Our story really begins before the 1992 season.
It was October 27, 1991. For Braves’ fans, this date represents not just one of the greatest games ever played. It’s also one of the most heartbreaking moments of their lives if they are old enough to remember it. Jack Morris pitched ten innings that night, stifling the Atlanta Braves over 126 pitches that would help define what is now a Hall of Fame career. The righty got some help along the way from his teammates, but the game was still scoreless after nine-and-a-half innings.
On the bench that day was Francisco Cabrera. He was alerted that if the Twins opted to bring in a lefty like Mark Guthrie or David West, he should be ready to pinch-hit. Cabrera was ready for his opportunity. He had appeared in three other games that series with one at-bat. Hopeful to get one more shot to make an impression, he watched the bottom of the tenth unfold. Leadoff double. Sacrifice bunt. Two intentional walks. And then…Gene Larkin won it on the first pitch he saw from Alejandro Pena. Game over. Season over. Opportunity over.
Cabrera had hit .242 in 1991 with four homers. He had also received an extended look the previous year, reaching a career-high 143 times. The Santo Domingo native just couldn’t stick, though. He hoped 1992 would change that and when the season began, he made the opening day roster. That may not have happened without Otis Nixon‘s suspension from the previous season for cocaine, though. Cabrera would be used four times before Nixon’s return, all in a pinch-hit appearance. He went 1-for-4 with a pinch-hit homer off Greg Swindell.
Returning to what was rapidly becoming his second home, Richmond, Cabrera would not be seen in Atlanta again until September. Cabrera shared time behind the plate with Brian Deak, a bit of a prospect at the time who bashed 42 homers combined in 1988-89. In the two years following, Deak struggled to hit. With no time available in Greenville for him – there was a kid named Javy Lopez there – the Braves pushed Deak up a level. Cabrera’s defense behind the plate has never been much to write home about so it was not surprising to see him play behind Deak, who would play in 23 more games as a catcher than Cabrera. Young Ryan Klesko was the everyday starter at first, further limiting Cabrera’s chances.
The 1992 Richmond Braves, under Chris Chambliss, were a talent-rich squad. In addition to Klesko, other full-timers like Vinny Castilla, Keith Mitchell, and Jeff Manto were in the mix. Greg McMichael, David Neid, and Armando Reynoso were some of their starters with Mark Wohlers pitching 27 times for Richmond that season. Richmond, though, would finish well behind the J.T. Snow/Gerald Williams/Bernie Williams-led Columbus Clippers for the division lead, though.
When rosters expanded for September, Cabrera returned to Atlanta. In his first at-bat back, he launched a two-run pinch-hit homer off Rich Scheid in a 9-2 win over the Astros. He would play seven more times for Atlanta down the stretch, including six as a pinch-hitter. He reached base twice during that time frame with a walk in a 3-2 loss to the Reds and a base-hit in a 1-0 loss to the Giants. On October 3, with the division well in hand, Cabrera got a chance to play in the field for the first time that season. With the Braves beating the Padres 1-0 after five, Bobby Cox began to empty his bench and replaced the battery that started the game, Charlie Leibrandt and Damon Berryhill, with Reynoso and Cabrera. The duo got through the sixth, but the game was called one batter into the seventh. It was the only save of Reynoso’s 12-year career.
The fact that his last appearance during the season was as a defensive replacement was slightly ironic because it was his defense that had cost him an increased role. On September 18, Greg Olson broke his leg – ending his season. Berryhill, who shared time with Olson, moved up the depth chart. Cabrera was seen as a likely option to do the same, but he was jumped by Javy Lopez instead. Lopez hit .321/.362/.507 in Greenville that year and despite no time above Double-A, it was Lopez who received a few starts down the stretch when Berryhill was given a breather.
Cabrera’s final stats for the 1992 regular season: 3-for-10, 2 HR, 3 RBI, a walk, and a strikeout. Yet, when the postseason roster was announced, he was on it. As was Lopez. Both joined the team as they awaited the arrival of the Pittsburgh Pirates to Atlanta. The Pirates, who were tied for the division lead as late as July 30, took off over the last two months. They finished 40-18, winning the division by nine games. The previous fall, both teams met in the NLCS. The Pirates had the Braves on the ropes, needing one win at home to advance to the World Series. However, they would be shutout by Steve Avery and John Smoltz and lost the series.
The two teams had something else tying them together – the trade that almost was. The previous spring, the Pirates were ready to send Barry Bonds to the Braves for Pena, Mitchell, and a prospect-to-be-named. However, Jim Leyland blew up at the idea and took his anger directly to the higher-ups in the Pirates’ front office, who nixed the trade. Bonds would stay in Pittsburgh for one more season. If that trade does take place, we probably don’t know who Francisco Cabrera is.
