A playoff series that was once Pedestrian was redeemed on Sunday by a man named Walk. How is it, then, that we were still awash in references to motor vehicles—or as they say in Georgia, motor VEE-hickles—as the Atlanta Braves took a three-games-to-two lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Championship Series last week?
Pirate leftfielder and free-agent-to-be Barry Bonds, for instance, was ferried about in a burgundy Lincoln while house hunting in Atlanta before Game 1. (Who would know better than the blasè Bonds about low interest rates?)
Rookie knuckleballer Tim Wakefield gave Pirate teammate Andy Van Slyke a white-knuckle ride to Three Rivers Stadium for Game 3 in Pittsburgh. "I was nervous," said Van Slyke. "He was driving like A.J."
"A.J. Foyt or A.J. my eight-year-old son, either one."
And then there was Brave owner Ted Turner, who tooled into the tunnel beneath Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with a sticker that read I [LOVE] MY CABLE TV! affixed to the back bumper of his Ford Taurus.
That's Taurus, which rhymes with bore us, which is precisely what the Braves and Pirates were threatening to do in this series by repeating familiar themes from their playoff matchup of a year ago. Atlanta won last season's Championship Series in seven games, aided by penurious pitching and the absence of malice in the middle of Pittsburgh's batting order. The only difference this year was that the Bucs, who were down three games to one, figured to bow out earlier with going-on-36-years-old righthander Bob Walk making his first start of the postseason for Pittsburgh in Sunday night's Game 5.
Walk started Game 1 of the 1980 World Series for the Philadelphia Phillies, and he wasn't named Sunday's starter until 36 hours before the game, when Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland announced that Walk would replace shell-shocked Game 2 starter Danny Jackson in the Pirates' three-man rotation. Walk will tell you himself that he doesn't like pitching. No wonder that when Pittsburgh third base coach Rich Donnelly awoke at four o'clock Sunday morning and looked at his wide-awake wife, she said only a single word to her husband: "Walkie?"
But because Walkie threw a complete-game three-hitter and because Bonds broke a postseason streak in which he had gone 0 for 28 with runners on base—in short, because Pittsburgh beat Atlanta 7-1 on Sunday—the Pirates and Braves appeared perfectly prepared to play another decisive seventh game this season. And the Braves were favored to win the pennant again this week, needing one victory in two games at their ever-so-slightly subdued home park.
Subdued? Sure, when the playoffs opened in frigid Hotlanta, Supercuts, a national hair-cutting chain, was doing brisk business shaving tomahawks into scalps. But for the most part the Braves did not have that fresh-cut feeling of last fall, when a local news anchorwoman pulled manager Bobby Cox from the division-clinching celebration in the clubhouse and announced on live television, "I'm Brenda Wood—and you are...?"
Even those Braves attempting to go incognito were instantly recognizable this time around. Righthander John Smoltz fooled nobody with his new beard, which was as spare as his ERA of 1.87 in two post-seasons. "This is two-and-a-half weeks' worth of growth," Smoltz confessed after beating the Pirates and Doug Drabek 5-1 in the series opener on Oct. 6. "I know it doesn't look like it, but this is my playoff beard. Or whatever." It definitely looked more like "whatever." Or Whatizit.
Smoltz allowed only four Pirate hits and was helped by a home run from Atlanta's dispensable starting shortstop, who has jokingly introduced himself to strangers this season as, "Jeff Blauser, Colorado Rockies." (And yew are...?)
And while the evening did reveal an enormous Weedeater, still in its shipping carton, in Deion Sanders's locker (no explanation was forthcoming, as the two-timing Prime Time, mercifully, was not talking to the press); and the night witnessed National League MVP-to-be Bonds striking out swinging on three pitches in his first at bat (two of the pitches were neither in the strike zone nor the Fifth Congressional District), aside from those occurrences, Game 1 was duller than Smoltz's razor. "I counted five different messages on the blimp," said Van Slyke, referring to the Goodyear blimp that floated high above the ballpark. "That should give you an idea of the intensity on the field."
Twelve hours later Bonds stood behind the batting cage before Game 2 and offered a tiresome explanation of his previous night's oh-fer and, presumably, his .146 average in his 48 postseason at bats. "The leadoff hitters have to get on base for me to do it," he said. "So what if I had hit a home run last night? Or two home runs? We still lose 5-3." Exactly. I mean, why bother?
Game 2 was more of the same for the Pirates, except that Bonds was also odoriferous afield in the Braves' 13-5 win, which seemed to last a fortnight. "They're all long innings with TV," noted Brave starter and winner Steve Avery, who set a record by extending his playoff scoreless streak to 22‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings. "You've got to sit on the bench for that two minutes and two seconds [for commercials]." Turner snoozed through the network breaks—it's cable TV that he [LOVE]s—but jerked awake long enough to see Atlanta leftfielder Ron Gant hit a salami grande just over the placard that commemorates Hank Aaron's 715th home run. Said Gant, who hit .199 from June to September, "We feel capable of doing anything at anytime."
