It spins constantly, with every 24 hours bringing a complete
revolution. The world of baseball, especially this time of year
when days grow short, nights become cool, leads get small and
stomachs turn queasy, can grab you by the collar and demand your
attention every single day. No other sports can do that, not
when they are bogged down in endlessly boring shootarounds,
morning skates, pro-ams or, worst of all, closed practices.
Or maybe you had forgotten. This, after all, is the first full
baseball season in three years. Maybe the 1994-95 strike
short-circuited your circadian rhythms. If so, then last week
set you right, like one of those bright boxes of light
prescribed for sufferers of jet lag.
Nothing is better for baseball's postapocalyptic recovery than
the kind of daily drama that occurred in the penultimate week of
this season. Monday, Sept. 16, brought us hit number 3,000 by
the Minnesota Twins' Paul Molitor; Tuesday gave us the
resignation--in every sense of the word--of Pittsburgh Pirates
manager Jim Leyland and an improbable mile-high no-hitter by the
Los Angeles Dodgers' Hideo Nomo; and Wednesday showed us 20
strikeouts by the Boston Red Sox' Roger Clemens.
The rest of the week pulsated with the incomparable excitement
of divisional races going down to the wire, with fortuitous
matchups that underscored the need not for the gimmickry of
interleague play but for more intradivision games. Four of the
six division leaders played their closest pursuer on Thursday,
highlighted by a fierce doubleheader in New York between the
Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles.
September 29, 1996
On Friday the Atlanta Braves essentially fended off the Montreal
Expos for good; on Saturday the Seattle Mariners slugged their
way into the record book and down the necks of the nervous Texas
Rangers; and on Sunday the San Diego Padres brought Nomo back to
earth, or at least sea level, with an urgent victory over the
The good old days are back. Tune in tomorrow and every day. At
week's end four division titles were either clinched or all but
assured, but there were still four playoff spots to be decided
in the season's final week.
A milestone hit by the classy Molitor touched off a belated run
on the box office
What could have been more bizarre than fans lining up at
Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City last week looking to buy tickets
to a game the last-place Royals had already played? It was
Kansas City's good fortune to host the game in which 40-year-old
Paul Molitor of the Minnesota Twins rapped the 3,000th hit of
his career. The feat sent souvenir hunters running for the
ticket windows to ask, "Got any for yesterday's game?"
While 16,843 tickets had been sold before the game, only about
7,000 fans showed up at the stadium. But after the game took on
historical significance, an additional 9,900 tickets were sold
over the next 72 hours.
Molitor has played 19 seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, the
Toronto Blue Jays and the Twins with quiet, classy
professionalism and a hitting stroke so pure that former Royals
third baseman George Brett, a fellow member of the 3,000-hit
club who was in attendance on Molitor's big night, said, "You
could place a full glass of water on his helmet when he swung
and he would not spill a drop."
Molitor, the first player to get 200 hits in the season in which
he got his 3,000th hit, is such a throwback that it was fitting
that ticket-buying fans were clamoring for a piece of the past.
His love for baseball was never more evident than after the
milestone performance, when someone asked him if his career had
now been fulfilled. "You can't rely on getting 3,000 hits to
find fulfillment," said Molitor, who by week's end would run his
hit count to 3,005. "I get to play a major league game tomorrow
and put on a major league uniform. That's something special."
Nomo laid low after his no-no; Leyland passed the Bucs; the
Tribe repeated itself
On the walk back to his Denver hotel room, an hour after he had
no-hit the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field, Los Angeles Dodgers
pitcher Hideo Nomo stopped at a 7-Eleven and bought a soft
drink, some chips and a bottle of water. Four customers
recognized him and began chanting, "NO-mo! NO-mo!" He
autographed their napkins and burrito wrappers and continued on
alone to the hotel. What a way to party.
