ATLANTA -- Among the categories in which the Atlanta Braves held a decided edge over the Pittsburgh Pirates at the outset of the National League Championship Series was the speed ratings. But much of that advantage was predicated on Atlanta's --ing pair of center fielders, Otis Nixon and Deion Sanders. Sid Bream's legs weren't a major concern to Pittsburgh scouts.
With good reason, it should be noted. The man underwent a fourth operation on his right knee during the 1991 season. Nor has the left knee remained unscathed during his professional career, although it has been cut only once. As a result, nobody has to tell Bream that cold weather is on the way. He can feel it in his joints.
Bream may have been the least likely man in the Atlanta lineup to score the first run in the Braves' 5-1 victory last night. That's because the situation required a runner on second base to race home on an infield single off Jose Lind's glove, an achievement uncommon even among the fleetest players in the sport. It was a case, he said later, of ignorance leading to bliss.
He had singled for the first hit of the game in the second inning and reached second on a two-out walk to Damon Berryhill. The hitter was Mark Lemke, the little batting star of the 1991 World Series who had returned to earth during the 1992 season. Lemke hit a pitch from Doug Drabek up the middle and Bream assumed the ball was headed for center field.
It didn't cause him to stop and reconsider when he saw third-base coach Jimy Williams throw up his hands. The reason he didn't stop is because he couldn't. The brakes are worn and dangerous.
"If I tried to stop," Bream said, "my knees probably would have landed somewhere in the stands. Really, I probably would have been three-quarters of the way down the line before I stopped. Of course, I had no idea Chico got to the ball. I was just hoping Andy [center fielder Van Slyke] wouldn't throw me out."
The audacious play seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Lind, who may have greater range than any other second baseman in either league, deflected the ball with a dive. But it trickled off his glove. His throw to the plate, which should have arrived in time, was rushed and weak. Bream scored easily.
"Sid's a great baserunner," Lemke said. "He doesn't get enough credit for that. I've seen him do a lot of great things on the basepaths. Really."
"Well," Lemke said, "I told him the next time he scores from second on an infield hit to pick up his knees when he crosses the pitcher's mound. Is that what you want to hear?"
It was. The truth of the matter is that many of the Braves seem to do surprising things in the postseason. Consider the case of Lemke, who batted an astounding .417 (with three triples) in the World Series last October after compiling a .234 average during the regular season.
As if to prove the latter was no fluke, he hit .227 (with four triples) all year. So what did he do in the first game of the NLCS but single twice in three at-bats and drive in the first run. "I don't know what it is," he said, "but I feel relaxed when it comes to this time."
The man felt so relaxed last year that the Hall of Fame asked for his bat to place in a World Series display. That gave him a reason to go inside on one of his offseason forays to Cooperstown from his birthplace of Utica.
"I drive by every year," Lemke noted, "just for the atmosphere. It's such a pretty town. I hadn't gone inside [the Hall of Fame] since 1982. This year I went inside."
Judging from last night's outbreak, he must have demanded the Hall return his bat in time for the postseason. Bream didn't need a special bat. The one he used against Drabek, a good friend and former teammate, during the regular season was just fine. He had three hits in five at-bats.
Bream faced the Pirates ace twice last night. After his single in the second, he doubled home Dave Justice, who had walked, with Atlanta's second run in the fourth inning. Then he scored as first baseman Orlando Merced threw away Ron Gant's attempted sacrifice bunt.
Two years ago, the first baseman played for Pittsburgh against Cincinnati in the NLCS. Last season, he helped the Braves beat the Pirates, not a popular thing to do in the Pittsburgh suburb where he lives.
"Actually," he said, "the people in my community were very supportive. And the people in Pittsburgh were very hospitable. Nobody spit in my face."
The Pirates were hospitable last night, just as they had been in the final two games of the 1991 NLCS. They hit barely at all, scoring their lone run on Lind's homer in the eighth. Their pitching was sub-par. And even their normally tight defense betrayed them.
In Game 1, at least, Atlanta had superior hitting, better pitching (in the person of John Smoltz) and even tighter defense. Terry Pendleton made two superb plays at third base and Lemke ranged far to his right to deny the Pirates a hit.
"I've played with Mark a long time," said shortstop Jeff Blauser, who contributed a solo homer, "and I know he's capable of making every play out there. It's just that sometimes he gets overshadowed because of all the stars on this club."
Even last night, when an RBI single had to be measured against Bream's mad dash from second.