Jayson Stark
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Wednesday, September 27
No matter the method, Braves are champs

NEW YORK -- Baseball missed out on one of the great championship spectacles in modern sporting history at Shea Stadium on Tuesday night.

With just a little cooperation from a couple of wayward time zones, we could have been treated to the spectacular sight of the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets both clinching some kind of playoff berth on the same field in the same night.

Then the Braves, after another NL East clincher, could have jumped up and down on one side of the field, shouting, "We're No. 1."

And the Mets, after clinching the NL wild-card spot, could have jumped up and down on the other side of the field, shouting, "We're No. 2."

Oh, well.

One out of two ain't bad.

The Mets weren't able to clinch the wild card for two reasons: 1) because they got wiped out by the Braves, 7-1, and 2) because if the Mets didn't win, they needed both the Dodgers and Diamondbacks to lose. And those two were playing in the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones, respectively.

But at least the Braves clinched, with a 7-1 wipeout of the team they love to haunt. And come to think of it, their clinching was bizarre enough.

This was a clinching that truly brought us into a whole new era in baseball mathematics. It was a clinching in which the first priority wasn't even champagne. It was a calculator.

That's because, by traditional standards, see, the Braves didn't really clinch this division Tuesday at all. By traditional standards, going five games up with five to play is supposed to clinch only a tie. By traditional standards, after that win Tuesday, their magic number was still one, not zero.

But that kind of tradition went right out the picture window the day this wild-card gizmo came into our lives.

Thanks to that gizmo, what came into the Braves' lives Tuesday, was the newfangled baseball tie-breaker system.

Under newfangled tie-breaker rules, if the Braves and Mets tie for first place and both are in the postseason, they wouldn't bother to hold a playoff to determine who finishes first. They'd just go to the tie-breaker.

And the tie-breaker here is head-to-head play. Since the Braves have beaten the Mets seven times in 11 games, they hold the tie-breaker. So even if the Mets win all of their remaining games and the Braves lose all of theirs, the best the Mets could do is tie for first. And if they tie, the tie-breaker rules say the Braves win.

So the Braves actually clinched Tuesday before they clinched.

Got all that?

Don't feel too bad if you didn't, because not all the Braves did, either. Maybe if they'd just had one of those NFL-style tie-breaker charts to consult, this would have been simpler. But word merely trickled into their clubhouse piece-meal, kind of like a wild trade rumor no one was too sure whether to believe.

"How exactly would that work?" wondered Terry Mulholland before the game. "Would it be like the 10-run rule? We'd be far enough ahead there'd be no need to play the rest?"

Uh, no. That's not it.

"I came here thinking we needed to win two games," said Tom Glavine. "But one win is better than two. So that's fine. I'll take that."

"It didn't come to me until early this morning," admitted GM John Schuerholz. "Stan Kasten (the team president) actually woke up in the middle of the night last night. That's when he knew it. But he's a lot smarter than I am. It took me until this morning. I used to get on my son about taking business calculus in college. But if I'd taken business calculus, I'd have figured it out long before this."

Actually, it turned out that broadcaster Pete Van Wieren was the first member of the Braves' traveling party to make this advanced calculation. He was riding the team bus into Manhattan from the airport Monday night when it came to him. So a smattering of Braves around him knew a whole day in advance.

"Really?" Glavine gulped. "I didn't find out until today. I'm a little behind, I guess."

But by the time John Rocker (naturally) dodged one last beer bottle and got the final out at 10:31 p.m. ET Tuesday, everyone knew. Still, to watch the Braves stream out of the dugout calmly and line up for the standard high-fives, no one in Shea Stadium who hadn't taken business calculus would have ever suspected they'd just won anything.

It wasn't until they headed back to the confines of their own clubhouse that they put on their National League East Champion caps (which clearly had rolled off the assembly line approximately 12 seconds earlier) and started spraying champagne.

"We didn't want to do it out there (on the field)," said manager Bobby Cox, the man who started building all this as the general manager 15 years ago. "It's not the playoffs. It's the division. So we didn't want to show anybody (translation: the Mets) up. And we didn't. But we're certainly welcome to celebrate within the confines of our own clubhouse."

As raucous celebrations go, though, this wasn't exactly Mardi Gras. The clubhouse doors were closed for 10 minutes. A few bottles of champagne were sprayed around. Then it was back to business. And the Braves, as we all know by now, have further business ahead than just winning their division.

They've celebrated 18 times now in the last 10 years -- nine times after winning their division, eight times after winning a playoff series, one time (in 1995) after winning it all. So they ought to have this celebration thing down by now.

"This one wasn't as crazy or as passionate as the first one was," said Glavine, who has been there for every one of them. "But it's still special. You don't know how many opportunities you'll get to do it, so it's not something you take for granted. That's why you do it.

"By no means, obviously, is there a sense that we've accomplished what we want to accomplish. But winning a division is still a big deal, and we appreciate that. And we want to make sure everyone here appreciates it. We've got guys who have come in here for the first time, and they deserve a chance to do that. But now, hopefully, we've got three more times this year we'll be able to do it again."

Their cast of characters has transformed itself so many times over these last 10 seasons, it's hard to keep track of all the comings and goings. But all these years later, only two players were around for the first division title and were still spraying champagne after this one: Glavine and John Smoltz. And Smoltz hasn't thrown a pitch all year.

So it was fitting that the guy who was the winning pitcher for this clincher was John Burkett -- a fellow who was released by Tampa Bay in spring training, a fellow who was only on this team because Smoltz needed Tommy John surgery and somebody had to pitch.

Naturally, Burkett went out Tuesday and gave up just three hits and one run in six innings, outdueled Al Leiter and singled in the first run of the night in the fifth inning -- with the 17th RBI of his illustrious 468-at-bat offensive career. The Braves never trailed again.

"It might be the first game-winning RBI I've ever had," Burkett said afterward. "Of course, I think I've only had about 10 RBI or something like that."

OK, 10, 17, whatever. What's the difference? If he hadn't come along, someone else undoubtedly would have. That's the Braves' way.

"These guys expected to win in spring training," Burkett said. "And all year long, if we had a tough game, if we had any kind of adversity, they didn't get shaken up over anything. This is the only team I ever played for that felt that way. I don't want to say they're cocky. But I think they might be spoiled. They know they're going to be there."

And sure enough, once they'd figured out all the complicated mathematical computations necessary, there they were Tuesday night, celebrating away -- with a bubbly can of Diet Pepsi.

"It's about the same as the champagne," Glavine said. "Only it's a little colder."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

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