The Most Depressing Loss Ever: The Pirates Lose to the Braves in the 1992 National League Championship Series

Good stuff here from Anthony. I remember this game well even though I was not even 10 at the time and didn't care about the either the Pirates or Braves. (I was, and still am, a Reds fan). But my brother was a huge Pirates fan because way back when, he somehow had chosen Barry Bonds as his favorite player. Hey, he was a young kid then. To his credit -- at least in my opinion -- he stuck with him until the day he retired. Anyway, I now do follow the Pirates because a friend, Ross Ohlendorf is in the starting rotation. We'll get him on here or at SB Nation Pittsburgh for an interview sometime soon. The Pirates are undefeated at 1-0 as of tonight! - Michael B. -

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In honor of the start of the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates baseball season, I thought I'd take a small break from football and talk about the most depressing loss I have ever experienced as a fan -- the Pittsburgh Pirates 1992 National League Championship Series loss to the Atlanta Braves. I know the Steelers have always been my first love, but believe it or not, I have a big soft spot in my heart for the Pittsburgh Pirates. And there was a time, way back in the late 80's and early 90's, when I actually loved Major League Baseball.

The Pirates had a young and exciting team and employed some of the best players in the game. I rarely missed a Pirates game on television, and when the game was only on the radio, I would sit and listen to the whole thing. Can you imagine that?

Sid_bream_medium

I never did have great timing when becoming a diehard fan. I fell in-love with the Steelers right before Super Bowl XIV and that was nice and all, but it was also the beginning of the end as far as their 70's dynasty was concerned. Same thing with the Pirates. They won the World Series in 1979 led by Willie "Pop" Stargell, and I followed them somewhat in the early 80's when they were still contenders. But it wasn't until 1984 that I became permanently invested in the team emotionally. It was also the first of three straight last place finishes for the ball club. The only reminder of that epic "We Are Family" '79 season was their funky array of uniforms. They must of had 17 different combinations of black and gold.

1985 was rock-bottom for the team. Not only were they having one of their worst seasons on the field (104 losses), but they were doing so with washed-up has-beens like Steve Kemp and Joggin George Hendrick. Several Pirates were also losers off the field and were implicated in the infamous baseball drug trials in September of  that year. There were even rumors that the team would relocate to Denver.

It was a horrible time to be a Pirates' fan.

However, in 1986, things started to change. The charismatic Syd Thrift was brought in as the new general manager and one of his first duties was to hire the then unknown Jim Leyland to be the new field manager.

Thrift immediately started to revamp the Pirates system by adding young players like Sid Bream, RJ Reynolds, Bobby Bonilla and Doug Drabek to the ranks, and along with future superstar Barry Bonds, the fans at least had some hope for the future.  Leyland brought a new energy to the clubhouse and even though the team would, yet again, finish in last place in '86, it was becoming quite obvious that Jim Leyland was no loser.

Just before the '87 season, Thrift dealt away popular catcher Tony Pena to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Andy Van Slyke, catcher Mike Lavalliere, and pitcher Mike Dunne. The trade immediately started to pay dividends as Van Slyke and Lavalliere became part of a young and exciting ballclub. Despite the influx of promising young talent, the Pirates were still mired in last place in the late summer of '87 before calling a players only meeting in-which they set a goal of winning 25 of their last 38 games.

The team immediately got hot and even exceeded their mark by winning 27 of 38 down the stretch and finished 80-82 and in 4th place in the National League East.

There was great optimism for the team in 1988 and they didn't disappoint, finishing second in the division behind their long time rivals, the New York Mets. The day they officially clinched 2nd place, believe it or not, there was a wild celebration in the clubhouse complete with the now famous Jim Leyland "tears of joy".

Because of injuries, the club suffered a setback in 1989, finishing a disappointing fifth place in the division. But by 1990 the Pittsburgh Pirates had arrived. The team would fight with the Mets tooth-and-nail all season long and down the stretch. Finally, in Busch Stadium on September 30th, the Pirates clinched their first NL East title since 1979 behind a masterful pitching performance by Cy Young Award Winner Doug Drabek,.

Seeing the Pirates celebrate that day in St. Louis is a moment I will never forget. 

Pittsburgh came up short to the Cincinnati Reds in a hard-fought NLCS, but there was still much hope for the future. This team hadn't even hit its stride.

The Pirates proved to be even better in 1991, winning the NL East by a whopping 14 games. At the start of that year's playoffs, the team was the consensus favorite to go all the way. Unfortunately, they came up against another young team in the NLCS -- the surprising Atlanta Braves. Atlanta had gone from worst to first in the NL West in '91.

Despite holding a 3-2 series lead with the last two-games at Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates didn't score a single run in either Games 6 or 7. For the second year in a row, they had to watch another team celebrate the National League pennant, this time on their own field.

