Billy Hatcher, formerly of the Pittsburgh Pirates and now of the Cincinnati Reds, smiled and thanked Larry Doughty, formerly of the Cincinnati Reds and now of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was Monday, and Hatcher, an outfielder who rarely played in Pittsburgh last season, had just homered, doubled and singled in Cincinnati's 6-3 win over the Pirates in Game 3 of the National League playoffs.
General manager Doughty, who joined the Pittsburgh organization in 1987, dealt Hatcher downriver to Cincinnati in April. It was Doughty who had helped construct much of the current Reds' team in his 17 years in Cincinnati's scouting department. "I asked Larry Doughty to trade me, and he did," Hatcher was saying. "He gave me an opportunity to play every day, and I'm very thankful for that."
You can't fully understand this series without accepting startling new evidence that suggests the Reds and the Pirates are actually the same team. It now seems that while incessantly playing each other in the 1970s—in four playoff series in identical-looking parks that opened two weeks and 295 miles apart on the banks of the Ohio River—Cincinnati and Pittsburgh blurred into a single franchise. It explains this business of neither team's appearing in the playoffs in the 1980s—they are the only two teams in the National League with that distinction. It explains why the Reds and Pirates each won six games against the other this past regular season.
It also explains why each team scored five runs in the first two games of the National League Championship Series. It explains why Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati's ace in Game 1. It explains why Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh's ace in Game 2. It explains why Reds shortstop Barry Larkin said last Friday, "Either team could have won both games." It explains why, through Monday, Cincinnati had won five times in Pittsburgh this year, and Pittsburgh had won five times in Cincinnati.
The first two games turned on the teams' respective superstars, Eric Davis of the Reds and Barry Bonds of the Pirates, who, it turns out, happen to be the same person. Both are leftfielders and the only two players ever admitted beyond the velvet ropes of the 30-50 Club, which requires members to hit 30 home runs and steal 50 bases in a single season. The club has a strict dress code, which is why both Davis and Bonds wear diamond studs in their left earlobes, tuck their ankle-length pants into hightop spikes and have portraits of themselves rendered on their wristbands. You only think you've seen these two together.
By showtime even the teams' managers were blurring their distinctions. "I'm not nervous," the ordinarily high-strung Lou Piniella insisted in the Cincinnati dugout last Thursday. "I haven't seen anyone who's liked us yet. [The Pirates] are the ones who are supposed to win."
"More power to him," said Jim Leyland, Pittsburgh's ordinarily placid manager. "I'm nervous as hell."
As the series opened last Thursday in Cincinnati, there was something to be nervous about, but it wasn't quite clear what: It was difficult to tell whether Riverfront Stadium was about to host a playoff series or a senior prom. The grounds crew grooming the field was outfitted in formal wear. (Reds owner Marge Schott's idea.) Just inside the stadium tunnel, a white van idled, with one of those professionally printed livery signs on the window to identify its passenger: SCHOTTZIE. (Marge's dog, Marge's idea.) The stadium had been festooned with enormous orange ribbons, and a bouquet of orange balloons was released after the national anthem. (The orange decor, thought at first to be a leftover from a Cincinnati Bengals party and Schott's misguided idea of a bargain—red being the Reds' primary color—turned out to be in honor of U.S. troops in the Middle East.)
Certainly Pittsburgh's starter, Bob Walk, did nothing to suggest that an athletic event was about to begin. The 6'4", 220-pound Walk can charitably be described as a dufus—shaggy, slouching, beer-bellied—seemingly incapable of performing anything more aerobic than what his surname suggests. He was 7-5 with a 3.75 ERA this year, a season divided among the starting rotation, the bullpen and the disabled list, where he twice found himself with a pulled groin.
Leyland started the 33-year-old Walk in the opener simply because it was his turn in the rotation—a move that even baffled Walk a bit. "I was thinking, Now I've got to pitch good to get him off the hook," Walk said. "I'm a [Leyland] fan. I want him to look good."
Walk's opponent was Jose Rijo, who was 6-2 with a 1.27 ERA after Aug. 21. Rijo not only looks like a good pitcher but also is related to a great one: His father-in-law is Hall of Famer Juan Marichal.
Unfortunately for the fit Rijo, the lesson of the night was, No gut, no glory. The Pirates won 4-3, even though Walk gave up three runs to the first five batters he faced. "I saw the bullpen go into action," he said, "and that's not really a good sign in the first inning." However, he allowed only one more base runner through the sixth inning, his last.
The Pirates had, meanwhile, scored three times, two of the runs coming on first baseman Sid Bream's fourth-inning dinger. In the top of the seventh, Pittsburgh put runners on first and second, and centerfielder Andy Van Slyke drove a fly ball deep to left.
Etymologists have Davis to blame for making nonchalant a verb. He was still coolly backpedaling when Van Slyke's ball sailed over his head, then bounced behind him and over the fence for a ground-rule double and the game-winning RBI. Perhaps Davis and Bonds aren't the same man after all. "I don't think I've ever done that before," Bonds was quick to note afterward. ("Eric makes that play 99 times out of a hundred," Piniella said of the three-time Gold Glover. "A hundred out of a hundred," Davis corrected incorrectly.)
Half an hour after the game, Walk was being escorted from the interview room by a Pirate public relations exec and two reporters. His only other experience with such attention had been when, as a rookie with the Philadelphia Phillies, he gave up six runs in Game 1 of the 1980 World Series but lived to get the win. A decade later, wearing Levi's and a white Oxford shirt whose purchase date could be determined only by carbon dating, Walk neared a security woman on his way to the Pittsburgh clubhouse. She asked to see his pass. "I don't have a pass," Walk said apologetically.
