Sep 24, 2013, 1:50 PM EDT
At some point in the eighth inning, I remember going out to concourse of old Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta and watching Atlanta Braves fans slowly shuffle toward the exits and their cars and another long baseball off-season. It is all well and good to say that baseball fans should stay to the end but there are life realities. There’s school in the morning. There’s work in the morning. Braves fans — not a lot of them, but some — went to face their life realities, and I watched them go.
It was a Wednesday night in October. I was just 25 years old and just starting out in the business. Josh Hutcherson had just been born. Bill Clinton was about to be elected president. It was 1992. And nobody in Atlanta really wanted to stick around and watch the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate their trip to the World Series.
There was nothing at all strange then about the Pirates being on the doorstep of the World Series. The Pirates were good. They were usually good. They were good every year of the 1970s. They started that decade with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and Richie Hebner, they were the Pittsburgh Lumber Company, they pounded teams into submission. They ended the decade with Dave Parker and Willie Stargell and Bill Madlock, they were family. They won two World Series in the 1970s, made the playoffs six times. They had a bit of a lull in the early-to-mid 1980s, but then they got Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek and won the National League East three years in a row.
They led 2-0 going into the ninth inning on that October day, and fans streamed for the exits, and none of us had even the slightest inclination that it was all about to end for Pittsburgh baseball.
Drabek, the ace, started the ninth — he had thrown eight shutout innings and Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland was going to stick with his guy. Atlanta’s Terry Pendleton doubled to lead off the inning. Then Dave Justice grounded to second, but Jose Lind botched the play. There were runners on first and third with nobody out. I was back in the auxiliary press box inside the stadium and I imagined the people heading toward their cars stopped and turned around. I know that everyone in the stadium started waving their arms in that Tomahawk Chop. My ears still ring.
Sid Bream walked. That loaded the bases. That’s when Drabek was pulled. Stan Belinda came on to pitch.
Ron Gant hit a sacrifice fly that scored Pendleton. The score was 2-1. Damon Berryhill walked to load the bases up again. Then Brian Hunter hit an infield pop-up that wasn’t deep enough to score anybody. Two outs. Bases loaded. Everybody in Atlanta knows what happened next. Everybody in Pittsburgh knows what happened next. A 25-year-old career pinch-hitter named Francisco Cabrera stepped to the plate. In his career, Francisco Cabrera would hit .254. He would have 89-career hits in the regular season — one of them a memorable home run off Rob Dibble that saved the 1991 season. He had three hits in the postseason — one of them was this one, the most famous hit in Atlanta Braves history, I guess.
Cabrera rapped a single to left field, toward Barry Bonds, to score the tying run. And then Sid Bream barreled around third and headed for home. Bream was absurdly slow and also injured. He was perpetually injured. In my mind’s eye, I see him running on crutches. Bonds’ throw home was pitiful. It rolled toward the plate. Bream’s slide eluded the tag of catcher Mike LaValliere. The throw would become infamous. The slide would become famous. The Braves won and would go to the World Series. The Pirates lost and would disappear from view for the next 20 years.
Looking back, the dismantling of the Pirates really was sudden and shocking. They had won three division titles in a row. Then Barry Bonds would go to San Francisco. Doug Drabek left for Houston. Mike LaVallierre would be released. Andy Van Slyke would never have another healthy season. The error man, Jose Lind, was dealt off to Kansas City. The Pirates did what bad teams do. They signed veterans past their prime. They signed a 39-year-old former Pittsburgh hero named John Candelaria and a 38-year-old Lonnie Smith. And the horror began: 87 losses that first year. The next year, they brought in a 38-year-old Lance Parrish. The next year, they released pitcher Tim Wakefield just as he was about to be good. They kept losing.
They traded away hometown heroes Jay Bell and Jeff King to save some money. They kept blundering the draft. This is pretty striking three year stretch in the draft:
In 1997, they took first baseman J.J. Davis in the first round — the next first baseman picked was Lance Berkman.
In 1998, they took lefty pitcher Clinton Johnson — the next left pitcher selected was CC Sabathia.
In 1999, they took right-handed pitcher Bobby Bradley — the next righty pitcher taken was Ben Sheets.
The Pirates had losing records ever year. They moved into beautiful PNC Park in 2001. They celebrated by losing 100 games. They celebrated THAT by taking righty pitcher Bryan Bullington with the first pick in the draft — even with Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain on the board. They kept on losing. In the mid 2000s, they lost 95, 95, 94, 95 and 99 in succession. The 2010 Pirates were a disaster, the worst Pittsburgh team in more than 50 years. They scored the fewest runs, gave up the most runs, lost 105 games and seemed as doomed as a team can seem. Only the Marlins in the National League drew fewer fans.