The NLCS began in Atlanta with a 5-1 win for the Braves. Smoltz outpitched Doug Drabek throughout. Atlanta whipped the Pirates the next day 13-5 for a commanding 2-0 lead heading to Pittsburgh. The only action Cabrera had seen to this point was warming up Braves’ relievers in the bullpen.
Atlanta dropped Game 3, but Smoltz again out-pitched Drabek in Game 4 to push the Pirates to the brink of elimination. Like the Braves had done to the Pirates the previous October, the Pirates came roaring back, outscoring the Braves 20-4 over the next two games to force a Game 7. Cabrera finally got into a game in Game 6 as a pinch-hitter. Like Lopez, who entered as a defensive replacement, Cabrera went hitless in his only plate appearance.
Four days after his 26th birthday, Cabrera strolled down to the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium bullpens for the beginning of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. It was Smoltz/Drabek Part 3. Pittsburgh took an early 1-0 lead after Orlando Merced hit a deep fly ball that was caught by David Justice but still scored a run. Berryhill was Atlanta’s first baserunner as he doubled in the third, but was stranded. In the 6th, the Pirates scored again after Andy Van Slyke followed a Jay Bell double with a base hit up the middle.
It remained 2-0 heading into the ninth. Smoltz had been replaced after the sixth and Mike Stanton, Pete Smith, Steve Avery, and Jeff Reardon had combined to keep the score at 2-0. Drabek, who had been a disappointment during his first two starts, remained in for the Pirates to open the bottom of the ninth. Atlanta had the heart of the order due up.
Both Cabrera and Lopez had been summoned to the dugout in case either would be needed for a plate appearance.
The bottom of the ninth began with Terry Pendleton. On a belt-high pitch over the inside part of the plate, Pendleton turned on and it landed about 327 feet. It fell just inside the foul line and Cecil Espy couldn’t get to it. With a runner on second, David Justice stepped in. In the pen, Stan Belinda and Bob Patterson were warming up. The Chant was deafening.
Drabek got a first-pitch strike before Justice smacked a grounder to the right side. Jose Lind won a Gold Glove in 1992 and it was his defense that led to him receiving 4,001 plate appearances in the majors despite a career .254 batting average and nine home runs. Justice’s ball was to Lind’s right. Lind, who had made an error earlier in the game, raced over but the ball hit his glove and slipped by. For a city the Sports Gods seemed to often hate, there appeared to be a little hope for a change.
Sid Bream stepped in. Chants of “SID! SID!” were so loud, you could hear it from the site of the Braves’ future home in Cobb County. Whether it affected Drabek or not, the Pirates’ ace couldn’t find the strike zone and walked Bream on four consecutive pitches. The bases were now loaded as Leyland called in Belinda from the bullpen to replace Drabek.
On the bench, Cabrera joined Lopez and Brian Hunter as the trio warmed up and prepared to hit if called upon. On NBC, Tim McCarver pondered whether one of the trio would be used as a pinch runner for Bream, but that didn’t happen.
Ron Gant took the first pitch outside. Belinda’s second pitch was slammed deep to left field. For a second, it looked as if Gant had hit his second Grand Slam of the series, but it died short of the wall. Bonds caught it and fired it back into the infield. Pendleton scored, but Justice was not able to advance. Gant was the last “good” hitter left until the lineup turned back over. Lonnie Smith had been used to hit for Mark Lemke while Jeff Treadway and Deion Sanders had batted for pitchers earlier in the game. It was now down to Berryhill and Rafael Belliard. The latter certainly would be hit for, but Berryhill would have to hit for himself.
Though considered a superior offensive player to Greg Olson, Berryhill was still just a .228 hitter in 1992. He did pop a career-high 10 home runs, but that was it. Slow-footed and a double-play possibility, Berryhill stepped in with one batting glove and prepared to battle Belinda. He hacked at the first pitch, fouling it back, but Belinda couldn’t find the strike zone from there. As unlikely as it had been that Lind would commit an error, let alone two, it was just as unlikely that a player with a career .288 OBP would walk in that situation. But that’s exactly what happened.
To be fair…Belinda got a strike two. Home plate umpire Randy Marsh, who was only behind the plate because John McSherry left the game earlier because he was ill, called a pitch right on the inside corner a ball. It was a strike. But again, the Sports Gods did something they never do – they smiled on Atlanta.
In the dugout, the Braves rubbed Greg Olson’s cast for good luck.
Brian Hunter came to the plate to hit for Belliard. Hunter blasted 14 homers during the year but struggled to get on-base. However, it was a great matchup for the Braves. The uppercut in Hunter’s swing led to scores of flyballs. He had only grounded into a pair of double plays during the year. Belinda was also a flyball pitcher. Another Gant-like flyball and the Braves could tie this up. He lined the first pitch foul, but Belinda fooled him with a breaking pitch. Hunter popped up. Had the infield been playing in to make a play at the plate, Lind may not have been able to back peddle to the spot in short center field in order to catch the ball. However, they were still half-way in double-play depth and Lind got there in time.
