McGriff trade, stadium blaze capped wild run for '93 Braves
It's typically implausible for purists of the Merriam-Webster dictionary to be simultaneously satisfied with a sports metaphor, in terms of an athlete literally and figuratively setting the world on fire.
However, on this week 20 years ago, Fred McGriff might have pulled off the feat.
This story is a recollection of perhaps the greatest trade for a hitter in Braves history, a landmark swap that transcends the usual fare of Major League Baseball's pre-deadline deals — thanks to one press box blaze, one magical homer on Debut Day and a frenetic flurry over 75 days (mid-July to early October), team-wise, that might not have been necessary if the term "wild card" was part of the MLB vernacular in 1993.
In June 1981, the Yankees' farm system absurdly had a logjam of top-notch prospects at first base — Don Mattingly, Steve Balboni, Pat Tabler, Orestes Destrade and McGriff, a ninth-round draft pick that summer who quietly tallied zero homers, nine RBI and a .148 batting average in his first taste of pro ball (29 games in the Rookie League).
The following season, McGriff (who didn't turn 19 until Halloween, 1982) collected nine homers, 41 RBI and 38 runs in 62 games — rock-solid stats that were somewhat overshadowed by a sublime on-base percentage of .413.
From that humble reboot in the Rookie League, the McGriff legend grew in scouting circles, so much that Blue Jays GM Pat Gillick happily corralled McGrff as a relative throw-in to an already lopsided trade with the Yankees, with Toronto getting McGriff, veteran Dave Collins and blue-chip pitching prospect Mike Morgan.
From 1983-2004, after the deal, the trio of McGriff, Collins and Moore would combine for 46 major league seasons.
On the flip side, check out New York's head-scratching return: Tom Dodd (one homer in eight career MLB games) and Dale Murray (a low-key starter who notched only three MLB victories for 1983-84).
With the Blue Jays (1986-90), McGriff would account for 125 homers — a per-team tally that was trumped only by his 130 homers with the Braves from 1993-97.
In July 1993, the Braves landed McGriff for the eminently reasonable trade price of Vince Moore (14 minor league seasons, zero big-league at-bats), Donnie Elliott (zero MLB wins) and supposed centerpiece Melvin Nieves, whose greatest stretch of MLB fame came with the Tigers in 1996-97 (44 combined homers, 124 RBI) — after the Padres had flipped him to Detroit.
To the recollection of current Braves president and former general manager John Schuerholz, his 1993 club "needed a bat in the middle of the order." Preceding the megatrade, Atlanta had a good blend of power (David Justice, Ron Gant, Terry Pendleton, Jeff Blauser) and speed (Otis Nixon, Gant, Blauser and Deion Sanders) ... but few game-breaking talents, like the 29-year-old McGriff, to bring it all together.
The trade was officially consummated on July 18 (according to Baseball Reference), even though McGriff's final at-bats with the Padres occurred on July 11. On that day, San Diego was plodding along at 33-56, with a big-league roster that would bear little resemblance to the Padres' National League champions squad of 1998 — with the notable exception of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
Perhaps that's why the '93 Padres, led by new general manager Randy Smith, were in a distinct hurry to deconstruct the team's foundation — McGriff included — and start anew with a franchise that would soon encounter a contentious battle with San Diego officials, in an effort to get a publicly funded stadium for future consumption.
(Thanks to the Padres' World Series berth in 1998, losing to the Yankees in four straight, San Diego eventually rewarded the club with a sparkling new stadium, PETCO Park.)
On July 18, 1993, the Braves blanked the Pirates 2-0, on the heels of 7 2/3 shutout innings from fourth-year dynamo Steve Avery (18-6, 2.94 ERA), who incredibly scattered 12 Pittsburgh hits on that day. With the victory, coupled with San Francisco's 12-6 loss to the New York Mets, the Braves trimmed the deficit in the National League West to eight games.
A little historical perspective: In 1993, Major League Baseball was technically two years from adding one Wild Card team each to the American and National league playoffs. (The movement was supposed to launch in 1994, but the players' strike wiped out the entire postseason.)
As such, only four division winners would reach the '93 playoffs, meaning that either Atlanta or San Francisco — two clubs destined for 100-win campaigns — would be left out in the cold on Oct. 3.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves ...
The acquisition of McGriff thrilled Braves fans throughout the South, along with those who adopted the club from afar, through national viewings on TBS, one of cable's premium "superstations" in the 1980s and 90s. At the time, McGriff (18 homers with San Diego, before the trade) was enjoying Year Six of a seven-season run of 30-plus homers (1998-94).
But that trade elation didn't translate to a Braves victory the following day, roughly 24 hours before McGriff would make his Atlanta debut. On the 19th, the Braves mustered only six hits in a 4-0 loss to the Cardinals and pitcher Donovan Osborne, who modestly tallied a 49-46 career record (and 4.03 ERA) in nine MLB seasons.
