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When the baseball season began, depending on where you shopped, you could get 100-1 odds or better from Las Vegas sports-books on the Atlanta Braves to win the World Series.
Or, if you were really into longshots, the price on the Minnesota Twins was even fatter, 120-1 in some places, up to as much as 200-1 in others.
They're considerably lower now--4-1 on the Braves, 9-5 on the Twins--after Atlanta and Minnesota executed the ultimate baseball turnaround, going from worst to first.
Never in baseball history had one team made such a dramatic reversal. And this season, there were two.
Hope For The Future
What does that mean for perpetual also-rans like Cleveland, which lost a franchise record 105 games this season, and Houston, which finished at 65-97, the same record the Braves had a year ago?
"I want our guys to realize what can happen in a short period of time," Houston manager Art Howe said. "I think what they've done is exciting for everyone, especially for us. They basically built from within to turn things around, just like we expect to do."
The Indians are taking the same approach with the youngest team in baseball at an average of 26.1. There's a new ballpark being built and a new general manager, John Hart, and new president Rick Bay, hoping to breathe new life into the franchise.
When Vegas posted the preseason odds on the Twins and Braves, they seemed on target because, frankly, these teams had precious little to recommend them.
Consider their 1990 resumes.
Both had finished in last place, the Braves with a 65-97 record that left them an imposing 26 games behind Cincinnati, the Twins 74-88, 29 games back of Oakland. These teams looked like candidates for Dante's Inferno--"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!"
Still, the rules require that teams show up each year, so the Braves and Twins made their obligatory appearances this summer and quite suddenly they were no longer woe-begone clubs.
Minnesota not only won the AL West, it dominated the division, finishing eight games in front with a 95-67 record, a 30-game turnaround. And this was no pantywaist division either. For the first time in 22 years of division play, every team finished at .500 or above.
Atlanta gave baseball a legitimate down-to-the wire pennant race, beating Los Angeles in the final weekend and finishing at 94-68, a 29-game improvement.
General managers watched and admired the turnarounds of the Twins and Braves.
"In the case of Atlanta, it's very simple," said Joe McIlvaine, vice president of baseball operations for the San Diego Padres. "Bobby Cox got beat over the head for four years as general manager while he was quietly drafting good, young left-handed pitchers. Suddenly, this year, they all came together. They added Otis Nixon, Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream, and when the good pitching kicked in, it had good defense behind it."
Nixon stole 72 bases until his suspension for drugs. Pendleton led the league in batting at .319 and hits with 187 and tightened the infield defense, as did Bream and shortstop Rafael Belliard, another free agent pickup.
"Pitching and defense win in the National League," McIlvaine said. "They're a perfect example of that."
McIlvaine said the Braves' success was an affirmation of the player development system.
"Free agency and trades supplement it, but there's no substitute for strong player development," he said. "That's the key to the health and longevity of any organization. It doesn't happen by accident. The trick is not to count on one or two guys. They had a number of good, young pitchers. If you have 20, two might come through. If you have two, your chances are reduced."
Cox cashed in with Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker, all key parts of Atlanta's staff, all home grown.
Joe McDonald, vice president for player development of the Detroit Tigers, watched the Twins work the same kind of magic in the American League. "It's mind-boggling," he said. "I can account for Atlanta more easily with that good, young pitching. But it's shocking to go from last to first."
Like Atlanta, the Twins came up with some young pitchers in 20-game winner Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani. Jack Morris arrived as a free agent from Detroit to supply an instant anchor for the pitching staff. Still in place were Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek, holdovers from the Twins' 1987 World Series champions. Catcher Brian Harper had a big year.
"Sometimes everything just falls in place," said McDonald, who saw the same phenomenon occur with the 1969 New York Mets. "A team gets in a winning frame of mind. Players begin to believe in themselves. They believe they can win and they go out and do it."
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