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MIKE PENNER

Atlanta Can Leave Legion of Gloom

October 30, 1995|MIKE PENNER

Houston in 1994.

New Jersey in the summer of 1995.

Atlanta on the last Saturday evening of October '95.

America's list of Can't-Win communities continues to dwindle, spreading the sunshine around a bit. Of those cities with two or more professional sports teams--"major sports centers," as they like to call themselves--only seven life-is-the-pits burgs remain on the map.

The never-quite-magnificent seven, as they stand today:

1. Buffalo. Four Super Bowl visits by the Bills, 20 playoff appearances by the Sabres, no titles.

2. Denver. The Nuggets have won nothing since joining the NBA. The Broncos? A sad, sad story. And now, the Rockies and the Avalanche are in town, certain to break a few million more hearts.

3. San Diego. The Chargers went to one Super Bowl, the Padres made it to one World Series. Both experiences were disasters, and the teams swore afterward they'd never go through them again.

4. Phoenix. The Suns and the Cardinals. One last chance, or so he says, for Charles Barkley. It's Hot Rod Williams or bust.

5. Indianapolis. The Pacers and the Colts, who did their thing in Baltimore, several times. But it's been 11 years of nothing since moving west and Jim Harbaugh, you're no John Unitas. As for Reggie Miller, his window of opportunity slammed shut the day the Bulls acquired Dennis Rodman.

6. Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers and the Lightning. The best bet to still be on this list in the year 2005.

7. Anaheim. Yeah, we know.

But Atlanta has pulled through, the Braves requiring only three tries at the World Series to get it right, so hope springs anew everywhere.

If Atlanta can win the World Series, Denver and Buffalo can feel safe, at last, to pencil in "Super Bowl" again in their yearly planners.

If Atlanta can win the World Series, San Diego can believe again in something other than the CBA expansion Wild Cards.

If Atlanta can win the World Series, Anaheim can resume dreaming of hanging onto 13-game leads over the Seattle Mariners and hoisting the Stanley Cup during Oleg Tverdovsky's lifetime.

Well, all right, let's not go crazy here.

This World Series was vitally important to the public self-esteem in Atlanta, a city that will host the Summer Olympics next year--beating out Athens, Greece, the Boston Celtics of the Olympic Games, for that one--and yet still suffers from an inferiority complex, viewing itself as sort of a Dallas Jr. Atlanta desperately needed the Braves to defeat the Indians in order to validate itself because, let's face it, the Falcons and the Hawks may never get it done.

So, yes, there was pressure on the Braves, regardless of how many denials David Justice issued before Game 6. Immense pressure. Hydraulic pressure. Orel Hershiser spoke the truth when he said the Braves had everything to lose when the Series returned to Fulton County Stadium. And although Justice all but dared Hershiser to step outside after that obvious observation was relayed to him, after the fact, after he had homered for the only run in the Braves' 1-0 championship decider, Justice conceded, "I never felt more pressure in my life."

Much of that pressure was self-induced, because Justice, also before Game 6, chastised Braves fans for their lack of faith and creeping cynicism, claiming that if the Braves didn't win, the fans would probably "burn our houses down."

Unless Justice was confused--perhaps he meant to say, "If we don't win, Andre Rison's girlfriend will burn our houses down"--such a declaration on the eve of the biggest baseball game ever played in Atlanta was kamikaze behavior. And, sure enough, the paper-thin skins in Atlanta were rubbed raw . . . until Justice took Jim Poole deep in the sixth inning, always a handy way to patch up old differences.

Now the fans will probably paint Justice's house. Or buy him a new one. Or send him to the mayor's mansion. Great guy, that Dave. Shoots off his mouth a bit, but heckfire, kids'll do that, won't they?

From the Braves' perspective, the most satisfying aftereffect of Saturday's clincher is the surgical removal of the "choker" tattoo. Since the Braves lost the 1991 World Series in the 10th inning of the seventh game by a 1-0 score and lost the 1992 World Series in the ninth inning of the sixth game by a 4-3 score, they didn't just miss--they "choked."

Lost in the musty clouds of selective memory is the fact that the 1991 World Series was considered, at the time, a toss-up. Minnesota eventually won a split-decision, but needed Kirby Puckett to outscale Willie Mays in Game 6 and Jack Morris to throw a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 to do it.

The Braves were slight favorites in 1992, largely because they were back in the Series and Toronto hadn't yet been. But those Blue Jays had Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, Dave Winfield, John Olerud, Kelly Gruber (pre-shoulder blowout), David Cone, Jimmy Key and Tom Henke. And those Blue Jays also went to the 1993 World Series, where they beat the Phillies, who, for whatever reason, didn't "choke"--they "just lost to the better team."

Blowing a 3-0 lead in a seven-game series--that's a choke.

Blowing an 11-game lead in the American League West in barely six weeks--that can accurately be classified as a choke as well.

But to go 1 for 3 in World Series in the 1990s is to bat .333 in the clutch. And that, by any definition available, is pretty good hitting.

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