He was still frantically changing into his street clothes as he
hurried down the hallway and out of the stadium; there was no
time for cameras or questions or even a quick shower. The fans
who saw the dead-serious look of concern on his face as he left
must have assumed he was an Atlanta Braves player, but Brian
Jordan was, in fact, the reason the St. Louis Cardinals had
pushed the world champion Braves to the brink of elimination on
Sunday night. Jordan's dramatic eighth-inning solo home run had
lifted St. Louis to a 4-3 victory in Game 4 of the National
League Championship Series and left the Cards one win from a
World Series date with the New York Yankees.
Unfortunately, it also left Bryson Jordan unconscious, and that
was especially scary since Bryson is only two years old and
didn't understand the magnitude of his father's feat. If the
other 56,000 people in the ballpark had fainted, it would have
been understandable. But Bryson was minding his own business,
playing with the other players' kids and watching the game on TV
in a small family room near the clubhouse, when Dad went deep.
The crowd erupted into a deafening celebration, and the walls of
the playroom shook. Apparently the excitement and the heat in
the room were too much for Bryson, who blacked out and was
rushed to the hospital. Brian didn't hear the news until after
the game, but he wasted no time yanking off his uniform and
dashing out the door.
After four hours in the hospital Bryson was released, and Brian
and his wife, Pam, could breathe easier and enjoy the moment.
The Braves, on the other hand, remained in serious condition.
While they bounced back with a resounding 14-0 win in Game 5 on
Monday night, cutting St. Louis's lead to three games to two and
sending the series back to Atlanta, the Braves' attempt to
secure a return trip to the World Series had proved more
daunting than anyone had imagined.
After Atlanta escaped with a 4-2 victory in Game 1, the Cards
came back to win the next three, growing more confident and more
determined with each success. Nothing is more unnerving in
October than watching your opponent take on a sense of destiny,
which is pretty much the situation the Braves found themselves
in last weekend. "I always said this wasn't going to be the
series everyone thought it would be, with us just coming here
and winning easily," Atlanta righthander John Smoltz, who
started and won Games 1 and 5, said on Sunday night. "They're
feeding off the emotion from their big hits and rallies."
While the Braves insisted they didn't take St. Louis lightly,
they looked stunned at the turn of events. It was as if Bruce
Seldon had caught them square on the chin. "You saw what
happened in Cleveland," centerfielder Marquis Grissom said,
referring to the Baltimore Orioles' opening-round upset of the
defending American League champion Indians. "Don't think we
In the first round of the playoffs the Braves had torn through
the Los Angeles Dodgers like a tomahawk chop through a warm
Atlanta breeze. There was no reason to think anything would
change in the Championship Series.
St. Louis did not bring a particularly imposing lineup into the
postseason: Making the playoffs in 1996 with just one player
(Jordan) who had at least 100 RBIs is like qualifying for the
Indy 500 in an AMC Gremlin. The American League has ball girls
with more home run power than the heart of the Cardinals'
lineup. The Braves had Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, five Cy
Young awards between them, and neither was starting Game 1. That
honor would belong to Smoltz, the probable 1996 Cy Young
recipient. Atlanta seemed to hold an unbeatable hand against the
Cards, who were 4-9 against the Braves during the regular
season, including 0-6 at Busch Stadium.
But from St. Louis would come this news flash: Baseball is a
funny game. Weird things happen. Luck can step in and earn a
playoff share. Your line drives go straight at people, their
line drives find open spaces. Maddux and Glavine lose
back-to-back. Dmitri Young is a hero, Fred McGriff a goat. Two
weeks ago only a couple of dozen people didn't think the Braves
were invincible, and fortunately for Cardinals manager Tony La
Russa, they were all playing for him. St. Louis came into the
Championship Series with an air of self-assurance and never let
it slip away. "This game is an attitude," Cardinals reliever
Rick Honeycutt said after Game 4. "Sometimes you need an edge,
and our edge is that no one expects us to win. We've got no
pressure. We're just playing the game, trying to do things right
for nine innings."
In his first year in the National League, La Russa has assembled
a fascinating mix of youth and experience. Out of the bullpen
Honeycutt and Dennis Eckersley, both 42, form an effective
one-two punch that is older than the Mississippi. The big-game
butterflies they once had have long since died. St. Louis
relievers allowed two earned runs in the series opener and then
put up 10 straight scoreless innings over the next three games.
Eckersley, who was acquired from the Oakland A's before the
start of the season, got off to a rocky start in St. Louis and
actually heard boos from Busch Stadium crowds early in the year.
