Bream, Cabrera and The Slide 30 years later

3 months ago 8

October 14th, 2022

It was one of the greatest finishes to a postseason game in MLB history. If you had to film it as the final scene of a movie, you might never get it to come out with the same precision and breathlessly suspenseful buildup to the crescendo as this play had.

But that doesn’t mean Mike Lavalliere has to like it.

“If I’m the director or producer of the film, it ends up different,” said Lavalliere, who was at the epicenter of an event that would produce seismic reverberations for decades to come.

Lavalliere was the catcher for the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series against the Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. That unforgettable contest took place 30 years ago today, and it is still talked about with a sense of awe after all this time.

With the Pirates leading, 2-1, and the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Braves sent pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera to the plate as Atlanta’s last hope. Cabrera lined a sharp ground ball into left field, and after David Justice scored the tying run, here came Sid Bream to try and send the Braves to the World Series for the second consecutive year.

Lavalliere received the throw from left fielder Barry Bonds and lunged to tag Bream as Bream slid into the plate. And at that very moment was born one of the iconic scenes in the history of our national pastime.

When you enter the ballpark or turn on your TV to watch a baseball game on any given day, you have no idea how you’ll feel at the end of it. On this night, years of tireless work to reverse the fortunes of two proud franchises culminated in a singular event that yielded jubilation for one and devastating heartbreak for the other. 

How did it all come together the way it did, a final act that could never be matched by a Hollywood script? Though much of the story goes back farther, an immediate precursor was the prior fall’s NLCS, which featured the same two teams.

The 1991 NLCS was the second straight Championship Series appearance for Pittsburgh. Manager Jim Leyland, who took the helm for a club that lost 104 games in 1985, completely changed the course of the Pirates’ ship within five years, leading them to within two wins of a World Series appearance in 1990. That October, Pittsburgh lost to the eventual World Series champion Reds in six games.

The Braves had turned things around by 1991, too. But their rise came much more quickly than anyone imagined. Atlanta went from worst to first in ’91, losing 97 games the prior year before stunning the baseball world by winning 94 and capturing the NL West crown.

The two clubs played a thrilling seven-game NLCS, with the Braves overcoming a 3-2 deficit in the series with a 4-0 win in Game 7 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Future Hall of Famer John Smoltz silenced the Pirates’ bats on six hits, sending his team to the Fall Classic for the first time since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966.

The Braves lost an epic World Series against another worst-to-first team, the Twins, in seven games. But unlike Pittsburgh, Atlanta’s window of championship contention, with young stars like Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Justice and Ron Gant, was just opening.

The Pirates were running out of time.

“We knew that group was not going to be together much longer,” Leyland said, “if at all.”

The franchise’s finances were in such a state that it had no realistic chance of re-signing Bonds, who would soon win his second NL MVP Award and was a free agent-to-be. Nor would the Pirates be able to retain the 1990 NL Cy Young Award winner who was also scheduled to be a free agent after the ’92 season, Doug Drabek. Pittsburgh had already lost All-Star slugger Bobby Bonilla to the Mets and traded All-Star left-hander John Smiley to the Twins.

This was it. It had to happen in ’92, or it wasn’t going to happen in Pittsburgh for a long, long time. As it turned out, the ’92 NLCS would be the last postseason series the Pirates would participate in for the next 21 years.

The Braves picked up right where they left off the prior October, jumping out to a commanding 3-1 series lead with a chance to close out the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium once again and return to the World Series.

But that’s when Pittsburgh came to life, outscoring Atlanta, 20-5, in Games 5 and 6 to force a winner-take-all Game 7.

The Braves turned again to their best big-game pitcher, Smoltz, who had vanquished the same foe in Game 7 the year before. The Pirates turned to Drabek, who struggled in Games 1 and 4 of the series but had a strong regular season, finishing fifth in NL Cy Young Award voting.

Drabek was dominant right out of the gate and was twirling a gem entering the ninth inning with his club up, 2-0. The right-hander had thrown eight scoreless frames on just five hits to that point, making an Orlando Merced sacrifice fly and an Andy Van Slyke RBI single hold up against Atlanta.

Although he was at 120 pitches on the night, Leyland had no qualms about sending Drabek out for the ninth to try to finally get the Pirates to the World Series.

“Dougie’s one of the fiercest competitors you’ll ever see,” Leyland said. “I felt like he could get the job done. I felt like he was the best choice at that particular time.”

Terry Pendleton led off the ninth for the Braves with a double into the right-field corner, just inside the foul line.

Lavalliere noted an ominous subtlety in Pendleton’s drive.

