Viewed from above, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium looks like a bloodshot eye. And why shouldn't it? The ballpark—its red-orange rim of seats surrounding a white-sand warning track surrounding a field of green—hosted two teams last weekend that tend to put all of their professional business off until the latest possible moment. Who put the pro in procrastination? The Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies, that's who.
Atlanta, you'll recall, didn't win the National League West until three hours after its regular season ended; the Phillies played one game this season that concluded at 1:47 a.m. and a doubleheader that wasn't over until 4:40 in the morning. So it came as no surprise that after five games, the National League Championship Series between these two clubs appeared destined to go eight games.
At the Chop Shop neither team knew the meaning of the phrase "chop chop."
Only when they trailed 3-0 in the ninth inning of Game 5 on Monday did the Braves score three runs to tie. Only in the 10th inning did Phillie centerfielder Lenny (Nails) Dykstra see fit to get a hit, lashing a home run to give the Phils a 4-3 win and a 3-2 lead in the series. That meant only that Atlanta would have to win a seventh game in Philadelphia on Thursday, because the Braves are accustomed to using every inning in their games, every game on their schedule. Who will win? Phillie relief pitcher Larry Andersen approached Brave third baseman Terry Pendleton behind the batting cage in Atlanta on Saturday. "If we don't win this series." said the 40-year-old Andersen. "I hope you guys do."
As the NLCS headed back to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Wednesday, it appeared likely that one of these teams would, in fact, advance to the World Series. The more interesting question was not which team would do so, but when, for god's sake? As of Monday this series appeared destined to end in an all-night Phillibuster.
Sunday night's befuddling Game 4, which briefly evened the series at 2-2, didn't expire until 12:15 on Monday morning in Atlanta. As with most playoff games, that one came down to one simple thing: poisoned pork. Phillie reliever Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams ate the tainted hog on Saturday night, an unfortunate culinary choice that left him vomiting the next morning.
Still, Wild Thing pitched the eighth and ninth innings of Philadelphia's 2-1 win, fueled by the only thing he could keep down all day: half a Snickers bar. It was a typical game for the Phillies, one in which they stranded a playoff-record 15 runners, struck out an NLCS-record 15 times, scored zero earned runs...and won, with the game saved by a closer who had literally been hurling on the side for the past 24 hours.
"As long as I can pull my pants on," said Williams, whose shower thongs are simply marked THING, "I'm ready to play."
What is it with Phillie pitchers and their seeming fixation with pitching pantsless? Righthander Curt Schilling, who struck out the first five Brave batters in Game 1 in Philadelphia, inadvertently took the mound that night while wearing his practice cap instead of his lucky game cap. "You have to understand what a big deal that is," he said after his team's 4-3 victory. "It's like me going out there without my pants on."
Naturally, it took the Phillies 10 innings to win the series opener. This is because third baseman Kim Batiste threw a double-play ball into rightfield in the ninth inning, allowing the Braves to tie the score, and because Williams allowed a mere five base runners over two innings in securing the win. But Batiste redeemed himself with an RBI single in the 10th to finally end the game.
"I've sat and fantasized about how it would feel to get the game-winning hit in a World Series or league championship series," Batiste said. "Picturing it relaxes me. It gives me a good feeling. But I never thought it would happen." Batiste, 25, was carried off the field by teammates Danny Jackson and Milt Thompson. Williams, who watched the finish on TV in the clubhouse, said he would have run out and joined Jackson and Thompson—if only he'd been wearing pants.
The wholesome Braves, who won Games 2 and 3 by scoring 23 total runs, eat their postgame meals in the clubhouse at wooden picnic tables covered by checkered cloths. The undomesticated Phillies eat their postgame meals in poisoned-pork joints. These were the Atlanta Braves against the Philadelphia Philistines. This series was "America's Team against America's Most Wanted," as more than one Phillie described it.
But the bad guys weren't the only ones packing a gun, as Brave first baseman Fred (Crime Dog) McGriff demonstrated in Game 2. His first-inning, .38-caliber shot into the upper deck of the Vet provided the first two of a playoff-record 14 runs in the Braves' 14-3 win last Thursday night. "The game was over," conceded Phillie first baseman John Kruk, "when Crime Dog killed a family of four in the upper deck."
As the series shifted to Atlanta for Games 3, 4 and 5, the Phils knew they would have to keep Otis Nixon off the bases, for all things in Atlanta begin with the Brave centerfielder. Consider: Nixon hits in the 1 spot, he wears number 1, he named his first-born child Genesis.
