Cardboard Memory: Terry Pendleton

92score_mediumIn the summer of 1992, I was working as a microfilm clerk for Blue Cross / Blue Shield of Georgia and it was an awful job. For eight hours every night, I would sit in a small, unpadded seat and push pieces of paper through the microfilm machine. My only respite were the trips the Braves made to the west coast. I worked from 10pm to 6am most days, so when the Braves were out west, I’d spend my first three hours at work listening to the Braves games on WRCG.

There was one perk to the job, and that was their method of implementing personal days. We were given five personal days to use every year, and all we had to do to use them was to call up to an hour into our shift and say we weren’t going to come in, and more importantly, we did not have to give a reason. A good friend of mine who was going to UGA called me up during the day and asked if I wanted to go to the game that evening. Why would I say no? I called up the office and let them know I wouldn’t be in. I got in my awful blue Chevy Cavalier and hit the highway. A little less than two hours later, I was parking in my favorite lot just west of I-85. (I’m not sure I ever used a personal day for any reason other than a Braves game.)

Steve arrived after me and we walked around the stadium looking for someone selling tickets. It was a Tuesday night game and there were plenty of seats available. We were hoping that this meant we could get good seats cheaply from a scalper. We didn’t have much experience getting our tickets through anything but the normal means, so we were slightly nervous. Nonetheless, we were approached and ended up with seats just a dozen or so rows behind first base. All we needed for a perfect night at the ballpark was a good game.

93donruss_mediumI’m sure that many at the time considered the Braves fifth place standing as a disappointment, but to a lot of us, it just seemed like a return to normal. Still, it was early in the season and nobody was ready to give up hope just yet. After all, the race in the NL West was still tight and the Braves were sitting only four games back. The Phillies were in town and sitting five games under .500. It was a good chance for the Braves to pick up a few wins. The night before, the Braves picked up six in the third and despite an uncharacteristically wild performance from Tom Glavine, were able to hold off the Phillies for a 7-6 win.

Charlie Leibrandt was on the mound and his season had been up and down to that point. In his last start, the Montreal Expos knocked him out after a mere three innings. Leibrandt is often credited by Glavine and John Smoltz for the veteran leadership he showed the young pitching staff. His role in helping Glavine and Smoltz develop into Hall of Fame caliber pitchers cannot be understated. Even though Leibrandt wouldn’t pitch his best on this night, he would battle from the first pitch until his last.

In the first, Lenny Dykstra would get on first thank to an Otis Nixon error, and would promptly steal second and third before scoring on a Mariano Duncan ground out. The Phillies would strand a runner on second in the second, leave the bases loaded in the fourth, and leave two more runners on in the sixth. When Leibrandt needed to make a pitch, he would.

As for the Braves offense, they wouldn’t get to Phillies starter Brad Brink until the sixth. Otis Nixon, Terry Pendleton and Ron Gant would string together three straight singles to tie the game. In the top of the seventh, Leibrandt was weakening. 91fleer_mediumAfter giving up two straight singles, Bobby Cox would pull him for Señor Smoke, Juan Berenguer. Unfortunately, Berenguer would allow a single to Dave Hollins and the Phillies would retake the lead. The game would go into the bottom of the eighth with the Phillies leading 2-1.

With one out, Ron Gant would smack a solid single up the middle. Phillies manager Jim Fregosi had seen enough and decided it was time to bring in his closer to get the final five outs. A confident Mitch Williams took the mound and was ready to shut down the Braves. Of course, things don’t always work out as planned. While Williams was utterly dominating at times, at others, he would seemingly be unable to get anything to go his way. This was the case when David Justice would place a ground ball almost perfectly between the first baseman and second baseman for a single putting Gant at third. After getting Brian Hunter into a 1-2 hole, Williams would give up a fly ball to center that was just deep enough to score the speedy Gant. Frustrated at failing to get Hunter out and letting the Braves tie the game, Williams would walk Greg Olson sending Justice to second. Williams would go right after Mark Lemke, but the Lemmer would smack a line drive right at Phillies shortstop Kim Batiste. The ball would fly off his glove and Justice would come around to score. After Williams retired Jeff Blauser, the Braves would find themselves up 3-2.

