Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hope Season: Remembering the 1991 Atlanta Braves

Amidst the chaos of March Madness, the stretch runs of the NBA and NHL seasons, and Augusta National gearing up for another memorable four days of golf’s biggest game, one impending date looms large on the sporting landscape.

Opening Day is right around the corner.

Hope springs eternal this time of year. Every team is 0-0, and there’s no telling just how those two zeros will eventually add up to 162. As Annie Savoy said, “it’s a long season, and you gotta trust it.” As we approach the 2011 MLB season, however, I find myself looking not to the future, but the past. This is an anniversary of sorts. Oh, it’s nothing you’ll read about in the papers, and you won’t see any ESPN or SI documentaries to commemorate it either. Nonetheless, for myself and everyone else who hails from the 404 and 770 area codes, this is the 20th Anniversary of a very special moment in time and the salvation of a city’s sports soul: The 1991 Atlanta Braves’ incredible season. In honor of this fake anniversary, please allow me a bit of self-indulgent reminiscence.

“It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play …”


Being an Atlanta sports fan in the late 80’s was a woeful business. In the Land of College Football, of course we had the eternal Georgia/GA Tech rivalry, and our collective hatred of Florida, FSU, ‘Bama, et al. But that was a divisive passion. You’re either a Dawg or a Ramblin’ Wreck, and there’s no room for bipartisan loyalty. But as for our teams, the Atlanta teams, we were in bad straits. The Falcons were still two decades from even posting back-to-back winning seasons. The Hawks, led by the great Dominique Wilkins and diminutive, plucky Spud Webb, were actually pretty good, but there was no way we were knocking Bird’s Celtics or Jordan’s ascending Bulls out in a playoff series. We didn’t have an NHL team, the Flames having moved to Calgary, and the Thrashers still being years away. And then there were the Braves. The pitiful, pitiful Braves.

Aside from Dale Murphy, whose continued absence from Cooperstown still baffles and infuriates me, there wasn’t much to cheer for. And it showed every time you tuned in on TV or went to a game. Remember the games right after New Yankee Stadium opened, when you could see the emptiness in those obscenely priced seats behind home plate during every at bat? That was every Braves home game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, except the dismal attendance wasn’t financially related. It was just that we stank. Badly. And unlike Boston, New York, or Chicago, we didn’t have several generations’ worth of devout fervor to bolster us. (The Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966, and the incredible exploits of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron aside, we had no venerable old traditions to hang our red-and-blue, “A”-embossed hats on.) AFCS wasn’t Fenway or Wrigley or Camden Yards or The House That Ruth Built. Really, it wasn’t the house that anybody built, unless you count Ted Turner. I loved them unconditionally anyway, but those years gave me a small taste of what every pre-2004 Red Sox fan must have gone through, and what every Cubs fan is still going through. It’s not an experience I’d care to repeat. Suffice it to say, it was a tough go loving baseball in Atlanta at the time. We finished the 1990 season with a mortifying 65-97 record, last in the division, and no one imagined that 1991 was going to be any better. How wrong we all were.


We were wrong because we didn’t understand the implications of the off-season yet. What happened, you ask? John Schuerholz happened. As the newly appointed GM of our beleaguered franchise, Schuerholz quickly decided that a massive overhaul was in order. He signed an avalanche of free agents, among whom three would become essential cogs in the coming season’s machine: Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, and Deion Sanders. At the time, however, none of these signings sparked any buzz with the fans. (This was understandable, since not a one hit above .270 the previous season, and only Bream hit more than 10 homeruns.) In fact, looking back at that year’s roster, it’s still mildly amazing that the season turned out like it did. Aside from our starting rotation, which went on to become legend but at the time was just a bunch of promising kids, only two names would jump off the page to a casual fan: David Justice, who’s probably just as famous for having once been married to Halle Berry as he is for baseball; and Deion Sanders, who you probably forgot even played baseball because his NFL association is so much more prominent nowadays. Everyone else? Unless you’re a Braves fan or an obsessive baseball junkie, you barely remember them being in the league. (Though our left fielder, Ron Gant, did manage to put himself in a bizarrely select group by becoming only the third player in MLB history to post back-to-back 30HR/30SB seasons. The other two? Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. I loved Ronnie, but his name looks wrong in such vaunted company. I mean, he hit .256 for his career, hardly Cooperstown material.) Anyway, here’s our ’91 Opening Day starters:

