When the Blue Jays came to bat for the final time, Kristen Babb-Sprague, who had won a synchronized-swimming gold medal at the Olympics in Barcelona (page 39), was sitting in the stands behind home plate in a denim jacket adorned with an American flag design. Reliever Jeff Reardon, baseball's alltime save leader, was on the mound to salt the game away for Atlanta. "Reardon throws some serious, scary stuff," Babb-Sprague would say later, surprised by her ump's-eye view of the man who would soon be pitching to her husband. "I could not believe how much those balls move."
Truth be told, where the 37-year-old Reardon once threw his fastball in the 90's, it now hovers in the mid-80's. Hardly batting-practice fastballs, but to Sprague, this game was suddenly beginning to resemble the scenario Tenace had posited in BP: The game is on the line, and you have one pitch to hit.
For after Borders led off the ninth by flying out to right and pinch-hitter Derek Bell worked the count from 2 and 2 and walked, Sprague—who had two pinch hits and one home run during the regular season—found himself batting for reliever Duane Ward. He was looking for a first-pitch fastball down in the strike zone. Reardon threw the signature-free Rawlings right there, and Sprague swung.
"I looked up and saw the ball in the air," said Bell, who was running with the pitch. "And I thought, Oh my god, we did it."
Sprague looked up, too, after making contact, but he couldn't see anything save for a blinding white light, the kind that people report seeing during near-death experiences. "I looked up, right into the lights," said Sprague. "I couldn't see a thing. Until I saw [Deion] Sanders with his back turned. And then I knew."
The ball, which landed in the leftfield bleachers, was soon returned to Sprague by the woman who had retrieved it, so he would have a memento.
Reardon wasn't in the market for souvenirs. "I'll try to forget this one," he said in the Braves' clubhouse, moments after Atlanta failed to score in the bottom of the ninth. "But no one really forgets."
The closer then excused himself, making a rapid exit along with the rest of his teammates. Soon only Atlanta coaches Ned Yost (Milwaukee Brewer backup catcher, 1982 World Series) and Pat Corrales (Cincinnati Red backup catcher, '70 World Series), remained in the home clubhouse, wistfully rehashing over a couple of beers the weekend during which backup backstops finally found the foreground.