First of two parts
The Pirates of 1992 are not the type to believe in the supernatural. They are tried and true baseball men, believing only that, when round ball hits round bat, anything can happen.
Still, they look for answers - ways to explain the events of an Autumn night in Atlanta that now feels predestined.
The play that launched a generation of losing seasons
Courtesy of Major League Baseball comes this look at the 1992 National League Championship Series play that cost the Pirates a World Series appearance. It was the team's last winning season. (Video courtesy of MLB; 4/2/2012)
Bream, Lavalliere remember the game that changed the Pirates
Sid Bream, playing then for Atlanta, and former Pirates catcher Mike Lavalliere reflect on game 7 of the National League championship series in 1992. That loss ignited 20 years of losing seasons for the Pirates. (Video by Peter Diana; 4/2/2012)
"All the stars lined up against us," said Andy Van Slyke, then the Pirates center fielder.
To wonder if the cosmos were working extra hard on Oct. 14, 1992, is understandable. Thursday's opening day at PNC Park will begin the 20th season since the Pirates lost to the Braves 3-2 in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, and Pittsburgh is still waiting for a winning baseball team to return. Nineteen straight years of losing is inexplicable, but to say it's a curse? No, the Pirates of 1992 won't go down that road.
But they'll live each day with the pain, a loyal companion all these years. Numerous times, Van Slyke, who collapsed in center field of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium when the game ended, has replayed the bottom of the ninth and argued strikes that were called balls. Mike LaValliere, then the Pirates catcher who had the best view of those disputed pitches, has never watched again. Can't. Won't.
"It's just a terrible memory," LaValliere said. "It's just kind of a wound that's there that I'd be picking at. Just let it stay where it is."
Jose Lind, then the Pirates second baseman, can't bring himself to tune into postseason baseball at all. His error on David Justice's ground ball - Justice became the tying run - simply won't go away.
"It still haunts me now," Lind said. "If I catch that ball, we probably go to the World Series."
Lind had made six errors that entire season. If he hadn't made that one, maybe Sid Bream never would have ended up on second base as the potential game-winning run.
Bream's slide under the sweeping tag of LaValliere created what is now known by some fans as the "Bream Curse," and, to see how the other side of that fateful night lives, you don't have to travel far.
Two decades after his family received death threats and a less-threatening toilet-papering of their Wexford home, Bream resides in Zelienople - at the top of a hill in pure Western Pennsylvania daylight.
Bream, born near Harrisburg in Carlisle, played for the Pirates for five years before being traded to the Braves before the 1991 season. He considers this region his home and still cheers for the Pirates, but he can't deny that his life changed at their expense.
On the wall to the right of the large TV in the living room, a painting of his slide and the ensuing celebration hangs proudly.
Bream's fame helped him develop a motivational speaking career. Last year, he spoke about 40 times. Before each speech, he shows the clip of that Game 7.
"This play," Bream often tells his audiences, "is the reason that I'm here. If it wasn't for this play, I doubt very much I'd be standing here in front of you."
He has watched the play hundreds of times, and, with each watching, he believes one thing more and more: His beating of Barry Bonds' throw from left field - and everything that led up to it - was nothing other than an act of God.
The seeds of 1992 began to sprout two years earlier. After falling to the Cincinnati Reds four games to two in the 1990 NLCS, the Pirates had a decision to make about first baseman Sid Bream, whose contract was up.
That season, Bream had batted .270 with 15 home runs and 67 runs batted in. He was a solid everyday player, and he had played a part in the Pirates' rise under manager Jim Leyland, but Bream had also just turned 30 and carried a creaky right knee that had undergone a few major surgeries.
Bream wanted to stay in Pittsburgh more than anything. As Leyland molded the Pirates from a 104-loss team in 1985 to a 95-win squad in 1990, Bream had built a home here with his wife and two boys. His teammates were now his close friends, and he had even become hunting buddies with Leyland. When the season ended, Bream read a report that said resigning him was the Pirates' "number-one priority," the thought of which brought him great joy.
Negotiations, however, did not go well. The Pirates did not offer what Bream and his agent considered fair market value, while the Braves were more than happy to give him what he wanted. But it wasn't that simple. The Braves were a moribund franchise coming off a last-place, 65-97 finish, while the Pirates were now winners and clear favorites to make the World Series.
Bream said all it would take for him to stay with the Pirates was the inclusion of a no-trade clause, but the Pirates were unwilling to budge.
"It was a very, very difficult time for my wife, Michelle, and I," Bream said. "We went to bed that night and literally cried all night thinking that we were leaving Pittsburgh."
Bream took the Braves' offer, and it wasn't long before he would be facing his former team in the 1991 regular season. In one of those games, Bream hit the first grand slam of his career, but he hardly could enjoy it.
"I was a wreck in the dugout," Bream said. "Instead of being jubilant for what just happened, I was sad. I recognized that was my team, a team I really enjoyed being a part of, and I'm doing stuff in order to hurt them."
