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The situation was desperate indeed. Here were the Atlanta Braves trying to maintain a one-game lead in the National League's West Division on the season's final day—and doing a terrible job of it. There was one out in the ninth and the Braves were trailing the Padres 5-1, having butchered the game at bat and afield. Meanwhile, the San Diego Stadium scoreboard was showing a 2-2 Dodger-Giant score in the seventh inning up at San Francisco. An Atlanta loss and an L.A. win would mean that the division title would be decided by a Monday playoff at Dodger Stadium—hardly a pleasing prospect for the Braves.
But as Jerry Royster returned to the Atlanta dugout after flying to left for the second out of the ninth, the Braves suddenly erupted in a volley of cheers and whistles. "What's going on? What's going on?" demanded Manager Joe Torre. Just this. As Royster passed Padre Catcher Terry Kennedy on his way back to the dugout, Kennedy told him that the Giants' Joe Morgan had just hit a three-run homer. Kennedy was getting his inside info from someone in the Padre dugout, where a radio was tuned in to the L.A.-San Francisco game. Royster passed on the news to his teammates, and there was instant bedlam.
"When I came up to bat," Royster explained later, "Kennedy said, 'Men on second and third for the Giants, one out.' 'Great,' I thought. I took a couple of swings and Terry said, 'Oh, no, two outs.' I figured, 'Oh, well.' Then I flied out, and as I was returning, Terry said, 'Don't worry about it—Morgan just hit a three-run homer.' "
The Braves were no longer interested in the game at hand. As Catcher Matt Sinatro fouled out to end the 5-1 loss, they retired to a lunchroom adjoining their clubhouse for a private TV viewing of the game up north. The atmosphere was by no means festive. "I was nervous as hell," said Atlanta Leftfielder Terry Harper afterward. But as the Giants kept holding off the Dodgers, the Braves' spirits rose. When the game finally ended at 3:09 PDT in a 5-3 San Francisco win, the Braves sprinted from lunchroom to clubhouse for the requisite wild celebration of cascading champagne, beer, macaroni and shaving cream.
"How to go, Little Joe!" Coach Sonny Jackson called out, in praise of Morgan, his teammate of long ago. Other Braves shouted hosannas to the entire Giant organization. But though in the end they had needed help from their fellow Dodger-haters up north, the Braves had more than earned their first divisional title since 1969. Counted out nine days earlier, when they were three games behind L.A., they had responded by winning two of three from the Padres, two of two from the Giants, one of two from the Dodgers and two more in San Diego going into the season finale. Even so, as Torre said, "It's fitting for the kind of year we had to end it in a lunchroom."
Indeed, it was an unusual year for the Braves, who were alternately America's Team and then No One's Team.
"Never, ever, have I seen a team go from 24 games over .500 to seven over to 18 over," says Atlanta Pitching Coach Rube Walker, who has witnessed 29 pennant races as player and coach. When the Braves, who won their first 13 games of the season, took a nine-game lead on July 29, they were embraced by fans all over the U.S., who saw them on owner Ted Turner's SuperStation. When Atlanta subsequently lost 11 straight and 19 of 21, dissipating their entire lead in 10 days, the fans and press began to desert them. The deluge? Not quite. On Aug. 19 Pascual Perez, a recent acquisition from the Pittsburgh farm system, was supposed to start, but he lost his way driving to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium; veteran Phil Niekro replaced him, and the Braves began a six-game winning streak. Perez was the model of good humor as teammates posted a road map with arrows pointing to the stadium over his locker. The kind of incident that unites team and city? On Sept. 6 the Braves came home in first place from a successful road trip—and drew 9,051 and 7,523 on successive nights.
"The atmosphere's a little unreal," says Pinch Hitter-First Baseman Bob Watson. "Kind of 'show me.' There's the local devotion to football, and the fans have seen a lot of losing years in baseball. So before the season they were writing us off. We won, and they jumped on the bandwagon. When we lost, they jumped right off."
The Braves argue that both the fickleness of the fans and the team's streaky play were godsends. "It's more important to learn how to lose than win—you can tell if the players overadjust or panic," says Torre, who kept the Braves from panicking by refusing to make wholesale changes during the 21-game nosedive. "It's useful later on because you can see the signs of a slump before it hits you." Some players say experiencing the streaks was like going through an early pennant race. Royster feels the Braves learned to handle pressure in a low-pressure situation. "The fans and press had a lot to do with that," he says. "There was no fan excitement, except early in the year. After our last home game nobody told us, 'Go out and win the pennant.' We just left town."
Heading into the last week, though, the pressure was intense indeed. Trailing the Dodgers by one game and facing their last seven games on the road, the Braves were struggling without their power-hitting third baseman, Bob Horner, who had hyperextended his left elbow in a freak base-running accident on Sept. 18. Horner's replacement, Royster, was playing well, but Harper, Royster's substitute in left, was staggering from one bad situation to another.