The end to what may be baseball's last great pennant race did not come until three hours and six minutes after the end of the Atlanta Braves' regular season. It came on Sunday, after the Braves and the San Francisco Giants occupied the National League West's top two spots for 110 straight days. It came after 207 victories between the two of them, the most ever by intradivisional foes. It came after the two teams shared identical records for three excruciating days, during which the Braves watched more television than your average teenager and nervously packed suitcases for a trip they prayed not to make.
When at last the end did come—its arrival signaled in Atlanta with a colorful clamor of fireworks bursting across the southern twilight—the Braves lifted champagne to their lips. California champagne. Golden State Vintners champagne, a varietal with a watercolor rendering of the Golden Gate Bridge on its label. Atlanta had vanquished San Francisco to reach the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. The champagne went down sweetly and quickly. In moments the Braves' clubhouse was littered with green glass bottles, drained to an emptiness that matched the emotional reservoirs of two gallant ball clubs. "There's relief," Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine said, explaining why the team's third straight divisional championship elicited such an intense celebration. "It's been a lot of fun. But it's been so mentally grueling."
In the end Atlanta and San Francisco were separated by three hours, a starting pitcher or two, and, most important, just one game. "One of the greatest races of all time," Brave pitching coach Leo Mazzone called it. It was only the 10th time in this century that two clubs had reached the final day of the season deadlocked, but the first time it had happened with so many wins: 103 apiece. And with this being the last year that postseason play is reserved for winners only, this may well be the last time such drama will occur. Next season brings a third tier of playoffs, wild-card teams and that famous black-and-blue division, the NL Central.
"It's sad for baseball, really." Atlanta third baseman Terry Pendleton said. "It's sad because in the future these games wouldn't have meant a darn thing." Had next year's realignment plan been in effect this season, the Braves would have won the East by seven games and the Giants would have won the West by 22. Said Atlanta shortstop Jeff Blauser, "In a three-division format, you would have seen both teams taking it easy, just trying to keep guys healthy. I don't appreciate what's happening next year."
This year Atlanta used the entirety of the schedule to gain a third straight entry to postseason play, the last two of which ended cruelly in World Series defeats that included seven games lost by one run. The Braves, who trailed the Giants by 10 games on July 22, made a 54-19 run after the All-Star break, the fourth-best such record in history. With the help of an eight-game San Francisco losing streak, they caught the Giants on Sept. 10, capping a burst in which they made up 7½ games in 19 days; they passed the Giants the next day and never again fell out of first. Atlanta went 28-9 over the final six weeks, including a 9-0 record in games following a loss.
"It was a matter of the Giants' giving us a chance to get back into it," Atlanta's Fred McGriff said. "And they gave it to us. They're a good team, but the best team won." McGriff is the slugging first baseman who arrived on July 20 in a trade with the San Diego Padres. He immediately energized the Atlanta lineup with his bat and brightened the clubhouse with a demeanor that makes his good friend Barney the dinosaur seem downright gloomy.
"I love Barney," McGriff said. "He's my favorite TV character. I've got a three-year-old boy, and when it's my turn to baby-sit, I just put on Barney and that's it. I'm going to get my 11-month-old girl started too. Barney's the greatest thing to happen to me."
Well, kids, this is what this race came down to: On the final day of the season, the Braves started Glavine, the 1991 Cy Young Award winner and the first National League pitcher in 21 years with three straight 20-win seasons, while the Giants gave the ball to Salomon Torres, a 21-year-old righthander with eight major league starts who began this season at Double A Shreveport. The disparity in the pitching depth of the two clubs was never more obvious or more critical.
No wonder that early Friday night, with three games left in the season and the teams tied, Atlanta president Stan Kasten exited from the press elevator at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium without the slightest trace of worry on his face. "We have Steve Avery [17-6], Greg Maddux [19-10] and Tom Glavine [21-6] pitching against the Colorado Rockies," he said. "We could not have it set up any better."
Still, just as Kasten was gushing confidence, a more concerned Mazzone was gathering his pitching staff in the outfield during batting practice. The Braves had fallen into a tie with San Francisco the night before after losing to Houston 10-8, in a game in which starting pitcher John Smoltz struggled with his location. That extended an eight-game slump by the starting pitchers in which they went 3-4 with a 4.75 ERA and in which, for the first time all season, they had thrown a nearly equal split of breaking balls and fastballs.
"Just because you get into this situation doesn't mean you have to change anything," Mazzone told them. "Go back to establishing your fastball. Throw strikes with it. I want to see a two-to-one ratio of strikes to balls."
Over the next three days Avery, Maddux and Glavine threw a combined 202 strikes and 111 balls while each beat the Rockies, who never once got a lead. Atlanta completed a once-a-century season sweep, winning the series with Colorado 13-0 while outscoring the Rockies 106-50. It was the first time since 1899 that a National League team swept a season series from an opponent.
Avery started the final weekend with eight strong innings in a 7-4 win Friday night, after which he defended his pitching mates by declaring, "We're still the best around." He then rushed home to watch the Giants, who kept pace with an 8-7 win over the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Not all the Braves tuned in, however.