“With most left-handers on a ball down the right-field line, the ball hooks,” Lavalliere said. “And that ball never hooked. It stayed straight.”

That brought Justice to the plate representing the tying run. He hit a ground ball to second base, where the usually sure-handed Jose Lind tried to backhand it. But Lind, who had committed only six errors in 745 regular-season chances, had it deflect off his glove into short right field.

“Chico Lind was one of the greatest second basemen in the league, defensively,” Leyland said. “It was a ball he hadn’t missed all year. Just, freaky things happen, and that’s what happens when stuff unravels once in a while.”

That was only the beginning of the unraveling for the Pirates. More freaky things were on the horizon.

Drabek walked Bream on four pitches, spelling the end of his night as Leyland emerged from the dugout. Right-handed reliever Stan Belinda was summoned from the bullpen to inherit a bases-loaded, nobody-out situation with the NL pennant hanging in the balance.

The first man Belinda had to face was Gant, who belted a 1-0 pitch deep to left. Bonds made the catch right at the wall and Pendleton tagged to make it 2-1. That brought catcher Damon Berryhill to the plate.

After fouling off the first pitch from Belinda, Berryhill never took another swing in the plate appearance, though two of the next three pitches could very well have been called strikes on the inside corner, particularly the 3-1 offering. He walked on five pitches, reloading the bases.

The home plate umpire, Randy Marsh, actually began the game as the first base umpire before having to move behind the plate when original home plate umpire John McSherry left the game feeling ill. While many have lamented the Berryhill plate appearance in the years since, the Pirates never used it as an excuse.

“Everybody felt like we had Berryhill struck out,” Leyland said. “I’ve never been upset at Randy Marsh about it. Randy and I are friends. In my opinion, he missed the call. I don’t know if he realizes that or thinks it himself. But that’s part of the game. I’m not gonna blame an umpire.”

Lavalliere had the best view of the 3-1 pitch of anyone on the premises. When he caught it, he held his glove in place for an extra second or two to give Marsh a good long look.

“That pitch was on the inside corner and we didn’t get the call,” Lavalliere said. “But this doesn’t land on Randy Marsh. You miss a pitch here, you miss a pitch there. Umpires are human. Those things happen. Ultimately, it came down to the last inning, but if you look at it, we had our chance to win the game earlier.”

The Pirates had squandered a golden opportunity in the seventh. Lavalliere opened the frame with a single to left off reliever Mike Stanton, and Lind followed with a lineout to center. Drabek then sacrificed Lavalliere to second and pinch-hitter Lloyd McClendan was intentionally walked. The Braves brought in Pete Smith from the bullpen to face Jay Bell, who drew a walk to load the bases.

Atlanta turned to lefty Steve Avery to face the left-handed-hitting Van Slyke, who had a chance to deliver some much-needed insurance runs late in the game. But Van Slyke flew out to center and the threat was extinguished.

The present threat before the Pirates remained, however. With one out and the bases loaded, Braves manager Bobby Cox sent Brian Hunter to the plate to pinch-hit for light-hitting second baseman Rafael Belliard. Belinda jammed Hunter, who popped out to Lind in shallow center.

Pittsburgh was finally on the cusp. The Pirates, who had lost the previous two NLCS, were just one out away from an elusive World Series berth.

Down to their final breath, the Braves sent to the plate a 25-year-old backup catcher who might not have even been on Atlanta’s postseason roster had starting catcher Greg Olson not been injured a week before the regular season ended.

‘A most unlikely man in the spotlight’

In baseball, you don’t get to choose the spot in the batting order that it will all come down to with the game on the line. There’s no getting the ball to Michael Jordan in the closing seconds. There’s no having Tom Brady under center with time enough for one final drive to win it. 

There’s just … Well, in this case, there’s just Francisco Cabrera.

“I was just waiting for them to call,” said Cabrera, who was warming up relievers in the Atlanta bullpen as events took place on the field that would set up an imminent, life-changing moment for him. “I was just mentally preparing, trying to have a plan when I go to the plate.”

Cabrera only had 283 career plate appearances to his name. He only had 11 during the 1992 regular season. But it was down to either Cabrera or rookie catcher Javy Lopez, who had only 16 plate appearances in his big league career. And Cabrera had seen Belinda before, even homering against him in two at-bats.

For his part, Cabrera wasn’t overly nervous. After all, he wasn’t Pendleton, the reigning NL MVP. Or Justice, a rising star who hit 21 homers with an .805 OPS in the regular season. He was Francisco Cabrera.

“I was in a situation where I said to myself, ‘If I get a hit here, I’m going to be a hero,’” Cabrera recalls. “And if I don’t get a hit, it’s OK, because nobody knows me. But if I get the hit, I’ll be somebody.”