The hurt was only beginning. The Braves were on their way to a miraculous season, winning the National League West and becoming the first team in league history to go from last place to first in one year. Atlanta was suddenly a tomahawk-chopping, war-chanting town, and the Braves would meet the Pirates in the 1991 NLCS.
Bream would hit a home run in a crucial Game 3 victory, and the Braves, behind masterful starting pitching, would win the series 4-3.
"It took a toll on me," Bream said. "I sat there and thought to myself, 'Good grief, are they going to have another chance?' "
But the next year, when they would cross paths again in a NLCS Game 7, the emotions weren't as fresh for Bream. Two seasons removed from his career in Pittsburgh, enveloped by Braves Mania in Atlanta, he felt like more a Brave and less a Pirate.
When Pirates ace Doug Drabek took the mound for the bottom of the ninth, three outs separated Pittsburgh from its first World Series since winning the Fall Classic in 1979.
While it was no surprise these Pirates were standing on the precipice of greatness, it had not been an easy ride. After the 1991 season, they lost slugger Bobby Bonilla to the New York Mets in free agency. Because the organization couldn't pony up for Bonilla, it was clear to the players that the Pirates also wouldn't be resigning Bonds and Drabek when their contracts expired after the 1992 season.
The window was already closing fast when they arrived in Bradenton, Fla., for spring training. And it was during those normally hopeful six weeks in the sun that the sand began rapidly slipping through the hourglass.
One day, the Pirates arrived at the clubhouse to find that pitcher John Smiley, who had won 20 games in 1991, had been traded to the Minnesota Twins for two prospects - pitcher Denny Neagle and outfielder Midre Cummings. Neagle would go on to win 59 games for the Pirates in five seasons, and Cummings would never eclipse 31 RBIs in a season.
Even if they had become stars, it wouldn't have mattered to the 1992 Pirates because it wasn't going to happen during that crucial year.
"Everybody was absolutely distraught, pissed, mad, throwing things," said Bob Walk, then a Pirates starting pitcher. "It was a slap in everybody's face. This was our last year to take a shot at it, and it at least looked like the organization was throwing in the towel. That actually kind of worked to bring the team together."
Leyland called a meeting within days of the Smiley trade and told his players that they were still a great team but they had to move on. Sure enough, seven months later, after a 96-66 season and gritty wins in games five and six of the NLCS, there was Drabek on the mound with the ball in his hand and confidence brimming after eight shutout innings.
The Pirates led the Braves 2-0 when Terry Pendleton came to the plate. In right field for the Pirates was Cecil Espy, who had come into the game as a pinch runner in the top of the ninth for Lloyd McClendon. Pendleton roped a long fly ball down the right field line, and Espy, hesitant to make a play on the ball because it appeared it may go foul, let the ball drop inside the line for a double. That was the first head-shaking play in an improbable ninth.
Next up: Justice. He lined a ground ball to second base where Lind, who grew up playing baseball in Puerto Rico preparing to make the simple plays, moved to his right. Lind, known by the nickname "Chico," was a Gold Glove second baseman, but the ball hit the top of his hand instead of the webbing of his mitt and bounded into the outfield. Now, the Braves had runners on first and third with nobody out.
"I mean Chico never boots a ball," Leyland said, "and, I'm not blamin' him, but he boots a ball."
Next up, Bream. He stared across the mound and saw Drabek, one of his closest friends during his time with the Pirates, staring back. Drabek, his dominating performance getting away from him, walked Bream on four pitches.
"I don't know what the reason was," Bream said, "but Doug and I, our families were close. His wife and my wife and our kids were together constantly, and whether or not that played into his mind ... I don't know. He really didn't get close to the strike zone."
With the bases loaded, Leyland removed Drabek from the game and dropped closer Stan Belinda into a harrowing situation.
Next up, Ron Gant, who nearly ended the game right there with a grand slam. Instead, the ball fell into the glove of Bonds at the warning track in left field. Pendleton scored on a sacrifice fly, bringing the score to 2-1. Justice and Bream stood on second and first, respectively.
Next up, Damon Berryhill, who worked the count to 3-1. Behind the plate, umpire Randy Marsh leaned in behind LaValliere, ready to judge the next pitch.
Marsh was supposed to be umpiring first base that night. But, back in the second inning, home plate umpire John McSherry complained to LaValliere that he was feeling ill. McSherry was a heavyset man, and he had to take a seat. His crew crowded around him as the game stopped.
"He was short of breath, hyperventilating," Marsh said. "He was pale as a ghost."
It was decided that McSherry needed to go to the hospital. Marsh would work the rest of the game behind home plate, and he rushed to change out his equipment. Marsh was known as a hitter-friendly umpire, and his reputation proved to be fair as the game wore on.
Against Berryhill, LaValliere called for a fastball, and Belinda delivered what appeared to many to be a strike. Marsh called ball four.
"I like that pitch, Randy," LaValliere recalled grumbling to Marsh. "We've got to have that for a strike."
Van Slyke said, "If John McSherry does not faint, if John stays in the game, I have no doubt that we're moving on."
Marsh said, "That's umpiring."
