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BRAVES' AMAZING RUN COULD BE OVER

Julio Franco's fly ball to center field Sunday night not only ended Game Five of the National League Championship Series and the season for the Atlanta Braves, it all but ended an era.

The Braves won their 10th consecutive division title this season and surprised most by sweeping Houston in the first round of the playoffs and advancing to the NLCS. But after being ousted by Arizona in five games, including three consecutive losses at Atlanta, there is little doubt the Braves' era of dominance has ended.

They must do some serious work this winter if they hope to return to the playoffs.

One priority is to find a first baseman. Franco, who was dug up in the Mexican League, gave Atlanta a strong stretch run while resurrecting a career that appeared over.

The Braves also have the task of re-signing John Smoltz.

The Braves will be better at shortstop next season because 2000 Rookie of the Year Rafael Furcal, who was out most of the season with a shoulder injury, will return and give Atlanta a true leadoff man. But the Braves will need more than Furcal's return. They got an incredible season from pitcher John Burkett, who went 12-12 despite having the third-lowest ERA in the National League. Burkett will be back, along with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, but the once feared Braves rotation isn't what it used to be, and it's more difficult for the pitchers to win because of Atlanta's weak offense.

The Braves finished 13th in the NL in scoring this season, and have only two hitters who strike real fear into opponents -- Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones -- and need at least one more big bat in the lineup.

The obvious answer would be to sign Barry Bonds or Oakland first baseman Jason Giambi but AOL-Time Warner won't let the Braves open Ted Turner's vault the way they used to.

Selig mum on meetings

NEW YORK -- Baseball owners will meet Nov. 6 in Chicago, but there is no indication commissioner Bud Selig will push for decisions on a lockout and eliminating teams that are having money problems.

Owners have not gathered since mid-June, but the pending labor talks and the possibility of one or more teams folding have been hot topics on phone discussions all year.

Montreal is the most likely candidate for elimination if owners decide to contract, with Florida and Tampa Bay also possibilities.

"No decisions have been made on anything," Selig said Monday.

The Windsor (Ontario) Star reported Monday that baseball will eliminate the Marlins and Montreal Expos and allow Marlins owner John Henry to purchase the Anaheim Angels and allow Expos owner Jeffrey Loria to purchase the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. A dispersal draft would be held this fall, with the teams picking in reverse order of the regular-season standings.

Henry was out of town and unavailable for comment, but Henry met with all Marlins employees before the final home game of the season and told them they would all have jobs and guaranteed the team would play at least one more season at Pro Player Stadium.

Three high-ranking executives on other teams, speaking on the condition they not be identified, said there had been no information distributed by Selig to major league clubs on labor or contraction. In addition, several teams have released their schedules for next season, and all 30 clubs are scheduled to play.

"To my knowledge, from everything I've been told, the Florida Marlins will continue to exist in 2002, and that's how we're proceeding," Marlins president Dave Dombrowski said Monday.

Owners have not discussed contraction with the Major League Baseball Players Association, according to Gene Orza, the union's No. 2 official. The union maintains that contraction is subject to collective bargaining and that owners can't eliminate teams without the permission of the players' association.

As for labor, baseball's collective bargaining agreement expires immediately following the World Series and negotiations have not started. Selig has said since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that the earliest talks would start is November.

If owners wanted to stop free agents from signing, they would have to start a lockout no later than the 16th day following the World Series -- the first day free agents can sign with new teams. Selig has not made any widespread attempts to gain support for a lockout.

Baseball has gone through eight work stoppages since 1972.

Pena on list for Astros job

HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros plan to interview Mike Cubbage, Tony Pena and Jerry Royster today for the manager's job that opened when Larry Dierker resigned last week.

Cubbage is a bench coach with the Astros. Pena managed New Orleans to the co-championship of the Pacific Coast League this season. Royster is a bench coach for the Milwaukee Brewers.

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