Until game 5 on Monday afternoon in Atlanta, the National League Championship Series had developed a penchant for drama but only a nodding acquaintance with the bizarre. All that changed with the Pittsburgh Pirates' twisted 1-0 victory over the Braves in which a runner crossed home but bypassed third, a hitter was twice walked intentionally to get to an MVP candidate, a 33-year-old journeyman recorded the final four outs and a bird fed throughout on the outfield grass. "This was one of the greatest games I've ever been privileged to be a part of, and all I could think of was that bird," said Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "It was a cross between a dove and a pigeon. It was a digeon."
The Bucs winged their way back to Pittsburgh with a three-games-to-two lead despite the fact that slugging leftfielder Barry Bonds, the league's 1990 MVP and a front-runner for the award again this year, was hitless in 13 at bats with runners on, and because of the fact that a reliever named Roger Mason had gutted out a save for starter Zane Smith in Game 5. (Asked where he had been for three years before returning to the bigs this season, Mason said, "Name some places.") But there was no greater blow to the Braves than a play in the bottom of the fourth that will live long in base-running history.
Atlanta's David Justice, who had reached second on an error to start the inning, was off at the crack of Mark Lemke's two-out single to left, but as he went by the Bucs' diving third baseman Steve Buechele, Justice shortened his stride. Instead of hitting the bag with his left foot, he made an awkward swipe at it with his right. Bonds, double-clutching the ball in left as if he'd been head-faked, finally fired to the plate, though not in time to nail Justice. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh shortstop Jay Bell was waving frantically for the ball at third. "Jay can't jump, so when he got four inches off the ground, I knew something was going on," said Pittsburgh bullpen coach Rich Donnelly. Smith threw the ball, Bell caught it, and umpire Frank Pulli punched out Justice for missing the base. Said Justice, "I'm 100 percent positive—I'd put my life on it—I grazed the bag."
In the top of the fifth, Pittsburgh's Jose Lind dunked an RBI single to right off starter Tom Glavine, Smith and Mason made it stand up for the 1-0 win, and the Pirates extended the Braves' scoreless streak to 18 innings. "Hopefully we can get a run in Pittsburgh," said Atlanta catcher Greg Olson. "You can't win unless you get one of those."
The series had opened in Pittsburgh on Oct. 9 with all sorts of local bonhomie. Van Slyke—who had voiced his displeasure the day before about low turnouts at Three Rivers Stadium during last year's playoffs—came under indirect lire from Bonds. In a disjointed monologue, Bonds called Van Slyke "the great white hope" and insinuated that racism was the reason why the Bucs had signed Van Slyke to a long-term deal but not Pittsburgh's two black outfielders, Bobby Bonilla and Bonds. That threesome, the heart of the Pirate order, formed a Bermuda triangle' (.190, five RBIs) in last fall's six-game loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the championship series. Bonds's remarks didn't exactly sound like an all-for-one rallying cry.
But a record crowd of 57,347 turned out at Three Rivers for Game 1 and happily watched as Pirate starter Doug Drabek baffled the Braves with his five-pitch repertoire to craft a 3-0 lead through the top of the sixth. However, with two out in the bottom of the inning, Drabek bone-headedly tried to extend an RBI double into a triple; not only was he thrown out, but he also strained his left hamstring in the process. The injury forced him to leave the game and miss his Game 5 start. "God love him, he's such a great competitor," said Bell. Bell's initial thought as Drabek rounded second and headed for third had been less genial: What an idiot.
But Van Slyke had already provided the margin in Pittsburgh's eventual 5-1 victory by blasting a couple of great white ropes—a solo shot in the first and an RBI double in the third—off Atlanta ace Glavine. Afterward, Andy Van Cronkite, as his name appeared on masking tape above his locker, nimbly deflected questions about his other label, given him by Bonds. "It gives me something to sign next to my name besides a Bible verse and number," Van Slyke said.
Bonds was slightly less diplomatic when, on his way to the shower, he spied a knot of reporters near Van Slyke's locker. "Hey, Andy, don't listen to those——, Great White," he shouted.
"Don't worry, I'm protecting you," said Van Slyke.
"——them guys, they're always starting something," Bonds said.
To start Game 2, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox selected 21-year-old lefty Steve Avery, who calmly went 18-8 this season. Before pitching, he likes to catch a nap on the trainer's table, though his ritual before Game 2 was interrupted when reserve Mike Heath gave him a Wet Willie (that's a moistened finger in the ear, if you're scoring). No matter. With his fastball reaching 98 mph, Avery fanned nine and spaced six hits through 8‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® shutout innings.
