The situation was desperate indeed. Here were the Atlanta Braves trying to maintain a one-game lead in the National League's West Division on the season's final day—and doing a terrible job of it. There was one out in the ninth and the Braves were trailing the Padres 5-1, having butchered the game at bat and afield. Meanwhile, the San Diego Stadium scoreboard was showing a 2-2 Dodger-Giant score in the seventh inning up at San Francisco. An Atlanta loss and an L.A. win would mean that the division title would be decided by a Monday playoff at Dodger Stadium—hardly a pleasing prospect for the Braves.
But as Jerry Royster returned to the Atlanta dugout after flying to left for the second out of the ninth, the Braves suddenly erupted in a volley of cheers and whistles. "What's going on? What's going on?" demanded Manager Joe Torre. Just this. As Royster passed Padre Catcher Terry Kennedy on his way back to the dugout, Kennedy told him that the Giants' Joe Morgan had just hit a three-run homer. Kennedy was getting his inside info from someone in the Padre dugout, where a radio was tuned in to the L.A.-San Francisco game. Royster passed on the news to his teammates, and there was instant bedlam.
"When I came up to bat," Royster explained later, "Kennedy said, 'Men on second and third for the Giants, one out.' 'Great,' I thought. I took a couple of swings and Terry said, 'Oh, no, two outs.' I figured, 'Oh, well.' Then I flied out, and as I was returning, Terry said, 'Don't worry about it—Morgan just hit a three-run homer.' "
The Braves were no longer interested in the game at hand. As Catcher Matt Sinatro fouled out to end the 5-1 loss, they retired to a lunchroom adjoining their clubhouse for a private TV viewing of the game up north. The atmosphere was by no means festive. "I was nervous as hell," said Atlanta Leftfielder Terry Harper afterward. But as the Giants kept holding off the Dodgers, the Braves' spirits rose. When the game finally ended at 3:09 PDT in a 5-3 San Francisco win, the Braves sprinted from lunchroom to clubhouse for the requisite wild celebration of cascading champagne, beer, macaroni and shaving cream.
"How to go, Little Joe!" Coach Sonny Jackson called out, in praise of Morgan, his teammate of long ago. Other Braves shouted hosannas to the entire Giant organization. But though in the end they had needed help from their fellow Dodger-haters up north, the Braves had more than earned their first divisional title since 1969. Counted out nine days earlier, when they were three games behind L.A., they had responded by winning two of three from the Padres, two of two from the Giants, one of two from the Dodgers and two more in San Diego going into the season finale. Even so, as Torre said, "It's fitting for the kind of year we had to end it in a lunchroom."
Indeed, it was an unusual year for the Braves, who were alternately America's Team and then No One's Team.
"Never, ever, have I seen a team go from 24 games over .500 to seven over to 18 over," says Atlanta Pitching Coach Rube Walker, who has witnessed 29 pennant races as player and coach. When the Braves, who won their first 13 games of the season, took a nine-game lead on July 29, they were embraced by fans all over the U.S., who saw them on owner Ted Turner's SuperStation. When Atlanta subsequently lost 11 straight and 19 of 21, dissipating their entire lead in 10 days, the fans and press began to desert them. The deluge? Not quite. On Aug. 19 Pascual Perez, a recent acquisition from the Pittsburgh farm system, was supposed to start, but he lost his way driving to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium; veteran Phil Niekro replaced him, and the Braves began a six-game winning streak. Perez was the model of good humor as teammates posted a road map with arrows pointing to the stadium over his locker. The kind of incident that unites team and city? On Sept. 6 the Braves came home in first place from a successful road trip—and drew 9,051 and 7,523 on successive nights.
"The atmosphere's a little unreal," says Pinch Hitter-First Baseman Bob Watson. "Kind of 'show me.' There's the local devotion to football, and the fans have seen a lot of losing years in baseball. So before the season they were writing us off. We won, and they jumped on the bandwagon. When we lost, they jumped right off."
The Braves argue that both the fickleness of the fans and the team's streaky play were godsends. "It's more important to learn how to lose than win—you can tell if the players overadjust or panic," says Torre, who kept the Braves from panicking by refusing to make wholesale changes during the 21-game nosedive. "It's useful later on because you can see the signs of a slump before it hits you." Some players say experiencing the streaks was like going through an early pennant race. Royster feels the Braves learned to handle pressure in a low-pressure situation. "The fans and press had a lot to do with that," he says. "There was no fan excitement, except early in the year. After our last home game nobody told us, 'Go out and win the pennant.' We just left town."
Heading into the last week, though, the pressure was intense indeed. Trailing the Dodgers by one game and facing their last seven games on the road, the Braves were struggling without their power-hitting third baseman, Bob Horner, who had hyperextended his left elbow in a freak base-running accident on Sept. 18. Horner's replacement, Royster, was playing well, but Harper, Royster's substitute in left, was staggering from one bad situation to another.
