ATLANTA The silence was broken only by the clubbies, who stood over trash cans clanging together pairs of cleats, jarring loose those pesky chunks of dirt from the spikes.
If anyone spoke, it was in hushed tones.
For the most part, everyone just sat quietly at their lockers, slowly dressing or staring straight ahead with a faraway gaze.
Welcome to an un-Brave-like new world.
The franchise that used to report for spring training every year expecting the season to stretch well into October is now mired in mediocrity, the memory of those 14 straight division titles becoming more and more faint. This will be the third year in a row that Atlanta has missed the playoffs, management having decided already to throw in the towel with two months to go.
When cleanup hitter Mark Teixeira was dealt to the Los Angeles Angels a couple of days before the trade deadline, the Braves unveiled a new rallying cry: Wait 'til next year.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined we'd be where we are right now," right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. "I thought we'd be in first place or right there in the hunt."
While Philadelphia, New York and Florida battle it out atop the NL East, the Braves are left to wonder how it all went wrong, how a team that used to treat the postseason like a birthright will get to spend August and September holding auditions for 2009.
"It's a first for all of us," said third baseman Chipper Jones, who has been with the Braves since 1995. "We certainly felt like, coming out of spring training, that we were going to be in the middle of things all year. This is a tough pill to swallow."
In all fairness, Atlanta has endured a staggering series of injuries especially to its pitching staff.
John Smoltz underwent season-ending shoulder surgery and may be done for good after making only five starts. Tom Glavine, who'd never been on the disabled list in his 22-year career, has been out for nearly two months with a sore elbow. Tim Hudson learned in the past week that his ailing elbow will likely need major surgery, which would keep him on the sidelines for a full year.
There's more. Mike Hampton, who must spend most of his time walking under ladders, finally made it back to the mound last weekend after being out for nearly three years far too late to be of any help. Reliever Peter Moylan lasted only seven games before needing Tommy John surgery, the same operation that now faces Hudson. Rafael Soriano, who was penciled in as the closer, went into the weekend with only three saves because of persistent elbow problems. Another potential closer, Mike Gonzalez, didn't make it back until mid-June after undergoing an elbow operation last year.
The rest of the team also has been hard hit. Jones and center fielder Mark Kotsay have spent significant time on the DL. So have part-timers Matt Diaz and Omar Infante.
"We've got too many players hurt right now to really compete," general manager Frank Wren said after dealing Teixeira to the Angels, who have the best record in the major leagues. "It's time to start rebuilding our club."
This has been a trying first season for Wren, who had the unenviable task of taking over for longtime GM John Schuerholz, the primary architect of all those division championships. Schuerholz moved up to president after last season and handed over personnel matters to his right-hand man.
While Wren certainly deserves a mulligan in view of the MASH unit that passes for a clubhouse, it's also fair to point out that he chose to rely heavily on older players, many of them with significant medical charts.
The 41-year-old Smoltz had been through four elbow surgeries and was plagued by an ailing shoulder last season. Glavine had been injury free until this year, but he is 42. Jones is 36 and hasn't played a full season since 2003. Hampton was coming off two major operations and had one setback after another trying to get back to the mound. Kotsay had been acquired from Oakland as Andruw Jones' replacement after undergoing back surgery last year.
Now, the Braves find themselves facing another busy offseason.
"There's still a good core of players here," Jones said. "But there are some pieces that need to be added. That's Frank's domain, not mine."
Start with the rotation, once the bedrock of Atlanta's success but now a full-blown mess.
Rookie Jair Jurrjens has been impressive, but he might be the only holdover from one year to the next. No one knows if Smoltz will ever pitch again. Glavine is working on a one-year deal. Hampton's mega-contract is mercifully up. Hudson figures to miss at least the first four months of next season.
The outfield also needs addressing. A week ago, Wren thought he had a deal for Pittsburgh slugger Jason Bay, but the Pirates decided to go in a different direction. Bay wound up in Boston just before the deadline in a three-team trade that sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers.
Francoeur's mystifying season hasn't helped matters. The guy who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a rookie, and drove in more than 100 runs each of the last two seasons, went into the weekend hitting just .235 with nine homers and 47 RBIs.< He's been booed at home a jarring blow to a hometown guy who might have been the team's most popular player and even earned a brief demotion to Double-A Mississippi.
Some have wondered if Francoeur's workout program led to his problems. He bulked up over the winter, hoping to improve his power numbers but now has trouble making any sort of solid contact. Looking to change his luck, he even grew a beard.
"There's nothing I can do about those first four months," Francoeur said, "but there's something I can do about the last two."
Even though the Braves are headed for their second losing season in the last three, Wren said there's still plenty of reasons to be optimistic. He landed promising first baseman Casey Kotchman in the Teixeira deal, so the infield looks set moving forward with second baseman Kelly Johnson, shortstop Yunel Escobar and Jones at third. All-Star Brian McCann is one of the top catchers in baseball. If Gonzalez stays healthy, Soriano gets past his problems and Moylan returns, the bullpen should be in good shape in 2009.
"We think we'll be right back contending next year," Wren said. "We've got a good nucleus of a club. We just got hit harder than most by the injuries."
It's a Brave new world no one expected.