If there was ever a time for the laconic Nomo, the ace
righthander from Japan, to revel in his accomplishments of the
last two seasons, this was it: His no-hitter, the 20th in the
Dodgers' storied history, came at Coors Field, the best hitters'
park in the major leagues. The Rockies were batting .348 at home
before Nomo took the mound, and in 40 of the 78 games that had
been played in Colorado this season, at least one team scored in
double figures. The last time L.A. visited Coors Field, in late
June, it had lost 13-1, 13-4 and 16-15 and won 13-10. Nomo, in
fact, had been belted for nine runs (five earned) in five
innings in the 16-15 game.
But now, three months later, he was brilliant, keeping Colorado
hitters off balance by mixing a diving forkball and a 95-mph
fastball in the 9-0 victory. "In most parks you think if you
give up two runs, you will win; three, you still might," Dodgers
pitcher Tom Candiotti said after Nomo's no-no. "At Coors Field
you adjust your sights--four, five, six, seven runs and you can
still win. But when he finished the no-hitter, we were
dumbfounded. It was like, Did that really happen?"
Earlier in the day, another of the game's most self-effacing
figures, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland, made equally
stunning news. After years of unstinting loyalty to the Pirates
despite Pittsburgh's recent history of shaky and poorly financed
ownership, Leyland finally took his own future into account and
resigned, effective the last day of the season. While the
bidding war for the 51-year-old Leyland, considered one of the
best managers in the game, won't begin officially until Sept.
30, the Florida Marlins may be the only team he needs to hear
from. As one American League general manager says, "I think the
deal is already done."
Leyland and the Marlins are a nice fit. Florida's current
manager, John Boles, who took over on an interim basis after
Rene Lachemann was fired on July 7, is a friend of Leyland's and
would gladly step aside for him. (He would return to his
previous role as vice president of player development.) Leyland
also has good relationships with Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga
and general manager Dave Dombrowski. Underachieving Florida was
76-80 at week's end, but hiring Leyland and adding a few free
agents this winter--say, Chicago White Sox righthander Alex
Fernandez, a Miami native, and Baltimore Orioles outfielder
Bobby Bonilla, a former Pirate--would make the Marlins playoff
Leyland was ready to resign on Aug. 29, after the Pirates
projected another rollback in player salaries for next season,
but Pittsburgh general manager Cam Bonifay and owner Kevin
McClatchy persuaded him to stay. He halfheartedly justified his
decision to remain by telling friends, "It's too hot in Miami."
However, three weeks later, he realized he had made a mistake
and resigned, saying, "I want to win."
A manager who has shown he can do just that is the Cleveland
Indians' Mike Hargrove. Following the Tribe's 9-4 road win over
the Chicago White Sox, which clinched Cleveland's second
straight American League Central title, Hargrove received a
telegram from members of the Indians' public relations
department that read, "Tris Speaker didn't do it in 1921. Lou
Boudreau didn't do it in 1949. Al Lopez didn't do it in 1955.
Mike Hargrove did it in 1996!" Hargrove had become the first
Indians manager to make the postseason in consecutive years.
Fittingly, in a season of change in Cleveland, the winning
pitcher in the clincher, lefthander Brian Anderson, was in the
California Angels organization before being traded to the
Indians in February, and the man whose grand slam broke open the
game, first baseman Kevin Seitzer, was acquired from the
Milwaukee Brewers on Aug. 31. "This makes for a greater sense of
appreciation and accomplishment this year," said Cleveland
general manager John Hart, whose player moves changed 40% of the
roster since the end of last season. "This is a different
clubhouse this year than last. Did you see the smile on Albert
With his second 20-strikeout game, the Rocket refueled his Red
The cool air of uncertainty had followed Roger Clemens to the
mound each start in September. The Boston Red Sox had faded from
the pennant race, but their fans still kept an anxious watch
over Clemens, the aging ace of the staff. They couldn't help but
wonder if the conclusion of this season would mean the end of
the Rocket's ride in Boston.
Clemens, 34, had carried the Sox on his billboard-sized back for
much of the past 13 years, but recent circumstances seemed to be
clearing a path out of town for the three-time Cy Young Award
winner. His five-year, $25.5 million contract expires after the
season, and he has made it clear that he wants another
big-money, long-term deal, a request that might run head-on into
the bottom-line approach of Boston general manager Dan Duquette.
