What more could you ask of a pennant race? The top two teams, separated in the standings by a half game, determine the championship by going head-to-head in the final five games of the season. Four of the five are decided by one run, three are settled in the winning team's last at bat, two go extra innings. The games are played in ballparks called the Castle and the Diamond. One pitcher throws 96 mph, and one player gets 10 hits in his first 14 at bats. In the pennant clincher a player whose career seems stalled is the unlikely hero, and the game is completed in an hour and 58 minutes!
It was a down-to-the-wire race so compelling that it was easy to forget this wasn't the major leagues. It was, in fact, the grand finale of the Triple A International League's West Division, pitting the Charlotte Knights against the Richmond Braves, the top farm teams for the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves, respectively. And when it was over, when Richmond had won 3-2 last Friday night to go 2½ games up with one to play, there was a champagne celebration in the Braves' clubhouse that rivaled any ever held in the big leagues.
"To us, this is the big leagues," said Richmond's Tyler Houston, a .244 hitter who a few minutes earlier had clubbed a game-winning, two-run homer to clinch the title. "This is the highest level there is now, so tonight is extra special. With the strike, prospects are getting the recognition they deserve. We're in the spotlight now."
Indeed, on the day that pseudocommissioner Bud Selig proclaimed that if the major league owners and players did not settle their labor dispute by Sept. 9, the rest of the big league season and the postseason would be canceled. Richmond captured some of the scant magic left in what had promised to be a wondrous year for baseball.
The strike actually served to intensify this Triple A race because the players were focused on winning a divisional title for themselves rather than thinking about whether or not they would be called to the big leagues when rosters expanded to 40 players, which usually happens on Sept. 1. As it was, with the shutdown of the majors heading into its fourth week, the only evidence that anyone in Charlotte or Richmond was paying any attention to the Show was a cartoon taped to the door of the visitors' clubhouse at the Knights' Castle. It depicted a disheveled major league player standing at the front door of a woman's house, asking, "Mow your lawn for $23,000, ma'am?"
The Knights won eight of the first 13 meetings with the Braves this season, but Richmond held a half-game lead in the standings going into the five-game showdown. With the likelihood of these teams' meeting again in the playoffs, the possibility existed that they would face each other 10 times in 11 days. "It will be amazing if we don't have a bench-clearing brawl before all this is over," said Charlotte infielder Tim Jones. "We play hard. They play hard."
Stock car racing and basketball are the sports staples in Charlotte, the South's newest metropolis. But while the thrill of a pennant chase in September hasn't registered with the bulk of the local citizenry yet—the crowds fell short of 7,000 for the first two games of the three-game series at the Castle—the final series was all-consuming for the Knights and their devoted followers, including some far-flung family members.
One of Charlotte's best players, third baseman David Bell, is the son of Buddy Bell and the grandson of Gus Bell, both of whom are former major leaguers. At the start of the season the Indians weren't sure David, 21, was ready for Triple A this year, but he hit .293 with 88 RBIs and was the best-fielding third baseman in the International League. But for the strike, David would surely be on his way to Cleveland, making the Bells only the second family ever to send three generations of ballplayers to the majors. (The Boones—Ray, Bob and Bret, now the Cincinnati Reds' second baseman—were the first.) "If it happens, it will be special," says David, who regularly seeks advice from Gus and Buddy, who's now an Indian coach.
One of David's teammates, outfielder Brian Giles, can count on support from an out-of-towner as well, his grandfather Richard Owen. When Owen retired in 1992, he and his wife had planned to drive their mobile home from El Cajon, Calif., to wherever Brian was assigned for that season. His wife died of cancer that year, but Owen followed through on their plan, and he has spent the last three summers living in campgrounds near Brian's home stadium, going to every home game and listening to road games on the radio. "If he was playing in a tiddledywinks contest," says Owen. "I'd be there to watch."
The mother of Charlotte second baseman Miguel Flores lives in Monterrey, Mexico, but she's with him in spirit. Before every game he runs to his position, steps on second and write—his mother's name, Marina, and draws a heart in the dirt behind the bag. "Then I say a prayer for God to take care of her," says Flores, whose father died a month before he was born. Marina taught school and kept her four sons together, all the while urging Miguel to pursue his dream of being a ballplayer. "Sometimes, her name will stay there [in the dirt] the whole game," says Miguel. "To me, it's always there."
