It was seven minutes to midnight when the Atlanta Braves won the National League pennant. Seven minutes to midnight of the seventh game when—abra-Cabrera—history got a new hero, his surname Spanish for one who tends goats.
Andy Van Slyke of the Pittsburgh Pirates fell supine in centerfield at seven minutes to midnight, as if shot dead. The wife of Brave president Stan Kasten blacked out in her seat at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, recalling later only the thock! of bat hitting ball.
Seven minutes to midnight, and soon Brave centerfielder Otis Nixon would be in the clubhouse, pointing through a wall toward the still-lit field. "They said 1991 was the Miracle Season," said Nixon, referring to the Braves' worst-to-first pennant run last year. "It wasn't a miracle compared to that. Frankie Cabrera, who hasn't played all year, steps up and does that!"
The 89th World Series opened in Atlanta last Saturday night because of what had happened at seven minutes to midnight three evenings earlier. Francisco Cabrera—a 26-year-old Dominican who was called up to the Braves from Triple A Richmond on Aug. 31, who had 10 at bats in the big leagues this season—won the National League Championship Series for the Braves with a two-out, two-run pinch single in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game at 11:53 on a warm Wednesday night. Who could have imagined this?
"I could," Cabrera said afterward. "I imagine a lot. I dream a lot: Man, someday I be the hero who hits the home run to win the game. Then I be in all the papers. But I never get the chance."
Somebody pinch-hit me, I must be dreaming.
Cabrera's knock sent Brave general manager John Schuerholz charging into the home clubhouse as if through swinging saloon doors. "Was that the greatest ever in the history of the world right there?" shouted Schuerholz, without specifying the greatest what. No need to.
"This has to be the greatest seventh game of a playoff ever," said Brave righthander John Smoltz, who started the game and was named Most Valuable Player of the series. "Nobody choked. The Pirates played their hearts out."
Van Slyke was one of several participants unable to stand at seven minutes to midnight. The attrition began with the Pirates leading 1-0 in the second. Home plate umpire John McSherry called time in a cold sweat and excused himself. He was taken by ambulance to Piedmont Hospital. It was feared, at first, that he had suffered a heart attack. (That fear, fortunately, proved to be unfounded.)
While 210-pound first base ump Randy Marsh was fitted into the armor abandoned by the 320-pound McSherry, Pirates Van Slyke, Jose Lind, Alex Cole and Orlando Merced filled the 11-minute delay playing whist or poker or some such game using invisible cards, the three of them sitting in shallow centerfield, Van Slyke dealing out the deck in pantomime.
Then the game resumed and the scoring stopped, innings falling away like autumn leaves.
Autumn leaves: A red maple leaf on a flag high above the bleachers served as an unnecessary reminder that major league baseball belongs to Canada, too. Unnecessary, for was there anyone who didn't know that the Toronto Blue Jays had won the American League pennant earlier in the day, beating the Oakland A's 9-2 to wrap up their series in six games? It was a joyous V-Jay Day in Canada (page 40), and now the world and World Series awaited the National League winner, which was beginning to look a lot like Pittsburgh.
Trying to change his team's luck, Smoltz played musical chairs in the clubhouse. There he watched the game on TV from several seats, having been lifted for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth inning—the inning when Pittsburgh scored a run to take a 2-0 lead and Atlanta failed to score after loading the bases with nobody out. And if the home team couldn't score then, how could it ever win?
"This is it, folks."
Skip Caray leads off the last of the ninth with those words over Atlanta radio station WGST. Gary Glitter plays on the public address, rally caps are worn backward on the Brave bench, and the Goodyear blimp hovers above home plate with its electronic message board reading, inanely, #1 IN TIRES.
Terry Pendleton doubles two feet fair to the corner in right, then Dave Justice hits a ball at second baseman Lind, who had six errors all season but now boots a simple grounder: Though Lind stops the ball from going through, he can't make a play on Justice. Sid Bream then walks on four pitches—Marsh's strike zone seeming to shrink with each batter—and the bases are juiced and nobody's out, and that's all for Pirate starter Doug Drabek.
Cabrera is jumping up and down so hard in the dugout that he bangs his head on the concrete ceiling. Up comes Ron Gant against Pittsburgh reliever Stan Belinda, and he hits a bolt to leftfield that Barry Bonds catches in front of the 330 sign. Pendleton scores from third.
First and second, one out, the Braves now trailing by a run, and catcher Damon Berryhill walks to load the bases again. The 3-1 pitch looked like a strike, but Marsh can't quite get his right arm up this inning. As pinch hitter Brian Hunter strides to the plate, Atlanta batting coach Clarence Jones informs Cabrera that he will hit next—if the game isn't over by then. Pendleton doesn't know why, but he helpfully tells Cabrera anyway, "Hit the ball over the shortstop."
Hunter flies out to Lind. Cabrera steps in. His father, Pablo, is watching in the Dominican. Finally settled into trainer Dave Pursley's chair, Smoltz is watching in the clubhouse.
Belinda delivers. "First pitch," says Cabrera, "is slider." It misses.
"Next pitch, fastball high. He needs a strike now, he don't want no trouble."
The 2-0 pitch is a fastball that Cabrera sends screaming into the seats down the leftfield line. "Hard fly ball," he says. "But foul. Now I have one strike. I got the green light."
Hit it over the shortstop. Says Cabrera, "I remember that."
The 2-1 fastball is up. It is out over the plate. Cabrera is hacking. He drives the ball toward shortstop Jay Bell. On the TV it looks to Smoltz as if Bell has caught the ball and the Pirates have won the pennant, but then he feels the room shake and hears the crowd scream bloody murder, and he sprints down the tunnel to the Brave dugout.
Justice has scored to tie the game, and Bream is being waved around behind him: Sid Bream, slower than bread mold, as they say. Bonds throws the ball on a line maybe six feet inside the third base line, and catcher Mike LaValliere makes a sweep tag as Bream slides, and it's too close to call with the naked eye. But Marsh does anyway, and he is right: Safe!
All hell breaks loose. Mounted police spill instantly from openings in the walls down both foul lines. Caray is shouting into his mike, "Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!" and you can't help but think of Russ Hodges and "The Giants win the pennant!" Caray's call is heard on car radios by a thousand or more saps who left in the eighth inning to beat the traffic.
It is impossible to hear anymore, until the crowd is spent. On WGST, Caray's partner, Joe Simpson, says, "Andy Van Slyke is sitting in centerfield. He can't believe it. Neither can I."
Can't believe it. That is all you hear when you can finally make out individual voices in the throng of paid customers. Un-believable. Un-freakin'-believable. Do you believe that?
"Unbelievable," says Gant in the tumultuous Atlanta clubhouse. Soon typesetters will be putting the word into a headline at the Atlanta Constitution: UNBELIEVABLE! At the Comfort Inn on International Boulevard downtown, someone picks out letters for the marquee outside: CONGRATS BRAVES. And the afterthought: UNBELIEVABLE.
The exuberant Cabrera appears on the verge of sobbing with happiness when the media mob finally leaves him in the Atlanta clubhouse. He says he will enjoy being famous: He likes to sign autographs and loves to talk to people, and he always picks up American magazines but never sees himself in them. Now maybe he will.
"People in the Dominican always tell me, 'Hang in there, someday you will make it,' " Cabrera is saying, signing ticket stubs in the rubble-strewn clubhouse. "I feel good. Now I be in all the Brave fans' memories for all time."
An hour has passed since seven minutes to midnight. But the moment will last forever.