Cabrera was also a good hitter under pressure, though the sample size is small. During his brief MLB career, he hit .287/.339/.475 with four homers in 112 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. 

He even delivered a huge two-out, three-run, game-tying homer against Reds closer Rob Dibble in Cincinnati on Aug. 23, 1991, his second homer in a game Atlanta won, 10-9. That contest is seen as a turning point for the Braves that season, after which they finished strong to overtake the Dodgers in the NL West before reaching and nearly winning the World Series.

Still, the fact that this wasn’t Pendleton, Justice, Gant or someone else more established surely had Braves fans even more nervous than they already would’ve been. Atlanta’s fate came down to Cabrera, whose name most baseball fans watching on CBS were just now hearing for the first time.

On the other hand, the Pirates felt pretty good about things, even though so much had already gone awry in the ninth to set up such a tense finish.

“I felt good,” Leyland said. “You know, there’s a lot of pressure and your heart’s racing. Sometimes these guys sit there and they don’t show any emotion but I don’t buy that. You’re standing there calm and collected, but at the same time, if somebody’s telling you their heart’s not pumping fast, they’re crazy. It is.”

“The way I look at it,” Lavalliere said, “if a series is going to come down to a matchup between Stan Belinda and Francisco Cabrera, I think all of us would’ve taken it. A hundred percent. We still felt good. I think if Stan could’ve gotten his breaking ball over for a strike early in the count, I don’t think it would’ve been an issue.”

But Belinda fell behind Cabrera, 2-0. The next pitch was a fastball to the outer part of the plate, and being a dead-pull hitter who hunted fastballs, Cabrera jumped on it. He hit a drive down the left field line that gave the 51,975 fans jammed into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium a split-second sense of whatever it is that comes right before utter euphoria. 

It hooked foul. Cabrera was visibly upset. He thought he missed the best pitch he’d see in that plate appearance.

“I thought he wouldn’t throw me that pitch again,” Cabrera said. “But then I thought, ‘Hey, I’m still ahead with two balls and one strike. He’s going to throw me the fastball again, and I’m going to be ready this time.'”

Perhaps Sean McDonough, on the call for CBS Sports along with color commentator Tim McCarver, summed up the situation best:

“A most unlikely man in the spotlight for Atlanta.”

'For me, it was the best scenario'

Bream was dumbfounded when he was left in the game to run the bases in the ninth inning. Following his walk to load the bases, he fully expected to be replaced by a pinch-runner.

You see, Bream didn’t run well. He had already undergone five knee operations, four on his right knee and one on his left.

“It started in 10th grade when a guy ran me over at first base while I was stretching for a double-play ball,” Bream said. “That tore the ACL in my right knee. The reason they didn’t replace the ACL in my knee right off the get-go is because they knew about how my left knee had adapted after tearing the right one. So they thought, ‘Shoot, well maybe the right one will adapt as well.’”

Standing on second base as Cabrera stood in the batter’s box against Belinda, Bream took a huge secondary lead with each pitch, knowing that with two outs and the tying run on third, Belinda wasn’t about to wheel around and try to pick Bream off second. 

The 2-1 pitch to Cabrera was another fastball toward the outer part of the plate, and this time, he reached out and pulled it sharply to the left side of the infield between shortstop and third base. It was beyond the reach of Jay Bell at short, and Bream had only one thing on his mind.

“For me, it was the best scenario,” Bream said. “If it had been one out, I’d have had to freeze to see if the ball would go through or not (because it was a low line drive). I was able to run at the crack of the bat and they teach you to put the pressure on the defense. So I had every intention when the ball was hit to keep on going. I still don’t know to this day whether [third base coach] Jimy Williams was waving me.”

Bream was probably the slowest man on Atlanta’s roster, but he was a good baserunner. There’s a difference between speed on the bases alone and a high baserunning IQ.

“I took a lot of pride in my baserunning,” Bream said. “Before the knee surgeries, I’d go first to third with the fastest guys on my team because I knew how to run the bases. I knew how to get my secondary lead, I knew how to come down on my back foot whenever the ball was being hit and make a decision one way or the other. And I knew where the outfielders were playing.”

In left field, Bonds was shading Cabrera toward the line and relatively deep. Amid all of the improbable elements in the ninth inning that night -- the Pendleton double that didn’t hook foul, the Lind error, the pitches that looked like strikes to Berryhill that were called balls -- there was also an irony: Bonds, who won eight Gold Glove Awards in his career and was known for his uncanny ability to have a hitter played perfectly, didn’t in this case.

