PITTSBURGH -- When Zane Smith was in Atlanta, the Braves could always be counted on to be missing from the pennant race.
They finished fifth in two of his five full seasons, sixth in the other three, and were never closer than 20 1/2 games out of first place.
"Looking back, the best thing they could have done for me was to get me out of Atlanta," Smith said yesterday. "There are a lot of frustrated people when you're on a losing team. Unfortunately, we weren't very good."
But their paths will cross again tonight when Smith starts Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against his former teammates. Steve Avery, 21, will pitch for the Braves.
It is a classic meeting of the old and the new regimes, but Avery, the third player picked in the 1988 free-agent draft, had his share of problems in Atlanta, too.
Avery was 3-11 in his rookie season of 1990, and the Braves again finished sixth. He was 18-8 this season, including two victories over the Los Angeles Dodgers in September.
"I don't think anyone wants to go through what I did last year," Avery said. "I wished I could have learned with a little more success. But, on the other hand, maybe the lessons wouldn't have been as great as they turned out to be."
Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland scheduled Smith to start twice at home. It wasn't because of his history at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but because he is 11-3 with a 2.78 ERA at home and 5-7, 3.74 on the road.
Smith, whose last year in Atlanta was 1989, said he "was fortunate to see the young pitchers coming up. But I don't think I ever thought I'd be going against one of them in this.
"I'm happy for all the guys over there. It was a long time coming. But there is a lot of talk that they all wish [former Braves star] Dale Murphy were here with them."
No comparison here
The nameplate above Andy Van Slyke's locker reads: "Andy Van Cronkite", a piece of tape altering the surname. It is appropriate.
On the difference between fans in St. Louis, where he played in the 1985 World Series, and Pittsburgh:
"It's almost like a new amendment in St. Louis that you have to wear red and put stickers on the cars. It's completely different here.
"I can't explain it, but it's like sky-diving [St. Louis] vs. just flying [Pittsburgh]."
Unfamiliarity no problem
Third baseman Steve Buechele didn't join the Pirates untiAug. 30, so he has not faced the Braves.
"I don't know anything about them," said Buechele, who had spent his entire career with the Texas Rangers until he was traded to Pittsburgh. "But it's no different from any of the situations I've been through in this league the last month and a half."
Buechele filled a key gap after Jeff King was knocked out for the season with a back injury.
In awe the first time
Terry Pendleton, a teammate of Van Slyke's on the '8Cardinals, said: "I was in awe when we made it to the World Series there. It was a big thrill.
"This time it's a little different. Not that I'm not enjoying it. Atlanta was a nightmare last year, and here we are. We knew we could get the fans out down there. The biggest thing for me now is to see how they've responded."
Pendleton said the biggest change between this Braves team and his two World Series clubs in St. Louis is speed.
"We had a lot of it in St. Louis around Jack [Clark], who'd pump it out on you. We could beat you 2-1 in a minute either with our legs or Jack's bat.
"Here there is some speed and some power. There are a lot of ways to possibly do it."
Former major-league P Dave Dravecky, whose career was shortened by cancer, threw out the first ball last night. Dravecky twice pitched in the NLCS and once in the World Series. . . . The Pirates are wearing an "H" on their right sleeves in honor of John Hallahan, the team's equipment manager since 1956 before his death last month after he suffered complications in surgery. . . . The Braves are the only team in baseball history to have the worst record in the majors 1 year and finish first the next. . . . Minnesota may have the homer hankies, but Pittsburgh has the rally flags -- half gold, half black. Pirates officials passed out 60,000 of them last night.