After that anemic effort, no one associated with the Braves — their 37-day hold (June 12-July 19) on second place in the West notwithstanding — could have possibly imagined a blistering 52-18 spurt to close the season.
On July 20, 1993, a day when national news outlets were celebrating the 24th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon — with Neil Armstrong taking the momentous first steps — the Atlanta media was alerted to a breaking-news story out of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the Braves' home from 1966-96.
A fire had broken out at an uninhabited-at-the-time portion of a luxury box between home plate and third base (near the Braves' radio booth), with massive, charcoal-gray and black clouds of smoke billowing from the ballpark and into the sky.
Thanks to YouTube and this clip, we have access to a first-hand account of how surreal that experience was — from the simultaneous imagery of fans evacuating the stadium en masse ... and ballplayers and media continuing their on-field rituals of batting practice and pre-game interviews — as if it was just a ho-hum summer night in Georgia.
Can you imagine a scene like that today?
In these risk-management times, where fan and player safety are chief concerns in the ultra-modern ballparks, venerable Fulton County Stadium didn't have the infrastructure to allow fire officials to immediately contain the fire. And so, players and media watched the blaze from above.
Heck, in Schuerholz's executive office at Turner Field, you'll find one of his most cherished pictures — Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke standing in the photo path of the fire (100 feet below), arm in arm.
And when watching CNN's coverage of the fire, via YouTube, five things immediately stand out:
1. The incredibly loud explosion in the box, predating the fire department's arrival.
2. Blauser's off-the-cuff comment to the cameras, while walking away from the fire, but in no general hurry to leave the stadium.
"Uh, it kind of looks like Sherman rolling through town," said Blauser, alluding to Northern general William Tecumseh Sherman's famous (or infamous, depending on where you're from) march through Atlanta during the Civil War, essentially burning the southern mecca to the ground during the mid-1860s.
3. Pitcher Tom Glavine's eerie premonition that maybe the dual convergence of McGriff officially joining the Braves that day and the crazy blaze would "light a fire under the Braves," who trailed the Giants by nine games before the delayed first pitch on July 20.
4. Braves TV announcer Pete Van Wieren relating the story of then-owner Ted Turner calling him to say that evening's game would go on, once the fire was extinguished. Van Wieren then expressed concern the TV booth may be in dire condition, quipping, "We may have to sit in the stands with the fans tonight."
5. Hall of Fame announcer Jack Buck (with the Cardinals at the time) saying, "I've been rained out (before). I've been snowed out. I've been cold out. I've been fired ... but I've never been fired out of a ballgame before."
Luckily for Blauser, Buck, Glavine and McGriff, the show would go on, as planned.
For a memorable game that would account for three homers, 13 runs, 21 hits and even four errors, it endured a sleepy start of zero runs and little action in the first three innings. Perhaps the players, broadcasters and spectators were too distracted by the sight of a haggard luxury box between home plate and third base — akin to schoolchildren becoming temporarily mesmerized by the first snowfall of a new winter.
But in the 4th, St. Louis began to take advantage of Glavine's off night, cranking out two singles (Mark Whiten, Brian Jordan), one double (Tom Pagnozzi) and scoring three runs in the frame. The Cardinals would tack on two more runs in the fifth inning, thanks to three singles (off Glavine) and one untimely wild pitch — from Braves reliever Steve Bedrosian — allowing Todd Zeile to come home.
Down 5-0 to the Cards and trailing the Giants by nine games in the West (San Francisco was in the middle of a season-high 14-game homestand at the time), things were looking bad for the Braves. Almost bleak.
Everything changed in the 6th, though, with the shortstop Blauser connecting on a three-run homer, scoring Deion Sanders and Bill Pecota (a muse of Baseball Prospectus to this day), cutting the deficit to 5-3. After Blauser's blast, Ron Gant singled with one out, setting the stage for McGriff's first high-pressure at-bat with his new club.
As a 27-year-old rookie pitcher, the Cardinals' Rene Arocha would impressively notch 11 victories (and a 3.78 ERA) as the club's No. 3 starter in 1993, but he also allowed 20 homers that season — or one per 8.3 innings. With Gant on first and McGriff striding to the plate amid a chorus of cheers, the new Brave didn't waste any time, cracking Arocha's initial delivery for a game-tying homer.
For the 49,072 fans at Fulton County Stadium, McGriff's majestic blast was a welcome surprise. But for his career, spanning 19 MLB seasons, 493 homers and 2,460 games, McGriff would crush 100 total homers on a 0-0 count — easily his most productive super-split at the plate.
The Braves would win 8-5 in McGriff's debut outing. Twenty-four hours later, he would belt a pair of homers off Cardinals pitcher Joe Magrane (the second on a 0-0 count), whipping Atlanta fans into a frenzy.