Clemens, who hasn't been a 20-game winner since 1990, should no
longer command the crazy money that was thrown at him in his
prime. However, he is still proud and stubborn enough to demand
The two sides weren't expected to begin negotiations until after
the season, but on Sept. 18 at Tiger Stadium, Clemens made an
eloquent opening statement of his case. On an unforgettable
night in a rundown old ball yard, he reached back into his past
and thereby perhaps secured his future. Clemens blew away
uncertainty about himself, along with every Detroit hitter, en
route to a 4-0 win in which he struck out 20 batters to tie his
own major league record for a nine-inning game. The feat was so
surreal you almost expected him to walk into a cornfield after
the game. Suddenly, it was impossible to picture him in another
team's uniform next season.
On April 29, 1986, Clemens, who was earning $140,000, struck out
20 Seattle Mariners while walking none. Ten years later, as he
went to the mound against the Tigers, he was hoping just to tie
Cy Young's club record of 192 career victories. He did that--and
also shared the stage with another immortal: himself. "It's
incredible," said Clemens, who also tied Young's club record of
38 career shutouts. "I came to a team rich in tradition, where
pitching was a second-class citizen. My goal has been to become
one of the best pitchers to come through here."
Dozens of pitchers have thrown no-hitters (Clemens is not one of
them), but in big league history only one has struck out 20
batters in a nine-inning game. After Clemens did it the first
time, he predicted it would happen again. "Somebody might strike
out 20 in a game," he said, "but I don't think anybody will do
it without walking somebody." He was wrong--he didn't walk a
Tiger. He did strike out every Detroit hitter. His most dominant
days may be behind him, but when he fanned Travis Fryman for the
fourth time to end the game, there seemed little doubt that his
storied Red Sox career will live on.
While hot air poured from their owner, the Yanks picked up
If you had trained one of those weather radar systems on the
Baltimore Orioles-New York Yankees series last week, you would
have found storms busting out all over the map. Thanks to a
deluge, lightning, thunder in both clubhouses and two of three
games decided by one run, Yankee Stadium became a Wet 'N Wild
park. So it was appropriate that the series ended at midnight
last Thursday with a particularly blustery disturbance: New York
owner George Steinbrenner venting to a crowd of reporters
outside the Yankees' clubhouse about a fifth-inning balk call
that played a part in a 10-9 New York loss. "I'm going to talk
to Dr. Budig tomorrow about it and have him explain it to me,"
he bellowed, referring to American League president Gene Budig,
whom he had skewered two days earlier for not attending the
Not only did Steinbrenner tweak Budig, who on Tuesday was in
Kansas City, Mo., for a meeting of a charitable foundation ("He
made a mistake tonight in my opinion," Steinbrenner said that
evening), but he also lashed into umpire Joe Brinkman for the
boneheaded decision to start the game after daylong rainfall was
forecast to continue through the night. Brinkman called off the
game just before 11 p.m., after the teams' ace pitchers, David
Cone of the Yankees and Mike Mussina of the Orioles, pitched a
pointless first inning that was followed by a two hour,
45-minute rain delay.
The next night arrived slightly drier and with Steinbrenner
raging on in the Yanks' clubhouse. This time he made one of
those announcements of his that have become more of a punch line
than a bombshell: Manager Joe Torre, who had the Yankees in
first place and a contract for next season, would return in
1997. The idea, he told Torre, was to help Torre relax. By
Torre's own admission, if he relaxed any more, he would "fall
When they finally got around to playing ball--Baltimore, which
had won eight of its previous 10 games, began Wednesday three
games behind first-place New York, which had won seven of its
last 10--the Orioles and the Yankees staged a brilliant game.
New York, two outs from a 2-1 defeat, rallied for a tie in the
ninth and a victory in the 10th. Afterward, Baltimore reliever
Randy Myers ripped his manager, Davey Johnson, for pulling him
after he opened the ninth with two walks. "When you're the
closer with a one-run lead, your job is to get three outs,"
Myers said. "I wasn't given the chance."