With the bases now loaded again and one out, Pirates backup infielder Carlos Garcia went into the clubhouse and opened his Bible. He said a prayer before coming back into the dugout. If there was any room for divine interest in sport, this would have been a good time for it.
"It was like seeing a crystal vase fall out of someone's hands, and you're watching it in slow motion," said Lanny Frattare, the Pirates' longtime play-by-play man, "and there's just no way you can stop it. It was that kind of atmosphere."
The Pirates had just as much control over the outcome as the Braves, but it no longer felt that way. After Brian Hunter popped out to shortstop, Braves manager Bobby Cox pinch hit for pitcher Jeff Reardon with little-used Francisco Cabrera.
The scoreboard still read 2-1 Pirates. There were two outs. And Sid Bream stood on second base with one thing on his mind: Score.
Bream knew, like most people watching the game, that he was the last person the Braves would have chosen to be the potential game-winning run. His knee-surgery tally was up to five, but, for some reason, despite having pitchers in the bullpen who could have run faster, Cox stuck with Bream.
Several circumstances were working in his favor. First, Bonds was hugging the left field line, and, despite Van Slyke motioning to him to move closer to center, Bonds stayed right where he was. Second, there were two outs, which meant that Bream wouldn't have to hesitate on contact. Third, Bream was taking some liberties with his lead from second base.
"I was probably a third of the way between second base and third base," Bream said, "and, if Stan Belinda would have just stepped off and thrown back, I would have been out. I think I was saying, 'No way he's going to throw back at this point.' But if he would have, the game would have been over, and I would have been a goat."
The scouting report on Cabrera, who had just 10 at-bats all season, was that he was a good fastball hitter. So LaValliere called for two breaking pitches to start. Both were balls. After Cabrera lined a fastball foul, bringing the count to 2-1, LaValliere asked for another fastball. Cabrera reached out and hammered the pitch, thrown high and outside, to left field for a base hit.
Bonds sped to his left as Bream pumped like an old locomotive toward third base. Justice scored, tying the game at 2, but LaValliere figured, with Bream's lack of speed, that the Pirates could get the game to extra innings. But, Bream kept coming, and still, no ball.
"There's a timing to plays," LaValliere said, "and my internal clock was just going. I'm getting edgy. This should be happening a little bit sooner."
Bonds, who could have used Van Slyke's advice, came up with the ball and had to throw across his body. He threw a one-hopper that landed several feet down the first-base line, creating just enough room - an estimated 4 inches - for Bream to slide past LaValliere's glove.
"Safe!" Marsh called, making his designation in one clean motion.
Braves 3, Pirates 2.
The celebration began, with Bream being mobbed at home plate. LaValliere slowly trudged toward the dugout.
"I was too numb to even be pissed," LaValliere said. "I just remember walking off the field, the ball in my glove, and the ball just fell out. I just went into the dugout. I don't even know if I took my gear off."
The Pirates of 1992 don't remember much about the aftermath, only silence - in the clubhouse and on the plane back to Pittsburgh. Upon his return, Chico Lind went straight to his parents, who had moved to town.
"I was crying," Lind said, "and my dad sat me down, put his arm around me and said, 'Hey, Chico, how many balls did you catch before that? [Expletive] happens, you know.' "
Bream didn't talk to his former teammates in the days, months and years after his slide to glory. Because, really, what was there to say?
Twenty years after their greatest disappointment, the Pirates of 1992 no longer think about themselves. Their hearts go out to Pittsburgh and the loyal Pirates fans.
"More than anything, the frustration was - and this was something you really couldn't share with people - but I knew we weren't gonna keep Bonds," Leyland said, "and obviously what was going to happen after that was a little bit of a depressing time. What really hurt was that it hurt the whole city so much."
The Pirates knew their run was temporarily over - that it would likely be years before the franchise competed again. But this long?
Van Slyke now lives in the St. Louis area, and he is still a Pirates fan.
"The hardest thing for me is to see what was there and now what exists," Van Slyke said. "It's just hard for me to accept that it's going to be 20 years. That something can't be fixed."
But the idea of the "Bream Curse" is a non-starter with this group.
"I believe whenever you lose Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, John Smiley, Doug Drabek and Andy Van Slyke, you're going to stink," LaValliere said with a grin. "There's nothing cursed about that."
Bream doesn't believe in the curse either, and he's actively tried to help the Pirates start winning again. In 2008, the Pirates hired him as a hitting coach with their Class A short season affiliate, the State College Spikes, but that only lasted one year because Bream didn't like being away from his family. He gets the feeling other opportunities have dried up because of The Slide
Bream speaks often in Pittsburgh, though, and often someone from the crowd will yell "You were out!" and laughter will fill the room. Enough years have passed now, and, certainly, it is time again for winning baseball on the North Shore.
"I hope and pray that this year, 2012, will be a great year for the Pittsburgh Pirates," Bream said, "and they'll get back to where they should be -- on top."
Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette contributed to this story. J. Brady McCollough: email@example.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published April 1, 2012 4:30 PM