Sunday, January 27, 2008

the last hurrah

sid bream 1992
Sid Bream Scores from Jefferson Perkins

Not much was expected from Jimmy Leyland's 1992 edition of the Pirates. They had won the NL East two years running, losing the NLCS to the Reds in 1990 and the Braves in 1991 after leading the best of seven series 3-2. But Bobby Bonilla left for free agency and big lefty John Smiley was traded for financial relief - an omen of things to come.

Led by all star performances by Barry Bonds (.311, 34-103, 127 walks) and Andy Van Slyke (.324, 14-89), the Bucs ended up winning 99 games in 1992. With the TRS speakers pumpin' out Van Halen's "Right Now", they clinched the pennant on September 27 as the Expo's faded down the stretch. The attack wasn't pretty, but it was effective, and the pitching was top notch. Still, taking this team to the pennant may have been Leyland's best coaching job in Pittsburgh.

Even with an anemic team batting average of .255 and a paltry 106 home runs, the Pirates led the league in scoring with 693 runs. Along with the dynamic duo of Bonds and Van Slyke, the other Bucs penciled in as every day starters were 2B Jose Lind (.235 0-39), shortstop Jay Bell (.264, 9-55) and usually Orlando Merced (.247, 6-60) at first base.

Third base was shared by Steve Buechele and Jeff King, who played all four infield spots. The catching was by platoon, shared by Spanky LaValliere and Don Slaught. The spare outfielder was the three headed combo of Cecil Espy, Gary Varsho and Gary Redus, who also filled in at first. The bench consisted of Alex Coles, Lloyd McClendon and John Wehner.

Ah, the pitching. Their 3.35 ERA was third in the league, behind Atlanta and Montreal by a hair. The regular rotation consisted of Doug Drabek, Bob Walk, Randy Tomlin and Zane Smith with Danny Jackson, Tim Wakefield and soon to be closer Jeff Robinson also getting some starts. The bullpen was headed up by Stan Belinda with 18 saves. Bob Patterson and Roger Mason saved 17 more, and even Denny Neagle, who worked as a reliever and spot starter that year, chipped in with a couple.

But the season was mere prologue to the NLCS rematch against the Braves, led by John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, Terry Pendleton, David Justice and Ron Gant. The Bucs were looking for revenge and a fast start, but instead got clocked by the Braves in Atlanta 5-1 and 13-5 as Glavine and Steve Avery easily outpitched Drabek and Jackson.

Returning to TRS for three games, the Bucs split the first two, with Wakefield outdueling Glavine for a 3-2 win, the winning rbi scoring on a sac fly by Van Slyke in the 7th. Drabek was rocked again, losing 6-4 to Smoltz. Staving off elimination, they stayed alive with a 7-1 romp behind Walk's complete game as the Pirate hitters solved Avery this time around. The bats stayed afire in Atlanta when they chased Glavine in a 13-4 runaway with Wakefield notching his second victory. The deciding game was set for October 14, 1992, a day that will live in infamy for Pirate fans.

Smoltz was going against Drabek, and at first everything was going the Buc's way. Pittsburgh took a 1-0 lead in the first when a Merced fly ball scored Coles, who had reached third on a Van Slyke double. The Pirates added another run in the sixth when Van Slyke singled home Bell, who had doubled to lead off the inning.

Then Pittsburgh misfired on a couple of chances that they needed, in hindsight, to seal the deal. The Bucs almost iced it in the seventh when Van Slyke's bases loaded, two out shot was flagged down in deep right center. In the eighth, Merced was thrown out at the plate by Justice trying to score from first on King's one-out double up the right field line. Bonds had led off with a single, but was forced out by Merced, a left handed batter who couldn't move him over to second base.

Still, the Pirates were only three outs away from a trip to the series. Should Patterson get the call from the bullpen with switch hitter Pendleton and lefties Justice and Bream due up or should closer Belinda work the ninth? Neither, as it ended up. Leyland let Drabek start the ninth, although he had thrown some 120 pitches. Pendleton, the first Brave hitter, doubled in front of defensive replacement Espy, who got a poor jump on the ball. Then Lind booted Justice's ground ball. Drabek walked the bases loaded on four pitches - yes, it was Sid Bream he walked - and Stan Belinda was waved in from the bullpen.

Gant drove one to the track in left, but Bonds gloved it as Pendleton scored. Damon Berryhill walked to load the bases again (and the Pirates to this day believe he should have been called out on strikes, but ump Randy Marsh blew the call. Several calls, in fact.) Belinda got Brian Hunter on a pop up to Bell. Two gone and only one out left to reach the world series.

But Francisco Cabrera, the last position player left on the Brave's bench and who would be out of MLB after the 1993 season, got the nod to hit for reliever Jeff Reardon and lined a sharp single into left. Bream kept on chugging around third and down the line as Bonds began his legend as a playoff bust with an off line throw that LaValliere couldn't slap on the sliding Bream. It was crying time again. The entire city was deflated, and the worst was yet to come.

When the wheels finally came off the Bucco ride, they came completely off. The Pirate's inability to compete financially became apparent when Bonds fled to San Fran and Drabek signed with the Astros. Van Slyke went the free agent route in 1995 after two more injury filled years in Pittsburgh. McClatchy's penny pinching drove Leyland away in 1996. And to prove that the wheel keeps on turnin', Sid Bream was just hired as a minor league coach by the Pirates.

The BoSox eventually overcame the curse of the Bambino, and I'm hoping the Bucs can recover from the curse of the Bondino a little more quickly. But judging by the last 15 years...

A poem: My Heart Did Not Burst

my heart did not burst
when ex-Buc Sid Bream
slid his dirty slide
all over the once white plate
just past our pudgy catcher's
too late tag
and the umpire
in the same instant spread both arms
in either direction
signaling an end to world serious hope
for my precious Pirates

my nerves did not snap
despite eight and two-thirds frames
of tension
I did my deepest breathing to relax
control I did not have
over loaded bases and balls that were strikes
that were not called
in the bottom of the 9th
at the unlikely sound
of Francisco Cabrera's homicidal single
my brain did not crack
under tons of promise and possibilities
that twist and untwist but can never undo
the undisputed truth
of 3-2

my arms did not rip
the TV from its cabinet
I could not shatter
the televised outcome
It happened, like a bad wreck
I could not help but watch
the explosion of Atlanta madness
I wished was mine, ours
days, months after the damage

- written by Frank Bienkowski (Pittsburgh musician, Ambridge native, die-hard Pirates fan), April 1993. Published in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review October 14, 2007

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