The last we saw of the Pittsburgh Pirates' Andy Van Slyke, he was sitting alone on the grass of right centerfield as hysterical Atlanta Braves whirled past and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium vibrated around him, with fans and players alike proclaiming a miracle. Van Slyke's head was tucked between his legs, the position one assumes when the plane is going down. For several minutes, he barely moved. It was the third straight year that these Pirates were denied entry to the World Series, but this loss on Oct. 14, 1992, was perhaps the cruelest in baseball's long history of heartache.
The charter to Pittsburgh that night was, as Van Slyke called it, "the flight to nowhere." It was not until two days later, at his home in St. Louis, that Van Slyke's mood had finally brightened, after his eight-year-old son, A.J., gave him a drawing of three boys, on which was written, "Sorry it had to end this way, Dad." It was signed, "A.J. Van Slyke, and his brothers, Scott and Jared."
Words usually come easily for Van Slyke, but as he unpacked on Friday, he struggled with each one. "What people can't fully understand is that my feelings of sadness that night were of greater depth than the Braves feelings of excitement," he said. "I felt worse than they felt good." Pause. "Then again, in the bigger picture of life, it hurts, but it's not the most devastating thing that has ever happened." Two days after the loss, no one had called him. "They're afraid to," he said.
Meanwhile, at his home near Pittsburgh, just 48 hours after the game had ended, Pirate third base coach Rich Donnelly was afraid to answer his phone. "We've had 300 calls, all sympathy calls; I had to have them screened," he said. "Next thing you know, we'll be getting flowers. It's like a death in the family. Bubba [Donnelly's son, a basketball player at Robert Morris College] cried so hard that his eye got infected and he had to go to the doctor. The doctor asked him what happened, Bubba cried some more, and then the doctor cried. People I know couldn't go to work because they were ill. A psychiatrist was on a sports talk show in Pittsburgh telling people how to deal with depression. I was going to eat at my favorite restaurant, but the owner closed for the day. He said he couldn't take it. People are taking it hard."
Heading into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, the Pirates were leading 2-0. Their ace—their guts—Doug Drabek, had thrown 120 pitches; this was his game to win or lose. But three batters later the bases were loaded with none out, and Drabek was relieved by Stan Belinda. Atlanta's Ron Gant hit a ringing line drive that looked as if it was going to leave the park, but Barry Bonds caught it at the leftfield wall. For the Pirates' sake, why didn't that ball just go out? What a feat it would have been: the most famous grand slam in history. Pittsburgh could have dealt with that, maybe. It would have been quick. It would have been clean. But, no, it wouldn't have been painful enough.
Moments later, with the score 2-1 and the bases again loaded, Brian Hunter popped to second baseman Jose Lind for the second out. "I thought then we were going to make it," Donnelly said. In stepped pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera, a man whose biggest moment of the night had figured to be his catching of the ceremonial first pitch, tossed by Rubye Lucas, wife of the late Bill Lucas, a former Brave executive. Cabrera singled to left. Bonds smartly cut the ball off and threw to the plate. Off from second base with the crack of the bat was the man representing the winning run, Sid Bream. If Bream had instead been a speedy pinch runner and if Bonds's throw had been just a little bit off, the play at the plate might not have been close. But, no, that wouldn't have been excruciating enough. Bonds's throw was perfect. And Bream is one of the game's slowest men, as well as a former Pirate. He barely—barely—beat the tag of his friend Mike LaValliere.
Pittsburgh lost 3-2. It was the first time in the history of postseason play that in a winner-take-all game, the team that was leading lost on the last pitch. "The way I feel right now, if Mrs. Lucas had batted in that spot, she probably would have gotten a hit," said Van Slyke. "I really believe that."
The silence and despair in the Pirate clubhouse was "something I've never felt in my 46 years," said Donnelly. Van Slyke cried at his locker. Drabek cried during a radio interview. Manager Jim Leyland cried in the press conference. A writer (a writer!) was spotted with tears in his eyes. "That was a tough one, Billy," Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Miller said to Pirate bench coach Bill Virdon 45 minutes after the game. "I can't think of a scenario that would be tougher. That will make a man out of you...or it will kill you."
It was worse than the infamous collapse of the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series with the New York Mets. At least the Red Sox had another shot in Game 7. What's more, it wasn't hard to dislike that Boston team, which was as arrogant as it was talented. Some people were delighted when those Red Sox blew a two-run lead in the 10th.
But it was impossible not to like these Pirates. Theirs is the best clubhouse in baseball, filled with good guys, funny guys, cool guys. There is no more honorable, likable and respected manager than Leyland. He's one you root for, mainly because of what he got out of his players. Pittsburgh lost star rightfielder Bobby Bonilla to free agency last November and lost John Smiley, a 20-game winner in 1991, in a trade for prospects last March. With a stopperless bullpen, a shaky starting rotation and a collection of rightfielders that drove in only 54 runs this year, the Pirates won 96 games and the championship of the National League East. Against a superior Atlanta team in the playoffs, Pittsburgh had to start Danny Jackson (21—35 the last four years) in Game 2. After battling back from a three-games-to-one deficit in the series, their lineup in Game 7 included the forgettable duo of Alex Cole hitting leadoff and Orlando Merced batting fifth.
These Pirates just didn't deserve a loss like this. They're not the Denver Broncos, who waste our time by getting waxed in the Super Bowl every other year. They're not the 1985 Toronto Blue Jays, who were better than any other team in the American League but still couldn't win a pennant. This team, thanks mainly to Leyland, reached every bit of its potential.
"The amazing thing about this team is that the [Pirates] of 1990 and '91 were more talented, but this team was better," said Van Slyke. "We knew how we had to play to accomplish what we did. We sensed all year that this was a team on a mission."
The loaded Braves will be back in the playoffs, if not next year, then surely a couple of times in the next few years. But the Pirates? They're expected to lose Drabek through free agency this winter. Bonds, the probable National League MVP for 1992 and also a free agent, will undoubtedly be gone by December, off to the highest bidder. This inevitable dismantling of the Pittsburgh team makes the Game 7 defeat in Atlanta all the more agonizing.
Leyland spent that charter flight home choosing which 15 Pirate players would be protected in the upcoming expansion draft. "That's Jimmy. He turns the page and goes on," said Donnelly. "But I know him. He's not doing so good."
On the bus ride from the stadium to the airport following the game, Van Slyke said, "My wife asked me why I couldn't have a job that involved less conviction, a nonexciting job, like being Phil Donahue, or a lawyer or an airline pilot. But a lot of great things go with this job, like the emotional roller-coaster ride. I'd rather go on the ride, experience the downs a few times, than to not have the stuff to go on the ride at all."
This ride was an alltime downer, though. How does a player recover? "I don't know if you ever do," LaValliere said in the locker room an hour after the loss. "But there are a lot of people out there in a lot worse shape than we are. The sun will rise tomorrow. I might never get back here again, but I made it this year. I was here tonight. It was exciting. The bad guys won, but I still wouldn't trade this for anything."
He leaned back in his chair.
"But you know," he said, "it stinks."