The Cubs and the White Sox finished play with both of their managers expecting to be elsewhere next year. Nothing could have brought the baseball season to a more definite conclusion--at least as far as a Chicagoan was concerned--and I planned to leave the sport behind as soon as possible this fall. It didn't turn out that way, however. Instead, baseball loaded its playoffs with the most likable set of four teams ever to take part in the league championship series. When the true test came, a week ago Thursday, with the Bears and the National League playoffs battling side by side on adjacent television sets in a friend's living room, I spent most of the night watching baseball--and didn't regret it a bit.
The four division-winning baseball teams displayed a dearth of high-profile talent--no Dwight Gooden, no Roger Clemens, no Jose Canseco or Rickey Henderson, and, when the Los Angeles Dodgers choked the final week, no Darryl Strawberry--and a wealth of fresh faces. The Oakland Athletics' dynasty came crashing down this summer, meaning that October baseball fans were deprived of a team they either loved or loved to hate. The lone repeating division champions, the Pittsburgh Pirates, were hardly a team of well-known players. Even while finishing first, they were overshadowed by their Iron City football and hockey counterparts, the Steelers and the Penguins. The lack of both marquee talent and a major media representative in the playoffs--along with the Clarence Thomas brouhaha in Washington--led to record low television ratings. Two years ago, the CBS television network agreed to pay $1 billion over four years for the rights to weekly Saturday baseball, the All-Star Game, the playoffs, and the World Series. Now, it was forced to stick with baseball while the other networks pummeled it with the Thomas hearings--or, worse, with A Woman Named Jackie. CBS also shot itself in the foot by forgoing pregame shows in favor of such weighty prime-time fare as
Rescue 911. If there was ever a pair of playoff series that both needed and deserved an overture--an introduction to the players and the teams--it was these two, because this has been a postseason for the baseball connoisseur.
The American League champions, the Minnesota Twins, play solid defensive baseball, count on their pitchers to keep them in the game, and then go up to the plate trying to beat the tar out of the ball. This simple strategy was executed so forcibly against the Blue Jays that they won the series in five games, taking the last three in Toronto. Their defense, with Greg Gagne at shortstop and Kirby Puckett in center field, was a sight to behold--just as it was four years ago--but it was lost on the baseball novices who make up the bulk of the television audience in October. As for the Jays, in spite of adding the brilliant young second baseman Roberto Alomar and the cheerful Joe Carter in a trade last winter, they couldn't shake their reputation as a bunch of chokers; three times since 1985 they've made it to the playoffs, and the franchise has yet to appear in the World Series.
In the National League, the Pirates, too, battled both their reputation and their opponents, the Atlanta Braves. Both teams relied on pitching, although the Pirates had the stronger lineup and were expected to advance without much trouble this year after losing to the Cincinnati Reds last year. What happened, however, was that in a series that went the full seven games--the last last Thursday, opposite the Bears--four games ended in shutouts, three of those by a 1-0 score. This was baseball at its highest level, where each pitch followed strategically out of the one before it and led into the one after it. When the Braves' Alejandro Pena (their newly acquired bull pen stopper, who has found new life in Atlanta by throwing nothing but fastballs, one inning an outing) ended the 1-0 sixth game by striking out Andy Van Slyke with a runner at third base--on a change-up!--it was one of the great moments in the 23-year history of the playoffs. CBS executives, however, had already written the series off; fair-weather fans ran to their remote controls.
Baseball will always be the national pastime, but it may well have to surrender the title of the most popular sport to football--in Chicago, anyway. Baseball was simply too good this season--too competitive, too balanced--to attract the masses. Two teams that finished last a year ago, the Twins and the Braves, wound up in the World Series, and the amazing thing was both deserved it--the Twins with their defense and the Braves with their young and talented pitching staff.
