Well-traveled Leyland copes with toughest loss Pirates manager refuses to blame tight-fisted club

October 15, 1992|By Ross Leyland | Ross Leyland,Los Angeles Times

ATLANTA -- It might have been Clinton or Bristol or Rocky Mount. It might have been any of those many other bus stops he visited during seven years as a minor-league catcher and 11 as a minor-league manager.

Jim Leyland still remembers the friendliness of the people on the street. He still remembers the apple pies baked by thoughtful ladies to make the long trips more tolerable.

He also remembers the money he often borrowed from his brother Bill, a priest, and how he tried to stretch the $400 a month he made during the summer by driving a truck in the off-season or working in construction or at the post office or the glass company.

"I never wanted anything else but baseball," Leyland has said of the survival test that failed to prepare him for the events of last night.

One out from reaching the pinnacle of baseball, two strikes from having his tenacity and talent rewarded, Leyland watched pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera, a reserve catcher who had batted for the Atlanta Braves only 10 times in the regular season, take it all away.

"Without question, the toughest loss I've ever had to handle," Leyland said, his voice cracking.

"I'm still in shock. I felt like the game was ours. It's heart-breaking."

Game 7 of the National League playoff -- and with it the 1992 pennant -- belonged to the Braves, 3-2, when Cabrera slashed a two-out, two-run single through the hole between shortstop and third base to cap an improbable three-run rally in the ninth inning last night.

The Braves will now advance to the World Series, hosting Saturday night's opener against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Leyland's Pittsburgh Pirates failed for the third straight year to advance after winning the Eastern Division title, a sad and

misleading legacy for the manager who has had to cope with a constant turnover stemming from the small market economy.

For Leyland, the shocking turnaround in the ninth inning of a game that had all the tension and drama that the six previous playoff games lacked was compounded by the fact that this may have been a last chance of sorts.

After surviving the departure this year of Bobby Bonilla, John Smiley and Bill Landrum in payroll-related decisions, the Pirates now face the loss of free agents Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek. There are only so many miracles, so many ways to platoon.

"I'm hopeful they'll stay," Leyland said, "but they have a great opportunity to take advantage of the system. I'm proud of what they've done for me, but the Pirates will go on no matter who's here. Our scouts and general manager will find a way to get us the players."

Bonds concluded the playoff with a .261 batting average. He had one single in the three at-bats of what might have been his last game as a Pirate. He also almost threw out Sid Bream scoring from second with the decisive run on the hit by Cabrera.

Drabek, making his third start in eight days and possibly his last with the Pirates, became the first pitcher to lose three games in a playoff, but he deserved better in this one.

He shut out the Braves on five hits through eight innings, rejecting a bases-loaded, no-out threat in the sixth, and a one-out, two-on threat in the seventh.

He would make 129 pitches in starting for the second straight time on three days' rest, but there is this to remember: the inconsistency of the Pittsburgh bullpen that lost its 1991 save leader when Landrum was released has consistently prompted Leyland to ride his starters, particularly workhorse Drabek.

"It enters your thinking," Leyland conceded of a Pittsburgh bullpen that blew 19 save opportunities during the regular season and ranked seventh in the National League with 43.

Stan Belinda, the man ultimately called on to replace Drabek in the ninth, led the Pirates with 18 saves, but blew six other chances.

It is remarkable that Leyland led the Pirates to 96 regular-season wins -- 37 by one run -- while operating a bullpen by committee, the committee including some suspect members.

In the bitter wake of the loss, however, Leyland wasn't pointing fingers or making excuses.

"I felt totally comfortable with every move that was made tonight," he said, adding that Drabek would probably have escaped the ninth unscathed if second baseman Jose Lind had come up with David Justice's ground ball after Terry Pendleton opened the inning with a double into the right-field corner.

"Jose is a Gold Glove fielder who makes that play 10 out of 10 times," Leyland said, "but errors are part of the game. I accept it, but Doug might have been out of the inning."

Instead, Drabek walked Bream, and Leyland, now sensing that his starter was spent and pressing, called for Belinda, who produced only one double-play grounder all season but who would do "just what we wanted," Leyland said.

"We thought he could get [Ron] Gant on a pop-up or fly ball and he did," Leyland said of Gant's fly to left that scored Pendleton. "He jammed [pinch hitter Brian] Hunter for the second out [on a pop to Lind], but he fell behind to Cabrera and had to come in with too good of a pitch [on a 2-and-1 count].

"How ironic. Getting beat by a guy who was added to their roster on Aug. 31."

It was more than ironic, of course.

"It's tough, having to walk into the clubhouse and tell these guys that they've had a great season, that they can't lose sight of that," Leyland said.

"No one gave us a chance when we lost all those people this year, and we were even considered something of a token contestant against the Braves, which is the second reason this hurts so much.

"But life is tough and you have to deal with it to the best of your ability and that's what we'll try to do. I mean, there's a lesson in this for every Little Leaguer. You have to learn to win and to lose."

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