Whether they could do it anywhere, though, remained to be seen. On the travel day from Atlanta to Pittsburgh—"Where the goddam Allegheny and Monongahela form the bleepin' Ohio," as Leyland so lyrically put it last week—Van Slyke took his car into the shop for repairs. He should have taken it to the Braves' Game 3 starter, Tom Glavine, who, like some persnickety Mr. Good-wrench, kept talking throughout the series about "changing my mechanics." A cracked rib caused Glavine to go 1-5 with a 4.21 ERA over his last seven starts of the regular season. He still won 20 games but feared that he had changed his pitching motion since being injured.
Indeed, Glavine got an early hook on Friday night, and lord knows there were enough hooks in Three Rivers to go around. The foam-rubber souvenirs were Pittsburgh's answer to Atlanta's tomahawks. As perplexed Pirate fans waved the hooks before Game 3, Three Rivers Stadium resembled a sea of question marks.
The righthanded Wakefield answered in the form of a question mark, throwing 111 pitches, 106 of which were knuckleballs that traced hooked paths to the plate. Each of the 26-year-old's knucklers bobbed and floated like Muhammad Ali, which is why the Braves could manage a mere five hits against Wakefield, who files his nails each day like Madge the Manicurist in the Palmolive soap commercials.
Wakefield throws so softly that he said in all seriousness after the Pirates' 3-2 win on Friday that he could throw eight innings on Sunday if asked—pitching on one day's rest. "I don't know how I do it," he said. "I just...flop the ball up there, I guess." His good-natured personality is equally unintimidating: On one getaway day during the regular season, Wakefield was made to travel in red-flannel underwear, size-XXXL bib overalls and clown shoes after members of the Pirates stole his regular clothes and replaced them with that ensemble. And you will notice that in Pittsburgh's official postseason team portrait. Wakefield was made to sit cross-legged in the front row, between the Buc batboys.
By the way, one of the Buc batboys for Game 4 last Saturday was A.J. (Van Slyke, not Foyt). But aside from the batboy and Batman—Pittsburgh native Michael Keaton threw out the first pitch—the night belonged to the Braves' Otis Nixon, who found gaps wider than the ones on the Nixon tapes every time he stepped to the plate in Atlanta's 6-4 win. He went 4 for 5, scored two runs and stole a base, running from memories of a year ago, when he spent the playoffs in a drug-rehabilitation center. "I don't think anyone wants to be out there more than I do," Nixon said softly. "I don't think anyone wants to be out there as much as I do. My joy is greater than any fan's, any player's, any manager's. Turn back the hands of time, and I was watching the games on TV with other people in my treatment program a year ago. And that wasn't fun at all."
Saturday's game was not a lot of fun for Bonds, who struck out in his two at bats, dropping his average to .091 for the series. After the game he refused to talk to reporters, prudently choosing instead to powwow with Leyland in the manager's office until two o'clock Sunday morning. The talk effected a remarkable turnabout for Bonds on Sunday. Barry, Barry, quite contrary.
On the 20th anniversary of Roberto Clemente's final game in the major leagues. Bonds played what was quite likely his final game in Pittsburgh as a member of the Pirates. Sun Bonds flew in former Pirate Bobby Bonilla to surprise her husband. "This has been my home for seven years," Barry Bonds said shortly after midnight following Game 5, in which he went 2 for 5, drove in a run, scored two more, stole a base and made an improbable catch of what should have been a triple by Gant. "I didn't want it to end the way it was ending. I felt bad for the team. I didn't know how someone could be so outstanding for 162 games, then...."
In a word, stink. Perhaps it shouldn't be so remarkable that baseball fans in Pittsburgh lustily applauded the game's best player at all times last weekend. "I've felt like telling them, 'Don't cheer for me,' " Bonds said after Sunday's game. " 'Boo me. I haven't done anything for you lately.' "
Even so, as the two teams flew to Atlanta on Monday, either of them was in a position to win the pennant. Would this trip be Bonds's tour de force, or would he tour model homes instead? The World Series awaited one or the other: the Braves or the bravura performer.
Blauser beat Mike LaValliere to the plate in Atlanta's Game 4 win.
RONALD C. MODRA
The postseason blues: Bonds was mocked by Brave fans in Game 2, consoled by Van Slyke in Game 3 and kicking mad in Game 4.
RONALD C. MODRA
Walk, Sunday's surprise Pirate starter, defeated Atlanta with a bare-bones three-hitter.