The Pirates were two-time NL East winners, but weren't expected to have the same kind of success in 1992. All-Star Bobby Bonilla left as a free agent to sign with the hated Mets, and 20-game winner John Smiley was shipped off to the Minnesota Twins in Spring Training.  But the team wasn't done. 1992 was again magical. Behind Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek, and Andy Van Slyke, the Pirates won the NL East for a third year in a row.

The Braves won the NL West again and, this time, were considered huge favorites over the Pirates in the NLCS. I was attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in  the Fall of '92, and like a lot of times in my youth, I could hardly concentrate on school because of sports. I had postseason fever. I just knew that the team would turn the tables on the Braves this time.

Things didn't start off so well for the Buccos. They lost the first two games in Atlanta by scores of 5-1 and 13-5 and the only thing even remotely memorable about Game 2 was seeing KDKA reporter Harold Hayes standing out on the sidewalk, part of a crowd watching the contest on a TV through a department store window . 

The series looked like a complete mismatch. The experts were now predicting a sweep.

Game 3 would be back at Three Rivers Stadium and the afternoon of the game, I was walking to my bus stop in Downtown Pittsburgh when a kid wearing a Pirates hat was knocked over by a bike-messenger while crossing the street. Everyone was okay, but talk about a bad omen.

The Pirates were very vulnerable at  this point, and even the fans were coming under criticism because a few thousand seats were empty for Game 7 of the previous year's NLCS. The people mocking the Pirates fans the most were the Braves broadcast crew. I never really did like the Braves announcers. They were pretty pathetic in the mid-to-late 80's when the Braves were a laughing-stock, but now that their team won a couple of division titles, they thought Atlanta was baseball-central. Three Rivers Stadium was huge, especially for baseball, and the city of Pittsburgh was relatively small. Needless to say, filling nearly 60,000 seats at Three Rivers was much tougher than filling 45,000 down in Atlanta. 

Karma would prove to be a __________ years later when Braves fans would come under the same criticism for lack of fan support in the postseason.

But I digress.

Back to '92. The Pirates fans were challenged and they came out in full-force. Three Rivers stadium wasn't this loud since the days of Brashaw-to-Swann. There wasn't an empty seat in the house and the air was simply electric. 

The only thing that stood in the way of the Braves taking total control of the series was rookie knuckle-ball sensation Tim Wakefield.  Wakefield went 8-1 for the Pirates after being called up mid-season, and was now a key member of their starting rotation come playoff time. Wakefield proved to be masterful on this night, but the Pirates offense was once again stifled. Former Pirate Sid Bream opened up the scoring with a home run, but catcher Don Slaught answered with one of his own. I was watching the game with my brother and we both went nuts when Slaught went deep. The Pirates scratched and clawed their way to a 3-2 win with Wakefield going the distance and getting Bream to pop up on the in-field for the final out.

I don't think I was ever as pumped up and excited for the Pirates as I was that night.

The next night, the Braves did take control of the series with John Smoltz not only pitching a great game, but also getting a couple of timely hits. The Pirates offense, led by 1990 and 1992 NL mvp Barry Bonds, could do very little. In fact, Bonds, Van Slyke, and Bonilla ('90 and '91) were mostly non-factors when it came to crunch-time in the postseason. Up to that point, Bonds hadn't even had a postseason extra-base in his entire career. It was so bad that after Game 4, KDKA's Bob Pompeani quipped: "The way Bonds is going right now, he couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat."

It looked like the Pirates were going down in five games, especially with Steve Avery on the mound for the Braves.  Avery was the MVP of the previous year's NLCS and with as putrid as the Pirates' offense was, everyone feared that Three Rivers would again be the host of another Braves' National League championship celebration.

However, things would be different on this night. The Pirates knocked out Avery in the first inning, scoring four runs. Bob Walk pitched a complete game three-hitter and the Pirates won easily, 7-1.  Bonds even ended his extra-base hit drought with a double.

It was on this night that I had decided that the stars were aligned for Pittsburgh. Clearly fate was on the side of the Buccos. You see, Bob Walk, the veteran right-hander, was summoned to start Game 5 even though he was moved to the bullpen for the series. It was a very similar scenario to the 1979 World Series when veteran Jim Rooker was chosen to pitch for the Pirates in Game 5 at Three Rivers stadium with the team facing elimination. Rooker kept the Pirates in the game and they eventually pulled away. What was the score of that game? 7-1! The Pirates were going to have to win Games 6 and 7 on the road just like they had to do in '79.

I could not wait for Game 6. Tim Wakefield started for Pittsburgh and, once again, proved to be masterful. The Pirates offense continued its hot-streak and chased another Braves pitcher from the game early. This time it was Tom Glavine who was gone after the Pirates put up an 8-spot in the 2nd. Bonds started the inning off with his first and only homerun in the postseason as a member of the Pirates. Jay Bell finished the inning off with a three-run shot and the Pirates were in total control, 8-0, and would go on to win 13-4 as Wakefield pitched his second complete game of the series. Funny story: After Bell hit his three-run shot, I grabbed a foam basketball and threw it at my sister who was just walking into the room. Why did I do that? Just being a jerk, I guess. The playoffs bring out the stupid in us all, right?

