The air was thick with anticipation, as well as lethal automobile emissions, during the evening rush hour last Friday in Los Angeles. And yet no one anticipated that during the next 48 hours the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves would solve little in the National League West, but would at the same time answer mankind's most troubling philosophical question: What's it all about? "This is what it's all about," members of both teams panted throughout the three-game weekend series, as though the title character in the song What's It All About, Alfie? were L.A. shortstop Alfredo Griffin.
Of course, this is what it's all about. For starters, you had the green-felt grass of Dodger Stadium, faded in the sun, and that cool zigzag roof above the bleachers, and the undulant voice of Vin Scully. Who, having any hint as a child of all that lay in such a place as Chavez Ravine, wouldn't have wanted to grow up to be there with something at stake in September? This, indeed, is what it's all about. "Childhood dreams. Pennant fever," said Braves catcher Greg Olson, completing the list with incomplete sentences.
Before the rubber game of the deadlocked series on Sunday, Atlanta coach Jim Beauchamp buttonholed Los Angeles outfielder Mitch Webster behind the batting cage. "Good luck," said Beau-champ. "I mean, no matter what happens, man, this is fun, isn't it?"
Man, but isn't it? And not only for the Dodgers, whose 3-0 victory in the finale gave them a 1½-game lead over Atlanta in the division race. The Braves, too, are having a world of fun, none of which they can share with outfielder Otis Nixon, who was suspended on Sept. 16 for violating baseball's drug policy, BE BRAVE: DON'T USE DRUGS read one ballpark banner last weekend, the best public use of a bed-sheet in recent memory.
September 29, 1991
This Hollywood sequel to the series that the same teams played a week earlier in Atlanta was, for both, thoroughly exhilarating and hardly debilitating. And that was the ultimate significance of these often spectacular games: None for the money but three for the show.
As showtime approached, Los Angeles Laker guard Magic Johnson worked the Dodger clubhouse. But with no one to schmooze, the Braves chose to snooze almost until the largest regular-season crowd (51,067) in more than six years rolled into Chavez Ravine right on time, which is to say, late. Atlanta starter Steve Avery actually fell asleep on a training-room table before the game. But like Wade Boggs and Steve Garvey, Avery can fall out of bed and perform, and he did, throwing a six-hit complete-game shutout in the Braves' 3-0 win. That raised his lifetime record against L.A. to 5-0, with a 0.99 ERA. And though he pitched with a composure that belied his 21 years—"If they took it easy on me because I'm 21,1 might think about my age," Avery patiently explained to inquiring minds, "but these guys are trying to kick...my...butt"—the night belonged to a member of the thirty-thirtysomething generation.
Atlanta centerfielder Ron Gant's two-run home run in the sixth inning off Los Angeles starter Tim Belcher gave him his second consecutive 30-dinger, 30-steal season (Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds are the only others to accomplish this milestone of esoterica) and gave the Braves all the runs they needed to win. In that order. "A lot of emotion came out between first and second base," said Gant, whose home run trot included an unofficial eclipsing of Mike Powell's long-jump record just as the ball cleared the leftfield fence. "First, because I got the 30-30 and, second, because runs were hard to come by tonight." Gant, who uses the same speechwriter as Rickey (Today I Am the Greatest of All Time) Henderson and Sally (You Like Me) Field, capped his remarks by announcing, "I feel like I've glorified myself." Would someone please tell this man what it's all about?
Tom Lasorda, the Dodgers' manager and ego masseur, swam 101 laps in a 25-meter pool on Saturday, the eve of his 64th birthday, which proved—what exactly? That he is not water soluble? Braves skipper Bobby Cox, 50, revealed on Saturday that he nearly went to his own watery grave earlier this season in Philadelphia. It seems his head was sheathed in shampoo when one of those shower-massage units fell from its wall holder and, propelled by water pressure, began attacking him ferociously. Said Cox, "It was like Hitchcock."
As was Saturday night's game, which featured some horrific defense—no one will be seated during replays of Atlanta third baseman Terry Pendleton's egregious eighth-inning error—but was nonetheless as suspenseful and riveting as the game gets. Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers and Charlie Leibrandt of the Braves each pitched well. Atlanta led 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth when Juan Samuel's ground ball rolled through the Buckner-like wickets of Pendleton. E-5. Mike Scioscia sacrificed Samuel to second, and then Griffin hit a grounder to shortstop Rafael Belliard, whose throw to first base was in the dirt. E-6. When pinch-hitter Webster singled to leftfield, the Dodgers tied the score with the greatest of E's.
Samuel returned to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with Kal Daniels on first Sammy hadn't talked to the press, nor hit nor so much as exhibited a facial tic for much of this season, but very shortly he would be going two for three in those categories. From the bench, a towel-waving Hershiser whipped the crowd into an actual frenzy as Atlanta reliever Mike Stanton delivered a fastball that Samuel lashed to rightfield. His triple had already won the game by the time Samuel reached third, where he resembled a steamed Dodger Dog when teammates Darryl Strawberry and Gary Carter sandwiched him with bear hugs.
"I don't really like to show my emotions," Samuel said afterward. "We all know it was a big victory, but I try not to show it." And just when you thought someone needed to tell him what it's all about, the heroic stoic let go a small smile. "I will show it more," said Samuel, "if we clinch it."
L.A. was in no danger of doing that anytime soon. It went into Sunday's game with a scant half-game lead on Atlanta. The Braves' Cy Young winner-to-be, Tom Glavine, pitching on three days' rest, gave up two runs on three hits in the first inning of Game 3. This deficit appeared to be eminently surmountable as struggling Dodger starter Ramon Martinez allowed three base runners of his own in the first. "My arm felt fine," Martinez would say later with candor. "I was just worried. This was a big game."
If few of us can fulfill our childhood dreams, fewer yet can fulfill them while still children. The 175-pound Martinez is the anti-Avery: He is 23 but seems much younger. "People act like he's been around for five years," says Strawberry. "But he's still really young, still just finding himself." Difficulties with the English language—Martinez is a native of the Dominican Republic—and the hyper-foreign culture of L.A. make him seem all the more ingenuous.
So when he swung at a fastball from the league's best pitcher in the fourth inning, and the ball carried 385 feet and over the fence in rightfield for his first home run since Little League, Martinez resembled one of those bobble-head baseball dolls as he circled the bases: There was an enormous enamel smile painted on his face, and the visor of his overlarge helmet kept falling over his eyes. His would be the final run scored in the Braves-Dodgers series this season, for he settled down to hold Atlanta to two hits in Los Angeles's 3-0 win. "Today, I feel like the first game when I come to the big leagues," Martinez said afterward, searching for the right words and finding them. "Because of the home run, I was very excited."
Still, when all was said and done last weekend, little was said and nothing was done. "You can't say anything yet," Martinez went on. "It's not over." No, it most certainly isn't. This could have been a story about one team seizing the division from another. Instead, some breathtaking baseball is all it's about.
And yet, isn't that what it's all about?