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Braves Are Loose, so Are Their Collars

National League: Since they've shaken the label as chokers, the pressure is off as they open series tonight against Cardinals.


ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves gathered in the clubhouse Tuesday, looked over starter John Smoltz's shoulder, stared at the paperwork in front of him, then groaned or snickered each time he flipped the page.

The detailed scouting report on the St. Louis Cardinals?

Hardly. First things first.

The Cardinals are here to play the Braves in the first game of their best-of-seven National League Championship Series at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium but the Braves were focusing their attention on their weekly football pool. It came down to the Monday night game. The winner? Left fielder Ryan Klesko. Runner-up, third baseman Chipper Jones.

Then, arguments about football expertise over, shortstop Jeff Blauser wound up his mechanical raccoon and cut it loose across the clubhouse. Jones sat in front of his locker, talking about his early-morning hunting expedition. Outfielder Luis Polonia talked about his night out on the town.

"Will you look at us?" Jones said, "I guess we've got nothing better to do. I guess we're really feeling the pressure, huh?"

There indeed is something funny going on this fall in Atlanta.

The Braves won it all last fall, so instead of struggling under the burden of trying to win their first World Series championship in Atlanta, or trying to shed their image as chokers, they stroll into this series as if they were playing spring-training games.

"I think there was pressure getting to the playoffs, but now that we're there, all the pressure is off," first baseman Fred McGriff said. "We're a lot more relaxed team than last year. I mean, last year was rough.

"Last year, everybody knew we had to get to the World Series just to win the World Series. If we lost again, we'd never hear the end of it. We already were being called the Buffalo Bills of baseball."

Said pitcher Tom Glavine, "I think we're all enjoying this year more. There was so much pressure last year, you really didn't appreciate it. When we won, it was more of a relief and an accomplishment than anything else. We never did relax. We knew if we lost, we'd be called chokers."

Certainly, this season has not been easy for the Braves. They lost All-Star right fielder David Justice in May because of a dislocated shoulder. Starting pitcher Steve Avery won only seven games. Shortstop Jeff Blauser played only 83 games. And they lost top left left-handed reliever Pedro Borbon in August.

Yet, here they are again, on the brink of yet another World Series appearance.

"If I was a betting man, and saw that team, how could you not bet on them?" Cardinal closer Dennis Eckersley said. "What they've done is incredible. I mean, having to win when you're supposed to win is a . . . . If you don't win, it means you choked.

"Hey, man, I remember what it was like [with the Oakland A's] in '88 against the Dodgers and '90 against the [Cincinnati] Reds. We were supposed to win both of those series, and the fact that we didn't, people called us chokers.

"That's a tough label to deal with."

The Braves shrug it off. They laugh when Cardinal reliever Rick Honeycutt's says the Cardinals will show Atlantans where they can stick their tomahawks. They yawn when the Cardinals talk about a lack of respect.

"I read comments by Chipper Jones that they beat the team [the Dodgers] they feared the most," Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa said. "It seems like we've got more respect for them than they've got for us. They were speaking honestly because the Dodgers really scared them. The Cardinals don't scare them as much.

"But we don't need to get insulted to get ready. We'll be ready."

Yet when someone tried to imply that the Braves had no respect for the Cardinals, Brave Manager Bobby Cox fumed.

"That's absolutely stupid," Cox said. "It's the most stupid thing I've heard in a long time. That's just someone trying to stir stuff up. . . .

"I don't know if we're the favorites or not. You look at Los Angeles and San Diego. Everybody thought we were going to play San Diego [in the first round], including myself, and look at what happened."

The Cardinals can talk all they want, resurrect the ghosts of the Gashouse Gang, retell stories of Whitey Herzog--nothing is going to rattle the Braves.

"We go out there and play and don't talk much," Klesko said. "Let them talk. We'll just play quiet baseball. That's why we are the world champions."

The Cardinals can't even get the town of Atlanta stirred up. The Braves have yet to sell out the stadium for tonight's game or Game 2 on Thursday night. Even the players are asking around if anyone wants their tickets.

"I got all of these playoff tickets and I can't get rid of them," McGriff said. "Maybe I'll have to go see a scalper."

Said Smoltz, who will oppose Andy Benes in Game 1 tonight, "I can't explain it. I have no idea why they weren't sold out in Los Angeles. Maybe they're all waiting for the World Series."

The Braves might have indeed become complacent, but if they did, that all changed Aug. 13 when they reacquired third baseman Terry Pendleton from the Florida Marlins.

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