While the 51,335 spilled out through the SkyDome doors into the autumn sun amidst car honking, flag waving and cheering, four men walked with a purpose as they hurried to their hotel.
Four Pittsburgh Pirate scouts were set to watch Game 7 of the Atlanta Braves-Pirates National League Championship Series.
They gathered at the bar of the Harbour Castle hotel.
Three of the four went on to become general managers:
Jack Zduriencik runs the Seattle Mariners.
Cam Bonifay ran the Pirates from 1993-2001.
And Kevin Towers is the GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks after 15 years as GM of the San Diego Padres.
The fourth scout was Donnie Mitchell.
Meanwhile, at the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta six Blue Jays scouts had watched the A’s-Jays Game 6 in separate locations, either for luck or because they got on each other’s nerves during tense moments.
Moose Johnson, Chris Bourjos, Tim Wilken and Joe Ford watched from their own rooms, while Al LaMacchia and Duane Larson were too nervous to watch. When Maldonado’s homer off Mike Moore landed, Wilken, in a room on the 46th floor, opened the door and screamed “WE’RE GOING TO THE WORLD SERIES!!!”
He quickly closed the door. “I’m surprised someone didn’t call security saying ‘there was a lunatic on the 46th floor.’”
After Henke got the final out, they met in the lobby to congratulate each other and then off to the park to scout Game 7 of the NLCS.
The four Pirates scouts settled into the lobby bar in Toronto to see what was unfolding at Atlanta’s Fulton-County Stadium.
Zduriencik and Bonifay were scouting the Jays, Towers and Mitchell had the A’s.
“We thought we matched up better against Oakland,” Towers said. “Carney Lansford had a bad knee and had limited range at third. We thought we could do some things with our athletic team. When Oakland got beat we thought, OK, we still were going.”
While three of the scouts became GMs, it was Mitchell who had come up with the peanut idea.
“Donnie picked out 27 peanuts from the jar of bar mix and lined them up,” said Bonifay, now a St. Louis Cardinals scout.
They watched the Pirates’ Doug Drabek settle in for his first pitch to Braves Otis Nixon with an early 1-0 lead thanks to an Orlando Merced single off John Smoltz.
Towers is sipping a bottle of water in his box at Chase Field in Phoenix during All-Star weekend as he tells the story.
“After each out we threw a peanut on the floor,” recalled Towers.
Two ground balls and a fly ball ... 24 peanuts left on the bar.
Again a 1-2-3 inning for Drabek, whose son Kyle became a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies, broke camp with the Jays and was demoted to triple-A Las Vegas. Drabek needed only eight pitches, with a whiff, a ground out and a line drive ... 21 peanuts left.
Damon Berryhill led off with a double, but Drabek got a grounder, a line out and another ground ball ... 18 peanuts remaining.
Drabek sailed with a 14-pitch inning.
“We all thought we were in great shape with Drabek on the mound,” said Towers.
A strikeout and two ground balls ... 15 peanuts left.
Just 11 pitches for Drabek as he recorded a strikeout sandwiched around two ground balls ... 12 peanuts on the bar.
Now Drabek had breathing room as Andy Van Slyke singled home Jay Bell off Smoltz in the top of the sixth, giving the Bucs a 2-0 lead.
“We’d sent out World Series tickets to all the scouts by FedEx,” said Bonifay. “If we won, the Series would open in Pittsburgh.”
The Braves led off the inning with singles by Mark Lemke and pinch hitter Jeff Treadway as Bobby Cox went to his bench, lifting Smoltz.
When Nixon bunted for a base hit, the bases were loaded with none out.
Not a peanut was stirring.
Jeff Blauser lined to third, Bucs third baseman Jeff King caught the liner and doubled Lemke off third. Drabek retired Terry Pendleton on a liner ... nine peanuts remained.
With one out, Sid Bream doubled off Drabek and Ron Gant worked a walk and Berryhill flew out.
Seven peanuts away from a trip to the World Series.
Cox used Lonnie Smith to pinch hit for Lemke.
Drabek got Smith, Atlanta’s best pinch hitter, to fly out to centre ... six peanuts remaining.
Drabek struck out pinch hitter Deion Sanders on a 2-2 pitch.
Another peanut bit the dust ... five to go.
Next was Nixon, the Braves table setter. Drabek got him to pop up to left field to Barry Bonds in foul ground.
Another peanut was flicked away ... four outs remaining.
Then, Drabek struck out Blauser on a 2-2 pitch.
Three peanuts to go.
Three peanuts on the bar.
Pendleton led off with a double deep to right.
Next David Justice hit a routine grounder to second baseman Jose (Chico) Lind, which he clanked, now there were runners on the corners with none out.