We started the evening last Thursday with the Bears in Green Bay to face the Packers. The game made the TV advertisements seem interesting, and believe me it wasn't because the game was too involved or because the faces weren't familiar. In fact, just the opposite: Who did the Packers send to midfield for the coin toss but Mike Tomczak, the Bears' former backup, disgraced heir to Jim McMahon? (He would eventually get into the game in the fourth quarter and throw a very familiar-looking interception on an off-balance pass.) The game was sloppy on both sides, the offenses were inept, and the defenses therefore dominated--not by strength, but by abdication. The Bears marched on their first possession, but gave the ball away in Green Bay territory on a Tom Waddle fumble. The offensive line opened big holes on some plays, but couldn't put them together in a series. Chicago quarterback Jim Harbaugh was again overeager to scramble, but also threw an interception when he tossed a bomb into double coverage. His Green Bay counterpart Don Majkowski had several passes dropped. When he finally completed a beautiful throw to his wide-open tight end down the sideline to give the Pack some field position, the play was called back as the replay revealed the uncoordinated receiver had gotten his feet tangled and tripped over the sideline. At the end of the half, Harbaugh finally put together a few good running plays, a few scrambles, and numerous passes to his tight ends--even when other guys were open in the end zone-- and finished with a TD toss to Jim Thornton. I was lucky enough to be watching at the time.
And lucky it was, because the baseball was enrapturing. The game before, game six, had been the best of the series, with the Braves' 21-year-old Steve Avery outdueling Pittsburgh ace Doug Drabek. For eight innings, neither team scored. Each base runner was a source of tension, each third out a momentary relief. In the top of the ninth, Atlanta's Greg Olson finally doubled home a runner from second with a hard grounder down the third-base line. Then came Pena throwing fastballs, allowing a man to reach third, until he threw that change-up to Van Slyke, who was so shocked he could do nothing but watch it cross the plate. Game seven ended early, it turned out, but continued to entertain right up to the very end--and beyond. The Braves scored three in the first--two on a Brian Hunter homer--and held on to win 4-0. The pitching of Atlanta's John Smoltz was again impressive, as he mixed fastballs with a biting curve and a deceptive change-up.
The Pirates, who choked so badly last year, improved on that swan dive this year. The heart of their order--Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla, and Barry Bonds--had had an excellent season. Yet none of the three had a good series, and the television coverage was merciless in adding up their figures for the last two playoffs. In the manner of all great chokes, they set themselves up for it. Bonds, who did not get a single hit with a man on base in any of the seven games, rattled the Pittsburgh clubhouse early in the series by suggesting racism was the reason he and Bonilla were not being signed to large contracts by the Pirates, who had worked to reach agreements with Van Slyke and Drabek last off-season. Then Van Slyke, a heady and eloquent player with a flair for the good quote, tried to inflame the Pirates by suggesting, after they fell behind two games to one, that perhaps they were "gaggers." It worked for two games, as they took a 3-2 series lead, but in the end the oracle had spoken wisely. The most dramatic moments in the seventh game came in watching these three players battle both Smoltz and themselves--Van Slyke kicking and spinning his way into the outfield after just missing a home run in making the inning-ending out in the first, Bonilla squatting outside the dugout and anxious to get to the plate, Bonds looking beseechingly into the sky between batters in left field.
To top it all off, there was an abundance of empty seats at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, so much of an abundance that thousands of Braves fans had flown into Pittsburgh that day, knowing there would be seats available, and there were still empty seats. "'The Chuck Noll Show' must be on TV tonight," said one friend. "Or maybe Mario Lemieux's making an appearance at a big shopping mall," said another. Whatever the case, it was an embarrassment for Pittsburgh, making for a citywide choke.
What our football had in competition was the Bears' Johnny Bailey fumbling a punt deep in his own territory, with the Packers recovering, only to have the ball given to the Bears because one of the referees blew his whistle prematurely. This play could have turned the game around. As it was, the Bears had already added a gift field goal after a fumble recovery deep in Green Bay territory. Final score, 10-0.
As we watched the baseball game come to its festive conclusion, we kept the Bears on--without volume--and supplied our own What's Up, Tiger Lily? dialogue to Mike Ditka's postgame comments: "In life...," "Our guys played hard...," "Thank God we got rid of Tomczak." And when the Braves won and poured out onto the field and then into their clubhouse, where they poured champagne over one another, that was yet another reason to favor baseball over football. The Super Bowl champs aren't allowed champagne in the locker room; they have to celebrate as best they can with Gatorade. One would think that would be something the average sports fan could appreciate, but it doesn't seem to make much of a difference.