That was the heartbreaking part because Pittsburgh — like my own hometown of Cleveland — has a wonderful spirit, and that ballpark might be my favorite in all of baseball. But it was depressing inside. Bad baseball. A despondent fan base. I remember going to the park in 2011 when the Pirates, against all odds and logic, were tied for first place late in July. It was getting exciting. They promptly lost 28 of their next 37 to crash to earth. I remember going to park in 2012 when the Pirates, against all odds and logic, were 16 games over .500 in early August. It was getting exciting. In one dreadful stretch lost 23 of 30 and finished with a losing record for the 20th straight season.
And so this year has been wonderful because, once again, their success seemed a bit illogical and dangerously fragile. They have counted on a 29-year-old pitcher Francisco Liriano, who most people around baseball had written off. They have counted on slugging Pedro Alvarez, who swings and misses about as much anybody in the game.* They have counted on 36-year-old Jason Grilli to be a closer for the first time in his long and erratic career, on A.J. Burnett at 36 to keep putting the Yankees years behind him, on mega prospect Starling Marte to emerge and superstar Andrew McCutchen to get even better and play like the league MVP.
*According to Fangraphs, here are the top swing-and-kissers of 2013:
1. Chris Carter, Houston: 34.5% miss percentage.
2. Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh: 34.4% miss percentage.
3. Dan Uggla, Atlanta, 33.0% miss percentage
4. Mark Reynolds, Yankees, 32.6% miss percentage
5. Mike Napoli, Boston, 31.8% miss percentage.
And all those things happened, the Pirates were in first place in late July again, and then came the second mini-miracle: They did not collapse. They lost seven of nine at one point and looked to be heading toward collapse, but they settled down. McCutchen since the beginning of July is hitting .350/.451/.564. Liriano, after one dreadful start at Colorado, is back holding batters to about a .200 batting average. They have found ways to scrape through and here they are, making the playoffs for the first time since Sid Bream slid.
I personally wish the postseason race between the Pirates and Reds was still going on, with the winner getting into the first round of the playoffs. As it stands now, the Pirates and Reds will face off in a one-game playoff for the right to go on, and that’s kind of a bummer. Whoever loses that game, their postseason ends on the spot. That would be a real letdown for either city, but especially in Pittsburgh after 20 years of suffering. But this is how the baseball playoffs work now, and, hey, the Pirates are in the postseason again. So is Atlanta. If things play out, they could face each other. That would be fantastic.
Of course, there’s no more Fulton County Stadium — it was imploded more than 15 years ago. Sid Bream is 53 and a motivational speaker. Barry Bonds is 49, the all-time home run champ, and widely despised. Mike LaValliere is 53 and coaches kids now. Bill Clinton hasn’t been president in more than a dozen years. Josh Hutcherson turns 21 in October, he’s a big star and he is my 12-year-old daughter’s crush — which seems to mean that I’m now old enough to have a 12-year-old daughter. Yeah, a lot of time has gone by. It’s good to have you back Pirates.
Mar 14, 2014, 10:20 PM EDT
The Nationals’ acquisition of Doug Fister from the Tigers was viewed as a huge coup over the winter, but the right-hander showed up in camp in February complaining of elbow soreness. He has made only one Grapefruit League appearance to date — a two-inning stint against the Marlins on March 2. Per James Wagner of…
Mar 14, 2014, 9:15 PM EDT
Jason Heyward has earned just over $5 million over his Major League career, and recently inked a two-year, $13.3 million contract extension with the Braves. The outfielder is spreading the wealth, as he bought each of his teammates a Playstation 4, a gift for winning the NL East title last season. On the box is…
Mar 14, 2014, 8:50 PM EDT
Back in October, Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers made headlines extolling the virtues of protecting your teammates. Towers was particularly upset that first baseman Paul Goldschmidt was hit by a pitch and the pitching staff did nothing — no revenge. From MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert: Tuesday on his weekly show broadcast on KTAR 620AM, Towers was asked…
Mar 14, 2014, 8:10 PM EDT
Matt Garza has some fightin’ words for his former team. The right-hander doesn’t have any real grudge against the Cubs, as he previously stated that he enjoyed playing in Chicago, but vowed to try to “kick their teeth in” every time he’s on the hill for the Brewers against them. Via Gordon Wittenmyer of the…
Mar 14, 2014, 7:50 PM EDT
Jason Kipnis was hit in the back with a Jeremy Guthrie fastball in Thursday’s 12-6 win over the Royals. He tweeted a picture of his battle scar — or in this case, battle bruise. Whoever can find where I got hit today, wins a prize! #fruitloop #dontrubit pic.twitter.com/I9PzEWt1v8 — Jason Kipnis (@TheJK_Kid) March 14, 2014…
Mar 14, 2014, 7:05 PM EDT
David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that Braves catcher Evan Gattis had off-season knee surgery. In October, Gattis had a “dime-sized” bone chip removed from his right knee, which had been bothering him since 2006. As a result, the Braves hadn’t been using him in spring training at the same pace most teams…
Mar 14, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