The Yankees then pounded a lethargic Mussina in the opener of
the doubleheader on Thursday for a 9-3 win, leaving the Orioles
more worried about winning the wild-card berth than the division
title. Baltimore, which had already broken the record for most
home runs in a season, is a powerful but ill-balanced club that
goes station-to-station slower than the Toonerville Trolley.
When the Orioles rallied from a 6-1 deficit against Cone to win
the finale, it was only the 15th time this season they won
without hitting a home run. And who was the last of the game's
11 pitchers? Myers, of course.
His squawk over the balk aside, Steinbrenner took the defeat
surprisingly well. The forecast, he figured, sounded better.
"They came in looking to go out even, and they're leaving four
games back," he said of the Orioles. "In my opinion, that's
good." Steinbrenner would keep that sunny outlook at least
through Sunday, at which point the Yanks were still up by four.
Glavine shut the door on the Expos, setting up a fifth Braves
title in six years
The defending world champion Atlanta Braves, who had won four
division titles in the last five years, were looking
uncharacteristically vulnerable in the final weeks of the
season. A 12 1/2-game lead over the Montreal Expos on Aug. 30
had been cut to 4 1/2 on Sept. 14, and the gritty Expos were
still just five games out after defeating the Braves 5-1 in the
opener of a four-game series last Thursday night at
Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Atlanta bullpen was
exhausted, third baseman Terry Pendleton was showing his age
(36), and rookie outfielder Andruw Jones often appeared
overmatched by major league pitching.
If the Braves didn't stop the Expos fast, they faced the
prospect of perhaps having to win the National League East in
the final three games of the season at Montreal. But fortunately
for Atlanta, its starter on Friday night was lefthander Tom
Glavine, who hadn't lost to the Expos since Aug. 25, 1992. He
threw eight strong innings, yielding just five hits, in winning
his eighth straight against Montreal. Closer Mark Wohlers worked
the ninth and picked up his 37th save in a 3-2 victory that gave
the Braves the breathing room they needed with nine games to play.
"It was important to not let [the Expos] continue to feel they
can catch us," Glavine (15-9), who was the World Series MVP and
had a 1.61 ERA in four postseason appearances last year, said
after his timely victory. "The more you hang around, the more
you believe you can catch a team. It's best to get this thing
The Braves won in a way that was reminiscent of last year's
championship season: terrific starting pitching, just enough
hitting and Wohlers finishing up. Leftfielder Ryan Klesko hit
his 34th homer in the second and catcher Javier Lopez's slow
roller scored another run in the fourth. But the Expos tied the
game on first baseman David Segui's two-run single in the fifth.
Atlanta first baseman Fred McGriff opened the eighth with a
double and scored on Lopez's two-out single to center.
On came Wohlers, who the night before had pitched to three
batters in the ninth and retired none. But his 90-plus-mph
fastball was humming, and he struck out two of the four batters
he faced in his 73rd appearance of the season--more than Lee
Smith or Dennis Eckersley, the alltime save leaders, has ever
had in one year.
"This win eased the pressure on us," said Klesko, who homered
for only the second time in 3 1/2 weeks. "Realistically,
Montreal needed a sweep, and that's not going to happen."
On the next night lefthander Denny Neagle, who was acquired in
August from the Pittsburgh Pirates for three prospects, would
win his second game as a Brave. And on Sunday righthander John
Smoltz, the favorite to win the National League Cy Young Award,
fittingly would pitch the division-clinching victory to run his
record to 23-8.
"If you don't have starting pitching," said Braves pitching
coach Leo Mazzone, "you have nothing."
Refuse to Lose II: A 10-game win streak put the Mariners on the
Pitching to the Seattle Mariners is like ordering coffee with
extra sugar at one of Seattle's ubiquitous coffee shops. You
take your lumps and end up feeling buzzed. Strong? Consider the
jolt administered to Oakland Athletics righthander Dave
Telgheder at the standing-room-only coffeehouse known as the
Kingdome. This is what happened to four consecutive pitches he
threw in the third inning to Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and
Edgar Martinez: home run, home run, strike, home run. Talk about
your klatch hitting. "By the time I watched the replay of my
home run," said Rodriguez afterward, "Junior had just hit one
over the centerfield fence."
