For this edition of This Day in Vore History, we reach all the way back to 1992, when young Ben was fifteen years old.
Baseball was my first love. One of my first memories of my dad was him teaching me how to read box scores. I remember the columns of numbers and abbreviations slowly arranging themselves into a pattern I could decipher. As I studied them I had the sensation of learning vital things, things I knew would matter in my life.
Great forces of evil conspired to keep me from starting Little League the year my friends did. My birthday fell after the July 31 cut-off. This was still in the era when baseball careers began at age eight, not five or six with t-ball. On the first day of official sign-ups, while my friends boasted of the great careers waiting for them, I went home, slammed my bedroom door, and wailed through supper. (The injustice of it, my tears said.)
Once a summer, usually the middle weekend in August, my family went to Pittsburgh for a weekend doubleheader: A Saturday night Pirates game and Sunday matinee. We stayed at the Sheraton Station Square and took the Gateway Clipper to the games. The Pirates were terrible in the 80s. I was too young for the “We Are Family” championship teams of the 70s, with Willie Stargell and Bill Madlock and Dave Parker smoking in the dugout. I inherited the Pirates of Joe Orsulak, Benny Distefano and the atrocious Jose DeLeon (2-19 in 1985). Still, those weekends were the highlights of my summer. I just learned not to base my happiness on the Pirates winning.
The pieces for a good team were there in the late 80s, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the Pirates won the division. You may remember the Killer Bs — Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla — as well as All-Stars Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek. But it was the role players — Jay Bell, Sid Bream, Steve Buechele, John Smiley, Mike LaValliere, Bob Walk, Orlando Merced, Jeff King — who made them such a solid team. Pittsburgh lost to the Reds in the 1990 NLCS, then Atlanta in 1991. By then everyone knew the window was closing. Bonilla signed with the Mets. Bonds was sure to leave soon. Atlanta looked to be good for a while. We had missed our chance.
Except Pittsburgh had a great year in 1992. Barry Bonds won his second MVP. Tim Wakefield came out of nowhere to finish 8-1 in 13 starts. They finished 96-66. And Atlanta was waiting for them again in the NLCS.
My first and only playoff baseball game was Game 3 at Three Rivers Stadium. Pittsburgh was down 2-0 in the series and turncoat Sid Bream hit a solo home run in the 4th inning to put the Braves up 1-0. The Pirates were still scoreless until Don Slaught stepped to the plate in the bottom of the fifth and belted a home run that landed six rows in front of me in the left field bleachers. We taped the game at home, and you could see me, my brother, my dad and uncle in the very top row of the screen when the ball landed. I was high-fiving the daylights out of everyone in the section.
Pittsburgh won that game 3-2, lost Game Four, then won Game Five to send the series back to Atlanta. They jumped all over the Braves in Game Six, scoring eight runs in the second inning. Wakefield won (again) and the series went, as it had a year before, to a decisive Game Seven.
After losing Games One and Four, Drabek pitched masterfully. He held the Braves scoreless through eight innings, while the Pirates managed two runs off the evil John Smoltz. My dad stayed up to watch the game with me that night, even though he traditionally goes to bed around eight thirty. We had a running joke in my family every Monday when my dad would say, “Sure am looking forward to that Monday Night Football game tonight!”, to which my mom would sarcastically reply, “Right.” She knew — everyone knew — my dad would be lights out and snoring on the couch by nine fifteen. This never stopped the ritual though.
After the seventh inning, I got the idea to tear up six little pieces of notebook paper and write “Five outs,” “Four outs,” etc., down to “No outs!!!” (I distinctly remember putting three exclamation points.) As Drabek worked the eighth, I handed my dad each scrap of paper. I’m not sure what he made of the ritual, other than that his son was giddy and acting a little stupid at the thought of his beloved Pirates finally going to the Series.
Drabek started the bottom of the ninth and gave up a lead-off double to Terry Pendleton. Then Jose Lind — Gold Glover Jose Lind! — booted a David Justice grounder. Sid Bream walked after that. Jim Leyland pulled Drabek and put in State College High School grad Stan Belinda. I remember being very queasy at that point. The final three scraps of paper in my hand were getting a little damp with palm sweat. And my father was unleashing some of his more potent curse words; “dang nabbit!” and “criminy!” were just rolling off his tongue.
Belinda got Ron Gant to fly out, scoring Pendleton. Damon Berryhill walked on several verrrrry questionable ball calls. (Home plate umpire John McSherry left in the third inning with chest pains. Left field ump Randy Marsh and his microscopic strike zone called the rest of the game.) Belinda got Brian Hunter, who I really just hated for no good reason, to pop up for the second out. I remember shouting when it happened. Yes! This was really going to happen!
The Braves sent Francisco Cabrera to the plate. Cabrera was the last position player on the Atlanta bench. He was literally their last straw. He had played in only twelve games during the regular season and went to the plate just ten times. You could not have asked for a better match-up. I pictured every Braves fan seeing Cabrera walk out of the dugout and wanting to Tomahawk Chop themselves to death. Francisco Cabrera? That’s who our season is riding on?
Baseball fans know the rest. Cabrera singled to left field. Sid Bream, former Pirate, slowest man in the universe, rounded third and beat the throw from Bonds by inches. Skip Caray had a coronary. The Braves went to the Series. The Pirates have never had a winning season since. (As Bill Simmons put it, “The franchise was effectively murdered by one play.” And my innocence, Bill. And my innocence.)
What still gets me is the suddenness of it. We were up 2-0 going into the ninth. Even when Cabrera stepped to the plate, the Pirates were still ahead 2-1. One minute I had that final “No Outs!!!” in my hand, the next my dad and I were speechless as Atlanta players rushed the field and crushed Sid Bream under a human pyramid while a dejected Andy Van Slyke just sat there in center field, unable to comprehend it.
I couldn’t either. I had never felt as miserable as I did at that moment. Growing up, I thought, is not getting any easier. To commemorate this bitter, hard-earned wisdom, I removed the VHS tape from our VCR player, took it outside, and smashed it with a hammer.