They were winners of 11 consecutive division championships, but the Braves were accorded no respect and given no benefit of the doubt 18 months ago today when they traded Kevin Millwood to Philadelphia for Johnny Estrada.
Millwood, in 2002, had matched Tom Glavine with a team-high 18 victories, and Estrada had a .222 batting average in two tours with the Phillies. The Braves, the prevailing assessment went, simply wanted to shed Millwood's salary and took whatever body the Phillies offered.
That body, entering Saturday's games, was leading the Braves with 38 runs batted in and was second on the team with a .325 batting average, and Estrada was the major leagues' best at hitting with runners in scoring position, compiling a .471 average as one of only three players in the .400's with at least 50 at-bats.
"As I said then and I've said hundreds of times since in response to inquiries," general manager John Schuerholz said, "we traded Kevin Millwood not because we wanted to but because we had to remove $10-million from our payroll. We had no way to go but to remove this contract."
Schuerholz had traded pitchers before, but Glavine had defected to the Mets as a free agent, and Millwood's departure would further weaken the foundation of the Braves' success.
"As I got into it, there was only one team in Major League Baseball willing to take Kevin Millwood and his $10-million salary," Schuerholz said. "I talked to other teams, but only the Phillies were willing to do it. But I wasn't going to trade him to anybody unless I got value back. He was a good pitcher for us."
Despite the opinion of others, the Braves viewed Estrada as a player of value. "It was a fair deal based on potential ability and current ability," Schuerholz said.
On the day he made the trade, Schuerholz was in Baltimore visiting his mother. He liked the crab cakes he ate at a restaurant immediately after agreeing to the deal with Ed Wade, the Phillies' general manager, but they taste even better today.
"At the time," Schuerholz said, "nobody, probably rightly so, was able to measure what balance there was in that deal, but there was balance for us. We knew Estrada. He's who we asked for. People who make their living judging talent knew him."
Estrada, a switch-hitter who will be 28 next Sunday, has been a pennant-race saver for the hitting-deprived Braves. They let their productive veteran catcher, Javy Lopez, leave as a free agent, trusting that Estrada would replace the lost offense. He does not have the power Lopez demonstrated last year when he hit 43 home runs, but Estrada has other offensive attributes.
"He's shown a remarkable ability to deliver in tough situations," Schuerholz said. "This guy gets big hits."
Despite an injury siege that has knocked out many of the Braves' primary players, they have remained in the vicinity of first place in the NL East, and Estrada is a major reason.
"We've had our projected starting lineup on the field for only four days, and those were the first four days of the season," Schuerholz said. "If it were not for Johnny Estrada and J.D. Drew, principally, we wouldn't have much chance."
FRANKLY SPEAKING: Montreal manager Frank Robinson is known to be gruff and curt in the best of times. When things go bad, well, hide the women, children, dogs and water coolers.
Robinson is not in the best of humor these days with his Expos in possession of the majors' worst record, 20-44 when the weekend began.
In fact, there was a report out of Montreal, unconfirmed, that the players planned to ask GM Omar Minaya to sweep Robby out the door.
They held a 20-minute players-only meeting recently, and it was said some players consider the Phillies fortunate to play for Larry Bowa, who is Norman Vincent Peale compared to Robinson.
Said outfielder/first baseman Brad Wilkerson, "No matter what you think of the front office, the manager or anybody else in the organization, you play for your teammates and you play for yourself."
During a May meeting conducted by Robinson in Los Angeles, he asked if anybody had anything to say. No one did. Jose Vidro stood up ... then walked to the lunch room.
Robby left the room shaking his head.
WRONG TURN: In 1983, Arizona State University's Craig Pritchert lost his starting outfield job to Barry Bonds.
He engaged in a different career.
Pritchert, 41, was caught robbing a Nevada bank in 1993, served time and was placed under supervised release.
Some supervision. He and a girlfriend, Nova Guthrie, resumed taking bank money without withdrawal slips. They hit banks in Durango, Colo.; Missoula, Mont.; Aztec, N.M.; Dickinson, Texas; and Klamath Falls, Ore., netting $500,000 before they were arrested in South Africa.
UH, WE'LL KEEP HIM: Teams keep asking the Rockies about pitcher Jason Jennings and the Rockies keep telling them, "Are you crazy?"
Jennings is 20-9 for his career in Coors Lite Field, where pitchers go to watch their earned-run averages explode. And the Rockies are 28-10 in his starts.
GUEST APPEARANCE: The Brewers are staging their second annual World's Oldest Tailgate Party for senior citizens. Last year, coach Rich Donnelly, only 57, strolled through the parking lot.
"I sold four season tickets, booked three personal appearances and got invites to two Parcheesi games in Appleton," Donnelly said. "People talked to me and said, "Where are you from?' They didn't notice I was wearing my uniform."
WEEKEND WONDERS: Attention AL schedule-makers: The Indians hereby formally request that they play only on weekends and only at home.
The Tribe is 13-1 at home this year on weekends.
When Ken Griffey hit his 499th home run June 13 in Cleveland, Indians catcher Tim Laker almost wished he had hit No. 500, too. Laker was the catcher when Rafael Palmeiro hit his 500th.
"I could have been the answer to a trivia question: Who was the catcher for two different 500th home runs?"
No, the question would have been: "Who was the catcher who called the wrong pitches for two guys to hit their 500th homers?"
11 IS HIS NUMBER: Cardinals outfielder Reggie Sanders doesn't wear uniform No. 11, but perhaps he should.
On June 11, he hit his 11th homer, hit his 11th double and stole his 11th base.
Four more uniforms and he will be playing for his 11th team.