- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The decline of the Atlanta Braves franchise from perennial playoff shoo-in to respectable also-ran has been in full swing for a while now. The Braves haven’t made the postseason since 2005, and though they’re hanging on for dear life in the National League wild-card race, common sense says they aren’t going to make up 5 1/2 games and leapfrog three teams in the next two weeks.

But the end of a remarkable era in baseball history does feel a bit more imminent these days, and that has less to do with Atlanta’s place in the standings and more to do with the uncertain future of two organizational stalwarts: Bobby Cox and Chipper Jones.

Each has dropped hints recently that he is considering retirement. Asked by Atlanta reporters whether he will return for his 25th season as manager, Cox was conspicuously noncommittal, saying: “We’ll see. We’ll see, OK?” Jones, meanwhile, strongly suggested he would retire after next season if he can’t regain the hitting stroke that defined his career but eluded him this year: “I’m not saying I’m retiring at the end of this year or the end of next year, but if I become an average player, I’m not sticking around.”

Either man’s retirement in the next 12 months would draw major headlines in Atlanta and around the country. If they both walk away… well, the Braves will have lost the final two remnants of a franchise that once seemed invincible.

Think about how entwined each is with that organization. Jones made his big league debut in September 1993 and has been a stalwart in the Braves’ lineup since 1995. Cox began his second stint as manager in 1990 (he also ran the show from 1978 to 1981).

Cox was there in his familiar dugout perch for all of Atlanta’s 14 consecutive division titles. Jones missed the first three but was a big part of the subsequent 11.

They weren’t always the only two stalwarts. The Braves’ run of unparalleled success was defined by a continuity both on the field and in the front office rarely found in baseball, let alone professional sports. From owner Ted Turner to president Stan Kasten to general manager John Schuerholz to Cox to pitching coach Leo Mazzone to a roster that included Jones, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, the Braves entered every season knowing who was responsible for what.

Now, though, all but Cox and Jones are gone. Kasten, of course, is running the Washington Nationals. Schuerholz was bumped up to team president and no longer runs the baseball operations department. Mazzone left for Baltimore and is now out of work. Smoltz went to Boston, then St. Louis. Maddux went to the Cubs, then the Dodgers, then the Padres and then back to Los Angeles before retiring. And Glavine, though he returned this season after a stint in New York, was unceremoniously released this summer and looks finished.

As for Turner, well, the Braves aren’t even televised on TBS anymore.

That leaves Cox and Jones as the two remaining links to the glory years. Whether they walk away this winter, next winter or the winter after that, it’s only a matter of time before the end arrives.

And once they’re gone? What will be of the Braves’ franchise? Well, the cupboard is hardly bare. Brian McCann, Yunel Escobar, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens make for a nice foundation on which to reassemble a champion. But they aren’t Jones, Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine. And they won’t have Cox managing them.

No, the Braves will resort to second-tier status in baseball, just good enough to stay out of the cellar, just bad enough to stay out of first place.

And all that will remain of the greatest sustained period of success in NL history will be the string of 14 pennants that are posted side-by-side along the upper deck facade at Turner Field, a reminder of this franchise’s glory days and also of the men who defined it.

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