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Baseball Notebook: Friends for life ... or something like it

Sunday, September 14, 2003

By Steve Ziants, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

If the Atlanta Braves were a television show, they would be "Friends. " Bobby Cox would move in across the hallway from Monica and Chandler, Greg Maddux would make the occasional cameo as Phoebe's brainy love interest who discovers that "Smelly Cat" is the only song he can dance to and Leo Mazzone would rock Rachel's baby to sleep each night while cooing sweet secrets of the split-finger fastball into her ear.

If all that weren't enough to make you "Must See" it every Thursday night, before each season there would be teasers in the national rags that this season is the end of the line. The concept is tired. The economics are prohibitive. The good, long run is over. No more Emmys. No more division titles. No more Jennifer Aniston hanging out at the Golden Globes.

And every year about this time we would be proved wrong. As we are this year.

In case you were distracted this week wondering whether J.Lo and Ben postponed their wedding as a ruse to throw off The Guy In The Stands, the Braves went into the weekend with a magic number of six for clinching an unprecedented 12th consecutive division title and "Friends" is 11 days from the premiere of its ninth (and final, it really is) season on TV.

More unbelievable -- particularly for the Braves' version of this long-running series -- is that every year they've done it with a different mix and match. Pendleton and Justice. Rachel and Joey. Ted and Jane. Ross and Rachel. Maddux and Glavine. Chandler and Monica. Chipper and Andruw.

Twelve in a row. "The Braves have won so big for so long we can scarcely remember what not winning was like," wrote a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week.

So long that we tend to forget that when this whole dynasty started in 1991 their starting lineup included the likes of Otis Nixon, Rafael Belliard, Gregg Olson and Jeff Treadway. Otis, my, my, my man? Maddux was still a Cubs player and their current double-play combination of Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles were 13.

You would think they would have had to sign a Derek Bell somewhere along the line or put too much stock in a Midre Cummings. But no. As the champagne chills for yet another victory toast, the numbers bear witness to how masterfully Cox and GM John Schuerholz have handled age, injury, turnover, fate, Ted & Jane's divorce, free agency and change in ownership from the antebellum Turner to the corporate bottom line of AOL/Time Warner.

Two different players have won the NL MVP.

Four different pitchers have won 20 games, with Russ Ortiz soon to make it five. (For comparison, the Pirates have had four since 1960.)

Three different pitchers have won Cy Youngs ... six awards in all.

Nine different players have been listed as their regular first basemen through newcomer Robert Fick.

24 different players have represented them in the All-Star Game.

18 different players have hit .300, including Terry Pendleton's league-leading .319 in 1991.

18 different pitchers have won at least one game in the postseason.

14 different players have hit 20 homers, nine have hit 30 and three 40.

Eight different players have led the team in home runs.

Nine different players have driven in 100 runs.

But, like Roseanne poring over summer squash in the supermarket produce aisle next to Courtney Cox Arquette, all may pale next to this one: 105.

Lay all the Braves' division titles end to end and 105 is the number of games by which they have run all those flags up the pole. Affix those 105 games to a baseball season and it means the difference between the Braves and all the rest in this soon-to-be 12-championship run is the distance between opening day March 31 and July 29.

Four months.

Or long enough in TV time for Ross to open 1,042 bottles of whine, Chandler to finally realize he played way up in getting Monica, Joey to lose four more IQ points after getting hit on the head by a stage light on the set of "Days of our Lives," Phoebe to get blonder and, in the season finale, John Rocker to make a guest appearance in the "Central Park" coffee house where all our friends congregate to rail about their lives. He would play the patron who finally goes over to their couch and declares for America: "Go tell someone who gives a damn." Then fade to credits, where we see Maddux finally win his milestone 15th game for a 16th time. Can TV get much more compelling?

Wild, wild month

When September began, eight teams were within 3 1/2 games of each other in the NL wild card, promising one of the crazier finishes since baseball went to the wild-card format in 1995. The NL Central winner will emerge from among three of them -- the Astros, Cubs and Cardinals -- leaving the others to contend for that one last, lonely postseason spot over these final weeks. The Guy's weekly update on who's hot, who's not and who's RIP.

Leader: The Marlins led the Phillies by 1 1/2 games going into yesterday.

Biggest mover: Florida went from a game back of the Phillies to 1 1/2 ahead going into the weekend thanks to a six-game winning streak (and a 12-of-14 tear). "It's quite a roll," said closer Braden Looper. "Hopefully, it's a team of destiny, because it's a lot of fun." If it means anything, Friday's win guaranteed the Marlins only their second winning season. The other? Their World Series year of 1997.