There was now talk of McGriff's fantastic nickname of "The Crime Dog" — similar to the "McGruff The Crime Dog" commercials during the 1980s — being temporarily changed to "Fire Dog," an homage to the two-day, three-homer flurry that remarkably sparked the desecration of a luxury box and renewal of Atlanta's playoff hopes.
That's not to say the Braves immediately slashed the Giants' lead with McGriff in tow. On July 22, San Francisco's advantage would mushroom to a season-high 10 games.
From July 23-28, the Braves posted a modest six-game winning streak, averaging 9.2 runs. But that euphoria was quickly diluted by a mini-funk of three losses in four games.
From Aug. 8-18, Atlanta then ratcheted up the pressure, stringing together nine consecutive victories, with the entire pitching staff netting a 1.50 ERA in that span. In four weeks' time, the separation between the National League West's two powers had dwindled from 10 to 6 1/2 games.
Most teams would be weary off a cross-country flight from Chicago to San Francisco, without a day off between games in August. But the Braves were psyched for their season-defining series against the Giants (Aug 23-25).
Trailing by 7 1/2 games with just six weeks remaining, the inescapable mandate for the Atlanta players was rather elementary: Either sweep the three-game set ... or risk playing out the string for all of September.
In the opener, Braves southpaw Steve Avery stifled the Giants in a complete-game victory that covered only 2 hours, 37 minutes.
The next night, McGriff, Terry Pendleton and Damon Berryhill accounted for eight hits and four runs in Atlanta's 6-4 win.
The following day, a Wednesday matinee, produced a 9-1 rout in the Braves' favor — the result of pitcher Greg Maddux dominating for eight innings and Pendleton, Berryhill, David Justice and McGriff each racking up a homer against the scuffling Giants.
It goes without saying: McGriff's crushing blow at windy and wild Candlestick Park came on a 0-0 count.
From that point forward, the Braves would go 25-9 to finish at 104-58, just one game ahead of Giants, who lost to the hated Dodgers on the season's final day — a payback victory for Los Angeles that was 11 years in the making.
On the last day of the 1982 season, with L.A. needing a victory in San Francisco to force a one-game playoff with Atlanta in the NL West, Hall of Famer Joe Morgan's three-run homer in the seventh inning broke a 2-all tie and clinched the Giants' triumph over the Dodgers, destroying the latter's playoff opportunity.
Manager Tom Lasorda once called it the most devastating defeat of his career.
Fast forward to the final weekend of the 1993 season. While the Giants were scrapping with a bitter rival, the Braves had the random fortune of hosting the expansion Rockies for three games. Leading up to that period, Atlanta was 10-0 against Colorado, with a combined run differential of 74-35.
On Friday, Avery pitched just well enough (three earned runs over eight innings) to push his club to a 7-4 victory.
On Saturday, six Braves notched multiple hits in their 10-1 rout of the Rockies.
On the final day, with both Atlanta and San Fran perched at 103-58, Glavine outperformed former Braves farmhand David Nied, guiding Atlanta to a 5-3 victory ... and, at the very least, a share of the NL West crown.
The Braves and a number of fans stuck around to watch the Dodgers take down the Giants (on the center-field scoreboard), roughly 2,600 miles away. With a division title finally in hand, the Atlanta players shuttled between the field and locker room, toting celebratory bottles of champagne or beer.
It was an endearing moment of pure joy for a veteran, button-down club that had already experienced the thrill of back-to-back division titles (1991-92) and consecutive World Series berths, losing to the Twins and Blue Jays for the world title.
For McGriff, it was the happy conclusion to a season that began him being saddled on a last-place club, with Doug Brocail (4-13 in 1993) assuming the miscast role as the Padres' No. 3 starter. From April to October, San Diego would tally a grand total of 61 wins.
By contrast, the Braves produced four 15-game winners that year (Glavine, Maddux, Avery, John Smoltz). Plus, two late-inning pitchers (Mark Wohlers, Steve Bedrosian) accumulated more victories than the Padres' 3-4-5 starters (Brocail, Wally Whitehurst, Tim Worrell).
Oh, and from July 18-Oct. 3, the Braves rolled for 52 wins.
It's no wonder that McGriff, who finished fourth in National League MVP voting that season, seemed so calm on the night of the July 20 fire, deferring to his talented teammates during an impromptu, on-field media address, with the dramatic blaze as the backdrop.
"We've got some pretty good players over there. Basically, I've just got to be myself, play my game and hopefully, everybody else will do their job. It will take a total team effort" to catch the Giants, said McGriff.
For that incredible summer of 1993, before player strikes, owner lockouts, escalating salaries, fan apathy/indifference and performance-enhancing drugs became every-day talking points of MLB life in the 1990s, the Braves and Giants — along with one perfectly timed fire — unwittingly contributed to the last great pennant race of baseball's two-division era.