But he proved invaluable down the stretch, finishing with 30
saves, and then he locked up all three wins in the Division
Series sweep of the San Diego Padres. Against Atlanta, Eckersley
saved Game 3 and won Game 4, coming in with the score 3-3 in the
eighth and then finishing off the Braves after Jordan's home
run. In three appearances against Atlanta, Eckersley didn't
allow a run. "I don't care what kind of tan he's got or how long
his hair is," La Russa said of Eckersley after Sunday's game,
"that son of a gun is tough."
The Cardinals have a roomful of tough guys, and they took turns
flexing their muscles against the Braves. In Game 2, with the
incomparable Maddux on the mound, Gary Gaetti busted the game
open in the seventh inning with a grand slam that carried St.
Louis to an 8-3 win. Atlanta then sent Glavine, last year's
World Series MVP, to the mound in Game 3 as the action moved to
St. Louis. He would have gotten the Braves even, were it not for
his old pal Ron Gant. Two years ago Gant broke his leg in an
off-season dirt-bike accident, and he was released a month later
by Atlanta. The leg healed; Gant's bitterness about the Braves'
decision to dump him remains. Last season, as a member of the
Cincinnati Reds, he met up with his former club in the playoffs
and was blinded by thoughts of revenge. He hit .188 with one RBI
as Atlanta swept Cincinnati in a Division Series. "Last year I
tried to do too much," said Gant after Saturday's game. "I
wanted to beat them myself, to hit a home run every time up. It
hurt me more than it helped. My feelings were so deep that I
tried too hard. This year I've calmed down and made adjustments."
Glavine allowed three runs, all of them on Gant home runs--a
two-run shot in the first and a solo blast in the sixth. The
Cardinals held on for a 3-2 victory. It was a sweet day for
Gant, who lives in Atlanta in the off-season and keeps what's
left of his dirt bike in his garage. "Just a reminder of what
happened and how my life has changed," said Gant. "That accident
was a blessing. It opened my eyes and taught me not to take
anything for granted. This is such a humbling sport."
While in St. Louis, the Braves didn't have to flip a motorcycle
to feel humble. They just had to go outside. With their hotel
only a couple of blocks from the stadium, they walked home after
getting knocked off in Games 3 and 4. The rabid Cards' fans,
draped in red and smelling blood, did not waste the chance to
taunt the wounded champs. "It was like walking through a sea of
red," said Smoltz.
Atlanta had to wonder what strange force it had encountered when
it lost Game 4 and fell behind three games to one. Denny Neagle,
who had been a bust since the Braves acquired him in a deal with
the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 28, made his first postseason
start and turned in his best performance in an Atlanta uniform.
Neagle held the Cards hitless until the fourth inning and left
in the seventh with a 3-0 lead, but with runners on first and
second. Braves manager Bobby Cox brought in middle reliever Greg
McMichael, who was eaten alive by the Redbirds.
With two on and two out, La Russa called on the 23-year-old
Young to pinch-hit. Young had all of 29 at bats in the big
leagues. He had seven hits, all singles. Naturally, he lasered a
triple to the wall in left center, driving in two runs. Royce
Clayton followed with an infield single to tie the game. "Tony
is amazing," St. Louis reliever Tony Fossas said of his skipper.
"I mean, Dmitri Young? You figure it out. All I know is that it
was a great move."
What did Cox think of Young's dramatics? "McMichael threw him a
fastball out over the plate," said the Braves' manager, "and he
knocked the s--- out of it. It's frustrating, and it just pisses
you off that you didn't win the game."
It was especially frustrating for the vaunted Atlanta pitching
staff. While the Braves' starters were not as dominating as they
had been in playoffs past, they pitched well enough to win. The
Cards hit just .220 and scored just 12 earned runs. Take away
Gaetti's grand slam, and the Braves, with any offense at all,
could have swept. But since the start of the playoffs the
Atlanta bats have been as silent as Susan McDougal. The Braves
hit .180 against the Dodgers and .235 in the first four games of
the Championship Series, with a postseason total of just eight
home runs. Cleanup man McGriff had only one single in his first
13 at bats and appeared to be playing with all the passion of a
man on work release.
The Cardinals' batters were not making anyone forget the
muscular American League either, but they made their hits count
and ran the bases as if they were being chased by wild dogs.
Luck was on their side, and so was emotion. Their cleanup man,
Jordan, came to the plate in the eighth inning of Game 4 with
the score tied, and everyone in the ballpark sensed that
something was about to happen, something positive for the Cards.
"As good a clutch RBI guy as I've seen," Gaetti, the 15-year
veteran, said of Jordan.
Jordan took McMichael over the leftfield fence and into the
Cardinals' bullpen as Busch Stadium exploded. After a brief
scare, little Bryson Jordan was fine. On the other hand, though
they staved off elimination the next night, the Braves headed
back to Atlanta still feeling slightly overwhelmed.