"I can't remember the last time I sat through a game on TV," said centerfielder Otis Nixon, who spent the rest of the evening reviewing inventory reports for Ozone, his high-tech gadget store in Alpharetta, Ga. "Otis is a businessman." McGriff said. "He's always sitting in front of his locker working with numbers or making calls." McGriff is one of many Braves who have purchased cellular phones from Nixon. On some nights before games, you would think the Braves were running a telethon or a crisis hot line, what with all the phones jingling inside lockers.
Maddux got the call on Saturday and answered with seven innings so dominating that he went to three balls on only two of the 26 batters he faced. Glavine, who was charting pitches off the clubhouse television, was so bored that he occasionally changed the channel to Notre Dame football. The Braves rolled 10-1, dispatching the Rockies quickly enough to catch the final two innings of the Giants game, though the inconsequential Deion Sanders, who had just 14 at bats in September, had no interest in sticking around with his teammates to see if they would clinch a tie for the division title.
San Francisco hung on to win 5-3, after the Dodgers' Dave Hansen hit a fly ball that fell about five feet short of a grand slam in the eighth, prompting a loud groan in the Atlanta clubhouse.
The Braves went home to pack. If the race remained tied for another day, they would have to fly to San Francisco on Sunday night to meet the Giants in a one-game playoff on Monday night, all because three weeks ago Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz called "heads" in a coin flip to decide where that game would be played. It came up tails. "Somebody said I had bad advance scouting," he said. So on Sunday the Braves arrived at the stadium with their suitcases, though many of them left their luggage in the trunks of their cars, hoping that the extra change of clothes would not be needed.
"I probably didn't pack too well," second baseman Mark Lemke said. "I wasn't thinking too well, not when in the back of my mind I really don't want to go. It's been rough the last couple weeks. Killer."
The Braves beat the Rockies again, 5-3, only to deposit themselves in front of the clubhouse TV again. Atlanta management then announced to the 48,904 fans in attendance that they were welcome to stay and watch the Giant-Dodger game, which was being carried by ESPN, on the stadium scoreboard. About 8,000 people took the Braves up on the offer.
Exactly three years earlier Atlanta had drawn only 7,881 people to its final game of the season. Now a bigger crowd than that was on hand to watch a game on television, which made for a surreal sight: virtual-reality baseball. With an empty field stretched before them, the Atlanta fans sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the seventh-inning stretch of the Giant game, and they roared in approval when the scoreboard identified Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda as OUR PAL.
Back in the clubhouse some of the Braves couldn't bring themselves to watch the game. "It was split about 50-50," said Lemke, one of those who opted not to watch. "I spent the time telling stories about my minor league days. I'd tell them to anybody who'd listen." McGriff watched the Minnesota Viking-San Francisco 49er game, presumably because Barney wasn't on. Many players noshed on fried chicken, corn and mashed potatoes.
"It was pretty tense in here in the beginning," Glavine said. "We honestly expected to be playing the Giants on Monday night. But as the Dodgers opened up a lead, the attitude picked up."
Relievers Steve Bedrosian and Jay Howell walked into the office of Atlanta manager Bobby Cox to watch the final few innings. Greg McMichael, another relief pitcher, also dropped by. "Bobby," Bedrosian said, "do you remember the last time we were all in here?"
"No," Cox said. "What do you mean?"
"It was the last day of spring training," Bedrosian said. "That's when you told us we made the team."
Bedrosian, Howell and McMichael all were nonroster players given little chance of sticking with the team. But on April 3, before an exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox in Atlanta, Cox called all three of them into his office and told them they had made the club. Exactly six months later they were back in his office watching the Dodgers wrap up a division title for them with a 12-1 rout of the Giants. Together the three pitchers had combined for a 2.03 ERA over 199⅖ innings. Why, just that afternoon, with the Braves ahead 4-3, Bedrosian had relieved Glavine in the seventh and struck out the only batter he faced. McMichael had picked up from there, retiring the final six Colorado batters, including a strikeout of Daryl Boston for the final out. "I was caught up in the moment," he said. "It was wonderful."
It was also, as Pendleton said, "a weird feeling. It was weird not to be able to celebrate." The Atlanta players hung around their clubhouse in their underwear—a rather unglamorous ending to such a terrific race—until more than three hours later, when most of the team ran out to the area around second base to watch the last inning of the Giant game. The 8,000 fans who waited so long for it to end were rewarded with the sight of Cox on the field in a T-shirt, shorts and shower sandals. Again, Sanders was conspicuously absent, as he was in the clubhouse later.
Amid all the frolicking, McMichael had stashed in his locker the baseball from the last out of the Braves' victory. "I just hope it doesn't get too wet," he said. The ball is a souvenir of a stirring comeback. But it doesn't signify anything that the Braves haven't done before. "We've got to win the World Series," Glavine said. "No question about it. This team will not get the recognition it deserves until we win a world championship. We know that."