Billy Hatcher, formerly of the Pittsburgh Pirates and now of the Cincinnati Reds, smiled and thanked Larry Doughty, formerly of the Cincinnati Reds and now of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was Monday, and Hatcher, an outfielder who rarely played in Pittsburgh last season, had just homered, doubled and singled in Cincinnati's 6-3 win over the Pirates in Game 3 of the National League playoffs.
General manager Doughty, who joined the Pittsburgh organization in 1987, dealt Hatcher downriver to Cincinnati in April. It was Doughty who had helped construct much of the current Reds' team in his 17 years in Cincinnati's scouting department. "I asked Larry Doughty to trade me, and he did," Hatcher was saying. "He gave me an opportunity to play every day, and I'm very thankful for that."
You can't fully understand this series without accepting startling new evidence that suggests the Reds and the Pirates are actually the same team. It now seems that while incessantly playing each other in the 1970s—in four playoff series in identical-looking parks that opened two weeks and 295 miles apart on the banks of the Ohio River—Cincinnati and Pittsburgh blurred into a single franchise. It explains this business of neither team's appearing in the playoffs in the 1980s—they are the only two teams in the National League with that distinction. It explains why the Reds and Pirates each won six games against the other this past regular season.
It also explains why each team scored five runs in the first two games of the National League Championship Series. It explains why Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati's ace in Game 1. It explains why Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh's ace in Game 2. It explains why Reds shortstop Barry Larkin said last Friday, "Either team could have won both games." It explains why, through Monday, Cincinnati had won five times in Pittsburgh this year, and Pittsburgh had won five times in Cincinnati.
The first two games turned on the teams' respective superstars, Eric Davis of the Reds and Barry Bonds of the Pirates, who, it turns out, happen to be the same person. Both are leftfielders and the only two players ever admitted beyond the velvet ropes of the 30-50 Club, which requires members to hit 30 home runs and steal 50 bases in a single season. The club has a strict dress code, which is why both Davis and Bonds wear diamond studs in their left earlobes, tuck their ankle-length pants into hightop spikes and have portraits of themselves rendered on their wristbands. You only think you've seen these two together.
By showtime even the teams' managers were blurring their distinctions. "I'm not nervous," the ordinarily high-strung Lou Piniella insisted in the Cincinnati dugout last Thursday. "I haven't seen anyone who's liked us yet. [The Pirates] are the ones who are supposed to win."
"More power to him," said Jim Leyland, Pittsburgh's ordinarily placid manager. "I'm nervous as hell."
As the series opened last Thursday in Cincinnati, there was something to be nervous about, but it wasn't quite clear what: It was difficult to tell whether Riverfront Stadium was about to host a playoff series or a senior prom. The grounds crew grooming the field was outfitted in formal wear. (Reds owner Marge Schott's idea.) Just inside the stadium tunnel, a white van idled, with one of those professionally printed livery signs on the window to identify its passenger: SCHOTTZIE. (Marge's dog, Marge's idea.) The stadium had been festooned with enormous orange ribbons, and a bouquet of orange balloons was released after the national anthem. (The orange decor, thought at first to be a leftover from a Cincinnati Bengals party and Schott's misguided idea of a bargain—red being the Reds' primary color—turned out to be in honor of U.S. troops in the Middle East.)
Certainly Pittsburgh's starter, Bob Walk, did nothing to suggest that an athletic event was about to begin. The 6'4", 220-pound Walk can charitably be described as a dufus—shaggy, slouching, beer-bellied—seemingly incapable of performing anything more aerobic than what his surname suggests. He was 7-5 with a 3.75 ERA this year, a season divided among the starting rotation, the bullpen and the disabled list, where he twice found himself with a pulled groin.
Leyland started the 33-year-old Walk in the opener simply because it was his turn in the rotation—a move that even baffled Walk a bit. "I was thinking, Now I've got to pitch good to get him off the hook," Walk said. "I'm a [ Leyland] fan. I want him to look good."