In the sweltering heat on Saturday afternoon in Atlanta, during
a ferociously contested game that stood 4-4 in the eighth
inning, a pitching change afforded two All-Stars from different
leagues a chance to chat at third base. Twenty-five-year-old
Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who had advanced to third
after walking and now represented the go-ahead run, removed his
batting helmet and asked 36-year-old Baltimore Orioles third
baseman Cal Ripken, "So, how's it going at third?" Ripken, who
has 160 fewer career starts at the position than Jones, another
converted shortstop, replied, "Actually, it's going O.K, but I'm
a little out of sync on fielding the hops." The two of them then
spent a couple of minutes discussing the nuances of a third
baseman's positioning on cutoff plays. That still life could
stand as the official picture of the first weekend of
interleague play. It embodied what the lords of baseball had in
mind when they concocted this novelty to help clean up the toxic
spill of the 1994-95 strike: two guys on a corner talking
The newness of interleague play created a buzz, especially in
Atlanta, where the best team in the National League played the
best team in the American League four months ahead of the
traditional staging of such a matchup. Baseball pulled the
wrappings off a possible World Series showdown like a kid in
August tearing into a package marked DO NOT OPEN UNTIL CHRISTMAS.
"Baseball lucked out with this matchup," said one skeptical
Oriole, who wondered if interleague play would have appeal
beyond this never-before, gee-whiz fascination stage--or would
turn out to be this year's macarena. Interleague play was set
up, however, to showcase Ripken and other stars by sending them,
like traveling Smithsonian exhibits, into new markets. That
would explain why the Baltimore-Atlanta series sometimes felt as
staged as the book signing Ripken arrived late to last Saturday,
only moments after scoring the winning run in a 6-4 Orioles
victory. The night before, he had been greeted with a standing
ovation upon his first at bat, saluted with hundreds of
flashbulbs popping on every pitch to him and honored with
placards of affection (HEY CAL, THANKS read one).
If nothing else, interleague play settled an argument normally
reserved for October, when Baltimore swept three games from the
Braves. Shut out on two hits by Greg Maddux entering the sixth
inning on Friday night, and trailing John Smoltz and Tom Glavine
going into the seventh on each of the next two days, the Orioles
nevertheless came away winners each time. In Sunday's 5-3
victory, backup catcher Lenny Webster had the decisive blow, a
two-run, 10th-inning homer. Atlanta might have won the game in
regulation had Baltimore not gotten a lucky bounce. A sure
two-run double by Jones in the sixth inning slipped through the
space between the outfield wall and the bullpen gate for a
ground rule double that sent one runner back to third. "We got
some breaks," Ripken said of the three games. "It was exciting.
I had trouble sleeping at night just thinking about this series.
That usually doesn't happen in the regular season."
"Right now they're the best team in baseball," Smoltz said after
Baltimore's 6-4 win in 12 innings on Saturday. "They're playing
better than we are. They do what it takes to get runners in,
they pitch extremely well, they catch the ball and they play
hard. We better start playing a little more like them."
Told of Smoltz's anointing of the Birds as baseball's top team,
Orioles centerfielder Brady Anderson offered a one-word reply:
"Cool!" Manager Davey Johnson said, "If we see them again in
October, this puts us on an even playing field. They've been
beating everybody for years." Except teams from the American
League, against whom the Braves are 11-17 in the 1990s.
Nearly 40% through the season, Baltimore (45-19 at week's end)
is beginning to develop the sheen of a team to be measured
against posterity, not just the American League East, which the
Orioles led by nine games over the New York Yankees through
Sunday. In franchise history only the 1969 O's, who won 109
games, had a better record at this stage. These Birds could
become the third American League team to hold first place every
day of the season, joining the 1927 Yankees and the 1984 Detroit
Baltimore is the only team this season that hasn't lost more
than two games in a row. The Orioles succeeded, as they showed
Atlanta, with reliable starting pitching, the best bullpen in
baseball and just enough offense, though they are talking to
other clubs, trying to find another bat, such as Geronimo Berroa
of the Oakland Athletics.
"We definitely need another hitter," Johnson said on Friday,
just hours after outfielder Eric Davis underwent surgery to
remove one third of his colon, which contained a mass, the
nature of which has not yet been determined. Baltimore expected
Davis to be sidelined for at least eight weeks.
"Last year we had to come from behind to win a lot of games,"
Anderson said of a team that hit more home runs (257) than any
other club in history. "This year our starting pitching and
defense are keeping us close in just about every game. We don't
often fall behind by a lot early."
The Orioles' visit to Atlanta triggered World Series excitement
on a smaller, friendlier scale. Turner Field was sold out for
all three games, or one more than it had been for its first 31
dates. Local and national newspapers ran Series-style
position-by-position matchups. A Braves employee, unfamiliar
with the architect of two Toronto Blue Jays world-championship
teams, nearly booted Baltimore general manager Pat Gillick from
the field before Friday's game because he wasn't wearing a
credential. Light-hitting Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick, upon
seeing a pitcher instead of a designated hitter on the lineup
card for the first time, cracked, "At least Jimmy Key's not
hitting in front of me." Fittingly, the Interleague World Series
began the same way as the final game of last year's real World
Series: with Maddux pitching against Key, the former Yankee who
started and won Game 6.
