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The National League playoffs seemed like a can’t-miss proposition for baseball. The American League playoffs lacked their hoped-for drama—at least, until Chicago captured two games in Toronto—so by comparison, the NL playoffs were exciting before either team stepped onto the field.
The NL offered the two-time defending league champion Atlanta Braves, unquestionably the best team in baseball at the end of the regular season, one game better than the San Francisco Giants in the NL West standings, and light years ahead of everybody else.
Atlanta sluggers led the NL in home runs, and the pitching staff, featuring four otherworldly starters, posted the lowest earned run average in the league. Ten games behind the Giants on July 22, Atlanta rallied to a 51-17 record after acquiring slugger Fred McGriff from the San Diego Padres, showing an all-too-rare combination of smarts, heart, and talent throughout the organization. (Full disclosure: This columnist occasionally works for Turner Broadcasting System, which owns the Braves.)
After two straight World Series losses that led some to dismiss them as the Buffalo Bills of baseball, the Braves have unabashedly declared that they will consider anything short of a world championship a disappointment.
“We came into the spring training and on the very first day we said, “We want to win the World Series.’ That’s no secret,” ace left-hander Tom Glavine, a 20-game winner for the last three seasons, declared after his first career playoff victory put Atlanta up two games to one in the best-of-seven series. “This coming-close stuff doesn’t cut it anymore. We know we have to win one [World Series] to get this team the recognition it deserves and wants.”
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s NL East counterparts, the Philadelphia Phillies, look like they’re trying to get directions to county beer-ball finals. First baseman John Kruk is a hillbilly with a big gut, a knack for hitting, and a major-league sense of humor. “I don’t think we’re going to be intimidated or frightened,” Kruk said before the series began. “It’s a game. Who gives a damn? If you win, you go on. If you lose, you go home. That’s not bad choices.”
After finishing last a year ago, the Phillies muscled their way to the NL East title, leading all but one day of the season. They scored the most runs in the NL, more than any team in the majors except the Detroit Tigers, and they did it with style.
If the Braves are spit and polish, the Phillies are spit and chaw. Center-fielder Lenny Dykstra, the Phillies’ leadoff hitter and team leader, always has a cheek bulging with tobacco (it’s not betel nut) and also leads the league in uniform soil, inspiring the nickname “team of dustiny.”
The Phils have also been called throwbacks to the Gashouse Gang: the talented, scrappy St. Louis Cardinals of the ’30s featuring Dizzy Dean, Ducky Medwick (who spiked Detroit’s third baseman in the 1934 World Series with the Cards ahead 8-0, because that’s the way he played the game), and Pepper Martin.
“We’re throwbacks,” Kruk says, “thrown back by other organizations.” Twenty of the 25 Phillies on the playoff roster—including all of the team’s pitchers—started their pro careers with other teams. Only two Phillies remain from June 1988, when General Manager Lee Thomas (who has made 64 deals during his tenure) took over the team.
“We’re a bunch of gypsies, tramps, and thieves,” says closer Mitch Williams, after surviving an error that sent the opener into extra innings and then committing his own miscue to make Game 4 more exciting.
Pitcher Curt Schilling, who fanned the first Braves he faced in the playoff opener, says, “We’re nothing but a big bowl of flakes.” All of the Phillies, including Manager Jim Fregosi, have played up their underdog status and their wild and crazy image, though Fregosi doesn’t want the image to obscure their talent. “If crazy is running out ground balls, playing hard, and getting the uniform dirty, then yeah, they’re crazy.”
Dykstra, whose fusillades of tobacco juice led one rival player to ask for center field to be declared a toxic waste zone, furthered the image when he smashed up his car—and catcher Darren Daulton—while driving drunk after Kruk’s bachelor party in 1991. But Dykstra also emphasizes that there’s more to the Phillies than meets some eyes. “I may look like I just go out there and let fly, but I’ve really got a plan,” says Dykstra, who is one of the few Phillies with post-season experience (as a New York Met in 1986 and 1988). “The difference between my game now and when I played for the Mets is the mental part of it.”
Whether it’s gray matter or brown uniforms, the Phillies gave the Braves plenty to think about this fall.