Martinez's homer gave Seattle 580 extra-base hits for the
season, tying the major league record set by the 1936 New York
Yankees. The next hitter, Jay Buhner, who had homered in his
previous at bat, flied out to deep centerfield. The 60-year-old
record fell when the next batter, Paul Sorrento, blasted another
homer. Total damage: five batters, four dingers and a
franchise-record 10th straight win for the Mariners, who were
hotter than the java at McDonald's.
Only eight days earlier, on the morning of Sept. 13, Seattle
trailed the first-place Texas Rangers in the American League
West by eight games with 18 to play. However, after the Mariners
swept three games from the Minnesota Twins and four from the
Rangers before tacking on two more wins against Oakland, the
deficit was cut to one game.
The late-season run was eerily reminiscent of the Mariners'
Refuse to Lose campaign at the close of the last season, when
they mounted the third-best comeback ever (13 games out with 55
to play) to overtake the California Angels and win the West. But
even that club was within five games with 18 remaining. Mariner
fans have dubbed this September charge Refuse to Lose II--II
anybody, anywhere, anytime.
Meanwhile, 73-year-old Bob Dole's plunge off a platform wasn't
even the scariest free fall of the week. That calamity belonged
to the Rangers. The only team in existence before 1993 never to
have played a postseason game relinquished a game off their lead
for each of eight losses in nine games. "That matters because
the Mariners know they can do it," Texas manager Johnny Oates
said of Seattle's edge at crunch time. "It's like making an A on
a test, or baking a pie, or running a six-minute mile. Once
you've done it, you know you can do it again."
The Rangers appeared downright jittery during the Mariners'
four-game sweep at the Kingdome earlier in the week. They came
in with the league's best record in games against lefthanded
starters but flailed at a steady stream of changeups from well-
traveled lefties Jamie Moyer, Terry Mulholland and Sterling
Hitchcock. When Seattle righthander Bob Wolcott struggled in the
finale, manager Lou Piniella quickly replaced him with another
slop-throwing lefty, Tim Davis, who earned the victory.
After the Mariners waxed the A's 12-2 the next night, they
repaired to their clubhouse to watch the 10th inning of Texas's
game against the California Angels, in Anaheim. Rangers reliever
Mike Stanton had two outs, nobody on base and a 5-4 lead. Before
you could say Heimlich, the Rangers lost. Two singles and a
double did it, with Garret Anderson driving in two runs after
Stanton had him 0 and 2. The Seattle clubhouse erupted in cheers.
The Mariners hosted their Telgheder party the following night.
Martinez's homer made him the fourth Seattle player with 100
RBIs this season. Only 15 other lineups in history have included
four 100-RBI players, with the Mariners becoming only the fourth
such team since World War II.
After the Mariners established themselves as one of the premier
offensive clubs ever, they would finally be beaten on Sunday in
a manner they could appreciate: Mark McGwire of the A's led off
the fifth with a home run and capped the eight-run inning with a
grand slam, which also happened to be his major-league-leading
52nd dinger of the year. Still, trailing 13-3, Seattle rallied
for seven runs in its half of the fifth and lost 13-11. That's
The best division race, between the Dodgers and the Padres, only
Against the roar of the crowd at Jack Murphy Stadium late Sunday
afternoon, the fireworks that exploded in the sky above the
bleachers seemed strangely redundant. The four-game series
between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres
featured an endless succession of gimmicks and garnishes, from a
dog named Pawdre who ran the bases between innings to a
flag-waving Chicken to brawling party animals in the bleachers,
but in the end an odd thing happened: Baseball got in the way.
The county fair was interrupted by an intense four-game series
that kept alive the best divisional race in the major leagues
and set up a possible all-or-nothing showdown between the same
two teams in L.A. this weekend, the season's last. The Dodgers
and the Padres may have split this series, but baseball swept
"I wouldn't have admitted this if we had lost," Padres
rightfielder Tony Gwynn said after San Diego took the finale
3-2, "but this was a game we absolutely had to win."
