Publish date:


Home plate is the same. It was dug up from the Georgia clay
inside the carcass of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium last winter
and transplanted like a beating heart into the ground at vibrant
new Turner Field. It's the same plate beside which Francisco
Cabrera stood when he cracked that notorious single in the ninth
inning of Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship
Series, with two outs, two runners on base and the Atlanta
Braves trailing the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-1. The same plate Sid
Bream slid across moments later with the run that won the
pennant. Pirates manager Jim Leyland was a most sympathetic
loser that night, and he returned to Atlanta on Oct. 7 as the
Florida Marlins' skipper for another crack at a trip to the
World Series.

But just in case Leyland didn't recognize the familiar dish, the
Braves had a reminder planned. The ruthless folks down in team
marketing thought it might be nice to invite Cabrera to throw
out the first pitch before Game 1. Trouble was, they searched
the Dominican Republic and couldn't find him. Didn't matter.
Leyland remembered. "I recall that as one of the most incredible
nights in my life, and there was no disgrace in losing that
game," he said on the eve of the 1997 Championship Series. "Was
I brokenhearted? Yeah. But the heart fixes itself. I don't waste
my time being haunted, but I will say that I've been dumb ever
since Cabrera hit that ball, and I've been waiting five long
years for another chance to be smart."

Leyland looked smart and lucky after Game 5 on Sunday night,
tilting back in the rocking chair in his office at Pro Player
Stadium, his bare feet up on his desk and a Marlboro between his
fingers. He had just watched his 22-year-old rookie righthander,
Livan Hernandez, starting two days after pitching 1 2/3 innings
of scoreless relief, throw a three-hitter, strike out 15 Braves
and beat four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux 2-1. He had just
watched his 34-year-old third baseman, Bobby Bonilla, who
entered the game 1 for 15 in the series and was suffering from
flu symptoms, go 3 for 3 with an RBI and score the winning run.
And they weren't even the most surprising developments of the

The improbable victory sent Leyland back to Turner Field with
his Marlins ahead in the series, three games to two. Gee, where
have we seen this scenario before, Jim? A tight series against
the Braves, time running out....

Fortunately for Leyland, he seems impervious to adversity. This
is a guy who had just endured a week that would have driven most
managers to Betty Ford. He had lost his top RBI producer on
Wednesday, his No. 2 pitcher on Thursday and his ace on Friday.
Was he bummed? Are you kidding? This is a guy who watches
Hoosiers twice a day. "It sounds corny, and I know my peers will
laugh at me," Leyland said, "but I really believe in that
underdog stuff."

Who wouldn't after Florida opened the series by beating Maddux
5-3 on five unearned runs? Atlanta salvaged a split at home by
winning the second game 7-1 over struggling righthander Alex
Fernandez and a Marlins lineup that was missing RBI leader
Moises Alou. After driving home four runs in his first two at
bats, Alou had jammed his wrist in the sixth inning of Game 1
trying to stop Ryan Klesko's home run from going over the
leftfield wall and would be limited to pinch-hitting duty for
two games. Then on the morning after Game 2, Fernandez brought a
new spin to the term losing pitcher when he learned from doctors
that he had torn his right rotator cuff and would miss the rest
of this season and perhaps all of next. That afternoon Leyland
gathered his team before an off-day workout and shared the
dispiriting news. "Everybody was devastated when they heard
about Alex," second baseman Kurt Abbott said. "It was a total
shock, and some guys got a little teary-eyed."

Leyland lifted the black cloud with some welcome levity. He
proudly announced that reserve outfielder John Wehner had been
inducted into the Carrick (Pa.) High School Hall of Fame. Then
he concluded by saying, "We have no excuses. This is not a day
of mercy for the Florida Marlins."

As word spread about the injury, focus shifted one locker and
one letter from Fernandez to Hernandez, who was penciled into
the sidelined pitcher's spot in the rotation as the scheduled
starter for Game 6. But Hernandez joined the fray earlier than
expected. Last Friday, in Game 3, he was called on to work in
relief, earning a victory with an assist from catcher Charles
Johnson. The Marlins backstop had been 0 for 10 with six
strikeouts this season against the Braves' starter, righthander
John Smoltz, so naturally he laced a bases-loaded double to
leftfield in the sixth inning to clinch a 5-2 win. "That's a
pretty crazy script, but that's the kind we write around here,"
said part-time first baseman Darren Daulton, who also had an RBI
double in the Florida sixth. "Suddenly divine intervention
doesn't seem so unlikely."

The next day Florida ace and Game 1 winner Kevin Brown was
scheduled to start Game 4, but he was sick in bed with a stomach
virus. That may have been a blessing for him because Atlanta
lefthander Denny Neagle pitched a four-hit, 4-0 shutout. Minutes
after that loss, which knotted the series 2-2, Leyland received
still more lousy news: Brown hadn't recovered enough to pitch on
Sunday. Thus Leyland shuffled his deck once again, choosing to
start Hernandez in Game 5. "I can't pull a rabbit out of a hat
and put Sandy Koufax in a Marlins uniform," said Leyland, who
hadn't worked any magic in using Al Leiter as his emergency
starter in Game 4. "So we have to improvise. That's life."

