Even as major league baseball flicked on the bright lights of
its postseason showcase last week, the game challenged the
loyalty and patience of its weary constituency. It was the kind
of week in which fans needed to check their local TV listings to
catch baseball: ESPN, NBC, Fox or Court TV. The highlights
included repercussions from vile player behavior, strike
threats, reminders of a leadership vacuum and a federal
injunction. It was like watching a movie without any good guys.
Whom do you root for? The players? They were represented by
Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar, who spit in
umpire John Hirschbeck's face on Sept. 27 (page 28). The
umpires? Well, Hirschbeck somehow refrained from punching Alomar
on the spot. But then the umps and their prolix counsel, Richie
Phillips, went to federal court with a threat to strike the
postseason because of the light suspension--five days off with
pay in 1997--Alomar received.
The owners? They entrust the stewardship of the American League
to Gene Budig, a former chancellor at three universities who
previously served on the Kansas City Royals' board of directors.
When the Alomar matter came across his desk, Budig ruled softly,
then hid under it the rest of the week.
If all that weren't enough, fans tuning in to Game 2 of the New
York Yankees-Texas Rangers Division Series on Oct. 2 were
treated to players' association chief Donald Fehr giving an
update on labor negotiations. It was the kind of moment that
inspired the invention of the remote control.
October 13, 1996
But in the Texas twilight last Friday during Game 3, somebody at
the Ballpark in Arlington hung a banner near the rightfield foul
pole that fairly glistened with truth: FANS OF THE GREAT GAME.
Whom do you root for? There is your answer. It is the game, too
often in spite of the people who play and run it, that we always
root for. If you didn't see the banner, the 14 Division Series
games delivered the same message. Mostly, the games were great.
They also underscored two truths about how baseball is played
today: The teams that advance through the leagues' Championship
Series this week and play in the World Series will have to bang
some home runs and employ multiple layers of relief pitching. As
the Division Series proved, it makes for entertaining baseball.
Nine of the 14 games were decided by one or two runs. Home runs
flew out of parks at a rate even greater than they did during
the regular season, when a record 4,962 baseballs cleared the
walls. "In the postseason especially," Atlanta Braves pitcher
John Smoltz says, "every hitter who steps to the plate is a
potential rally." Not counting the Braves--whose peerless
starters won all three games of their series against the Los
Angeles Dodgers--relief pitchers earned eight victories and
starters only three in the first round. All non-Braves starters
averaged only 5 2/3 innings.
The American League Championship Series between the Yankees and
the Orioles, which was to begin at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday,
stood fittingly as a collision of the game's two strongest
forces in the '90s: specialty relief and power hitting. New York
dispatched Texas in four games with a bullpen that picked up all
three Yankees wins and allowed one earned run in 19 2/3 innings.
Baltimore carpet bombed the Cleveland Indians, the defending
league champions, in four games with nine home runs, the last a
12th-inning, series-winning dinger by none other than Alomar.
This is how much the game has changed: The Yankees, having hit
fewer home runs this season than every American League club
except the Royals and the Minnesota Twins, are considered a
scrappy offensive team. They cranked only 162 homers. Only?
That's four more than the 1927 Yankees hit. During the regular
season New York pitchers allowed the fewest home runs in the
league (143). Baltimore blasted more than any team in history
(257). The Orioles began their series against Cleveland
with--what else?--a home run from leadoff hitter Brady Anderson.
They scored more than half their runs in the series (14 of 25)
by going deep.
Appropriately, Cleveland won its only game when Albert Belle
smashed a grand slam in Game 3 off a high fastball from reliever
Armando Benitez. The home run rescued Cleveland manager Mike
Hargrove from a bizarre decision in which he almost took the bat
out of the hands of his two best RBI men, Jim Thome and Belle,
who had combined to drive in 264 runs this year. With runners at
first and second and the score 4-4 in the seventh inning,
Hargrove sent Casey Candaele to bunt for Thome, which, if
successful, would have prompted Baltimore to walk Belle. Orioles
reliever Jesse Orosco inexcusably walked Candaele. "Was it my
biggest postseason moment?" Candaele said afterward. "It was my
only postseason moment."
The Cleveland rotation, though, had no such glory. It wilted
under the pressure of the deep Baltimore lineup while
exemplifying the continual lowering of the bar for starting
pitchers. Orel Hershiser, once known as Bulldog, called it a day
after five innings in Game 2. Jack McDowell, who has a
reputation as a workhorse, was pulled after getting the first
two outs of the sixth inning of Game 3. And ace Charles Nagy
agreed he was done after throwing six innings in Game 4.
