Until game 5 on Monday afternoon in Atlanta, the National League Championship Series had developed a penchant for drama but only a nodding acquaintance with the bizarre. All that changed with the Pittsburgh Pirates' twisted 1-0 victory over the Braves in which a runner crossed home but bypassed third, a hitter was twice walked intentionally to get to an MVP candidate, a 33-year-old journeyman recorded the final four outs and a bird fed throughout on the outfield grass. "This was one of the greatest games I've ever been privileged to be a part of, and all I could think of was that bird," said Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "It was a cross between a dove and a pigeon. It was a digeon."
The Bucs winged their way back to Pittsburgh with a three-games-to-two lead despite the fact that slugging leftfielder Barry Bonds, the league's 1990 MVP and a front-runner for the award again this year, was hitless in 13 at bats with runners on, and because of the fact that a reliever named Roger Mason had gutted out a save for starter Zane Smith in Game 5. (Asked where he had been for three years before returning to the bigs this season, Mason said, "Name some places.") But there was no greater blow to the Braves than a play in the bottom of the fourth that will live long in base-running history.
Atlanta's David Justice, who had reached second on an error to start the inning, was off at the crack of Mark Lemke's two-out single to left, but as he went by the Bucs' diving third baseman Steve Buechele, Justice shortened his stride. Instead of hitting the bag with his left foot, he made an awkward swipe at it with his right. Bonds, double-clutching the ball in left as if he'd been head-faked, finally fired to the plate, though not in time to nail Justice. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh shortstop Jay Bell was waving frantically for the ball at third. "Jay can't jump, so when he got four inches off the ground, I knew something was going on," said Pittsburgh bullpen coach Rich Donnelly. Smith threw the ball, Bell caught it, and umpire Frank Pulli punched out Justice for missing the base. Said Justice, "I'm 100 percent positive—I'd put my life on it—I grazed the bag."
In the top of the fifth, Pittsburgh's Jose Lind dunked an RBI single to right off starter Tom Glavine, Smith and Mason made it stand up for the 1-0 win, and the Pirates extended the Braves' scoreless streak to 18 innings. "Hopefully we can get a run in Pittsburgh," said Atlanta catcher Greg Olson. "You can't win unless you get one of those."
The series had opened in Pittsburgh on Oct. 9 with all sorts of local bonhomie. Van Slyke—who had voiced his displeasure the day before about low turnouts at Three Rivers Stadium during last year's playoffs—came under indirect lire from Bonds. In a disjointed monologue, Bonds called Van Slyke "the great white hope" and insinuated that racism was the reason why the Bucs had signed Van Slyke to a long-term deal but not Pittsburgh's two black outfielders, Bobby Bonilla and Bonds. That threesome, the heart of the Pirate order, formed a Bermuda triangle' (.190, five RBIs) in last fall's six-game loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the championship series. Bonds's remarks didn't exactly sound like an all-for-one rallying cry.
But a record crowd of 57,347 turned out at Three Rivers for Game 1 and happily watched as Pirate starter Doug Drabek baffled the Braves with his five-pitch repertoire to craft a 3-0 lead through the top of the sixth. However, with two out in the bottom of the inning, Drabek bone-headedly tried to extend an RBI double into a triple; not only was he thrown out, but he also strained his left hamstring in the process. The injury forced him to leave the game and miss his Game 5 start. "God love him, he's such a great competitor," said Bell. Bell's initial thought as Drabek rounded second and headed for third had been less genial: What an idiot.
But Van Slyke had already provided the margin in Pittsburgh's eventual 5-1 victory by blasting a couple of great white ropes—a solo shot in the first and an RBI double in the third—off Atlanta ace Glavine. Afterward, Andy Van Cronkite, as his name appeared on masking tape above his locker, nimbly deflected questions about his other label, given him by Bonds. "It gives me something to sign next to my name besides a Bible verse and number," Van Slyke said.
Bonds was slightly less diplomatic when, on his way to the shower, he spied a knot of reporters near Van Slyke's locker. "Hey, Andy, don't listen to those——, Great White," he shouted.
"Don't worry, I'm protecting you," said Van Slyke.
"——them guys, they're always starting something," Bonds said.