When they took the field on Sunday, the Padres were trailing the
National League West-leading Dodgers by 1 1/2 games and facing
Hideo Nomo, whose previous appearance had been one of the great
pitching performances of recent years. Nomo's no-hitter in
Colorado on Tuesday was just one reason San Diego issued 207
press credentials for the series against Los Angeles (up from an
average of 30) and sold nearly 200,000 tickets. There were other
factors adding to the interest, including a batting race
(between Gwynn and L.A. catcher Mike Piazza), an MVP contest
(Piazza versus San Diego third baseman Ken Caminiti) and a
geographical rivalry that finally seems to be taking off--only
27 years after San Diego joined the National League. "I've seen
it like this for football, but not baseball," said Dodgers first
baseman Eric Karros, who grew up five minutes away from Jack
Murphy Stadium. "The whole place was just incredibly fired up.
One time [Padres centerfielder] Steve Finley came down to first
base and said, 'So this is what it's all about, huh?'"
This is what it was all about: A loss on Sunday would have
dropped San Diego 2 1/2 games behind Los Angeles, which
amazingly would have matched the largest gap between these two
teams since June 9. This race has been tighter than Rosie
O'Donnell's bike shorts, so it was fitting that in the big
picture, this epic series determined absolutely nothing. The
Dodgers headed north on Sunday night the same way they hit town
on Wednesday night: a half game up, with a big red circle around
this weekend's three-game set at Dodger Stadium. The two teams
have split 10 games so far this season. A one-game playoff on
Monday would come as no surprise to anyone involved. And
entering the season's final week, it appeared the West runner-up
could beat out Montreal in the race for the wild card.
The Padres chased Nomo after five innings. Finley knocked a high
forkball into the rightfield seats with a runner on to give San
Diego a 3-1 lead in the fifth. It was the third homer of the
series and the 28th of the year for Finley, who over the four
days did everything but the macarena. It may be time to take the
sharp objects away from the front-office person who, while in
the employ of the Houston Astros, took a call from the Padres
before last season and said, "Oh, you want Caminiti and Finley?
I don't see why not."
"I like to be up there in the important situations," said
Finley, "just like everyone else on this team."
San Diego survived Piazza's 446-foot home run to leftfield in
the eighth inning, only the 13th ball to reach the second deck
at the Murph. Unfortunately for L.A., the bases were empty at
the time, just as they had been in the fourth inning when Raul
Mondesi went deep. After Caminiti made a diving stop on Greg
Gagne's grounder in the ninth, the crowd of 51,092 erupted one
last time, standing and chanting, "M-V-P!" That, it seems, is
yet another matter to be decided in these final days.
After San Diego State played Oklahoma at the Murph on Saturday
night, the grounds crew quickly converted the stadium back to
baseball, but they couldn't do anything about the atmosphere. It
was college-football crazy all weekend. "People were into the
games, the baseball," said Gwynn. "I've been waiting a long time
for this, and it's great to see. It wasn't about the macarena or
paper airplanes or the Chicken. It was about baseball."
In an epic San Diego feud, Gwynn even took a moment after
Thursday's 7-0 loss to blast the famous Chicken, whose antics
delayed one of his at bats. The Chicken planted a flag near home
plate as the last of the eighth inning was about to begin,
forcing an umpire to pull the flag while Gwynn waited in the
batter's box. Gwynn said the routine was "absolutely the worst
thing I've ever seen in my life." The Chicken fired back with a
letter to the editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, reminding
Gwynn that "there's no crying in baseball."
Of course, the Chicken wasn't the only sideshow that annoyed
Gwynn, the otherwise good-natured Padres star. He hates the
macarena, too. "Forget the macarena, forget the Chicken, forget
all that stuff," he said.
The Chicken didn't show up again for the rest of the series, but
no one was complaining. They came for baseball, and they got
what they came for. Now it's on to L.A. for one last weekend.
This should be good.