By Mark Bradley, ajc.com Sports Columnist
When finally the moment arrived, it came dressed as much in relief as glee. This city had waited four years for October baseball to end with our team spraying the champagne. On the night of Oct. 28, 1995, our team was the one drenched in something other than sweat and tears.
It remains impossible to think of that moment of deliverance without recalling those preceding nights of agony. Charlie Leibrandt working to Kirby Puckett. Lonnie Smith getting deked. Ed Sprague taking Jeff Reardon deep. Dave Winfield doubling down the left-field line. Milt Thompson gloving Mark Lemke’s drive at the wall. Lenny Dykstra hoisting Mark Wohlers’ pitch over the wall.
Over a five-season span, the Braves had been the best team in baseball. They’d overhauled deficits of 9 ½, 7 and 10 games to win three National League West titles at a time when there were no wild cards. They’d trailed 3-2 headed back to Pittsburgh in the 1991 NLCS. They’d trailed 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. They’d won everything except a World Series, and by 1995 it was time they got that, too.
The 1995 regular season had weird feel a to it: Due to the lingering players’ strike that canceled the 1994 World Series, Opening Day came on April 26. The Braves trailed Philadelphia – realignment had plopped Atlanta into the NL East by then – by 4 ½ games on June 25 but won the division by 21.
Yet again, they were very good. This team, however, wasn’t as majestic as the 1993 bunch – the one that added Fred McGriff and won 104 games – had been. The 1995 Braves hit .250, the second-lowest among NL clubs. (They did hit the second-most homers.) Of their everyday eight, only David Justice (3.8) and the rookie Chipper Jones (2.7) had a WAR value of better than 2.0.
Where very good became great was when the starting pitchers toed the ol’ slab. The Braves led the majors in ERA, with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz finishing first, third and ninth among big-league starters. Pitching and the well-timed home run saw the Braves past Colorado in the Division Series and Cincinnati in the NLCS with only one loss, that in extra innings.
The final obstacle was Cleveland, which had hit .291 over the regular season. As mighty as Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome were, they struck no real fear in Atlanta’s team – or Atlanta fans. We figured great pitching would stop great hitting. (And it did. The Indians hit .179 in the World Series.) Not to get all gooey about it, but this just seemed Our Time.
There were 50,000-plus on hand for each of the seven home playoff games that October, but it was possible during the NLCS to visit a ticket window and buy two seats for Game 6 of the Series. (I know because I did.) In 1992, the year after Worst-To-First, demand for postseason tickets was such that the phone lines shorted out. Demand in 1995 was softer because of the strike. We around here hated the strike.
In 1993, the average regular-season crowd at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was 47,960. In 1995, the post-strike season, the average gate was 35,581. It would be wrong to say we as a city didn’t still care about the Braves; it wouldn’t be wrong to say we cared a bit less about baseball.
The night of Game 6 was the first time in 1995 the old ballpark rocked as in previous Octobers. Justice had challenged the Atlanta crowd to rally behind its team the way Clevelanders had. On cue, the man himself hit a sixth-inning homer to make it 1-0. Glavine yielded one hit – a single to Tony Pena – over eight innings. Wohlers worked the ninth, Marquis Grissom running down Carlos Baerga’s drive for the 27th out. Proclaimed Bob Costas on NBC, “The team of the ’90s has its world championship.”
Much later, Wohlers would say: “I got married at night, and this was a lot like that – waiting all day for the darn wedding.” And darn if Game 6 didn’t feel like a ceremony, though not really a wedding. It was a coronation. We’d waited four years for it to be Our Time, and finally it was.