Covering the Francisco Cabrera Game

Mandatory Credit: mlb.nbcsports.com

Mandatory Credit: mlb.nbcsports.com

Whenever anyone hears I’m a baseball writer, the question always comes up: what was the most exciting game you ever covered?

I’ve seen many, dating back to my early days as a teenaged reporter who could hardly shave in 1965.

I was there when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs – each one on the first swing – in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium.

I watched Ichiro Suzuki hit the only inside-the-park home run in All-Star history.

I saw Randy Johnson finish on the wrong end of a 1-0 game because his opponent – Jose Jimenez of the St. Louis Cardinals – held the Arizona Diamondbacks hitless.

But, for me, the game that really stands head-and-shoulders above the rest is the seventh game of the 1992 National League Championship Series.

In Atlanta and Pittsburgh, it’s also called “the Francisco Cabrera game.”

For the second straight year, the Braves and Pirates had a postseason facedown that pitted great pitching against great hitting.

Pittsburgh paced the league with 693 runs scored, won 37 one-run games, and finished nine games ahead of the Montreal Expos with a 96-66 record, just two games worse than Atlanta’s.
Against the Braves, however, the powerful Pirates lost all but five of their dozen meetings.

As a Braves fan since 1957, I was thrilled when United Press International asked me to cover the series – especially after my team won the first two games behind John Smoltz and Ron Gant, respectively.

When the series shifted to Pittsburgh for Game 3, however, the knuckleball of rookie Tim Wakefield proved too elusive for Atlanta batters. He went the route in a 3-2 victory.

The next night, October 10, both teams reverted to their Game 1 starters – with the same result. Smoltz beat Doug Drabek, 6-4, to give the Braves what should have been a commanding lead in the best-of-seven series.

But the Pirates refused to yield. In fact, they knocked out Steve Avery, MVP of the 1991 NLCS, with a four-run first inning in Game 5. Bob Walk, an erstwhile Pittsburgh starter, took advantage, coasting to a 7-1 victory and narrowing his team’s deficit to one game.

That meant the Braves had to swallow another dose of Wakefield’s wild and wooly pitch.

Even with the series returning to Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, the rookie had no reservations about riding his knuckleball all night. Like Avery, his fellow lefthander, Braves starter Tom Glavine, the defending Cy Young Award winner, was no match for Pittsburgh’s power hitters. The Pirates won, 13-4, erasing the impact of two home runs by David Justice.

With the series now knotted at three, the finale was another battle of the aces. Smoltz, who had beaten Drabek in both of their previous pairings in the ‘92 NLCS, was desperate to pitch his club to the pennant for the second straight year. He pitched well but not well enough.

The Pirates scratched out two runs while the Braves failed to score against Drabek.

In the middle of the ninth inning, per long-standing pressbox tradition, UPI sports editor Fred McMane told me to take the elevator down to the Braves clubhouse so that I would be there when the game ended.

With Drabek determined to protect Pittsburgh’s 2-0 lead and finish the clincher, I expected the Atlanta clubhouse to be a morgue.

But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over – as the New York Mets learned as recently as last October.

Arriving in the bowels of the ballpark, I stood poised outside the home clubhouse door. The only other reporter around was an attractive young woman from WSB, the Atlanta TV station that was airing the game. Fortunately for us, her camera included a tiny game monitor – allowing us to watch if we didn’t mind scrunching our heads together. I didn’t mind at all.

Atlanta couldn’t have had a better man to lead off the bottom of the ninth.

Terry Pendleton, National League batting champion and Most Valuable Player in 1991, had an even better season in 1992. Hitting in the clutch was his specialty.

Though hitless in three previous trips that night, Pendleton pounded a double into the right-field corner, bringing lefty-hitting slugger David Justice to the plate. My heart sank when Justice dribbled an easy grounder to second. But sure-handed second baseman Jose Lind, in his anxiety, somehow managed to boot it.

Now Drabek had to face the tying run at the plate – in a stadium nicknamed “the Launching Pad” because balls flew over the fence with frequency.

