losers. Chokers. The Buffalo Bills of baseball. Listen closely and you hear people feeling sorry for them.

But you know what?

They don't give a spit.

"Do you realize how many players in this game would give their right _ and you name the body part _ to have been in the position our players have been in the past six years, to be real possible contenders for world championships?" general manager John Schuerholz said.

"Those who try to make that a negative in any way just don't understand sport and especially don't understand professional baseball. They are relatively clueless if they have that sort of negative view about it. Sure, and I've said it before, it's frustrating and disappointing.

"But don't feel sorry for us. My God, no. There's not a player in baseball, I don't think, that if you asked would he have liked to have been on the Braves the last six years, that would say no. That's what these guys are all in business for, to get to the position to battle for championships, and we've done that."

Their 550 wins since 1991 are 63 more than the next closest team. No National League team had ever won five straight division titles before. You have to go back to the Yankees' teams of the early 1960s to find the last team that played in four out of five Series.

"People can criticize that we haven't won more World Series than we have. I don't think that's necessarily a fair criticism," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "We think we should have won more too. But the fact of the matter is we didn't. I don't think that's because we choked. The margin between winning and losing in a World Series is pretty slim. I think people are too quick to assume the losing team choked rather than just give the winning team a little bit of credit. You can't take away the fact that we've won more games than anybody has in this decade. You can't take away the fact that we've been in four World Series and how hard it is to do that.

"I've heard people say it before and they're right _ we're a victim of our own circumstance. We're there year after year, where some of these other teams that have won it and disappear for five years are almost in a better spot than we are. For my money I'd rather be on a team that has a chance to win it every year rather than be a one-year wonder, then disappear for another four years."

What is most impressive about the Braves' run is how long it has lasted. For players who lived through the 106-defeat debacle of 1988 and the back-to-back 97-loss seasons of 1989 and 1990 such as Glavine, shortstop Jeff Blauser, rightfielder David Justice, second baseman Mark Lemke and pitcher John Smoltz, the turnaround is amazing.

"We know what we did," Blauser said. "No one can convince us otherwise. It's been very special."

"I try to remind guys of that all the time," Glavine said. "There are some guys in here and all they know is playing in the World Series. That's not the norm. And that's far from where we came and I think that's why we appreciate it a little more and that's why we might work at it a little harder.

"For three years we were out here losing 100 games a year. We were the joke of baseball. We went from nobody ever wanting to come here to now everybody wanting to play here."

What is even more amazing about the Braves' run is that it looks as if it will continue.

After spending the winter dropping hints he was going to break up the team by trading one of the cornerstones such as Fred McGriff or Justice, Schuerholz appears to have overcome the urge.

The dominating starting pitching staff is just as strong with Denny Neagle replacing Steve Avery behind Smoltz, Glavine and Greg Maddux. The lineup is better, and thus the bench deeper, with Justice healthy. (So much so that 1996 World Series star Andruw Jones could open the season in the minors.) The young stars such as Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko have more experience. The only apparent hole is in middle relief, and one would think the Braves would find a way to improve there.

"I think we'll be every bit as good and perhaps better because of the experience factor for the young guys," Schuerholz said.

According to Chipper Jones, the Braves may have something else going for them as they move into Turner Field. "We're going to come into this year hungrier," he said. "Maybe we weren't as hungry last year, resting on what we did in '95."

If the Braves do lose their appetite, they know the vastly improved Marlins are ready to eat off their plate and battle for the division title.

"For the first time in a long time the Braves have got a challenge," McGriff said. "For the last five-six years it's just a matter of the Braves being in the playoffs and getting through the playoffs."

"It's great to finally at least have people talking about this situation. It's going to be exciting," Smoltz said. "We get tired of hearing it's guaranteed the Braves are the team to beat, the Braves are the team you have to go through to get to the World Series, dah, dah, dah. There's no guaranteed success. You can't rely on past experience. It gives us an edge, but not a guarantee."

Best in the business

Braves have been _ by far _ the best team in baseball since the start of the 1991 season:

Team Won Lost Pct.

Braves 550 356 .607

White Sox 487 418 .538

Expos 480 425 .530

Yankees 476 429 .526

Indians 474 430 .524

Reds 469 437 .518

Blue Jays 467 440 .515

Orioles 463 441 .512

Rangers 464 442 .512

Dodgers 463 443 .511

Red Sox 462 445 .509

Cardinals 457 448 .505

Astros 455 452 .502

Pirates 452 454 .499

Royals 447 459 .493

A's 444 462 .490

Twins 443 462 .490

Mariners 442 462 .489

Brewers 442 465 .487

Giants 440 467 .485

Cubs 438 465 .485

Phillies 435 472 .480

Padres 435 474 .479

Rockies+ 280 305 .479

Angels 419 487 .462

Tigers 410 497 .452

Marlins+ 262 320 .450

Mets 403 501 .446

Source: Braves research

+Since 1993

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