ATLANTA - Brian Hunter lifted the popup behind second base. That wasn't going to get the job done. Jay Bell closed his glove on it, and the Pirates were one out away. So painfully close.
As everybody waited to see who would pinch hit for the pitcher for Atlanta, you couldn't blame the Pirates for taking a look around and taking in the moment. Leading game 7 3-2, one out away from the World Series, they knew this was the high point thus far of their recent dynasty. They also had to know that this was their last chance.
There was Barry Bonds out in left field. He had been absolutely brilliant in his six years in Pittsburgh, but everybody knew he was leaving. His contract was up after the year, and the Pirates would never be able to afford him. He's gone. Doug Drabek there in the dugout, who pitched so brilliantly in game 7, like he had all year. He was probably gone, too. The Pirates had to know that this was it, that if they didn't get this last out and get to the World Series this year after three straight division titles, they might not get another chance. At least not with this group of players.
Atlanta's pinch-hitter was announced. Francisco Cabrera. Who? He was Atlanta's third-string catcher and had batted only 11 times during the season. Why was he even on the playoff roster, much less batting with the season on the line? There were probably some Atlanta fans who would rather have seen a pitcher, maybe a starter like Tom Glavine, batting in this situation rather than this guy. Their chances at a second straight World Series appearance seemed remote.
So now the situation. We know Cabrera was batting. The bases were loaded, the tying run on third and the winning run on second. Too bad the runner on second was Sid Bream, one of the slowest Braves runners. It might take an extra-base hit to score him. Chances are remote. But take a look again: two outs in the bottom of the ninth in game 7, trailing by 1, bases loaded. How many kids grow up dreaming of batting in this exact situation? How many times has this exact situation come up in baseball history? What a moment for Cabrera, regardless of how he did.
Stan Belinda's first two pitches were out of the strike zone. This was getting into the danger area, even with someone as inexperienced as Cabrera batting. You surely can't walk him.
The third pitch was a foul. 2-1 count, a hitter's count. Belinda took the sign, nodded, went into the stretch. He took a look around at the baserunners, at the fielders. Pittsburgh's fielders got on their toes, ready for the pitch. Cabrera wiggled his bat slightly. This was the moment of his career.
Solid contact. A seeing-eye single between third and short. Tie game. But the Braves are sending Bream. What the hell? Bonds fielded the ball cleanly and came up firing. Bream looked dead in the water. But the throw was up the first-base line. Mike LaValliere had to reach over to catch it, then dive back to try to get a sliding Bream. It was a bang-bang play.
The Braves players piled on Bream in exaultation, an absolutely shocking victory. Cabrera was jumping up and down between first and second, no teammates bothering to celebrate with him for a few seconds before they realized who had gotten the hit. Fulton County Stadium was rocking. The Braves were back in the World Series.
The Pirates walked off the field in shock, heads down. This was the closest they had come yet, the most painful defeat of all. Three straight division titles, three straight trips to the NLCS, and nothing. And they knew it was over. They would have no more chances.
Bonds hadn't left the field yet. He remained in left field, down on one knee. He hadn't moved since his throw. He knew it was over, too. And despite his brilliance, his two MVP awards and three gold gloves, he knew his time in Pittsburgh was a failure. He hadn't been able to bring the Pirates to the promised land. And when his team needed him the most, he hadn't been able to throw out Sid freaking Bream.
The Pirates haven't been to the playoffs since, haven't had a winning season since their 1992 season was destroyed by Francisco Cabrera and Sid Bream. Cabrera's hit not only cost the Pirates a World Series berth, but it also knocked the franchise from the loftiest point it has occupied in the last 25 years.
While Cabrera's hit destroyed Pittsburgh's dynasty, it jump-started Atlanta's. Having gone to the World Series the previous year, the Braves proved it wasn't a fluke in 1992. They would make the playoffs for each of the next 13 seasons.