Bill Parcells, who has held several jobs and flirted with many more, famously said that in the NFL “you are what your record says you are.” Which I guess explains it. The Braves don’t play football.
The local baseball club entered play Wednesday night with the National League’s best record and the fattest lead in either circuit. They subsequently ceded the NL’s best record to San Diego, which seized on a rare Billy Wagner clanger to prevail in 12 innings, but still. The Phillies lost, too, and that’s the team many still regard as the class of the East.
ESPN’s “SportsCenter” posed the musical question Wednesday: Are the Braves as good as their record? Bob Ford of the Philadelphia Inquirer doesn’t think so. On Monday he described the Braves as “a nice team” but contended that “the Phillies, if they play as they can, have nothing to worry about.” Mr. Ford also characterized Brian McCann and Troy Glaus as “easy outs.” His conclusion: “The Braves are fine, but they aren’t as good as the real Phillies.”
Reality check: The third-place Phillies awoke Wednesday to find themselves seven games behind the “nice” Braves.
True confession: I understand the skepticism — to a degree. I was leery of Frank Wren’s winter moves, and I was all but convinced that Wren had assembled a wreck of a roster when the Braves dropped nine consecutive April games. But times change, and so should perceptions. And what right-thinking folks should be perceiving about now is that the Braves mightn’t look imposing, but they sure do win.
This isn’t a team that has a hot month and has coasted. The Braves were 29-22 when they claimed first place on the last day of May. They’re 26-17 since. Put another way, even after their best stretch ended — they were 20-8 in May — they’ve still won better than six of every 10 games.
And they’ve cleared every hurdle the schedule has raised. Remember the 11-game road trip that commenced just after Memorial Day? Remember how that was supposed to tell us if the Braves were pretenders? They went 6-5. Remember what happened next? They came home and took two of three from Tampa Bay, which arrived tied for first in the American League East. Remember the allegedly difficult East Coast swing before the All-Star break? They won two of three games against both the Phillies and the Mets.
Still there are doubts. Part of that is understandable. The Phillies have become the brand name in the National League, same as the Braves were for more than a decade, and outlets such as ESPN traffic in Brand Names. The Braves long ago lost their sizzle, and they don’t have a Big Name on which to rebuild the Brand Name.
The first person you think about when you think of the Braves is Bobby Cox, who doesn’t play. The second person is Chipper Jones, who plays sometimes but isn’t having a Chipper year. Even Jason Heyward, the buzz of spring training, has cooled. As splendid as they’ve been, Martin Prado and Tim Hudson don’t stir the masses the way A-Rod and CC Sabathia do.
There’s no vast media conspiracy to deny these Braves their due, but it’s nonetheless true that we in the media aren’t great with nuance. We like our stories ready-made. We like superstars and super feats. (”Kobe scores 81!”) The Braves are nothing if not nuanced, and that’s why much of the watching world still expects the Phillies of Ryan Howard and Doc Halladay to rush past them. But that’s not going to happen, for a rather basic reason:
The Braves are the better team.
Said Matt Diaz, the hottest Brave: “I’m not saying that things weren’t good here in other years, but the chemistry on this team is something different … From 1 through 25, this is a team.”
To appreciate these Braves requires a bit of effort. Other than Prado, you won’t find a Brave among the National League’s leaders in any major offensive category. (Unless you count walks, which aren’t terribly exciting.) Only Hudson and Billy Wagner show up among the pitching leaders. But those aren’t the numbers that matter.
The ones that do are found in the standings, and there the Braves are atop the NL East. And that should be enough to satisfy any media outlet.