And though Nixon reached base on eight of his 11 at bats in the first two games, though he scored twice, though he stole 47 bases this season at age 34, he kept insisting all last week that you should see his mother. Nixon claimed very seriously that as recently as 15 years ago, his fleet, 55-year-old mom, Gracie, could have beaten any current Brave save Deion Sanders in a footrace.
Nixon's leadoff counterpart, Dykstra, batted .305 and scored more runs (143) during his MVP-like regular season than any other National Leaguer since 1932. And yet in Games 1 and 2 he wasn't Nails at all, going 2 for 8 and striking out three times.
The Phils' wooden-shoe battery in Game 3 on Saturday afternoon had Terry Mulholland throwing to catcher Dutch Daulton. But the game, a 9-4 laugher for Atlanta, was a tale more typical of Larry Andersen than Hans Christian Andersen. In fact, Larry, who pitched to four batters in making his second relief appearance of the series, got off the funniest line of the day: ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬®IP, 2H, 3R, 3ER, 1BB, 0SO.
No team has lost three consecutive World Series since the 1911-13 New York Giants, and the Braves, who lost to the Minnesota Twins in 1991 and the Toronto Blue Jays in '92, have solemnly vowed not to change that, which accounts for their sober attitude toward this postseason. "We've heard all year about us being the Buffalo Bills of baseball," said pitcher Tom Glavine, the winner of Game 3. "We know it's out there."
Atlanta pitcher Steve Avery provided a metaphorical tableau of the Braves' quest last week. After one of the games the 23-year-old lefthander stared intently into a clubhouse mirror, his face fixed in grim determination, while making three attempts at tying his necktie. Too short. Too long. just right. The Braves are hoping that this third straight October ends up like Avery's neckwear, only less conspicuous.
And yet the series was unexpectedly tied in a Windsor knot by early Monday morning, and so were Atlanta stomachs. Dykstra was suddenly ubiquitous on the base paths, the Phils' holeyer-than-thou defense was newly hole-free, and Phillie lefthander Danny Jackson, who lasted about nine seconds in his lone playoff start with the Pittsburgh Pirates last year, was brilliant, bequeathing a 2-1 lead to Williams when he left with two outs in the eighth inning.
There is an old adage in comedy: If it bends, it's funny; if it breaks, it ain't funny. That is Williams's attitude toward relief pitching. "Bend," he says. "But don't break." When your entire playing philosophy is based on an old comedy adage, the games get wildly entertaining. One time this season Thing put himself into (and pulled himself out of) a bases-loaded, no-out pickle against the Dodgers to preserve a one-run victory. Protecting a one-run lead in Game 4, he merely induced Mark Lemke to hit a fly ball to the warning track that required a circus catch by Thompson to end the eighth, then allowed the first two Brave base runners to reach in the ninth. The second runner, Nixon, was safe when Wild Thing couldn't field his sacrifice bunt attempt.
Then, of course, Williams spectacularly saved his own (poisoned) bacon, making an off-target throw to third on a bunt by Jeff Blauser but still getting the force-out there. Next he induced Brave slugger Ron Gant to ground into a double play, ending the overlong affair.
But Game 5 began only 15 hours later, under gray clouds in the Chop Shop. The Phillies threw Schilling at Atlanta for eight scoreless innings. Here is a man who doesn't like to tarry, or why else would he have purchased a rocket-fueled red Lamborghini from Jose Canseco? He was cruising—you might say Schilling had his game cap on—but then came the Braves' ninth inning. Their first two hitters reached base. And in came Williams.
But Wild Thing takes his pants off like anyone else, one leg at a time, and Atlanta touched him for three hits. The last was chopped up the middle by pinch-hitter Francisco (Abra) Cabrera, whose game-tying RBI evoked his improbable game-winning hit against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 7 of last fall's playoffs. In the top of the 10th on Monday, however, Dykstra hit the game-winning home run, evoking his electric, game-winning dinger in Game 3 of the 1986 playoffs, when he was a New York Met playing against the Houston Astros seven years earlier to the day. "Lenny is a red-light player," said Phillie manager Jim Fregosi, referring to the presence of network TV cameras.
Andersen closed the game for Philadelphia in the bottom of the 10th, striking out Blauser and Gant to end the game, then retreated to the red-light district of the Phillie clubhouse. "I'm really happy for him," Wild Thing said of Andersen. "He looks really good for 50." But more important, Andersen was also getting his wish as the two teams chartered to Philadelphia that night. Which is to say, one of these teams was going to win this championship series.
As the bodies drained out of the bloodshot ballpark on Monday evening, it was too early to call the Phillies winners, and not yet too late for the Braves. Too late? With these two teams? There is no such thing.