Looking to shut down the Phillies, Bobby Cox brought in the hard throwing Mark Wolhlers. He dominated Mariano Duncan getting him to hit a weak dribbler to second for the first out. Dave Hollins would line a 1-0 pitch to left for a single and the Phillies looked ready to rally. Big bat John Kruk was next, and he would crush a ball off the wall in left-center. Gant would make a clean play, hit Blauser with a perfect throw who would nail Hollins at the plate with a perfect throw to Greg Olson. The crowd was alive and was ready to see the Braves put the game away.

92donruss_mediumWith two outs, Cox would bring in lefty Mike Stanton to face Wally Backman. On the play at the plate, an alert John Kruk had advanced to third. Stanton would battle Backman to a 2-2 count. On his sixth pitch of the at-bat, Stanton would bounce the ball out of Olson’s reach and Kruk would walk home with the tying run. An angry Stanton would catch Backman looking at strike three, but the damage was done and the game was tied. For Mitch Williams, it was a chance at redemption. He could avoid the loss and send the game into extra innings.

Damon Berryhill pitch hit for Stanton to start the Braves half of the ninth, and Williams shut him down with three straight strikes. It wouldn’t be Mitch Williams without a little inconsistency though, and he would follow that up with four straight balls to Otis Nixon. As Nixon took first, Williams grew increasingly angry and the fans were letting him have it. It was now Terry Pendleton’s turn at-bat. Williams was determined to keep Nixon on first, but his distraction led to continued wildness and he fell behind 2-0 to Pendleton before finally getting his first strike. After three throws to first, he would throw ball three to Pendleton and Nixon would steal second anyway. Now, all Pendleton needed was a single and the speedy Nixon would win the game.

* * * * *

In 1991, Terry Pendleton won the National League MVP award. While he wasn’t the best player in the National League that year, that was certainly Barry Bonds, I think Pendleton’s 1991 performance has become underrated over the years. In many corners of baseball analysis, it is a matter of faith that Pendleton is one of the worse MVP selections ever. It also seems that many fans of the Braves have forgotten his role in the turn around of the franchise. Perhaps this is the natural result of his perceived performance as hitting coach, or maybe that night he walked off the field. With many baseball fans, if a factor can’t be quantified with a number, it either isn’t important or it simple does not exist. I can argue about Pendleton’s veteran leadership, about his fire on the field and about his knack for the big hit with the game on the line, but my arguments will fall on deaf ears.

Auto_mediumI won’t say that Terry Pendleton deserved the NL MVP award. I’m happy to leave that argument to others. All I will say is that I watched a lot of Braves baseball in 1991. Without Terry Pendleton, the Braves do not come within sniffing distance of the NL West championship. When I look at a Terry Pendleton baseball card, I remember watching the 1991 Atlanta Braves with TP on the field. I can remember his calmly walking over to the pitcher with a few choice words of encouragement. I can remember him snatching the ball at third. I can remember his double to the wall with Skates on first in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. I can remember his double to start the rally in the bottom of the ninth of game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. I can remember thinking this is the MVP. I can remember June 2, 1992.

* * * * *

Williams brought the heat, but Pendleton was looking for it and he crushed the ball. The ball headed for left field and there was no doubt that it was landing behind the fence. The stadium erupted in pandemonium as the Braves celebrated at home plate. It was one of those heart stopping moments that you didn’t think could be repeated. A few months later, I would attend another Braves game, with a different friend, and once again watch Pendleton win the game with a home run in the bottom of the ninth.

It was an easy drive home to Columbus that evening since we didn’t leave right away. There’s something about a win on the last at-bat that gets the juices pumping. You don’t want the moment to end. Eventually, I’d make my way back to my car and get on my way.

It certainly beat another night at work pushing paper through a microfilm machine.

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