Publish date:

Grits vs. Glitz

Down-home Atlanta took two of three games from way-out L.A. to remain atop the National League West

Nobody left Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Sunday with the conviction that anything had been settled. Indeed, except for the astonishing durability of 40,000 red foam tomahawks, not much was proved in the Braves' three-game series with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yes, the Braves beat the Dodgers twice and increased their improbable lead over L.A. in the National League West. Yes, Atlanta's young pitchers were revealed to be the gutsiest in the league (even if, as we learned earlier last week, it often takes three of them to complete a no-hitter). And yes, now that the Braves are truly in contention—a 1½-game lead, in September?—it's reasonable to assume that the meek will inherit other parts of the earth as well.

But, no, it's not done with yet. When one member of the Dodgers' traveling party saw the enormous attention these games were getting in Atlanta—the local Journal-Constitution published a souvenir edition for the series—he was taken aback. "Geez, I don't get it," he said. "We're going to do this all over again next week, aren't we?"

Maybe we will see something like this series again, perhaps in Los Angeles this weekend when these two teams resume their divisional duel. Certainly, if there is another game like last Saturday's 11-inning, 3-2 Atlanta win, which included some of the bravest baseball ever played, we will be lucky. But for almost a decade nobody in Atlanta had seen the likes of this series. Ever since winning their division in 1982, the Braves have been the Cleveland Indians of the National League. (Maybe these Native American names need to be rethought.) They've finished last three seasons in a row and four of the last five. So forgive Atlantans their excitement over this latest—though inconclusive—turn of events.

The Dodgers rolled into town having won six of eight on the road, and the Braves had won their last seven games. The series was sold out. Local news in every medium led with previews of the series. Apparently when Atlanta gets behind an event, it is with all available force. L.A.'s Brett Butler, a onetime Brave who still makes his home in Atlanta and claims to understand its ways, surveyed the hullabaloo and said, "Wait till you see what they do in '96 for the Olympics."

That these preliminaries were Olympian had as much to do with the Dodgers as with the Braves, of course. Atlanta hates Los Angeles. Most everybody does. L.A. teams are almost always successful, and they come from...way out there. So all Los Angeles franchises lend themselves to the purposes of civic morality plays. As far as Atlanta was concerned, this baseball series was Grits vs. Glitz.

In fact, these Dodgers are not particularly glitzy. Manager Tom Lasorda has his Sinatra wall back in his Dodger Stadium office, but most of his players prefer to relax with Outdoor Life rather than Premiere. In the L.A. clubhouse before the series opener, starter Mike Morgan, who would get the win that night, was fiddling around with the radio. He finally locked onto a country music station, and he and about five of his teammates immediately joined in the lyrics of a terribly sad song.

Throughout the series, the Dodger that Atlanta most loved to hate was Darryl Strawberry. Whatever urban tension Atlanta suffers was relieved by repeated choruses of "DAAA-rryl! DAAA-rryl!" Why Strawberry is so hated is a mystery, except that he does wear a diamond 44 pendant around his neck (has glitz), does not sing along to country tunes (no grits) and does hit tremendous home runs (long hits). He has been belting a lot of them lately. He had hit only eight by midseason, but going into the Atlanta series he had 23. Hey, who wouldn't hate him?

On Friday night, a sold-out crowd that included Braves owner Ted Turner and his fiancèe, Jane Fonda, arose at every appearance by Strawberry and performed something known as the Tomahawk Chop, a movement of the arm that looks a lot like a football ref signaling a first down. The Chop was evidently borrowed from Florida State and perhaps introduced to Atlanta when former Seminole Deion Sanders played for the Braves. Whatever its origins, it's an impressive sight when 50,000 people do it. Of course, the fans don't save it just for Strawberry—when home plate umpire Bill Hohn made the sign to the press box for a substitution, many fans joined him in a spontaneous Tomahawk Chop—but they wouldn't let Darryl bat without one. "It's kind of exciting," Strawberry would say after Friday's game, his eyes twinkling even more than the 44 around his neck. "It means they know me."

They got to know him better Friday night when he went 4 for 5, including his 24th home run, in the Dodgers' 5-2 victory. More maddening than the homer against the Tomahawk Chop were his singles against the Strawberry Shift. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox created a three-man wall from first to second, hoping to stifle the pull-hitting Strawberry, but the Straw confounded the strategy with two singles to left. "A fluke," said Atlanta ace Tom Glavine. An opportunity, said Strawberry, who was 2 for 22 lifetime against Glavine before the series. "If they play me there, I'm going to get a lot of hits."

The L.A. win should have stopped the Braves' fans right in their warpaths. With Friday's game, Atlanta had lost nine of 13 to the Dodgers this season. What could the fans have been thinking of? Their naivetè was cute—all that innocent enthusiasm. But the Braves were up against an opponent that, when it thought about Atlanta at all, thought about shoes. That's right, shoes. It seems that it's a Dodger tradition to stock up on footwear at Friedman's—ostrich-skin loafers at discount prices. The store sends a van to pick up Dodgers every time they're in town. L.A. catcher Mike Scioscia explained that he can walk into Friedman's and find an unbelievable selection of 13s, not just one black pair or one brown pair as he finds in the stores at home. That's what Atlanta means to the Dodgers. Not Tom Glavine.

The Dodger arrogance, if that's how it was taken, was further fueled by Strawberry's performance Friday night. There was obviously no way to pitch to him. Was it possible for the fans to stop him if the Braves couldn't? "You have to remember," Strawberry said patiently, "I played in New York."

