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Bummer of '92: Bream's slide lives in infamy

Sunday, Oct. 14, 2007
 

If you're a Pirates fan of legal drinking age, you probably know precisely where you stood ... or sat ... or knelt ... or curled up in fetal position when Sid &!@#&! Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw 15 years ago tonight at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

As this reporter types these words, a half-dozen colleagues within 20 feet can describe, in frightening detail, their whereabouts at 11:52 p.m. on Oct. 14, 1992.

One was watching at a South Side bar, where the ambiance went from raucous to worried to sickeningly silent in a matter of six seconds, the time it took Bream and his bulky knee brace to lumber around third base and slide past Mike LaValliere's desperate, sweeping tag.

They might as well have drained every keg in Pittsburgh when home-plate umpire Randy Marsh signaled safe, because nothing was going to drown this town's sorrow.

"Nothing could," says then-Pirates star Andy Van Slyke, who memorably sat in center field with a crooked hat and a broken heart after the winning play went down. "All you'd be doing is putting it into a different department, emotionally."

The Pirates, as you might have heard, haven't had a winning season since.

Jim Leyland's team forced Game 7 of the '92 National League Championship Series by outscoring the Braves, 20-5, in Games 5 and 6. His team looked like one of destiny, not infamy.

Pirates starter Doug Drabek pitched on three days rest, as he'd done in Game 4. He baffled a lineup that included a pinch-hitter named Deion Sanders, and the Pirates took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth.

This is what transpired before Bream's slide:

• Terry Pendleton led off with a shot to the right-field corner, where Cecil Espy - a defensive replacement for Lloyd McClendon - passively allowed it to drop for a double.

• David Justice bounced a ball to Jose Lind, who misplayed it. Men on first and third.

• Bream walked on four pitches to load the bases, prompting Leyland to pull Drabek, who'd thrown 129 pitches.

• In came Stan Belinda, who'd converted just 18 of 24 save chances. "I wanted the ball in that situation more than anyone on the planet," Belinda said later. Bonds promptly caught Ron Gant's blast at the left-field fence. A run scored. Men on first and second, one out.

• Damon Berryhill, hitting .167, laid off some agonizingly close pitches that were called balls. A 3-1 slider appeared to catch the inside corner. "He's human; he missed it," Belinda would say of Marsh, who'd replaced John McSherry behind the plate after the first inning because McSherry was ill. Bases loaded, one out (to this day, Bream can't believe manager Bobby Cox did not use a pinch-runner for him).

• Brian Hunter pinch hit for second baseman Rafael Belliard and popped out. The Pirates were one out away from their first World Series since 1979. A makeshift stage and champagne-on-ice awaited them in the locker room.

With pitcher Jeff Reardon due up, Cox summoned the last position player on his bench, third-string catcher/first baseman Francisco Cabrera, who'd been added to the roster Aug. 31.

An odd thought entered Cabrera's mind as he stood in the on-deck circle. Years later, he recounted it in an interview with The Trib.

"I was thinking, 'Who's going to play second?' " Cabrera said. "If I would have only tied the game, I might have had to play second. So I appreciate Sid Bream for coming in. It usually took a triple for him to score from second. I knew if I got that hit, I'd become a hero. But if I didn't, it would have been OK, because people didn't know me anyways."

As a crowd of 51,975 rocked the stadium, Cabrera hooked a line drive into the left-field bleachers before working the count to 2-1.

Skip Carey, announcing on TBS, called the next pitch:

"The 2-1. Swung, line drive, left field! One run is in! Here comes Bream! Throw to the plate! He is ... safe! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!"

Bonds was playing a deep left field to protect against a gap shot. He raced to his left and threw across his body. His throw was about two feet wide, forcing LaValliere to backhand it, then dive back toward the plate, where he tagged Bream too late.

Few plays in Pirates' history are scrutinized more than Bonds' throw. Leyland, McClendon and others have said it was a good play. Bonds agrees.

"If I played any shallower, that ball probably would've gotten past me," he said. "I had to come over toward my left, then cross-fire it. You can go back and look at the history of the game of baseball and how many guys have thrown guys out in that situation."