The Pirates' Smith was nearly Avery's equal, but a bad-hop RBI double by Lemke in the sixth bounded wickedly over the head of Buechele and gave Atlanta a 1-0 win. Reliever Alejandro Pena came on to get the save—his 12th in 12 chances since joining the Braves in August—but it was Avery's darting fastball and preternatural poise that drew raves. "Best pitching performance we've seen this year," said Pirate catcher Don Slaught.
"I'm just out there having fun," said Avery afterward. "How can you not enjoy it when millions of people are watching and all the attention's on you? It helps me concentrate."
Said Cox, "I said he'd be toying with hitters by 1993. I was only two years off."
On Saturday the series swung to the Chop Shop, occasionally called Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where feathered headdresses pass for chic and aah-yooo-ayy-yooo passes for witty repartee. In this crazed corner of the world, there is only one form of obeisance: Extend your arm and chop till you drop (tomahawk optional). Prison chain-gang workers, seeing the Braves' bus pass on its way to the airport, do it. Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, looking as if he were shaking something distasteful off his hand, does it. A former First Family, the Carters, do it. And actress Jane Fonda, going for the burn, does it.
Recognizing that where there's a fad, there's a buck, Paul Braddy of Peachtree City, Ga., bagged his $60,000-a-year salesman's job on Aug. 31 and borrowed $5,000 to make his first batch of foam-rubber tomahawks. Braddy has already hawked nearly 200,000 tommies at $5 a pop, and when his trucks showed up with 10,000 units on Saturday in the first inning, they were gone by the second. "This is Everyman's dream to do this, and I did it," says Braddy. "It's one of those 'I could have had a V-8' things."
Amid the incessant sound of the tomtoms and the spooky chanting, the Braves got four runs with two outs in the first to propel righthander John Smoltz to a 10-3 win. For Pittsburgh, the chop of horrors came from the Braves' Olson, who whacked a two-run shot off John Smiley for a 4-1 lead. The homer was Olson's first since Aug. 10, and it came on a doubly significant day: his sixth wedding anniversary and the opening day of the pheasant season back home in Minnesota. "This is the first year I haven't been there in a long time," said Olson. "My best buddy's taking my dog, and I'm jealous."
In a decidedly different social circle, rapper M.C. Hammer encountered Fonda, the fiancèe of Braves owner Ted Turner, outside the clubhouse. "Love the way you do that chop," Hammer said. "I love your music," Fonda responded. Of such meetings are workout videos born.
By Game 4, Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland had used all of his 11 pitchers except that night's starter, Randy Tomlin, who promptly yielded a leadoff double to Lonnie Smith and two first-inning runs. But the Bucs drew even at 2-2 in the fifth, capitalizing on an Atlanta mistake: Rightfielder Justice tried to gun down Pirate Gary Redus at third on a single by Bell, and his peg skipped past third baseman Terry Pendleton.
In the eighth, Pirate reliever Bob Walk concluded his two shutout innings by facing pinch hitter Sid Bream while 51,109 chopaholics bellowed, "Sid! Sid! Sid!" through the entire at bat. Before getting Bream to fly out on a 3-2 pitch, Walk soaked up the scene. "It happens once or twice in your career when you can pitch in an atmosphere like that," he said later. "I just wanted to step off and look around and enjoy it."
Stan Belinda followed Walk and blanked the Braves for two more innings, equally untaxed by the din. "It's sort of like background music," Belinda said.
Pittsburgh evened the series with a 3-2 victory, thanks to a two-out, 0-2, 10th-inning pinch hit by catcher Mike LaValliere off reliever Mark Wohlers that scored Van Slyke from second. "It wasn't a must win," said Van Slyke. "But if we'd lost, we would have been in the ICU and they'd have been putting gel on the electrodes."
After the irregular events in Monday's heartstopper, it was the Braves who were barely clinging to life. Well, the Braves and Bonds, who was 3 for 20, RBI-less and suffering the indignity of seeing Cox opt twice in Game 5 to issue intentional walks to Bonilla in order to face Bonds in critical situations. "I hope we win this so I can play in the World Series," Bonds said. "You know what I can do. Everyone knows what I can do." But everyone knew what he hadn't done so far—even the digeon.