And so it was when Richmond took the field in Charlotte on Aug. 30 for the series opener. The Knights' Julian Tavarez, who was bidding to become only the second 16-game winner in the International League since 1982, was matched against the Braves' 22-year-old Kevin Lomon, who had been 86-5 in a storied high school career back in Cameron, Okla. Because his school did not have a football team, its baseball team played in the fall and spring, a total of 60 games a year. Lomon won 64 games in a row. "Fish [Brave pitching coach Bill Fischer] says I'm already washed up from pitching so much," Lomon says. Hardly. Neither Tavarez nor Lomon was around, however, when, after three hours and 40 minutes, the Knights won 4-3 in the 12th inning. "Great game if you didn't have a date afterward," said Richmond manager Grady Little, whose club slipped a half game behind Charlotte with the loss.
The highlight of the game was a confrontation in the top of the 11th between two potential major league stars. Charlotte relief ace Paul Shuey, who was called up to Cleveland in May and served as the Tribe's closer until he strained his groin sewn weeks later, went mano a mano with Richmond third baseman Jose Oliva, who hit six home runs in 59 at bats with Atlanta this summer before being returned to the minors so he could play during the strike. "Now, that was real baseball," Charlotte manager Brian Graham said later. "Shuey was throwing 96 miles an hour, Oliva was swinging 96. Guys in both dugouts were sitting there with their mouths open." Shuey poured two fastballs past Oliva, who battled back and eventually singled. But Shuey did not allow a run in two innings of work and got the win.
Richmond leapfrogged back into first the next night, when leftfielder Brian Kowitz's two-run double broke open the game in the fifth. Hiawatha Terrell Wade struck out eight in seven innings to get the 4-1 win. Named after a friend of his mother's, Wade went by Hiawatha until his first year in pro ball (1991), when he chose to be called Terrell. "The [Atlanta] Braves will want me to change it back," Wade says of his inevitable rise to the majors.
Discovered at a tryout camp by Atlanta scout Roy Clark, Wade, 21, is one of the top prospects in the game, a lefthander with a 90-mph-plus fastball, a good changeup and a loose arm. He signed his first contract in a pool hall owned by his parents in Rembert, S.C. As Clark remembers it, "I asked Hiawatha, 'Are you ready to sign?' and he said, 'Just a minute, let me finish this game.' Then he ran the table. He's a guy who takes care of business." Wade chuckled. "It was a game of six-ball," he says. "For 10 bucks."
Last Thursday night the Braves upped their lead to 1½ games, but it took them until 12:33 a.m. to do it. Rain delayed the game for almost two hours in the fifth, and then Richmond blew a 2-0 lead in the ninth. With about 200 fans left from the sellout crowd of 10,392, Kowitz homered in the top of the 10th to give Richmond a 3-2 victory. In three games Kowitz had 10 hits in 14 at bats against Charlotte. "I've never hit a home run at 12:30 in the morning," he said. "Only in my dreams."
It was Houston's turn to dream when the two teams traveled to Richmond and resumed the series last Friday at the Diamond. A near-capacity crowd of 12,192 saw another pitchers' duel—the Braves' Brad Woodall, a 15-game winner and the league's most valuable pitcher, against the Knights' Chad Ogea, who retired the first 15 hitters and took a 2-1 lead into the eighth. But then, with two out and Pat Kelly at third, Houston drilled a 2-2 slider over the rightfield wall for his fourth homer of the year. Pedro Borbon, son of the former major league reliever of the same name, retired the Knights in order in the ninth, and Houston jumped into the pile of jubilant Braves near second base.
The second player chosen in the 1989 draft, Houston, 23, has been a disappointment in his organization. He, not Javy Lopez, was expected to be Atlanta's starting catcher by now. But on this night he was the star of the game that decided a terrific pennant race.
Oliva sprayed Houston with champagne in the clubhouse and then shouted, "This won't be our only celebration; we're going to win the whole thing. This is the big leagues. We're the big leagues. And we're going to keep playing and playing."
We'll drink to that.