Bonds had to charge in and to his left, circling the ball to get himself into a position from which he could get something on a throw to the plate. While known to be accurate, his arm wasn’t among the best in the game.

Bream, meanwhile, cut third base perfectly and had a textbook route to the plate in progress. As it turned out, it needed to be textbook. As the play developed further, it became clear that the 1992 NL pennant could very well be decided in the next millisecond. 

The ball arrived on one hop, slightly up the line toward first base. Lavalliere, who appeared to be trying to deke Bream into thinking there would be no play by standing still until the very last second to receive the ball, caught it and swiftly lunged back to his left to apply the tag.

“I thought Bonds made a great throw,” Leyland said. “People can criticize that throw all they want, but that’s totally uncalled for. Some people say that Andy told him from center to move in a little bit before that -- I’m not sure about all that stuff. But I thought he made a great throw.”

Thirty years later, Lavalliere still hasn’t watched Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS on video. And he doesn’t plan on doing so in the future.

“I mean, I’ve seen clips,” Lavalliere said. “If you’re watching any MLB stuff it just comes up sometimes. But yeah, it’s not on my bucket list.”

As Bream slid and Lavalliere reached to tag him, you knew it was going to be incredibly close. It couldn’t have been staged any better if someone had tried for the sake of dramatic effect. The cinematic quality of it all happening the way it did, with so much on the line, may have no exact parallel in Major League history.

McDonough’s call has been embedded in the subconscious of Braves fans and Pirates fans ever since, and really, in the minds of baseball fans everywhere who witnessed the play.

“Line drive and a base-hit!” the veteran broadcaster exclaimed to the nation. “Justice has scored the tying run! Bream to the plate, and he is … safe! Safe at the plate! The Braves go to the World Series!”

The noise in the ballpark became ear-splitting. Pandemonium ensued as Justice jumped on Bream and the dogpile was on. Pendleton ran straight for Cabrera to begin the mob around him as media microphones and cameras began to appear, clamoring for a snapshot or soundbite of what was instantly recognized as an all-time classic moment.

Meanwhile, for the Pirates, this was more than a heart-wrenching defeat after being one out away from the World Series. It was the end of an era of Pirates baseball, and to a man, they all knew it.

Van Slyke sat in the outfield grass, mouth agape, stunned at what he had just seen. Lavalliere didn’t argue the call, as close as it was. He immediately began walking away from the celebration.

“The only way I can explain it is one of the scenes in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan,’” Lavalliere said. “Where there’s Tom Hanks and there are these explosions and suddenly you can’t hear anything. And it’s numbing. That’s what it felt like.”

When asked how long it took for him to get over that feeling, Lavalliere didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“I don’t think I have,” he said.

‘It’s a wonderful, wonderful game’

Lavalliere doesn’t think Bream was safe.

“It was very, very close,” he said. “The fact that Sid “bent-leg” slid -- when you bent-leg slide, whenever you’re going into second or third base, the base is up in the air, so your foot can hit it, no problem. Home plate is level with the ground. If you try to get your foot in the ground, your spikes are gonna catch and you’ll break your ankle.

“So I’m thinking I touched him before his spike actually ever hit home plate.”

While doing an ESPN baseball broadcast as a color commentator a few years back, Lavalliere had the chance to investigate further with technology that wasn’t available in 1992.

“I had my guys take a look at it [with modern replay technology],” he said. “And it was inconclusive as far as being able to overturn the call.”

Bream maintains he was safe. That part isn't a mystery to him. What is, however, is why he was even in that position in the first place, scoring one of the most famous runs in the game’s long and rich history.

“I shouldn’t have been out there,” Bream said. “Bobby [Cox] has said numerous times that he had nobody to play first base if they pinch-ran for me. But that wasn’t true because he had Brian Hunter to pinch-hit in the ninth inning -- he could’ve played first. And Francisco Cabrera could’ve played first base. He could’ve had a pitcher out there to run who probably would’ve been in the dugout by the time I got home.

“All these years, I really and truly believe that God had me out there for a purpose, and that was to give me a platform to go out and share about my faith in Him.”

All these years later, as painful as it was for members of that Pirates team, they also have an appreciation for the place Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS holds in baseball history. In particular, the sheer improbability of it all transpiring the way it did is not lost on them, even though Pittsburgh lost the game itself.

To this day, it is the only game in postseason history in which a player delivered a series-winning hit when an out would have meant his team would lose that series.

“That’s why it’s such a great game,” said Leyland, who would go on to manage the Marlins to their first World Series championship five years later, and who would appear in two more World Series with the Tigers, in 2006 and 2012.

“You can’t predict what’s gonna happen. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful game.”

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