Doug Drabek walked to the middle of the diamond, picked up the baseball and climbed atop the mound to begin his practice pitches. It was the ninth time he made the trip that night, and it would prove to be his last. As he threw to Mike Lavalliere, the air was filled with a hum of magnitude. Drabek was about to pitch the most important inning of his life. Three outs, and the Pirates were off to the World Series for the first time in 13 years. Three outs, and the postseason disappointments from the previous two seasons were just a memory. He had been dominant through eight innings, and his team led 2-0 as the final inning began. Only three more outs.
The first batter was Terry Pendleton, o for 3 to that point against Drabek. Batting left-handed against the right-hander, he lifted a ball down the right field line. Cecil Espy, who had entered the game as a pinch runner an inning earlier, made a futile attempt to run down the high fly, and Pendleton ended up on second base. That brought David Justice to the plate. Justice waited in the batter’s box in his customary open stance, his hands raised above his head in preparation. Drabek toed the rubber in the stretch, and glanced at Pendleton to his right. He turned his attention back to Justice and delivered. The pitch was a curveball, and Drabek painted it on the outside corner. Justice hammered the top half of the falling baseball, grounding it to second. The Pirates’ infielders were playing Justice in an exaggerated shift to pull, so second baseman Jose Lind was forced to move to his right to field the ball. The sure handed Lind reached down in an attempt to backhand the grounder, and disaster struck. Thousands of Pirate fans gasped as the ball glanced off the tip of his glove and rolled into shallow right field. Lind rushed to gather it, but had no play. Pendleton moved to third, and Justice now stood at first base.
Years later, Drabek still seemed baffled by the error. “If someone said, ‘All right, you’re going out for the ninth inning, a chance to get the first guy out and go to the World Series, where do you want the ball hit to?’ I would have picked Jose Lind. There’s no doubt about it.” After walking Sid Bream, Drabek’s night was finished. He had given all he had to keep the Braves off the board, but now he could only sit and watch. Stan Belinda entered the game in an effort to close the door on Atlanta’s season. The first Brave he faced was Ron Gant. Belinda offered a fastball down the heart of the plate, and Gant jumped on it. As the ball soared into the Georgia sky, the fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium jumped to their feet in anticipation. The baseball fought against the air’s friction, trying desperately to clear the outfield wall. However, its fight would prove to be unsuccessful. Leftfielder Barry Bonds backpedaled onto the warning track, catching the ball with his left foot inches from the tall blue fence. Pendleton scampered home with the Braves’ first run, and the Pirates’ lead was cut in half.
Catcher Damon Berryhill stepped in, and after some questionable calls by home plate umpire Randy Marsh, trotted to first with a walk. Brian Hunter, pinch-hitting for Mark Lemke, popped to Jay Bell for the second out. That set the stage: game seven, two outs, bases loaded, Pirates leading by one run. Braves manager Bobby Cox sent his final position player, Francisco Cabrera, in to pinch-hit for pitcher Jeff Reardon. After falling behind 2-0, Belinda offered a fastball inside, which Cabrera lined sharply foul down the leftfield line. Belinda came set in the stretch. Cabrera stood poised in the batter’s box. LaValliere set up on the inner half of the plate. Belinda kicked his leg high in the air and delivered a two-seam fastball. It sailed outside, well off the plate, but Cabrera swung. Somehow, he got around on the ball and ripped it to the left side of the infield. Bell uselessly dashed to his right, the ball touching the ground several feet from his reach. Out of habit, he jogged toward third and helplessly watched the play unfold. Justice scored to tie the game. Bonds, shading near the line, sprinted toward the bounding ball. He scooped it up moments before Bream rounded third base. Suddenly, this team sport was reduced to only four people. Barry Bonds trying desperately to get the ball to home plate. Sid Bream running as fast as his damaged legs could carry him. Mike LaVallierre waiting in anticipation of the baseball’s arrival. Randy Marsh, preparing to make the biggest call of his life. All others in attendance, including the players on the field, could only be spectators.
Bonds desperately heaved the ball toward the plate, the hopes of every Pirate fan resting on the hurtling white sphere. Bream raced home in slow motion, frantically trying to reach his destination before the baseball. The throw beat the runner, but it was a few feet to LaVallierre’s right. He lunged back toward the plate, but Bream’s foot slid across an instant before his mitt made contact. Instantly, pandemonium erupted in the stadium. Bream did not have a chance to move before Justice, and then the remainder of the team, pounced on him in jubilation.
Amid the ecstatic celebration, nine lonely men watched speechlessly from the diamond. The Pirate players looked around at each other, unsure of what to do. Bonds, resting on a knee after his futile throw, slowly rose to his feet and began walking to the dugout. Most of his teammates did the same. Andy Van Slyke sat in centerfield, the back of his cap pushed up and the brim partially covering his eyes. His arms rested on his knees as he stared aimlessly at nothing. He was frozen by the shock of the disastrous loss.
It was over. The team knew this was their final chance at the World Series, and in a few seconds, a sure win had evaporated into the Atlanta air. In the offseason, Bonds and Drabek left as free agents. Lind was traded to Kansas City in November. LaVallierre was released the following spring. The team went with a youth movement, and has not had a winning season since that infamous night. That was exactly fifteen years ago today.