Over the weekend and into Monday, stories about Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS were inescapable. This is logical. It's one of the most memorable games in recent baseball history, and Sunday was the 20th anniversary of it. We as Pirate fans have a visceral reaction to this kind of thing, but the reality is that that game embodies everything that people love about post-season baseball and the memory of it is only enhanced by the complete destruction of the Pittsburgh Pirates as a respectable baseball entity that followed it. It is, essentially, the game that broke the Pirates and launched the Atlanta Braves into a different stratosphere. Of course people were going to mark the anniversary.
I haven't read many of those remembrances. I've talked and written about the game ad nauseum. My own Game Seven story was immortalized for the whole world to read at Grantland this summer in what was supposed to be the closing act of an exorcism, and yet it's all still relevant in October. I had no intention of wallowing in the misery of that game again.
Baseball, however, rarely lets us forget. Last night, as I prepared for my committee meeting tomorrow, I watched the Tigers and Yankees. The Leyland-managed Tigers built a 2-0 lead through eight innings on the back of a gutty performance by their ace. Justin Verlander didn't quite have his best stuff last night -- his breaking pitches weren't as sharp as they normally are and he wasn't missing bats the way that he normally does. That didn't matter, because he's Justin Verlander and because he's Justin Verlander the Yankees had two hits and no runs through eight innings. He entered the ninth having racked up quite a pitch count, though, and it was apparent early in the ninth inning that even though his fastball was hitting 99 mph that he was gassed.
Stop me if you've heard all of this before.
Earlier this week, Jim Leyland gave a press conference announcing that Jose Valverde was going to be removed from the closer's role indefinitely given his struggles in the early portion of these playoffs. If you haven't been watching, Valverde rapidly turned a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth of Game Four of the ALDS into a 4-3 loss. Three days later, he coughed up a 4-0 lead to the Yankees in Game One of the ALCS. The Tigers still won the game, but it took 14 innings and what should've been an easy win turned into a bullpen-draining marathon.
The result of the two meltdowns was a weird press conference where Leyland both defended traditional closer usage and made a compelling case against it, announcing that he'd be abandoning it for the playoffs. It's debateable whether or not Leyland's doing this (he's more or less used Phil Coke as a closer in the two games since then but in both games Coke initially entered because the Yankees had lefties due up), but the larger point is that Leyland's abadoned his struggling closer, rather than sticking blindly with him.
Let's go back to last night.
Verlander gave up a home run to the punchless Eduardo Nunez on a hanging breaking ball. Leyland left him in face Brett Gardner and it took Verlander eight pitches to put Gardner away. His pitch count hit 132. Leyland could've left his struggling starter in a batter too long. He could've gone out and put his unreliable closer in the game. In a situation with very little room for error, a mistake would've let the Yankees cut the Tigers' series lead to 2-1 with CC Sabathia waiting in the wings for Game Four. Leyland made neither mistake this time around, and now he's on the verge of his third World Series.
This is the sort of thing that occasionally strikes me. It's been 20 years since the Pirates were last relevant. In the 20 years since then, Jim Leyland left Pittsburgh. He went to Florida, then to Colorado. He took six years off, then came back to manage in Detroit. This is going to be his third World Series in a timespan in which the Pirates have had zero winning seasons. Put simply, Jim Leyland has has a full career since he left Pittsburgh, and the Pirates have barely budged.
I'm not one of those Pirate fans that spends time wishing Leyland were back with the Pirates (show me a team that needs a new manager and I'll show you a team that's got problems that run much deeper than the manager), but I do root for Leyland. Leyland's closely associated with his mentor Tony La Russa and La Russa's one of my least favorite people in recent baseball history, but for me Leyland's qualities come from all of the ways he's different than La Russa. Leyland's cracks and flaws have always been on display for the world. He smokes in the dugout. He cries all the time. At the end of a terrible two-season stretch in 1998 and 1999 in Florida and Colorado, he looked like he was two decades older than his 54 years.
I'd never blame even the closest post-season loss on a manager; it's easy to pin That Loss on Leyland for leaving Drabek in too long or going to Belinda or leaving Belinda in for too long, but it's easier to pin it on Jose Lind for his error or for the team simply not executing at the level they should've in a seven game series. Even with Leyland's mistakes in the ninth inning of Game Seven, the Pirates should've won that series. The same would've been true if the Tigers had lost last night with Verlander or Valverde on the mound. They didn't, though, because Leyland's a very different manager in 2012 than he was in 1992. He's moved on, even if we Pirate fans haven't been able to.
When Leyland was in Pittsburgh, he rarely had one guy who was the closer, at least in the sense where there was one guy who was getting almost all the save opportunities--except for one year with Jim Gott and the following season with Bill Landrum, the saves were always spread around. In '92, Belinda only had about 40% of the team's saves. I'd say that might be down to Belinda--I seem to remember reading where Leyland questioned whether Stan had the "closer's makeup"--but, with the possible exception of Gott, not having the one go-to reliever was a pretty consistent pattern.
I was at games 4 and 5 of NLCS and had box seats to games 1 and 2 of the World Series. I had never been to a big time sporting event so this would have been one of those of events. When Bream was called safe I turned off the TV and went to bed. My fiance, now wife, looked at me stunned and asked if I was even going to watch the replay. I said that the call was made and it would never change no matter what the replay showed.
I didn't watch anything about the game for twenety years. Finally this past summer MLB network did some sort of countdown of top playoff games. I got sucked into it and liked how they brought in players for their perspective. Since this game had been so personal for me and the Pirates have been irrelevant ever since and since baseball coverge seems to revolve around about four large market, east coast teams I actually didn't even think aboout this game being in the countdown. Naturally I was astounded that this came was number two.
After twenty years the scars had healed enought to watch it and I got to really appreciate that this was right up their with Fisk waving it fair. I had never thought of it in that perspective. I was kind of proud that even though there has been two decades of losing, the Pirates played in a game of such magnitude. The ending still really sucks.
My one belief in all those years, and still hasn't changed, is that if the Pirates had a closer they would have played in at least one, if not more, WS during that three year span. No Nasty Boys Trio, no Alejandro Peña, no Jeff Reardon. (Note to self: Check into availability of domain name, "Where Have You Gone Kent Tekulve")