Having never faced Baltimore, Maddux prepared for his start by
watching videotapes of other hurlers, including Chicago White
Sox righthander Doug Drabek, pitching against the Orioles. Such
unfamiliarity usually embellishes the aura of the World Series.
For instance, Glavine says he found out only in the heat of last
year's Series "how good of a fastball hitter Bernie Williams was."
By contrast, should Baltimore and Atlanta stage a been-there,
done-that Series in October, Anderson will have firsthand
knowledge of how Maddux can start a fastball at a lefthanded
hitter's hips and run it back over the inside corner for strike
three, as he did in the fourth inning on Friday. "I've seen him
do it on TV, but it's something different to see it in the
batter's box," Anderson said. "It broke so late."
Starting last Friday, the Braves played three straight
interleague games in which they faced an elite starting pitcher
(Key, Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson of the Orioles) and were
scheduled to meet another, Roger Clemens of the Blue Jays, on
Monday; those four had a combined record of 38-5. Key matched
Maddux zero for zero until Baltimore scratched out four runs in
the sixth inning on five softly hit singles; a sacrifice bunt by
Key, his first since playing for Clemson 15 years ago; and a
sacrifice fly. Atlanta rallied to within 4-3 on more
conventional American League tactics--a triple and two home
runs--before Orioles closer Randy Myers sealed the win with a
perfect ninth inning.
By beating a National League team, Key (11-1) tied Clemens for
the American League lead in victories, underscoring the
pollution of league statistics caused by interleague play. Key,
however, guaranteed that he wouldn't be going to the All-Star
Game when he decided in spring training to be married on July 8,
the day of the game. "We firmed it up in May," Key said of his
plans. "I've started an All-Star Game before. It's not more
important than having happiness off the field."
As they had against Maddux, the Orioles broke out against Smoltz
on Saturday in their third time around the batting order.
Through five innings Baltimore had only a line drive single by
Mussina, who capped a 10-pitch at bat with his first hit since
1987, when he was playing for Montoursville (Pa.) High. "What
was really strange was having to run the bases," said Mussina.
"I was thinking, Uh-oh, I might have to take out the shortstop."
The Orioles scored once in the sixth, thanks to a ball
centerfielder Andruw Jones misplayed into a triple, and twice in
the seventh, courtesy of a two-run homer by Anderson that hit
the screen attached to the foul pole. "I don't know how I gave
up three runs, but I did," said Smoltz, who was removed from the
game after the seventh inning.
Each team added another run before Baltimore catcher Chris
Hoiles--who was one strike from whiffing for a
major-league-record-tying sixth time in the game--drove in two
with a double in the 12th. "I was glad just to put it in play,"
he said. Myers gained another save, his big-league-leading 22nd,
by getting the last out nearly five hours after the game began.
(He would earn number 23 on Sunday.) "Now I know why they play
three- and four-hour games over there," Smoltz said of the
American League. "I couldn't pitch that slow if I tried."
The game took so long that thousands of fans bailed out before
the end despite the competitiveness of the matchup. Ripken ended
up being late for his seven o'clock book signing, yet another
whistle-stop on a schedule so grueling that it could rival his
consecutive-game streak, which stood at 2,380 through Sunday.
"Physically, the schedule has been tough, no question," he said.
Atlanta marked the third destination in a stretch in which the
Orioles were to play six series in six cities over 20 days.
Beginning on May 12, they were to visit 12 cities in 45 days.
"I haven't had time to study the whole thing," Ripken said, "but
it seems as if they took the old schedule and chiseled off a
game here and a game there and tried to make them fit, rather
than starting from scratch. I like the concept of interleague
play, but I don't want it to break up the stability of baseball
and the integrity of the leagues."
Said Key, "I still don't think it's worth it because of the
Ripken arrived in Atlanta with the Orioles at four in the
morning Friday after playing in Boston. That night he knocked in
a run with a single in three at bats against Maddux and then
worked out in the Turner Field weight room for 45 minutes, until
1 a.m. He came back nine hours later to play for almost five
hours in the moist, 84[degree] heat, reaching base three times
in six plate appearances, after which he signed copies of his
autobiography for nearly four hours, until just after 11 p.m. He
went 1 for 5 and scored the winning run on Sunday before flying
home to play another first-time opponent, the Montreal Expos.
Although he turns 37 in August, Ripken isn't exactly slowing down.
Even the youthful Chipper Jones has sat out two games this
season. Otherwise, he is nearly a statistical twin of Ripken,
one of his heroes, who played in a World Series when Jones was
11 years old. Compared with Ripken at the same point in his
career, Jones (who had played 370 games through Sunday) had the
same batting average (.290) and nearly the same number of hits
(396 to 405) and home runs (61 to 63). As their third-base
summit proved, Jones enjoyed Ripken's trip to Atlanta as much as
any fan. Interleague play has made possible such unprecedented
meetings, not to mention the Ripken autographs Jones collected
on two Orioles jerseys he brought from home.