Cox had two choices. Javy Lopez or Francisco Cabrera. As Cabrera would later say, “They had me and Javy Lopez ready to pinch-hit, and they picked me. Javy Lopez is a star in the majors.” While Lopez was a rookie, Cox definitely liked him and what he provided. He could have gone with Lopez, but opted for the more-experienced bat.
Justice led away from third. Bream did the same at second. Belinda’s first pitch was outside and Tim McCarver said, “if Belinda goes 2-0 to Cabrera, I’d have him take.” The second-pitch was high and outside.
In left field, Bonds prepared for the next pitch. In the dugout, Bobby Cox hoped for one big hit from the 1747th player he called “Kid.” In the dugout, Mark Lemke and Deion Sanders had their hats on backward and nervously awaited what was to come. The only fans that weren’t standing were either unable or too nervous to stand. Fans in Pittsburgh were biting their fingernails with each pitch as they watched from their home or at a bar. Some fans in Atlanta had made the mistake of beating the traffic when it was 2-0 and Drabek were dealing. They could only listen as baseball history unfolded.
Belinda’s fastball was grooved right down the middle. It was a faster batting practice pitch. Cabrera’s eyes went wide as he saw the perfect pitch to drive in a run. He swung on and smashed it. But, unfortunately, he hooked it. It landed about ten seats into foul territory just beyond the Pirates’ bullpen. You’d be forgiven if you thought that was it. That was Cabrera’s chance. He’ll never get a better pitch and hit it more solidly than that.
If Hollywood wrote what happened next, you’d say it was unrealistic.
Belinda threw a hanger. It was belt-high and on the outside corner. Yet, Cabrera pulled it, hammering it between short and third. Justice scored easily and just as Bonds was scooping up the ball in left, Bream was cutting the bag at third. Slowed by five different knee operations, Bream was running as hard as he could and Jimy Williams was imploring him to run even faster as he gave Bream the green light. Bonds’ throw was slightly up the line and Pirates catcher Mike LaValliere had to reach for it. He dived toward home to meet Bream.
Bream slid toward the center of the plate. His foot touched the dish and LaValliere’s glove then got him above the ankle. Marsh’s outstretched his arms and yelled “Safe!”
Justice tackled Bream at the plate, locking him in a headlock as everyone – except for the Pirates – went nuts in the stadium. A mob of players, coaches, batboys, and even trainers covered Justice and Bream. Cabrera joined them after having celebrated at first base. It took nearly a minute for Bream to be uncovered as Belliard, Wohlers, and Jeff Porter helped him to the feet.
In left field, Bonds had taken a knee. It would be the last time he wore the black-and-yellow of the Pirates. He slowly walked off. Andy Van Slyke had slumped into a seated position, unable to move from center field. It would be the last chance he would have at winning a ring.
Despite his big hit, Cabrera would be a non-factor in the World Series. I suppose in a way, that’s perfect for this story. So many things had to go just right to lead to that opportunity for Cabrera. The Bonds trade had to be nixed at the last second. Lind had to muff a play he otherwise wouldn’t. Marsh had to call “ball four” on what was obviously a strike and he was only behind the plate because another umpire had gone down earlier in the game. Bonds’ throw had to be up the line enough. Everything had to be perfect and it’d be impossible to expect it to happen again. Cabrera’s dash with destiny was over. Atlanta would fall in six games to the Blue Jays in the World Series with Cabrera hitting just once.
In 1993, Cabrera would play a bigger role than he did the previous year. A regular pinch-hitter for Bobby Cox, Cabrera hit .241 with four homers and went 2-for-3 in the NLCS against the Phillies. His last at-bat as a Brave was pretty big. He delivered an RBI single as a pinch hitter to finish a three-run rally to tie up a game at 3-a-piece in Game 5. Lenny Dykstra would hit a homer off Mark Wohlers in the next inning to help the Phillies win, though. Cabrera was non-tendered a month later. He spent a year in Japan and returned to the Braves organization in ’95, but never again played in the majors. Comeback attempts in 1998 and 2003 in the independent leagues were short-lived.
Cabrera is now a coach in the Dominican Republic and a father of seven children. He hopes to return to the Braves, this time in a scouting or coaching role. Regardless of how that works out, Cabrera remains a hero in Atlanta. One swing, one set of particular circumstances, one amazing moment. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
On a personal note – I want to thank each and everyone one of you for reading our little blog. It’s been a big year for Walk-Off Walk as we have added two new voices to the blog in Ryan Cothran and Stephen Tolbert. Both have helped push this blog from a little hobby of mine to something bigger. There are a lot of great sources for Braves news and analysis and it means a lot to all of us that you include us. We hope to continue to provide you with great analysis and unique looks at the past, present, and future of the team we all love. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and a safe and happy New Year.
Oh, and don’t worry – we aren’t done with our 2017 posts just yet.