Taking that challenge, a group of Braves sponsors issued free tomahawks, one per turnstile click, for Saturday's game. The stadium was ablaze with these red spongy weapons. But despite that escalation in the arms race, the players on both teams remained utterly carefree. Cox relaxed in the Atlanta dugout before the game, thinking about the previous night's highlight. "Did you see Jane?" he asked. "Looked good." She had worn a deep-scoop-back affair—bareback in the park.

The Dodgers, apparently having all shopped for shoes, were relaxed, too. Pitchers Bob Ojeda and Kevin Gross showed up with tattoos on their arms: a wolf howling at the moon. Ojeda was showing the Body Image Studio card around, as if soliciting business for the tattoo parlor. Reliever Roger McDowell was fooling around with a remote-control car.

Well, Mickey Mouse, on loan from Walt Disney World, threw out the first pitch, and then things got goofy. As the umpires gathered at home plate, McDowell's neon-green radio-controlled car bearing the lineup card departed the Dodger dugout, heading for the plate. Upon its arrival there, L.A. coach Bill Russell bent over to pick up the card and soberly delivered it to the umps. The car turned back, doing three small doughnuts in the dirt before it reached the dugout and was garaged.

Thereupon the Dodgers visited their comic routines on Braves starting pitcher John Smoltz, an unpredictable righthander who was 2-11 with a 5.16 ERA at the All-Star break and 10-2 with a 3.06 ERA after. The Braves' sports psychologist, Jack Llewellyn, sits behind home plate during every game Smoltz pitches in Atlanta. With 95° temperatures and with thunderheads rolling in, Smoltz could have made better use of a meteorologist. He walked Butler, let Eddie Murray single and then served Kal Daniels a nice pitch. Daniels lofted it to center, where Ron Gant misplayed it for a two-run triple. Then the rains came.

Smoltz had lots to think about but little to do during the one-hour-and-19-minute rain delay. "I lay down, I sat down, I walked around, I was going nuts," he said. Meanwhile, Llewellyn remained in his seat. Doctor, heal thyself. At least Smoltz knew to get out of the rain. But once the game resumed, Smoltz was his usual (second-half) unhittable self for five innings.

The Braves, meanwhile, found Dodger starter Tim Belcher to be well off his game. In the third inning, Belcher walked Gant with the bases loaded to give Atlanta its first run and was promptly yanked. Then, in the fifth, reliever Gross got tattooed again, giving up an RBI double to Dave Justice to tie the game. It stayed that way until the 11th.

Amazingly, the 44,773 fans who paid to get in remained for every bit of this, shaking their soggy tomahawks at all the usual suspects. There is that difference between Atlanta and Los Angeles, Butler admitted: "In L.A., it's in by the second inning, out by the seventh." In by two, out by seven—baseball as a dry-cleaning experience. Finally, in the 11th, the Braves took the starch out of the Dodgers. McDowell, working overtime out of the bullpen in the absence of the sore-elbowed Jay Howell, appeared in his fourth straight game. He walked Jerry Willard, who had had only three major league at bats since 1987, and then gave up a double to Terry Pendleton. Gant, who is on his way to a second straight 30-30 season (through Sunday he had 30 steals and 29 home runs), then knocked a McDowell fastball off the leftfield wall to win the game.

Atlanta finished the series with some emphasis on Sunday. It loaded the bases against Los Angeles's Ramon Martinez in the first inning, whereupon Sid Bream, who had been struggling so much at the plate that Cox had pinch-hit for him the night before, lifted a fastball right out of the Chop shop. That was that. Martinez has been a mystery. He was 12-3 at the All-Star break but has done a reverse-Smoltz since. After giving up five earned runs in two innings Sunday, he was 2-6 in his last nine starts, with a 6.39 ERA. The Braves' Steve Avery, who is just 21 years old and in his first full season in the majors, was hard to solve, too, but in a different way. He took a two-hitter into the ninth before giving up two more hits and a run for the 9-1 victory. With that win he went to 16-8 for the year. Glavine, Smoltz and Avery—none is older than 25—had now combined for 46 victories.

Avery, who served time on last year's last-place team, showed that he needs work only on his geometry. Asked if playing for the Braves felt different this year, he said, "It's a 360-degree turnaround." You mean 180, right? "Hey, I only went to high school," he said, laughing.

The Braves have harder math than that to figure. Despite their impressive home stand, they did not close down the Dodgers. Los Angeles, a poor road team this season, finished this trip 7-4. Now the Dodgers not only have Atlanta at home, but just about everybody else, too. Of their remaining 18 games after Sunday, 13 would be at home. Atlanta, meanwhile, would have 13 on the road and just six at home.

So it was understandable that the Braves remained levelheaded after this series. It was particularly important after Monday's announcement that outfielder Otis Nixon, the major leagues' basestealing leader, with 72, would be suspended for the rest of the season for violating baseball's drug policy. (Nixon can file a grievance through the players' union to contest the suspension.) But Atlanta's self-confidence was unmistakable. Losers all their lives—poor Smoltz has not been on a winning team at any level as a pro—they are discovering the joy of hard-earned victories. Tomahawk Chops, special souvenir editions, Jane and Ted whooping it up with 50,000 others: It's all kind of fun. Only thing is—as the Dodgers, back home now and kicking off their ostrich-skin loafers, might remind the Braves—they've got to do it all over again this weekend.



Bream's grand slam in the first inning on Sunday swung the weekend series Atlanta's way.



After he won Game 2 with a single in the 11th, Gant scored a pair of runs in Sunday's victory.



Strawberry picked up L.A. Friday but couldn't give it a leg up for the series.



The Tomahawk Chop was not the only unkind cut the Braves' fans laid on the Dodgers.



[See caption above]



Jane had a couple of sharp blades with her Friday night.