For the Atlanta Braves, the season had come down to one game, played Monday night in San Diego. The Braves were machines during the regular season, relentlessly grinding out 106 victories. They swept the Chicago Cubs in the Division Series so efficiently that it's hard now to remember a single highlight. But all that would mean nothing if Atlanta could not defeat the Padres in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. After almost miraculously sweeping the first three games of the series, San Diego was one victory from the World Series. The Braves had spent all their losses.
The only thing Atlanta could do was win. That's the curse of the Braves. Because of their talent, because of their payroll, because of their won-lost record in the 1990s—the best in baseball—they must win. For the Braves, and only the Braves, the standard categories are not Wins and Losses, but Wins and Failures. That's why they so often look uptight. But on Monday night, down three games to one, they stole a page from the Padres playbook. They took chances, made odd moves, never looked grim, even when they were losing. Role reversal.
Atlanta and San Diego played an epic three hours and 17 minutes of mesmerizing baseball. The Braves won 7-6, with Greg Maddux, closer for a day, getting the save. Kevin Brown, middle reliever for a day, took the loss. That's how the game went. The Braves showed their greatness in the most unlikely way: In their most important game of the year, they somehow found a way to play as if they had nothing to lose.
When things looked their bleakest for Atlanta, with the Padres leading 4-2 in the eighth inning and ace starter Brown, who had been waved in from the bullpen in the seventh, methodically mowing down the Braves, rightfielder Michael Tucker saved the day with a dramatic homer, a three-run jack on a full count that left Tony Gwynn abjectly slumped against the rightfield wall and Brown clutching his head in horror as Tucker joyfully rounded the bases.
After Tucker's home run, more weirdness ensued. Donne Wall came in to pitch for the Padres, and the first batter he faced was Braves reliever John Rocker. Wall walked him. Ouch. Following a strikeout of Ozzie Guillen, utility infielder Tony Graffanino smacked a double deep into the left center gap and advanced to third on the throw from centerfielder Steve Finley. Rocker, who bats about twice a year, sprinted around the bases looking for all the world like Forrest Gump in his running phase and crossed with run number 6. On his attempt to nail Rocker at home, shortstop Chris Gomez took the cutoff and threw a short hopper in front of the plate. The ball rolled out of play as Rocker upended catcher Carlos Hernandez, and the umpires sent Graffanino home. The Padres had their first error of the series, and the Braves had a 7-4 lead.
For good and for bad, Bobby Cox, the Braves' manager, sets the tone for Atlanta. After the game somebody asked him how he had reacted to Tucker's homer. His answer was telling: "I didn't have any reaction." On this night he was alone in his stoicism. All around him, everybody else on the Braves was going nuts.
Atlanta is like some immense corporation that has trouble changing speeds quickly. It's a team without music—no tunes in the clubhouse, by order of the manager—and without moods. Steadiness is next to godliness over the course of a 162-game season but of lesser value in the postseason, when emotion can make you. A generation raised on basketball sometimes forgets a salient fact about baseball: The better team doesn't always win. Not once in the 1990s has the team with the best regular-season record gone on to win the World Series. From April through September superior players will produce superior numbers, and the victories will flow. The Braves know this well. Yes, they won those 106 games in the regular season, but October is carried by intangibles. That's something the Braves, for all their front-office intelligence and on-field skill, don't always seem to fully grasp, not this year, not in years past.
The Padres are more artistic, like your neighborhood barber. He's mad at his wife, your hair suffers. The next time, the radio is playing his favorite opera, and your hair has never looked better. Music is played constantly in the San Diego clubhouse (rappin' Will Smith, not Puccini). The volume is deafening when the Padres are going well, at a whisper when they're not. Music fills the players, and it shows. In Games 1, 2 and 3, San Diego faced John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Maddux. The Padres stepped in to face perhaps the best pitching rotation ever, with their ears ringing and stomachs tingling, and proceeded to do something not just unlikely, but almost unimaginable: They won three times.
Game 1, on Oct. 7 in Atlanta, began two hours late because of rain. Scalpers were selling $45 seats for $20, and there were thousands of empty seats at Turner Field. Because of die delay the teams were never introduced in the ritualistic postseason way, and Cox later said the lack of pomp took away something from the atmosphere. The rain turned the foam tomahawks, giveaways to the Atlanta fans, into limp red sponges. When the soggy spectators went into their ancient war chant, it sounded prerecorded. As for the Braves themselves, they seemed tired, like the rain-soaked bunting in the stadium.
On talent alone Atlanta made it a game. Smoltz pitched as Smoltz does, but San Diego starter Andy Ashby pitched like Smoltz, too—better, even. Smoltz gave up two runs in seven innings; Ashby also lasted seven but allowed just one. At the end of nine the score was 2-2. Extra innings, and the stands were maybe one third filled when the Padres came to bat in the top of the 10th at well past one in the morning. Among the San Diego players there was not a hint of sluggishness, as if their watercooler had been filled with Starbucks high-test.