One to remember: Tuesday night. Phoenix. Dodgers ace Hideo Nomo ailing. L.A. clinging by its nails in the wild card. Randy Johnson starting for Arizona. And who do the Dodgers call on but a 20-year-old by the name of Edwin Jackson who had never pitched above Class AA. And, oh yeah, it was also Jackson's 20th birthday. "Hollywood rarely comes up with stuff this good," wrote a Dodgers beat writer. And in true Kevin Costner fashion, Jackson didn't disappoint. He allowed one run on four hits in six innings and beat Johnson, 4-1. "I've heard a lot about the kid, a lot of good things," closer Eric Gagne said. "But it's another thing to come in here and do it ... Just amazing."

Difference maker: Florida's acquisition of one-time closer Ugueth Urbina (3-0, 1.19 ERA, 9 holds) is paying off handsomely. He has allowed only one run in six September appearances while serving as an experienced bridge between the starters and closer Looper.

This week: The Marlins and Phillies go head-to-head Tuesday-Thursday in Philadelphia (see Series of the Week).

Left for dead: Expos, Diamondbacks.

Birthday bash

The Guy mentioned previously that Dodgers pitcher Edwin Jackson turned 20 Tuesday, the same night he made his big-league debut. Bet you didn't know that he is the fifth pitcher to debut as a starter on his birthday, joining Fred Woodcock (1892, Pittsburgh), Tom Hughes (Cardinals, 1959), Jerry Arrigo (Twins, 1961) and Larry Dierker (Astros, 1964).

And The Guy also suspects you didn't know that when Florida's Derrek Lee hit his 28th home run of the season Sept. 6, it came on his 28th birthday. That makes him the fourth player to celebrate his birthday by hitting a homer that was the same number as his age.

The man in red

After a Reds game several weeks ago, a woman driving on a highway on the outskirts of Cincinnati lost control of her car. It flipped. A man who saw the accident stopped, pulled her out of the car, took her to his vehicle and dialed 911. He then stayed with her until the EMTs arrived. He gave her something to drink and kept her comfortable while they waited. Once he saw she was in good hands, he left. And nothing more was said or known of this tale until the woman e-mailed the Reds to express her thanks. Why the Reds? Her rescuer was Cincinnati first baseman Sean Casey of Upper St. Clair. Any wonder he is The Mayor.

Of mice, he was a man

The Guy would be remiss if he didn't acknowledge the passing this week of Wilbur Snapp in South Pasadena, Fla. Mr. Snapp, 83, an organist for the Class A Clearwater Phillies, earned a spot in The Guy's hall of fame in the mid-1980s. Being into the game one particular night in 1985, Snapp thought the umpires had blown a call. Rather than boo like everyone else, he turned to his organ and unleashed a stirring rendition of "Three Blind Mice." Apparently, the umpires were not moved. Instead, they turned to Mr. Snapp, pointed in his direction and thumbed him out of the game.

This 'n' that

The Braves disprove the theory that winning will bring out the fans. They are on pace to draw 2.4 million fans, their sixth consecutive season of declining attendance. ... Jesse Orosco, 46, is not without a few peers. Phillies reliever Dan Plesac, 41, is glad he put retirement off one more year in order to be part of the Phillies' wild-card run. "I have streaks when I feel 25 again. But they don't last as long as they used to." ... After Chicago's Randall Simon homered twice and drove in five runs in a 9-2 win vs. the Brewers Sunday, he explained his success thusly: "When you get men in scoring position, you've got to drive them in. That's the family food out there." ... Strange how things work out. The seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium Thursday night, during which "God Bless America" was sung on the two-year remembrance of 9/11, came at 9:11 p.m. ... A glimpse of the attitude Dusty Baker has instilled in the Cubs: "There are two things you should know. I don't take kindly to threats and nobody intimidates me except my dad and former St. Louis pitcher Bob Gibson when I was still playing." ... And finally, HBO will debut "The Curse of the Bambino" Tuesday, a documentary that examines the woes of being a Red Sox fan since The Babe was sold to the Yankees in 1920. Proof that this is cable and not MLB-approved, comedian Denis Leary offers an antidote right out of yesterday's headlines. "I am against cloning, but since we have him already, why don't we just clone Ted Williams and get, like, 10 Teds. Get, like, the starting lineup of all Teds. The Yankees have all the money, let's get all the clones."

Shot and a jeer

Shot: Reds rookies were made to dress in women's clothing for the trip home from St. Louis Sunday. Nothing new there. It's become a rite of September for big-league veterans to haze the kids on one of the season's final trips. But you know it's been a bad year when your traveling party has more players in drag (14) than shirts and ties.

Jeer: Some say Hideki Matsui, who played 10 years in Japan, should not be considered for AL rookie of the year. Let's turn things around. If Matsui had flopped in his first season with the Yankees, would critics have taken into account his 10 monster seasons in Japan and simply called 2003 an off year? Doubtful.


Steve Ziants can be reached at sziants@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1474.

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