Respect, like division championships, has followed John Schuerholz around for more than two decades. Yet a new feeling made an appearance this spring at the Atlanta Braves' camp in the outskirts of Disney World:
Because the pencil-necks from AOL-Time Warner had tied both of Schuerholz's hands behind his back, forcing him not only to choose between Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine but also ordering him to give away 20-game winner Kevin Millwood. It appeared the end had arrived for the great Atlanta dynasty.
And the astute man in the trademark suspenders didn't even have a fighting chance to keep it together.
Yet here's what Schuerholz, the Braves' GM, said as he watched manager Bobby Cox run the first full workout: "We had a good team last year. I think we'll have a good team this year. Once we get everybody blended together, I think we'll be a good team.''
Poor man. He had become delusional.
That's what a lot of us thought when we heard him talk, anyway. But look who's leading the majors in victories.
While the Braves no longer run 2-1 and 3-2 victories off the assembly line -- they lost weekend games against Montreal in which they scored 10 and eight runs -- they have had more than enough run-production to offset the ongoing decline being experienced by Leo Mazzone's pitching staff.
A largely homegrown lineup that has been augmented significantly by Schuerholz acquisitions of Gary Sheffield, Robert Fick and Vinny Castilla has been the calling card of the 2003 Braves. They are on pace to score 941 runs (not only a modern franchise record, but 101 more than in any season since 1900) and win 106 games.
So, we'll hold the obit.
Not that Schuerholz is gloating. The guy is always trying to get better.
He's spent the last couple of months analyzing the market for trades before the July 31 deadline. Lately, Schuerholz and assistant GM Frank Wren have been working the telephone in search of moves that will bring two or three more pitchers to Atlanta -- at least one starter and one reliever.
History says Schuerholz will get his men.
Dating back to a 10-year run atop the Kansas City Royals, an organization he helped build from expansion draft to American League West monopoly, the teams he's run have gone to the playoffs 14 times in 22 years. That includes an 11-year run of division titles in Atlanta (excluding the 1994 strike season).
You don't do that for this long without knowing where to find talent when you most need it. Schuerholz always seems to know what his teams need and how to get it without giving up too much to get it.
Consider how he stole All-Star Russ Ortiz from San Francisco for Damian Moss this past offseason. Or how he fleeced the Cubs at the trade deadline in 1999, getting the versatile Terry Mulholland and Jose Hernandez for pitching discards Micah Bowie, Ruben Quevedo and Joey Nation. Or how he got shortstop Rey Sanchez from Kansas City for pitcher Brad Voyles and infielder Alejandro Machado after Rafael Furcal was injured in 2001.
Due to the varying extremes in the economics of baseball, I have to pick two GMs -- one from a small-market team and the other from a big-market club.
The first one is Billy Beane, who's done a remarkable job with the Oakland Athletics. The book "Moneyball" has offended a lot of people this season in the business, but it can't hide the tremendous job Beane's done with a small-market team. Year in and year out he keeps the A's competitive with teams like the Yankees through great trades and a great farm system. He's definitely among the best GMs in the business.
On the other end of the spectrum, I'll go with the Braves' John Schuerholz, who has more money at his disposal than most GMs but it doesn't get wasted very often with bad signings or trades. Over the years, Schuerholz has done a great job of making controversial moves that panned out for the Braves. No one knew that John Smoltz would become the dominant closer that he's become, but Schuerholz had the guts to stick with the move. And this past offseason, he let Tom Glavine go and now looks like a genius for doing so.
Beane and Schuerholz are on opposite ends of the spectrum economically, but both are on the same elite level as general managers.
Former Reds GM Jim Bowden always got the better end of the deals he made. He knew how to get other GMs to give up their talent in return for whatever he was offering. He did a great job with the Reds on what was mainly a shoestring budget. Bowden's untimely and unwarranted departure was a direct result of him lacking the funds necessary to win. With a new ballpark (Great American Ball Park), had Bowden been given a little more cash to put a team together, he would still be the general manager.
Seattle Mariners' general manager Pat Gillick for developing talent, winners, respect and character.
Turns out Schuerholz didn't do that badly getting switch-hitting catcher Johnny Estrada from the Phillies for Millwood -- at least not when you consider that his bosses (yes, even the best GM has to endure bosses) basically ordered Millwood off the payroll before sunset.
Estrada continues to lead the Triple-A International League with a .340 batting average. He hasn't been needed with Javy Lopez reasserting himself as an All-Star, but could figure largely in either a trade for help or as the long-term Atlanta catcher (Lopez is eligible for free agency after this season).
Fellow general managers advise dealing with Schuerholz warily. He's described as a very good negotiator, who is extremely professional and doesn't waste anyone's time. He almost always seems to be dealing from a position of strength, and it shows in the deals he's been able to pull off.
That's why the events of last winter seemed so surprising.
Glavine, who seemed a better bet to keep than Maddux, departed for the New York Mets. Schuerholz was left to call a news conference to answer complaints about unreturned phone calls and general unresponsiveness.
In hindsight, there might not have been anything Schuerholz could have done to keep Glavine. A strong union man, the left-hander was determined not to leave money on the table and somebody (the Mets or Phillies) was going to top every Atlanta offer.
Millwood was dealt almost immediately after Maddux accepted the Braves' offer of salary arbitration. Schuerholz admitted in spring training that he had to "offload'' $10 million from his payroll -- almost exactly what Millwood was expected to seek as a five-plus arbitration player.
"There was one team willing to take him ... one team,'' Schuerholz says, referring to the Phillies, who were one of the few teams with money to spend. "You heard me whining for two days (after the trade). All I did for two days was whine about the economics of baseball. But that's what it was, an economic decision.''
If anyone is to blame for the decline of the Braves' pitching staff (which ranks ninth in the NL with a 4.32 ERA), it is ownership. It is not Schuerholz, Cox or Mazzone.
Including relievers Chris Hammond (who signed a two-year deal with the Yankees), Kerry Ligtenberg (non-tendered for financial reasons) and Tim Spooneybarger (traded to Florida in the three-team deal for Mike Hampton), the Braves lost seven pitchers who were 66-34 with a 2.85 ERA over 883 innings. Including relievers Roberto Hernandez and Ray King, Schuerholz imported five pitchers who were 42-41 with a 3.80 ERA over 738 innings. That's a bad tradeoff, and it has shown.
But this is where Schuerholz comes in, again.
"Change is inevitable,'' Schuerholz says. "You have to get comfortable with it, make it work for you.''
So far, so good.
"Sooner or later, one day this run will come to an end,'' Schuerholz says. "It's lasted a lot longer than anybody anticipated. It's been incredible. It is incredible. And we don't have any give up in us this year.''
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.