Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Most Damaging Loss in Sports History?

The day was October 14, 1992. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves faced a game 7 at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. The Pirates had come back to tie the series after being in a 3-1 hole. The Pirates took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth off the strength of Andy Van Slyke and Orlando Merced RBI’s. Starting pitcher Doug Drabek shut out the Braves through 8 innings, and was showing no signs of slowing down.

What happened in the next 20 minutes would irreversibly change the dynamic of the Pirates franchise, and would perhaps be the most damaging 20 minutes to any particular team in sports history.

The inning started off with a Terry Pendelton double. The trouble was exacerbated by a muffed grounder by second baseman Jose Lind, leaving runners at the corners. Drabek, nearing in on the 130 pitch mark, issued a walk to Sid Bream, ending Drabek’s night. Reliable reliever Stan Belinda came in to try to stop the bleeding.

Belinda settles things down a bit, and gets slugger Ron Gant to hit a deep sacrifice fly to left, scoring Pendleton, but tallying the all-important first out. Belinda then walks catcher Damon Berryhill, loading the bases for the pinch hitter, Brian Hunter. Belinda was able to get Hunter to pop out harmlessly to Jose Lind. 2 outs. Bases still loaded.

And strolling up to the plate came the player that even today, the mere vocalization of his name conjures up memories of the painful moment, Francisco Cabrera. For Pirates fans, the memory comes back in pieces. Cabrera works the count to 2-1. Belinda gears up, looks to throw his sinker to induce the ground ball. Cabera connects. Left field. Justice scores. Bonds gets it. Bream rounds third. The throw. LaValliere and Bream dive for home.


The lasting image of David Justice wrapping his arms around a collapsed Sid Bream.

And here we sit. Nearly 18 years later.

Both the stadiums that held that series are now gone. For the Pirates, the memory has continued to haunt the new one.

The Pirates were never the same. After that 1992 season, many key players such as 1992 NL MVP Barry Bonds and game 7 starter Doug Drabek. 1993 began the teams current losing streak. One that doesn’t look to end anytime soon.

Who knows what would have happened had Bream been one step slower. Perhaps that core 1992 would have stayed. Perhaps nothing would have been different. We just don’t know. But what we do know is that 1992 was the last competitive team the Pirates have fielded. Those who graduate high school this year were not even alive to see it.

It is for the last 18 years that I would label the 1992 NLCS Game 7 the single most damaging moment to any particular team in sports history.

Much as we try to forget, the ghost of Francisco Cabrera continues to haunt us all.

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