“Lind booting that ball hurt,” Bonifay said. “He’d been so solid all year.
National League managers voted Lind the gold glove in 1992 as he fielded 745 chances and only made six errors.
Now, the winning run was coming to the plate in Bream, Drabek walked him on four pitches, ball four was his 129th.
Jim Leyland walked to the mound and signalled for closer Stan Belinda.
A look at the bar made it seem as if someone had spilled a jumbo tin of Planter’s peanuts ... Only three remained, but it would be difficult removing them with Atlanta tying the score.
Belinda got Gant to line out to deep left for a scoring fly ball, 2-1 Pirates.
Another peanut was tossed away, two remained on the bar.
Belinda walked Berryhill on five pitches re-loading the bases. Justice moved to third, Bream to second.
Pinch hitter Brian Hunter popped up an 0-1 pitch to short.
Now, one peanut sat all by his lonesome on the bar.
The Bucs were one out from facing the Jays in the World Series.
Cox turned to Francisco Cabrera, the most inexperienced of his pinch hitters.
Cabrera, originally signed by the Jays’ scout Epy Guerrero made his debut with major-league Toronto July 24, 1989.
He joined the club in Arlington, Tx. as a right-handed hitting DH. He wasn’t impressive.
After the usual So How Did You Find Out You Were Promoted? interview session someone said, “see you tomorrow at early hitting.”
“Oh, I don’t need any extra batting practice,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera hit .167 (2-for-12) in three games for the Jays and was dealt along with reliever Tony Castillo to the Braves for Jim Acker on Aug. 24.
Now, Cabrera was hitting for Jeff Reardon, with the Braves’ —and Pirates’ — season on the line.
“Their third catcher, the 25th man on the roster,” Bonifay said.
Cabrera lined a 1-2 pitch between short and third.
“Off the bat, I thought the game was over,” Bonifay said. “I thought Jay Bell’s going to backhand the ball and throw him out at first because he was so slow.
“When it got through, with Bream’s running ... maybe we’ve got extras.”
Justice scored, as Bonds moved and fired home while the creaky-kneed Bream was waved home.
Pirates catcher Mike (Spanky) LaValliere took the bouncing throw from Bonds a step or two up the first base line and dove to the plate.
Bream slid in.
“Safe,” signalled the late, great umpire John McSherry.
Bream’s toe was under the glove of LaValliere by about the width of a baby’s eyelash, as usual, Big John got it right.
“I was crushed, we all were,” Zduriencik said from Seattle, “we had a hell of a ball club. We were right there in 1991 and 1992. That was the emergence of the Braves run.”
The peanut remained on the bar.
- - -
“I don’t think anyone said a thing,” said Towers. “I looked at the replays. Again and again, I couldn’t believe it. We were that close to going to the World Series.”
Bonifay didn’t say a word and remembers leaving quickly without watching a replay, headed to the elevator and his room.
He doesn’t recall being able to sleep.
The most experienced Pirates scout of all, Lenny Yochim, who scouted the Jays in Oakland, watched on TV from his living room in New Orleans. His bags were packed for a flight to Pittsburgh which he never made.
Yochim was in his fourth decade of five with the Pirates.
“I got to my room, didn’t turn on the TV, just stared at the ceiling,” said Towers, living in Atlanta at the time. “I flew home, everyone was doing that Tomahawk Chop.”
- - -
The chop was a part of the 1992 Series, along with:
- The color guard carrying the Canadian flag upside down.
- Ed Sprague’s pinch-hit homer off Reardon.
- Jays executive Howard Starkman fearing Canadian fans would boo the U.S. flag coming up with the idea of U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard carrying the Maple Leaf and the Mounties, entering at the same time, carrying the Stars and Stripes.
No one would boo the Mounties.
- The missed triple play as Devon White face planted into the wall.
- Henke blowing a lead in the ninth in Game 6, Dave Winfield hitting a two-run, single in the 11th, Mike Timlin taking over for Jimmy Key for his first save of the year.
The 1992 Series had everything.
Everything but the Pirates.
When we began this story the Bucs were in first place in the NL Central.
This was going to be a tribute to their return to greatness and 1992.
The Pirates went on a 10-game losing streak, as they went from first place to 10 games out in a span of 13 days. No team had dropped from first to a double-digit deficit faster in major-league history.
“Why did you have to bring that game up?” Towers said as he looked away.
So, close, yet so far.
Towers came back to the subject on his own after a couple of seconds saying “I was at class-A Visailia last month where Doug Drabek is our pitching coach and we were talking about it. We thought we had the game in our pockets, 2-0 lead, Doug on the mound.
“As far as I know that last peanut is still on the bar.”