He was still frantically changing into his street clothes as he hurried down the hallway and out of the stadium; there was no time for cameras or questions or even a quick shower. The fans who saw the dead-serious look of concern on his face as he left must have assumed he was an Atlanta Braves player, but Brian Jordan was, in fact, the reason the St. Louis Cardinals had pushed the world champion Braves to the brink of elimination on Sunday night. Jordan's dramatic eighth-inning solo home run had lifted St. Louis to a 4-3 victory in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series and left the Cards one win from a World Series date with the New York Yankees.
Unfortunately, it also left Bryson Jordan unconscious, and that was especially scary since Bryson is only two years old and didn't understand the magnitude of his father's feat. If the other 56,000 people in the ballpark had fainted, it would have been understandable. But Bryson was minding his own business, playing with the other players' kids and watching the game on TV in a small family room near the clubhouse, when Dad went deep. The crowd erupted into a deafening celebration, and the walls of the playroom shook. Apparently the excitement and the heat in the room were too much for Bryson, who blacked out and was rushed to the hospital. Brian didn't hear the news until after the game, but he wasted no time yanking off his uniform and dashing out the door.
After four hours in the hospital Bryson was released, and Brian and his wife, Pam, could breathe easier and enjoy the moment. The Braves, on the other hand, remained in serious condition. While they bounced back with a resounding 14-0 win in Game 5 on Monday night, cutting St. Louis's lead to three games to two and sending the series back to Atlanta, the Braves' attempt to secure a return trip to the World Series had proved more daunting than anyone had imagined.
After Atlanta escaped with a 4-2 victory in Game 1, the Cards came back to win the next three, growing more confident and more determined with each success. Nothing is more unnerving in October than watching your opponent take on a sense of destiny, which is pretty much the situation the Braves found themselves in last weekend. "I always said this wasn't going to be the series everyone thought it would be, with us just coming here and winning easily," Atlanta righthander John Smoltz, who started and won Games 1 and 5, said on Sunday night. "They're feeding off the emotion from their big hits and rallies."
While the Braves insisted they didn't take St. Louis lightly, they looked stunned at the turn of events. It was as if Bruce Seldon had caught them square on the chin. "You saw what happened in Cleveland," centerfielder Marquis Grissom said, referring to the Baltimore Orioles' opening-round upset of the defending American League champion Indians. "Don't think we weren't watching."
In the first round of the playoffs the Braves had torn through the Los Angeles Dodgers like a tomahawk chop through a warm Atlanta breeze. There was no reason to think anything would change in the Championship Series.
St. Louis did not bring a particularly imposing lineup into the postseason: Making the playoffs in 1996 with just one player (Jordan) who had at least 100 RBIs is like qualifying for the Indy 500 in an AMC Gremlin. The American League has ball girls with more home run power than the heart of the Cardinals' lineup. The Braves had Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, five Cy Young awards between them, and neither was starting Game 1. That honor would belong to Smoltz, the probable 1996 Cy Young recipient. Atlanta seemed to hold an unbeatable hand against the Cards, who were 4-9 against the Braves during the regular season, including 0-6 at Busch Stadium.
But from St. Louis would come this news flash: Baseball is a funny game. Weird things happen. Luck can step in and earn a playoff share. Your line drives go straight at people, their line drives find open spaces. Maddux and Glavine lose back-to-back. Dmitri Young is a hero, Fred McGriff a goat. Two weeks ago only a couple of dozen people didn't think the Braves were invincible, and fortunately for Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, they were all playing for him. St. Louis came into the Championship Series with an air of self-assurance and never let it slip away. "This game is an attitude," Cardinals reliever Rick Honeycutt said after Game 4. "Sometimes you need an edge, and our edge is that no one expects us to win. We've got no pressure. We're just playing the game, trying to do things right for nine innings."
In his first year in the National League, La Russa has assembled a fascinating mix of youth and experience. Out of the bullpen Honeycutt and Dennis Eckersley, both 42, form an effective one-two punch that is older than the Mississippi. The big-game butterflies they once had have long since died. St. Louis relievers allowed two earned runs in the series opener and then put up 10 straight scoreless innings over the next three games.
Eckersley, who was acquired from the Oakland As before the start of the season, got off to a rocky start in St. Louis and actually heard boos from Busch Stadium crowds early in the year. But he proved invaluable down the stretch, finishing with 30 saves, and then he locked up all three wins in the Division Series sweep of the San Diego Padres. Against Atlanta, Eckersley saved Game 3 and won Game 4, coming in with the score 3-3 in the eighth and then finishing off the Braves after Jordan's home run. In three appearances against Atlanta, Eckersley didn't allow a run. "I don't care what kind of tan he's got or how long his hair is," La Russa said of Eckersley after Sunday's game, "that son of a gun is tough."