With the micromanaging of relief pitchers, such light workloads
have become typical. However, neither Cleveland nor anyone in
baseball has a bullpen as strong as New York's. In a typical
game the Yankees give opponents 18 outs. If you haven't jumped
the New York starter by then, you're toast. The Yankees are 70-3
when leading after six innings this year, thanks largely to
Mariano Rivera, who usually shuts the door in the seventh and
eighth innings, and John Wetteland, who keeps it closed in the
ninth. The Texas pen, meanwhile, coughed up every lead it had
against New York. The Rangers got their only win when manager
Johnny Oates kept the bullpen gate locked in Game 1, allowing
John Burkett to throw a complete game in a 6-2 victory.
"Collectively," says Yankees starter David Cone, "our bullpen
has been the MVP of this team and maybe the league."
The Rangers did not score after the sixth inning in any game
against the Yankees. Not even rightfielder Juan Gonzalez, the
slugger who checked into a New York hotel under the name John
Lennon, could get to the Yankees in the late innings. Imagine.
However, he did rip five home runs, tying the postseason series
record held by Reggie Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr. Texas fans
dubbed him Senor Octubre. Given the lack of help he received,
better they should have called him the Lone Ranger. He drove in
or scored nine of the team's 16 runs.
The outcome proved kinder for Gonzalez's former teammate from
the Sabana Horyos, a Mickey Mantle League team near San Juan. On
that club Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams batted seventh.
"No power," he says. "I tried to hit ground balls to shortstop
and beat them out." The scouting report has changed dramatically
since then. Williams, 28, has blossomed into a thumper who is
his club's best clutch hitter (.356 with runners in scoring
position) and--owing to his low profile and late
development--the best player in the big leagues never to make an
All-Star team. He batted .467 in the Rangers' series with three
home runs, including one from each side of the plate in the 6-4
clincher last Saturday. No one else has hit home runs from both
sides of the plate in a postseason game. Williams has done it
"We did something a little different in this series," says New
York manager Joe Torre. "We put him in the middle of the lineup.
He's been in the middle basically against lefthanded pitchers,
but I decided to put him in both ways because Bernie is becoming
a big-play guy."
Home runs also helped carry Atlanta past Los Angeles and into
its fifth straight National League Championship Series. The
Braves play offense like the old Oakland Raiders with Daryle
Lamonica at quarterback. Everyone goes deep. There's not much
more to it. Atlanta won Game 1 on a 10th-inning bomb by Javy
Lopez, took Game 2 with solo shots by Ryan Klesko, Fred McGriff
and Jermaine Dye, and put away Game 3 with a two-run homer by
Of course, the Dodgers were the only postseason team not to
homer. Braves starters Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine
permitted L.A. only 12 hits and two earned runs in 22 2/3
innings. Mark Wohlers saved each game. That left the middle
relievers--the supposed Atlanta weakness--only six outs to
secure over the series. Greg McMichael and Mike Bielecki took
care of that while allowing one run.
The St. Louis Cardinals will have to get into the Atlanta
bullpen earlier to get past the Braves. The Cardinals also swept
their way into the Championship Series with clutch home runs.
Gary Gaetti drove in all their runs in Game 1 against the San
Diego Padres with a first-inning homer in a 3-1 victory. In the
finale Brian Jordan slammed a ninth-inning two-run shot in a 7-5
The Padres were in each game up to the final out, which to their
dismay was left in the still reliable hands of Dennis Eckersley.
The Cardinals' 42-year-old closer outpitched his 28-year-old
counterpart, Trevor Hoffman, who didn't start playing
professional baseball until five years ago. St. Louis won Games
2 and 3 in its last at bat with Hoffman on the mound. Eckersley,
who is third behind Lee Smith (473) and Jeff Reardon (367) on
the alltime saves list, with 353, ended the opener by winning a
Cooperstown-quality matchup against seven-time National League
batting champion Tony Gwynn, who grounded sharply to the box
with two runners on base. "That was kind of a magical moment,"
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "It crossed my mind that
this was as good as it gets."
Thankfully, it is moments like that one, and not, say, the
umpires delaying the first pitch of the opening playoff game by
17 minutes while waiting to hear a decision from a federal
judge, that will endure. By last weekend the game had moved
toward closure, and not just for the Indians, the Rangers, the
Dodgers and the Padres, all of whom were eliminated on Saturday.
That day Hirschbeck announced that he had accepted Alomar's
apology. The previous day the acting commissioner, Bud Selig,
announced a "summit meeting" next month in which owner, player
and umpire representatives will establish "codes of conduct."
According to a league source, spitting in the face of an umpire
is expected to be on the Not Acceptable list, right below
running with scissors.
In the meantime, maybe the rest of the postseason will come off
unencumbered, without the need for color commentary by Fehr,
Phillips, Selig or Greta van Susteren. Now there is something to