COMMENTARY : The Night the Lights Went on in Georgia
What a thing baseball has. What a thing. We only need October to remind us. Baseball has what football and basketball will never have. It has October when it’s hard to breathe. Make it a day in May and it’s just another baseball game. Make it a night in October and you remember it forever.
It’s 10:21 on a chilly October night, a night with diamonds dancing in the dark, those diamonds flashbulbs glittering, fans wanting a piece of this moment to hold in their hands.
Baseball does this. No other game, only baseball brings us to a moment when every breath is done at a cost. Only baseball in October gives us a story whose silences are as thrilling as the thunders.
You can have Michael Jordan in the air. You can have Emmitt Smith on the ground. They’re fine and mighty and they move us to wonder at what they can do. What they cannot do is what only baseball does. When baseball comes to October, we feel heartbeats in our fingertips and we remind ourselves to take a breath, a deep one.
We see Atlanta’s big man bringing ninth-inning heat to the Clevelands with the world championship for the taking. We see the big man and we know the possibilities: One mistake, it’s tied; one hero’s swing, it’s tied. Almost by instinct, for we learn this child’s game without knowing how we learn it--by instinct, we know the weight of the moment.
The world championship. Who would have thought it? This is Atlanta, once woebegone, Ted Turner’s baseball toy, which once had a blind pinch-hitter (but only in one eye), Atlanta for whom Joe Pepitone refused to play because he had misplaced his new toupee.
Mark Wohlers, the big man, has the ball in his glove. He takes off his cap, a nervous habit, and runs his pitching hand across his hair. He puts the ball in his hand, showing the split-finger grip to the hitter, and now he lets his arms fall free and loose and almost casually, the big man loving the heat and bringing the heat.
“It’s what you dream of,” Wohlers says later. Closers live for the moment when they are gunslingers moving down dusty streets with all eyes on them. “You want the ball then.”
You want it when the world championship is there. You want it when your team is a dynasty in full flower: three league pennants in four full seasons; three or four Hall of Fame candidates on the roster; an extraordinary minor league system built by a wealthy and zealous organization; a front office that sees diamonds where other folks see coal.
You want the ball, if you’re a closer, when the men in front of you have done wonders. Greg Maddux pitched a two-hitter to open the Series. This night Tom Glavine allowed only one hit in eight innings before telling Manager Bobby Cox he should come out. He had thrown too many bad pitches in the eighth inning, pitches that worked maybe because luck was on the pitcher’s side on this night to remember.
It’s 10:23 and Wohlers brings heat to a Cleveland hitter who can only foul it weakly to the wrong field. One out.
It’s 10:26, the count 1-and-2 to a pinch-hitter, Wohlers daring the enemy to handle his best breaking stuff as well as the 96 mph fastball. The hitter manages only a lazy fly to center. Two out.
On a day in May, with other things to do, fans head for the exits when it comes to two outs in the ninth inning. On a night in October, with nothing more important than a third out, fans stand and shout and stomp their feet in thunderous anticipation of the drama’s denouement.
It’s 10:27. The umpire wants a look at the baseball, so Wohlers flips it to him, underhanded, and the umpire, satisfied, tosses it back to the big man. In May, these nuances are nuisances. In October, they bring into the drama anyone who ever held a baseball and wondered where it might go if thrown.
With the ball in his hand, Wohlers turns his back to the Cleveland hitter. He scratches at the mound’s dirt with his left foot. Now he faces the man he must beat, and now his arms swing up from his sides, and now diamonds dance in the night again, flashbulbs glittering, everyone wanting to go to a scrapbook with the grandchildren and say, “All these years later, it’s like it’s happening now. Look at my arms. Goosebumps.”
In the night, Ted Turner would stand on the infield grass and pose for pictures with his groundcrew. He would put the world championship trophy atop his head, a goofy thing, a wonderful thing. We smell champagne in the clubhouse and we feel champagne and we hear an old Atlanta scout, Paul Snyder, whose work helped build the team: “I’m weak in the knees, is how I’m feeling.”
We see the center fielder Marquis Grissom. The 14th child of 15 born to parents who grew up picking cotton half a century ago, Grissom grew up playing ball 10 minutes from the Atlanta ballpark. This is the stuff of a boy’s dreams. “And my boy,” he says, meaning the boy on his shoulders, D’Monte, 3, “is going to play his ball here, too.”
We see Bobby Cox, who was the Atlanta manager 17 seasons ago, a season after a 61-101 year, a manager saddled with players who couldn’t play, who made that outfit respectable only in time to be fired by Turner, who at the firing news conference said he really admired Cox: “If I hadn’t just fired Bobby, I’d hire him.”
In time, Turner found a way to do just that. And we hear Cox in the champagne clubhouse saying, “Sure, Tommy Glavine has pitched that well before. Every time out in ’91. A machine.”
It’s 10:27 and Cleveland’s hitter has put up a flyball toward left center field. And now the ball is falling, and now diamonds dance in the night, the falling ball a tiny dot to be pointed out on fading photographs to grandchildren asking how the great night happened. What a thing baseball has. What a precious thing.