Josh Beckett apparently got his thumb caught in a door about two weeks ago. He tried to pitch through it in his start against the Cubs on Friday afternoon but he could only make it through three of his four scheduled innings, reports Dylan Hernandez of the L.A. Times. The Dodgers are calling it a…
Mar 14, 2014, 4:57 PM EDT
Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan has a report about one of the more obnoxious baseball player arrests you’ll ever see. The player: Red Sox’ minor league catcher Jon Denney. The reason for the arrest: driving with a suspended license. But the flavor of the arrest is way better than the charge might indicate: According to police, Denney said…
Mar 14, 2014, 4:40 PM EDT
It’s been a rough day for the A’s starting rotation, as expected Opening Day starter Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin are both headed for the disabled list to begin the season. Parker has a forearm injury and Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that he’s traveling to Alabama on Monday to be examined…
Mar 14, 2014, 4:23 PM EDT
Every time I write or tweet about Bryce Harper I get a lot of people responding negatively. They hate him for some reason. Or at least he annoys them. I’m not sure how this can annoy anyone: Great day at the zoo with @kayvarner! so much fun interacting with the animals…giraffes are so legit! #BrevardZoo…
Mar 14, 2014, 3:25 PM EDT
Mike Trout is pretty relaxed about the timetable he’s facing to become a centimillionaire. Mike DiGiovanna reports that, unlike a lot of guys who negotiate contract extensions with their current teams, Trout is OK with it if negotiations on his deal with the Angels carry over to the regular season: “It doesn’t matter to me,”…
Mar 14, 2014, 3:04 PM EDT
Glen Perkins was already under team control through 2015, with a team option for 2016, but the Twins and their 31-year-old closer have agreed to an extension that runs through at least 2017. Perkins is a Minnesota native who starred for the University of Minnesota and is very active in local charities (along with being…
Mar 14, 2014, 2:34 PM EDT
Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels reported feeling “really good” this morning, two days after throwing a 20-pitch bullpen session to test his injured shoulder, and Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com writes that he’s slated to throw another bullpen session Sunday. However, according to Hamels the Sunday session will likely only be at “around 60 to 65 percent…
Mar 14, 2014, 2:14 PM EDT
Hank the Dog, the stray who wandered into Maryvale Baseball Park and became an unofficial Brewers mascot this spring, has a permanent home. In Milwaukee of all places: The stray pup who has won legions of fans since showing up at Maryvale Baseball Park along with Brewers pitchers and catchers will move north to Milwaukee…
Mar 14, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
Sports Illustrated and ballpark architect Populous have combined to do something fun: imagine what a ballpark might look like in the year 2030. Go check it out here. There are artist’s renderings and explanations of all of the unique flourishes and how the concepts of ballpark design will evolve over the next 15-20 years. It’s…
Mar 14, 2014, 12:42 PM EDT
Sure, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are heading to Australia next week for a two-game series, but more importantly Arizona right-hander Josh Collmenter is hoping to get a date while he’s there. Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports writes that Collmenter has agreed to a dating game-style contest sponsored by the Daily Telegraph in Sydney. Women have…
Mar 14, 2014, 11:51 AM EDT
Instead of letting the backup catcher competition drag on until the end of spring training the Phillies have released Lou Marson, meaning Wil Nieves is in line to be starter Carlos Ruiz‘s understudy. Marson was originally drafted by the Phillies back in 2004 and came up through their farm system before being traded to the…
Mar 14, 2014, 11:32 AM EDT
The Braves better hope there’s a two-for-one sale at Dr. Andrews’ office, because in addition to Kris Medlen almost certainly needing a second Tommy John surgery, it appears as though Brandon Beachy is heading in that direction too. Previously it was assumed that Beachy’s problem was merely muscle soreness — in his biceps specifically —…
Mar 14, 2014, 11:19 AM EDT
As expected the Orioles optioned top prospect Dylan Bundy to the minors, sending the 21-year-old right-hander to Double-A to continue his rehab from Tommy John elbow surgery. Bundy had the surgery in June and is close to being cleared to throw from flat ground, with the hope being that he’ll be ready for game action…
Mar 14, 2014, 11:12 AM EDT
A couple days after the Ryne Sandberg-Jimmy Rollins foofaraw broke, Ryne Sandberg is still insisting that benching Rollins for a couple of days is not a disciplinary thing or about him sending a message. People in the know aren’t buying that. Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com is one. He wrote last night that the timing was…
- The D-Backs weren’t kidding about the retaliation thing 18
- Red Sox prospect gets arrested, acts like a monumental jackwagon 60
- Jon Niese bristles at the media reporting Dan Warthen’s racial slur — and I sorta understand why 45
- Jimmy Rollins on Ryne Sandberg: “Everyone is allowed to have their opinion. That doesn’t make it right.” 75
- Smart money on Hanley Ramirez, Jay Bruce in prop bets 26
- Is Barry Bonds really getting a “fair hearing?” (104)
- Keith Olbermann REALLY hates that Barry Bonds is coaching the Giants for a week (100)
- Manny Machado calls $519K salary for 2014 “disappointing” (90)
- Giants players love having Barry Bonds at spring training (90)
- Ryan Braun calls himself an “artist,” doesn’t care what fans on the road will shout at him (84)