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Braves looking to start a new streak
Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones during a spring training workout earlier this week in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. - photo by David J. Phillip

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Jeff Francoeur was there for the tail end of The Streak.

He was promoted from the minors midway through the 2005 season, got swept up in Atlanta’s winning ways and helped the Braves capture their 14th straight division championship. Francoeur led the celebration on the night they clinched yet another NL East title, dunking his head in a bucket of ice water and wrestling in the middle of the clubhouse with Chipper Jones. Sure seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

The Braves have endured a different kind of streak the last three seasons, stuck at home each October after once being the gold standard for regular-season consistency. Francoeur is tired of looking back.

"They had a great run," the right fielder said. "We’ve got to move on."

Francoeur was one of the lucky ones, getting a chance to celebrate the last of the 14 titles, the longest such streak by any franchise in any of the major American sports. Most of the guys in the clubhouse today weren’t around for any of The Streak. They don’t remember how it seemed to feed off itself, providing the sort of inner confidence that assured the Braves would finish first in their division no matter who they put on the field.

Pitcher Tom Glavine, third baseman Jones and manager Bobby Cox are the only real holdovers, the last true links to all those championships. There’s a new owner, a new general manager, basically a whole new roster.

The Streak means little to someone who wasn’t a part of it.

"I didn’t come here saying just because they won 14 championships in row, they’ll be able to do it again," said Derek Lowe, the new ace of the staff after signing a $60 million, four-year contract during the offseason. "There’s definitely nothing wrong with respecting what they’ve done, acknowledging that they set the bar. But it’s our job in here to get them back to those winning ways."

Atlanta was on the fringe of the playoff race in both 2006 and ‘07, but the bottom fell out a year ago. Injuries decimated the once-proud pitching staff, which had only one projected starter make it through the season unscathed and lost two key relievers.

In a stunning move, the Braves gave up on their season at the trade deadline, dealing away Mark Teixeira and getting a head-start on 2009. They stumbled to a fourth-place finish in the NL East, 20 games behind Philadelphia with a 72-90 record that was their worst since 1990, the year before The Streak began.

Even at 67, Cox has never been one to spend much time dwelling on the past. When the Braves were winning all those division titles, he never thought there was any secret formula that assured they would always finish on top of the standings.

"We had good players," he said. "That helps."

It all started with the rotation, a group dominated for years by the likes of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Glavine — Cy Young winners all.

"We’re going through a transition," Jones said. "When you replace Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz with kids out of the minor leagues — news flash! — you’re going to take your lumps."

Certainly, the Braves no longer can rest on their laurels. With each passing season, they pull a little further away from that winning tradition, the one signified by all those pennants painted on the facade above the left-field stands at Turner Field.

"We’ve got to go out and play the game harder," said Francoeur, who went from being a hometown hero to a frequent target of boos during a miserable 2008 season. "A team we need to emulate is the Phillies. The Phillies play the game the right way. They play the game hard. They take extra bases. That’s what we want to do this year."

His comments are telling. Those are the sort of things they used to say about the Braves. Now it’s left to other organizations — Philadelphia, Boston, even Tampa Bay — to show how it’s done.

Perhaps the most telling change in this organization is at the top. Ted Turner used to own the Braves, a hands-on, free-spending billionaire who watched games from his box right next to the dugout and made sure Atlanta was always had one of the highest payrolls in the game. If they needed to sign someone such as Maddux or Andres Galarraga, Turner would willingly write out the check.

But his influence began to erode when his company was gobbled up in a series of massive corporate mergers. Turner’s last ties to the franchise were effectively stripped away when Time Warner sold the franchise to Denver-based Liberty Media, a massive conglomerate that seemingly takes little interest in the franchise beyond the bottom line.

The Braves finished the 2008 season with a payroll of about $92 million, which ranked in the middle of the pack — 14th out of 30 teams, to be exact — and was less than half of the nearly $223 million spent by the in-a-league-of-their-own New York Yankees.

The trickle-down effect has been apparent. The streak coincided with a time when general manager John Schuerholz had plenty of money to spend (and, no, that doesn’t diminish his remarkable accomplishment, a legacy tarnished only by Atlanta’s failure to win more than one World Series).

But the Braves failed to make the playoffs in his final two years as GM, and then last year after he moved up to president and handed off his former duties to Frank Wren.

Wren believes Atlanta remains a favored destination among players looking for a team, though it certainly didn’t appear that way over the past few months:

The Braves tried hard to land free agent pitcher A.J. Burnett, but he took an even better offer from the Yankees.

Former Atlanta shortstop Rafael Furcal appeared set to re-sign with his original team, only to take more money to stay with Los Angeles Dodgers.

Smoltz, who had spent his entire big league career in Atlanta, signed with the Boston Red Sox after receiving what he described as a significantly inferior offer from the Braves.

Then, over the past week or so, Ken Griffey Jr. approached the Braves about the possibility of finishing his Hall of Fame career in Atlanta, only to have a last-minute change of heart that led him to accept an offer from his original team, the Seattle Mariners.

"The history with this team is all positive," Wren insisted. "It’s a great place to play, a great organization, with a great manager.

"But," he added, "the current situation is we haven’t made the playoffs in the last three years. Players are looking at what we’re going to do to improve our chances of getting back to the playoffs."

To their credit, the Braves have taken steps to improve their injury plagued rotation, signing Lowe, trading for Javier Vazquez and going all the way to Japan to acquire their first player from that country, all-star Kenshin Kawakami. On Friday, they brought back the 42-year-old Glavine, who’ll serve the dual role of fifth starter and resident historian. He was there at the start of The Streak and can pass along tips about starting a new one.

"There’s a long history of success with the Atlanta Braves," Glavine said. "A lot of the younger guys on our team grew up watching that.

"Maybe I can bring answers to some of their curiosity about how we did it all those years, what it took to do it all those years, what it takes as a team and what it takes as an individual."

Or maybe he can just tell them:

Forget about the past. Start your own tradition.

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