Harper reported to Atlanta on May 27 from Richmond of the International League and in his debut broke his right thumb sliding into second; he was out for four weeks. Eight days after returning to action, he separated his left shoulder—if you can believe this—waving a runner from second to third; he was sidelined for three weeks. In the last game of the season's penultimate week Harper caught a slicing fly, crossed the foul line and dropped the ball as he tried to brace himself at the fence. The resulting gift homer contributed to a 3-2 loss to the Padres. "The best players don't get too high or low," says Harper, 27, an ingenuous fellow with an expression of perpetual astonishment. "The veterans told me to look at things in positive ways, and that's what I decided to do." Brave-watchers weren't impressed; forgetting that their team had played better on the road than at home all season, they rewrote the old obituaries as Atlanta headed out for its climactic West Coast swing.
Niekro, the 43-year-old knuckleballer, wasn't about to buy those death notices. The lone survivor of Atlanta's 1969 division champs, Niekro said he had a "burning desire" to play in a World Series. To prove it, he two-hit the Giants on Monday night, Sept. 27, in Candlestick Park. The 7-0 rout gave Atlanta a share of the lead for the first time since Sept. 12. This was the same Niekro who had been on the disabled list the first two weeks of the season with injuries in umpteen parts of his aged body. Another notable survivor, Shortstop Rafael Ramirez, contributed to the victory with a homer and two RBIs. Considered one of the Braves' weak links in spring training, Ramirez helped them break a team record for DPs with a league-leading 186. "He has probably taken more ground balls than anyone in the history of baseball this year," says Dal Maxvill, the coach who hit them. "And he can hit [he finished at .278]."
The following night the Braves won more hearts and minds. They're viewed as a slugging team, but they finished the season with more steals (150) than homers (146). "You can't go flat when you play this way," says Torre. "What you can do is force more aggressive play." On Tuesday, Royster and Right-fielder Claudell Washington stole three bases apiece, Harper hit a three-run double off the leftfield line, and Atlanta beat San Francisco 8-3 to take a one-game lead over the Dodgers.
The Braves moved to Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night and promptly went two-up by beating the Dodgers 4-3 in 12 innings. Harper homered on an 0-2 pitch off Fernando Valenzuela in the fourth and singled home the go-ahead run in a two-run 12th. "Just trying to make contact," he said, sounding like a veteran. Royster made four tough plays at third and singled in the eventual winning run. Told he looked comfortable in the field, Royster said, "I'm glad I'm fooling people, but it's pure instinct. I'm a utility player."
The Dodgers beat the Braves 10-3 Thursday, but on Friday night in San Diego it was Niekro time again. In perhaps the best clutch performance of his 257-win career, Niekro, 17-4, threw a three-hitter, hit a two-run homer and beat the Padres 4-0.
Typically, the Braves won by making the most of a glum situation. The Padres put runners on first and third with nobody out in the first when Alan Wiggins doubled on a ball Harper misjudged and Juan Bonilla reached first when Catcher Bruce Benedict muffed a third strike. "The pitch dropped about four feet," Benedict said. "I knew the knuckler was working." Niekro escaped by striking out Gene Richards and Terry Kennedy and getting Luis Salazar to line to center.
Niekro's homer couldn't have been more timely. With the Braves leading 1-0 in the eighth and Glenn Hubbard on first, Torre ordered his eighth hitter, Benedict, to sacrifice. The idea was to set up an RBI situation for Washington, not Niekro, but Torre nonetheless told Niekro, "Drive him in." Niekro ordinarily bats as if he were flycasting, and San Diego's Eric Show disdainfully grooved one. But this was no ordinary at bat: Niekro lined his seventh career homer—and first since 1976—into the leftfield seats. "I used Bruce's lighter bat so I could wait a little longer," Niekro said later. "It was like hitting a golf ball with a wood—I hardly felt it. I wanted to drop the bat and take four minutes rounding the bases."
"I expected him to hit it hard—he's a gamer," said Royster. "Everybody realizes how much a championship would mean to Phil," said Benedict. How much? Normally as excitable as a sleeping dog, Niekro clenched his fist on every out; by game's end he had extended his streak of innings without an earned run to 24. "I've got a wife and three boys I see only half the year," Niekro says. "But I'll be here until we get to the Series or I can't get the ball to the plate."
On Saturday night the Braves gave 46,287 fans and one full moon an object lesson in intelligent, aggressive baseball. Perez may not be able to find Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but he had no trouble locating the lower reaches of the strike zone. He threw hard into the sixth inning, whereupon Torre went to his "animals." Relievers Steve (Bedrock) Bedrosian and bearded Gene Garber two-hit the Padres the rest of the way. The final: Braves 4-2.
Aggressive? "We had to be with Horner out of the lineup," said First Baseman Chris Chambliss, who hit his 20th homer, a career high, in the third. Otherwise the Braves set up runs with alert advances. Harper singled, stole second and went to third on Royster's surprise sacrifice bunt in the second. "This was no time to be a hero; I know if we get him to third we don't need a hit to score him," said Royster. Hubbard singled in Harper anyway. And in the ninth, Royster went from second to third on a medium fly and was driven in by a Watson single.
That win turned out to be the Braves' last of the season, but it was the last one they needed. As they learned the next day, losing can be fun, too.