Said Florida general manager Dave Dombrowski, "When everybody is
wondering what can go wrong next, Jim is as comforting as
possible. He's a battler who never feels sorry for himself, and
the team follows that lead. When Jim said Livan could beat
Maddux, everybody believed him."

Hernandez defected from Cuba two years ago and nearly signed
with the Braves before choosing Florida, where he could live
amidst and play in front of Miami's supportive expatriate Cuban
community. He had never earned more than $250 a month in Cuba,
but his Marlins signing bonus alone amounted to 10,000 times
that. Hernandez took his windfall and bought a Ferrari, a
Mercedes and a Land Rover and regularly rode them through the
McDonald's drive-thru. He gained 30 pounds while playing at
Triple A Charlotte during the '96 season, and his ERA ballooned
with his waistline. He started this year at Double A Portland
because he lacked, of all things, hunger. But after adjusting to
life in the U.S. and switching to the salad bar, Hernandez
rediscovered his dominant stuff and joined the Marlins in July.
He won his first nine decisions as a starter, and Leyland had
planned to use him as his key long reliever in the playoffs
before he was pressed into the rotation.

In Game 5 Hernandez allowed runners to reach first and third
with nobody out in the first inning. Then, aided by corpulent
umpire Eric Gregg's fat strike zone, he calmly struck out
Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff and Klesko in succession. Atlanta
rightfielder Michael Tucker led off the second inning with a
home run, but then Hernandez didn't allow another runner to
reach second base and fanned a National League Championship
Series record 15 batters in the 2-1 victory, his first complete
game. After Hernandez struck out McGriff for the final out, the
first Marlin out of the dugout to hug him was Fernandez, whose
number 32 the rookie and many of the other Marlins had scribbled
onto their caps. "Felicitaciones, mi amigo," Fernandez told him.
"Uno mas."

After giving credit to Johnson for pitch selection and to
teammates playing behind him for their defense, Hernandez said
he drew some inspiration from the Latin song Men Don't Cry. The
lyrics say that men are not supposed to cry, but perhaps they
can in times of great emotion. Just ask Leyland. "I'm so proud
of this team because they don't quit no matter how many times
they're punched in the gut," he said on Sunday night, his voice
cracking. "I told everybody when I took this job that we need
one heartbeat, and right now we're all ticking the same."

World Series tickets went on sale at Pro Player Stadium on
Monday morning, and hundreds of Marlins fans had camped out
overnight in the rain to purchase them. Brown was fully
recovered from his stomach virus on Monday afternoon and was
ready to pitch Game 6 on Tuesday night. Leyland wasn't sold yet,
however. He knew you only had to rewind to last year to find
Atlanta clawing back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the St. Louis
Cardinals in the League Championship Series. He only had to peek
back to '91 and '92, when the Braves beat his Pirates in Game 7
of both series, to be reminded that Atlanta couldn't be
dismissed until the final out. On that memorable night in '92,
Leyland wept in the Pirates clubhouse at Atlanta-Fulton County
Stadium as workers quickly took apart a trophy stand and carried
it over to the Braves' locker room.

Five Octobers later Leyland headed back to Atlanta, in hopes
that this time it would be his team dancing around that old home
plate, on its way to the World Series.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Edgar Renteria couldn't break through Javy Lopez in Game 1.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [Livan Hernandez pitching]

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Like his manager, Bonilla, drilling an RBI hit in Game 5, was still trying to get to the World Series. [Bobby Bonilla batting]


Ever since 27-year-old rookie righthander Babe Adams won Games
1, 5 and 7 for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1909 World Series,
complete-game victories by rookies in the postseason have been
rare. The latest occurred on Sunday when Marlins righthander
Livan Hernandez (above) three-hit the Braves in Game 5 of the
National League Championship Series. Here are SI's picks for the
top 10 performances by a rookie pitcher in the postseason
(listed by year).

Year Player, Team Series H R ER BB SO
1997 Livan Hernandez, Marlins LCS 3 1 1 2 15
1983 Mike Boddicker, Orioles WS 3 1 0 0 6
1983 Mike Boddicker, Orioles LCS 5 0 0 3 14
1982 John Stuper, Cardinals WS 4 1 1 2 2
1981 Fernando Valenzuela, Dodgers DS* 4 1 1 1 4
1948 Gene Bearden, Indians WS 5 0 0 0 4
1920 Duster Mails, Indians WS 3 0 0 2 4
1919 Dickie Kerr, White Sox WS 3 0 0 1 4
1912 Hugh Bedient, Red Sox WS 3 1 0 3 4
1909 Babe Adams, Pirates WS 6 0 0 1 1

*Division Series resulting from midseason player strike
Source: Elias Sports Bureau