Schuerholz moves aside as Atlanta's golden era fades

For those keeping score at home: One era, quite utterly gone.

The question of what pitching coach Leo Mazzone actually meant to the Atlanta Braves might never be answered to the complete satisfaction of WHIP-crunching seamheads everywhere. Whether Bobby Cox is a gruff but fair manager of men or a sort of gradually worsening old coot in a uniform sometimes stacks up as one of life's basic imponderables.

And the transition of John Schuerholz the GM to John Schuerholz the president, as the Braves readied themselves to announce that job switch on Thursday, might strike some as more of a glancing blow to the organization than a direct hit -- a rearranging of the chairs on deck, not all hands overboard.

Hey, he's still on the ship. That has to count for something.

And maybe so. But from what little can be really intuited about the chemistry of a winning club, this much seems clear: You mostly notice it when it's gone. And with Mazzone long departed and Schuerholz now one step removed from the day-to-day machinations, Cox is the remaining one-third of a collective brain that pushed the Braves' organization to success rates that made them the year-in, year-out envy of the industry.

Oh, sure, that was a while ago -- eons, by the modern standard. Since Mazzone took his pitching theories with him to Baltimore after the 2005 season, for example, the Braves have experienced back-to-back third-places finishes in the N.L. East, going a combined 163-161 over two years.

Still, there was a feeling of finality Thursday surrounding Schuerholz's stepping down -- or up, or over to the side, depending upon your view. There was the unmistakable sense of an ending. And maybe that's because, with all due respect to some of the marvelous talent the Braves rolled out there on the field over the last 17 years, this was one franchise upon which where the guys who didn't play left an indelible mark.

The easy response to the success of those years is to survey the careers of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, among others, and essentially credit their bosses with being in the right place at the right time. Smoltz has been particularly insightful on the subject of Mazzone, gently pointing out in a recent interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Mazzone's reputation as a pitching-staff wizard was built substantially on his ability to handle pitchers who already knew how to compete at the major-league level.

That's probably fair as far as it goes, and it's no problem accepting such a notion when you consider that Mazzone's two years in Baltimore, where the Orioles have been beset by injury and basic organizational and personnel failures, have produced the 29th-ranked pitching staff in the majors for two seasons running.

But the whole story? Egad, no. The whole story in Atlanta is too complex for that. It goes to something more mysterious and ethereal and, thus, of severely limited value in baseball's statistics-oriented society. It goes to the idea of multiple minds working together in some sort of weird harmony, of organizational leaders being pretty comfortably in sync. You probably can see it more easily than explain it.

Oversimplified, think of the Braves through the glory years as the product of a well-defined trinity of roles and responsibilities: Schuerholz, obtaining and then locking down via contract the talent that Cox felt he could exploit to the greatest effect and, in the case of pitching, that Mazzone judged capable of moving to the next level. (Many observers would go one step further and include Dayton Moore, the longtime Braves executive and farm-system specialist who is now GM in Kansas City.)

Tinker to Evers to Chance, it wasn't; but ask around: The approach had bite. And while it's undeniably true that, for example, Atlanta's pitching over the final couple of seasons in Mazzone's tenure wasn't as strong as it had been previously, it's nevertheless the fact that, until that organizational troika was broken up by Mazzone's departure, the Braves went to the post-season 14 times in 15 years.

Again, to be clear: It was the players first. It's always about the talent. But which talent, and in what combination, and at what cost, remains the baffling Rubik's Cube for every franchise in the major leagues. For years and years and years on end, the Braves solved the cube.

It ended right after Mazzone left, although only a fool would suggest that any one person's absence caused the Braves to drop off to 79-83 in 2006 or to miss the playoffs again this year. Players get older, arms fade, rosters grow brittle, injuries happen -- it's the same story everywhere you go.

Everywhere, that is, except Atlanta, for a decade and a half. That's about five lifetimes' worth of winning, by pro sports standards, with John Schuerholz and his colleagues right in the middle of it, though rarely actually on the field. And that is what the Braves were really saying goodbye to on Thursday.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland", has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. His book "Kids of Summer," about the curious ability of one town to consistently produce Little League champions, will be released in July 2008. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.