Sid Bream, a former Pirate playing on surgically-repaired knees, was an easy double-play candidate. But Drabek suddenly had trouble finding the plate. A walk filled the bases and ended his night.

Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland thought Drabek was done after 129 pitches. But Stan Belinda, his usually-reliable sidewheeling reliever, proved no mystery either.

Ron Gant, a right-handed power hitter, ripped a long drive to left that initially looked like a pennant-winning grand-slam. But Barry Bonds, then in his last year as Pittsburgh’s left-fielder, grabbed it at the wall.

After Pendleton waltzed home on the sacrifice fly, Damon Berryhill showed unusual patience at the plate. He walked, reloading the bases for pinch-hitter Brian Hunter, a more prominent power source. Another long fly would tie the game but Hunter couldn’t connect. He popped up for the second out with the three runners holding.

Braves manager Bobby Cox then took the biggest gamble of his career. He had placed Francisco Cabrera on the 25-man Atlanta playoff roster primarily because he wanted an extra catcher. The lanky Dominican had spent most of the year in Triple-A Richmond, garnering only 10 at-bats with the Braves. But Cabrera, who once delivered a game-winning home run against Cincinnati flamethrower Rob Dibble, stroked base-hits in three of those 10 trips against National League pitchers.

Lifetime against Stan Belinda, he was 1-for-1 – a home run.

Tension mounted in the stands and under them – as the WSB girl and I were as tense as two Braves fans could be. Knowing that postseason history is filled with unexpected heroes, we tried to beg, cajole, or will the kid nobody knew to become the next Mayor of Atlanta.

Like many of his countrymen, Cabrera was a subscriber to to theory that “you can’t walk off the island” – you had to swing the bat.

Knowing that a walk would tie the game, Cabrera took two balls from Belinda. Then he ripped a line-drive just foul down the third-base line.

The 2-1 pitch was the last one of the game. Cabrera slapped a single in front of Bonds, watched Justice score from third, and then held his breath as Bream lumbered around third and headed for a certain collision with Pittsburgh catcher Mike Lavalliere.

The slowest man in the league was testing the arm of Barry Bonds, a Gold Glove leftfielder. But the one rap against Bonds was his throwing arm. He did not own a cannon.

The throw was up the first-base line, allowing the 6’4″ Bream to touch home before the 5’8″ backstop could spin and apply the tag.

The Braves won the game, 3-2, and their second straight pennant. But even better, I got a great long and mushy hug from the curvaceous WSB reporter I had just met.

When the clubhouse door opened, workmen were frantically putting up plastic over stalls to protect players’ personal items from the champagne party that was certain to follow. They were also carting in the liquid culprit, which had been waiting in the visiting clubhouse while the Pirates clung to their lead most of the night.

Standing alone between the exterior clubhouse door and the runway tunnel that led to the field was a stunning, well-dressed brunette. Jane Fonda, the Hollywood star who had married Braves owner Ted Turner the previous Christmas, told me she was there to congratulate the television magnate but didn’t want to wind up on the bottom of the player pile at home plate.

I knew that whatever the Braves would do against the Toronto Blue Jays, champions of the American League, would be anti-climactic. Even their midseason comback of 1993 and their World Series win of 1995 would not erase the memory of the Francisco Cabrera game.

For one shining moment, Cabrera could have been crowned king. Looking back, he never amounted to much, hitting .254 with 17 home runs over a five-year career that included 196 games. Although the Braves went to postseason play in every season he was with the team, he never hit a home run in the October spotlight.

But, beyond the Hank Aaron home runs that won the 1957 pennant and broke Babe Ruth’s record, his single might have been the biggest hit in Braves history.

For me, it’s the game I’ll never forget.
_____

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of When the Braves Ruled the Diamond: Fourteen Flags Over Atlanta and 36 other books. He is also baseball editor of Latino Sports, contributing editor of Baseball Magazine, and host of the weekly Braves Banter radio show heard Thursdays at 8 on iTunes and BlogTalkRadio.com.

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