"He's the star pitcher," said the Pirates' publicist. Walk smiled weakly. The woman wasn't buying this. "He just won the game," she was told. Walk nodded in confirmation. Still skeptical, she finally waved Walk on. "Just doing her job," said Walk, who would be schmoozing with Bryant and Deborah in a matter of hours.
In fact, the Reds and Pirates would be playing again in a matter of hours. Neither team had a day off after the regular season—end-of-season makeup games that were necessitated by the spring training lockout had forced alterations in the playoff schedule, and this is what baseball and television had come up with. And because CBS didn't want to disrupt its blockbuster new Friday night schedule—It's Burt Reynolds in Evening Shade!—Game 2 would start at 3:20 and would be played on a field divided: One part of it in blinding sun, the other in deep, encroaching shadows.
"I don't know why they would start a game at this time [of day] at this time of year," said Larkin, who has obviously never seen Evening Shade. Said the Pirates' Gary Redus, "You should never play a game at this time of day."
In spite of the conditions—and as often because of them—the game sizzled in Cincinnati's Indian summer. The Reds put their first three hitters on against Cy Young shoo-in Doug Drabek, and the one run Cincinnati wrung from the inning held up until the Pirates' fifth, when Jose Lind hit the sixth home run of his four-year career, off Tom Browning, to tie the game. With a runner on second and one out in the Reds' fifth, platoon rightfielder Paul O'Neill popped a fly to left.
At the start of the game, Davis had announced in the dugout that because of the sun, anything hit to leftfield would be trouble. "As soon as it went up, I lost it," said Bonds. "I knew it was hit well; I just didn't know where."
Like a soccer goalie defending a penalty kick, Bonds took a guess, turned to his left and ran toward the track. The ball landed behind him, on his right, for a double. Cincinnati took the 2-1 lead into the sixth, which Van Slyke led off with a single. He went to second on Bobby Bonilla's single. The next batter, Bonds, lofted a fly to right. "It could have ricocheted off the blimp for all I know," said O'Neill, who caught a ball he couldn't sec as Van Slyke tagged and headed for third.
Larkin decided not to cut off O'Neill's throw. "It was so strong and right on line," said Larkin later. Said Van Slyke, "I heard the ball whiz by my ear." In another nanosecond, he was punched out in the play of the series, which the Reds evened with their 2-1 win.
Ludicrously, there would be no game for another 72 hours—59 minutes of which would be consumed by the commute to Pittsburgh for Games 3, 4 and 5. "It's going to feel like a month," said Bonds, who planned to spend the wait watching TV, the medium that dictated this forced vacation. CBS didn't want the national pastime to interfere with its pro and college football telecasts on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; the network would not displace its own games, nor did it want to go head-to-head with those on other networks. And on Saturday and Sunday nights, CBS had the American League Championship Series to televise.
Game 3 would have another 3:20 start on Monday afternoon because CBS's wacky Monday night comedies are better ratings ammunition than baseball against ABC's Monday Night Football. The CBS logo is a black eye, but baseball was taking the beating. Or was it? Like Bowie Kuhn sunning himself in short sleeves in arctic Octobers past, commissioner Fay Vincent last week thanked CBS for "accommodating" baseball.
So, there was time to kill. Like most players on both teams, Cincinnati third baseman Chris Sabo spent the break relaxing and took in, as he put it, a Kentucky "greengrass" band on Friday night. Over the lost weekend, the press, too, needed something to do, and O'Neill, whose sister Molly is a food critic for The New York Times, became all the news fit to print during the hiatus. Yes, O'Neill rooted for the Reds while growing up in Columbus. ("In Ohio in the '70s, you had to," he said.) Yes, he would have been terribly disappointed had the Reds' season fizzled in September, a month in which he hit .195. ("I'd have let the team down.") Yes, of course—now bowing his head—real life had just whizzed by the ear of his boyhood fantasies.
"As you pick up a ball in Little League," said O'Neill reverently, "you think of guys who star in the playoffs and World Series. I would be Willie Mays one day and Roberto Clemente one day and Pete Rose one day. I couldn't be [Johnny] Bench because I'm lefthanded. My brother and I would play a whole lineup in the backyard—I'd have to be nine guys."
Now the 27-year-old O'Neill is entertaining new fantasies. "Anybody here can picture themselves striking out the last hitter or hitting the game-winning homer in Game 7," he said in the Cincy clubhouse last week. "Every guy in here wants to be Kirk Gibson."
These being the Reds and the Pirates, everybody on both teams felt blessed to be in a postseason series. "In the first game," said Larkin, "I asked Bobby Bonilla, at second base, 'Are you having fun?' He said, 'I'm having a tremendous time.' "
"A lot of people in the minors never got the chance I did," said Leyland, who managed 11 years in the minor leagues. "Guys who were just as good as me. I'm not apologizing for this, but I am very grateful." The man who wept in 1987 when his Pirates first exited last place was, quite understandably, getting worked up again.
Leyland would get weepier when the Pirates returned to Pittsburgh, where they were to share Three Rivers Stadium on Saturday with the Steelers. The last-place football team and the first-place baseball team both had workouts scheduled that day for their upcoming games, but the playing surface had already been converted for football. That tells you all you need to know about allegiances in Pittsburgh, a city that bought every seat to see the Steelers (whose offense hadn't scored a touchdown in its first four games) play the equally inept San Diego Chargers on Sunday but that has never—ever—sold out a Pirate playoff game.
It doesn't matter. Even after Monday's three-run pasting, the Pirates and the Reds appeared perfectly prepared to return to standing-room-only Riverfront for Games 6 and 7. After his team went up two games to one, Larkin said, "I don't think we have an edge yet."
With these two teams, how would anyone know?