LaValliere, who coaches baseball at St. Stephens Episcopal School in Bradenton, Fla., laughed when asked about the throw during a recent phone interview.

"You know what• Put it this way: It was a throw where he ended up safe. Was it a terrible throw• No, it wasn't terrible. If it was two feet further to the left, Sid Bream's out."

One aspect of the funereal scene in the Pirates' clubhouse stands out to Drabek, who lives near Houston.

"When we came in," he said, "they were still pulling the stage and the champagne out of our locker room."

Among the game's less-scrutinized issues: Van Slyke flied out with the bases loaded in the seventh; Orlando Merced got thrown out at home in the eighth, attempting to score from first on Jeff King's double; and Leyland stuck with his platoon system, starting lefties Merced, LaValliere and Alex Cole, even though they'd gone a combined 4 for 21 against John Smoltz in Games 1 and 4.

That meant McClendon, Gary Redus and Don Slaught sat, even though they were a collective .487 in the series.

Leyland, now managing the Detroit Tigers, said he received telegrams and phone calls that day from irate fans who wanted him to alter his lineup. Leyland still lives in the South Hills during the offseason, raising two children with wife Katie. He doesn't often think about '92.

"Our hearts were broken, but as far as sitting around and getting dejected, no, I don't do that," he said.

Belinda was traded to Kansas City the following season. He pitched seven more years with four more teams before retiring in 2000 as a member of the Braves. He was 41-37 with a 4.15 earned-run average and 79 saves.

Belinda and wife Lori live on a cattle farm in Huntingdon, near State College, with their five children. In the late 1990's, he continued pitching despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

"(The MS) is something that will never go away, but he's still doing OK," said Belinda's brother, Mark.

Cabrera was released by the Braves in 1993 and never played another game. He hit .254 in 351 major-league at-bats but remains a hero in Atlanta and in the Dominican Republic.

"Sometimes in the Dominican Republic, I'll be called for an interview, and they'll ask me to bring the tape," he said in the spring of 2003. "I've watched it over and over."

Bream lives in Zelienople, where he and wife Michele have four children, including son Tyler, who played third base on Seneca Valley High School's state championship team last season.

Needless to say, Bream, a dedicated Christian and motivational speaker, often runs into people who remind him of The Slide.

"I wouldn't say daily, but if I'm in a setting that would promote thinking about baseball, there's normally a lot of people who tell me I was out," he said, laughing. "Yes, it comes up."

The moment was bittersweet for Bream, because he'd spent five seasons with the Pirates before he was dealt to Atlanta after the 1990 season.

"I felt bad, thinking they'd never get another chance," he said. "I desperately wanted to see them get to the World Series."

Pirates fans felt worse. One of them was Eric Semega, now Tyler Bream's baseball coach at Seneca Valley. Semega was 22 at the time, watching from bed at his father's house in the North Hills.

"I was in shock," he recalled. "You know, after I started teaching here, Sid and I were on the same basketball team in a community league, about eight years ago.

"After I saw him run on the court, I said, 'Sid, how did you score?' "


A poem: My Heart Did Not Burst

my heart did not burst when ex-Buc Sid Bream slid his dirty slide all over the once white plate just past our pudgy catcher's too late tag and the umpire in the same instant spread both arms in either direction signaling an end to world serious hope for my precious Pirates

my nerves did not snap despite eight and two-thirds frames of tension I did my deepest breathing to relax control I did not have over loaded bases and balls that were strikes that were not called in the bottom of the 9th at the unlikely sound of Francisco Cabrera's homicidal single my brain did not crack under tons of promise and possibilities that twist and untwist but can never undo the undisputed truth of 3-2

my arms did not rip the TV from its cabinet I could not shatter the televised outcome It happened, like a bad wreck I could not help but watch the explosion of Atlanta madness I wished was mine, ours days, months after the damage Happened

- Frank Bienkowski (Pittsburgh musician, Ambridge native, die-hard Pirates fan), April 1993


 

 

 
 


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