There are several reasons why great players tend to do well in September. For one, lesser players lose focus while great ones maintain theirs. Teams that drop out of the race may be dogging it, and a lot of younger players are given a shot, especially when rosters are expanded.
Bonds, like him or not, has matured into a player with focus, a worker, a dedicated athlete who yearns to win. In Pittsburgh, he gave everything he had to get his teams into the post-season. Did he simply having nothing left to challenge the great talents of Atlanta's pitchers?
"Here's a guy winning two MVPs, he's getting us to the play-offs, but once we're there he disappeared," Bob Walk told "Sports Century."
The two Championship Series' between Atlanta and Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992 go down in history along with some of the most intense post-season rivalries in sports. The nature of the games, the intensity, and building pressure of these games rank with the Dodger-Yankee Subway Series' of the 1950s; the Packer-Cowboy NFL Play-Off games of 1966-67; the Raider-Steeler battles of the 1970s; and the longstanding Celtic-Laker rivalry
Then there was Smoltz! Bonds must wake up at night seeing his mustachioed visage peering in for the sign; the wind-up and big kick; the horsehide traveling hard and swift to an unhittable corner of the plate. For eight innings on October 6, he did just that, in a tidy four-hitter over eight innings, for the 5-1 win. Ex-Pirate Bream, the man who once wanted to beat up Barry Bonds, was now a Brave, and he had two hits and scored twice to lead the victory.
The passions of the games, the rivalry, the pressure, were building up like the crescendo of Shakespeare's "Othello." In game two, the Bucs knew only frustration. A four-run second inning was all that Avery needed in Atlanta's 13-4 victory, forcing Bonds and his team back home down 2-0, with their backs against the wall.
They needed to rally. Staying with the Shakespeare theme, Leyland may not be a modern Henry V, urging his "band of brothers" to rally against a powerful enemy, but he does not accept losing well. He has a way of forcing his men to pick themselves up and come back, no matter how dreary the circumstances. This is one of the reasons Bonds, who also hates to lose, admires the man so much.
It would not be easy. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was facing Glavine at Three Rivers Stadium, but the rookie was up to the task. He went the distance, baffling the Braves with an assortment of floating knucklers. Van Slyke's sacrifice fly in the seventh gave his club the edge, and he and his mates hung on for dear life to crawl back in it, winning 3-2.
Then came Smoltz again, for six and a third innings over Drabek. Now the Pirates not only felt the wall, but also could see the Braves loading their weapons and forming a firing squad.
Bonds finally showed life in a play-off game the next day. With his team down three games to one, he, King and Lloyd McClendon hit consecutive run-scoring doubles in a four-run first inning. Avery was knocked out with only one out, and Walk went the distance in a 7-1 victory that sent the series back to Atlanta with the Braves up, 3-2.
In game six, Bonds again showed up. He led off the second inning with a homer off Glavine, igniting an eight-run inning. Wakefield went the distance, the Pirates won, 13-4, and it was time for the rubber match.
There was John Smoltz standing in their way, but he had to be tired, trying for his third win of the series. The Pirates touched him in the first, 1-0. They scored another run in the sixth. Inning after inning, Doug Drabek held off Atlanta. Goose eggs.
Now, we are in the ninth inning at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Last chance for the home team. The fans, standing as one, and in full Tomahawk Chop. Even Jane Fonda woke up and lifted her head off Ted Turner's shoulder.
"C'mon, baby," says Barry Bonds to himself, slapping his glove against his thigh in left field. "Three more outs."
It was not to be. The Braves rallied, had one run in, and men on second and third with one. Drabek was gone, Stan Belinda was in. Francisco Cabrera, a journeyman, was at the plate. Standing at second base, the potential winning run, stood Bream, who nobody will ever mistake with Maury Wills.
Bonds hears something. The place is a cacophony of noise, but he looks over at Van Slyke in center field. He is whistling to him.
Bonds motions with his glove, "What, Andy?"
Van Slyke uses his glove to motion, "Move in and to your left."
Bonds does not budge.
McClendon sees the exchange.
"Why isn't Barry moving over?" he thinks to himself.
Van Slyke sees Barry remain deep and close to the line.
"C'mon, Barry," but to no avail.
Belinda whips a sidearm pitch to Francisco Cabrera. Whip! A base hit, to left field. To Bonds' left. Bonds rushes in, valuable steps. Bream rounds third. Bonds reaches down and fields the ball.
Heart pumping. Clean pick. Hop-skip for momentum.
"Find the target." Look up, there is the catcher, fire it, center mass. Bream running.
Throwing a baseball is a delicate act. A slight twist of the wrist, finger pressure, releasing it at just the right or wrong point. Bonds throw looked at first to be there, but veered slightly off, bounced, and came to the catcher a few feet up the first base line.
It was not a bad throw, but it was not perfect. Somehow, it represents the ever-so-close nature that has always tinged Bonds' career with semi-tragic imperfection. In the mind's eye, one is convinced that Mays or DiMaggio make that throw.
Bream, no speedster, barely eluded the tag for the game-winner.
Bonds watched Bream score, dropped to his knees, then just walked off the field.
Drabek became the first pitcher to ever lose three games in one series.
This was not Shakespeare, it was Charles Dickens' "Bleak House."
Bonds acknowledged that Van Slyke had signaled him, but defended his decision not to do so. He said that Van Slyke, being a center fielder, could roam more, but said, "if he hits a bullet that ball's gonna go by me." Today he uses positioning to make up for the fact that his arm is not as strong as it was then.
"The ball was to my left, coming across your left to have to make that throw, across your body, the play was still close," Bonds told "Sports Century." "There were other chances for us to win that had nothing to do with me."
"Once again they focused on Barry because he was the star," said Leyland. "Barry didn't choke and I don't think anybody should judge his career by that."
The soft crying of Bonds interrupted the stone silence of the losing clubhouse.
Now, the emphasis shifted to his future. Leyland told Bonds there was no way Pittsburgh could afford him, and the team never offered him a contract. Towards the end of his last season at Pittsburgh, Bonds was interviewed on the field by a Pittsburgh TV personality, amid fans' shouts of "Stay Barry, stay."
The Pirates knew they had lost Bonds. Bonilla was gone. They had kept it together for one more season, and came agonizingly close to going to the World Series, but now they were reconciled to facing a re-building period.
Other teams have dealt with the question of losing a superstar. In Minnesota, the Twins had a player, Kirby Puckett, who was not just a Hall of Famer, but valuable to the team because of his high standing in the community. The same thing in San Diego with Gwynn. Bonds?
"There were players on his own team who would go up to him and give him a baseball, and he won't sign it," Jim Rooker told "Sports Century." "I've never heard of that anywhere."
"I think Barry wants the best for his teammates on the field, but he certainly communicates that `your not important to me' off the field," said Andy van Slyke.
"If you want a friend, buy a dog," Bonds once said in Pittsburgh. Such warmth! Bonds had not been happy that Van Slyke was making twice as much. Bonds called him the "Great White Hope."
"Barry and Bobby both lost arbitration cases," recalled pitcher John Smiley. "Doug Drabek and myself both won, they were trying to say it was a black thing. I don't think his agent was too prepared. How can you put up numbers like that and lose an arbitration case?"
Bonds won his second MVP award.
"He saw other guys getting taken care of, guys who were not as integral to the club as he was," said Perrotto on "Sports Century."
Bonds in Pittsburgh was not meant to be.
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