In 1996, the Atlanta Braves were World Series Champions. They had beaten their American League clones, the Cleveland Indians, in six games the previous fall.
The Braves were in the midst of a 15-year run as the National League’s dominant team. From 1991-2005 they would win the National League West [’91-93] or the East [95-05] a combined 14 times, at least 90 games 13 times, 100 in a half-dozen seasons, and go to five World Series [1991, 92, 95, 96, 99]. For all that, the 1995 Series was the only one they would win. From that perspective, the 1996 season began a long decline.
It didn’t look that way at the time. Exactly the opposite in fact.
While it was lefty Steve Avery’s final season with the team, the rotation appeared ready to dominate for years. John Smoltz, five seasons away from his conversion to the closer’s role, was the 1996 NL Cy Young winner. Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were also on course for Hall of Fame careers.
There was speed and power up and down the lineup. Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones, Marquis Grissom, Ryan Klesko, Terry Pendleton, Jermaine Dye, David Justice, Luis Polonia. The Braves were going to score runs.
Bobby Cox’s coaching staff was formidable as well. First base, third base, and bullpen coaches Pat Corrales, Jimy Williams, and Ned Yost would all become major league managers in their own right. And Bobby always had Leo Mazzone’s company. The venerated pitching coach only stopped rocking in the dugout when he stood up to go to the mound.
That said, the best advertisement for the Braves’ future was a teenager who came up to the club late in the season to play left field. Andruw Jones was 19. He hailed from the Caribbean island of Curacao, off the Venezuelan coast, and he had some pop in his bat. In 31 games, he drove hit five home runs, drove in 13 runs, scored 11, stole three bases, and showed excellent range in the outfield.
It was in the Fall Classic where he made the greatest impression, however. In his first World Series game, the teenager hit two home runs and drove in five in the second and third innings to spark a 12-1 rout in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees would lose Game 2 as well before rebounding to sweep the next four,. Nevertheless, Jones became a fixture in the Braves outfield for the next 11 seasons before bouncing around the major leagues for another five, the last two with the Yankees. His major league resume reads more than 400 home runs and 150 stolen bases, a career 62.8 Wins Above Replacement, five All-Star appearances, the 2005 MLB home run and National League RBI crowns, and ten Gold Gloves.
That’s a tough act to follow. The Braves seem to have a pipeline to Curacaoan talent, though. Two players from the tiny island have followed Jones’ path to the big leagues.
Andrelton Simmons didn’t quite work out. His first full season at Turner Field held promise. The shortstop finished the season with 150 hits, 59 RBI, 76 runs, and 17 HRs. When his production dipped in the next two campaigns, the Braves traded him to the Angels in 2015. Last season, Simmons rediscovered his hitting stroke, setting new career marks for hits, doubles, homers, runs, RBIs, stolen bases, and walks. He also struck out more, although that was a fair price for the increased production. The 28-year-old has the talent to enjoy a solid major league career. It just won’t be with the Braves.
Last season, Atlanta mined their private Caribbean island for a third time, bringing away a second-baseman. Ozzie Albies made his debut on August 1st and quickly turned heads. In 57 games before season’s end, he cracked 62 hits, knocked six out of the park and collected 28 ribbies. His power was complemented by speed. Albies scored 34 runs and stole eight bases in nine attempts.
This season, he is proving it’s not a fluke. With teams coming up on the season’s quarter-pole, the 21-year-old infielder is third in the majors in run production, having scored or driven in 67. Only Boston’s Mookie Betts and the Yankees Aaron Judge, with 69 and 68 respectively, surpass the islander. Albies’ batting line reads .304/.564/.868.
He could certainly walk more, especially as pitchers are now pitching around him. His slugging percentage is seventh-best in the National League. It was fourth going into the weekend. It’s his turn to adjust now. The youngster must lay off pitches outside the strike zone to get on base more.
Couple Albie’s numbers with first-baseman Freddie Freeman’s power, though, and it’s little wonder the Braves are setting the pace in the National League East. Still young, Albies has the potential to be even better as he learns. If he does, people will start to look at Curacao less as the home of Andruw Jones and more as a baseball hotbed.
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.