I was now more confident than ever that the Pirates would win the series. Sitting in class at the Art Institute that day, I fantasized about the Buccos finally shedding the label of "postseason choke artists" and celebrating an NL crown that night at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.

The game was in the responsible hands of Doug Drabek, who almost always came through in the big games. Atlanta countered with the right-handed Smoltz. With this particular matchup, many wondered if Leyland would go with his normal platoon lineup against right-handers that consisted of Orlando Merced, Cecil Espy, and Mike Lavalliere. Or would he instead stick with his usual lineup against left-handers, one that consisted of Gary Redus, Lloyd Mcclendon, and Don Slaught -- the lineup, mind you, that was red-hot and responsible for the biggest outbursts of the series. In-fact, Mcclendon owned Braves pitching pretty much his entire career. However, Leyland stuck with his season-long plan and started his normal platoon line-up that he used against right-handers.

I thought that if the Pirates could get off to a fast start, the Braves and their fans would be deflated. Pittsburgh did load the bases in the first inning, but could only score one-run on an Orlando Merced sacrifice fly. For whatever reason, I had a tough  time watching this game. Right after the first inning, I left my grandparents house and walked the streets near my house only occasionally checking in to get an update. The Pirates didn't do much more on offense, but the Braves did nothing and Pittsburgh took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the 9th inning.

By this time, I was back at my grandparents watching the game with my uncle and grandfather. I remember watching the commercials and thinking that in just a few minutes, I would get to see the Pirates clinch the NL pennant. I'll never forget that moment, and those feelings, as long as I live.

Terry Pendleton started the 9th for the Braves with a double. I must confess, I chickened out and left. I couldn't watch. I went over my mom's and waited about ten minutes before turning her tv to the game. I was stunned to see that the bases were loaded with nobody out. What I missed was an error by the spectacular, gold-glove second baseman Jose "Chico" Lind and a walk to Sid Bream. Drabek was removed from the game and replaced by Stan Belinda, their side-winding closer.

Belinda got one out on a Ron Gant sacrifice fly to make it 2-1, but walked Damon Berryhill in a controversial at-bat. Randy Marsh had replaced an ill John Mcsherry behind the plate earlier in the game and looked to be squeezing Belinda with a narrow strike zone.

Belinda got Brian Hunter to pop out and now it was down to the little used Francisco Cabrera.  Unfortunately, Cabrera smacked a 2-1 pitch into left-center field and Sid Bream, of all people, beat Barry Bonds' throw to the plate, and in the process, demolished the collective heart of the city of Pittsburgh with the series clinching run.

Being the wuss that I can sometimes be in crucial sports moments, I turned the television off after the Berryhill walk and missed the heartbreaking moment. Instead, after waiting a few minutes, I turned the radio on to the voice of Lanny Frattare sadly announcing that the Atlanta Braves were once again National League champions.

I started to cry. I remember going downstairs to the living room and saying to my mom, "I can't function. It's horrible."

I went back over my grandparents and was beside myself. My uncle overheard me emotionally say, "They're never going to win again!" He made fun of me for years.

I wasn't the only one brought to tears. KDKA anchorwoman, the late Patti Burns, had mascara smeared all over her face, a sure sign that she was crying her eyes out right before she had to go on the air that evening.

When I woke up the next day, it was the most depressed I had and have ever been the day after a disappointing loss. It felt like someone died, and I'm not just saying that for effect. That's literally how I felt. Riding the bus to the Art Institute that morning, you could hear a pin drop. That same vibe permeated all of downtown -- it was like people were in mourning.

In class, all anyone could talk about was the agonizing defeat, and one student shared a story about hearing moans, cries and expletives from every dorm room in his building the second Sid Bream was called safe at the plate the night before.

Later that night, still depressed, I tuned into Sportsbeat with Stan Savran and Guy Junker and listened as one fan after another called in to describe just how dejected they were. Beano Cook came on the show and said that, in his opinion, it was the most devastating loss in professional sports history.

Here we are almost two-decades later, and I still can't watch that game without cringing. There are Youtube links of the Cabrera hit that I refuse to click on.

To this day, anytime someone says, "Go Steelers!" before a big playoff game, I think it's bad luck because the day of game 7 in '92, my brother and I were talking on the phone about the huge game that night and he ended the conversation by saying, "Go Bucs!"

You know the story of the Pirates since then: 18 straight losing seasons. Some say that when Sid Bream slid-safely across home-plate that night in October of 1992, it was the night baseball died in Pittsburgh.  I don't know about that, but I do wonder if I'll ever have a chance, as a fan, to see the Pirates make up for that miserable evening 19 years ago.

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