Sid Bream 1B

Jeff Treadway 2B

Rafael Belliard SS

Terry Pendleton 3B

David Justice RF

Deion Sanders CF

Ron Gant LF

Mike Heath C

John Smoltz SP

Not exactly Murderer’s Row, right? They didn’t look it that day, either, losing 6-4 to NL West rivals the LA Dodgers, coached by the hated Tommy Lasorda. (I’d forgotten until I looked this game up that we used to be in the NL West. The NL West? Atlanta is a six-hour drive from the Atlantic Ocean. MLB divisions back then had no relation whatsoever to actual geography.) For a while there, it looked like that first game would be a pretty accurate barometer for the season. In what would become a theme with the Braves for the ensuing decade or so, our starting pitching was good, the bullpen shaky, the offense swinging erratically between anemic and explosive, and too often we lived or died by how closer Alejandro Pena pitched that day. Pena was basically his generation’s Brad Lidge; on any given night, he was capable of turning into Mo’ Rivera and destroying batters, but you just never knew when he’d fall apart. We entered the All Star Break a game below .500 on another loss to the Dodgers, and only one player, ace Tom Glavine, participated in the Mid-summer Classic. In a truly bizarre occurrence, Third baseman Terry Pendleton failed to make the All-Star Game, but was voted NL MVP at the end of the year. Go figure.


If things looked bleak heading into the All Star hiatus, the Braves were exceedingly quick to change the tenor of the season coming out of it. We simply started to roll. We took 9 of our first 13 games after the break, winning series against the Cardinals, Cubs, and Cards again, finally dropping a three-game set to the Pirates two games to one. (You may find this difficult to believe if you’re under the age of 30, but once upon a time taking a series from Pittsburg was really hard. Those early-90s Pirates teams, with crotchety old Jim Leyland at the helm, were no joke.) Things were coming together. Our (mostly) youthful rotation of Glavine, Smoltz, baby-faced Steve Avery, and wily veteran Charlie Leibrandt, went from pretty good to certifiably dangerous, and the bats started to find leather more consistently. Our line-up from opening day was significantly altered; for the better, I might add. We now had Mark Lemke at second, Jeff Blauser platooning with Belliard at short, Greg Olson supplanting the aging Mike Heath behind the plate, Brian Hunter sharing time at first, and Lonnie Smith and Otis Nixon sharing time in the outfield. By August 12th, we were ten games above .500, and the city was absolutely over the moon about our boys. Gone were those empty seats, gone was the malaise. In their place were the completely foreign feelings of optimism and hope. The Braves were developing the kind of chip-on-the-shoulder, underdog swagger usually reserved for 16 seeds busting into the NCAA Final Four, and in turn, the fans got a little more pep in our collective step. We started to strut. With our ragged cast of middling veterans and young guns on the rise, we were, against all logic, serious contenders, and it felt goooooood!

As the regular season wound down, we were in a heated battle for the division title. We notched six straight wins going into a season-finale home stand against the Houston Astros, which left us with an identical record to the Dodgers: 92-67, with three games apiece left to play. We won the first game 5-2, and LA lost their game against the Giants. A post-season birth was so close we could practically taste it, but we still needed one more win and one more Dodgers loss to clinch it. I actually went to that second-to-last game, and it was easily the most tension-filled I’ve ever felt a ballpark in a non-playoff setting. Actually, given the circumstances, it was a playoff game. If we lost and LA won their last two, they would snatch the division away by virtue of a better head-to-head record.

We had ace John Smoltz on the mound that day, facing Houston’s Mark Portugal. If Portugal was pedestrian that day. Smoltz was anything but. He tossed a gem of a complete game, allowing only two runs. The Braves racked up five runs for the win, propelled by a stellar offensive day by Ron Gant: two hits, two runs, and two RBIs. Lemke, Belliard, and TP chipped in the rest, and suddenly we were just inches from the playoffs. The atmosphere at AFCS was extra heady. As we made to leave, an announcement came over the public address system: If we cared to hang around, the last few innings of the Dodgers/Giants game, on which our fate now hung, would be broadcast on the stadium’s huge TV monitor. Needless to say, nobody left. If LA lost, tomorrow wouldn’t matter. And lose they did, 4-0 to San Francisco. When the final out was recorded, we erupted into a raucous cascade of cheers, high fives, hugs, and general hysteria. If fans have ever loved a team not their own as much as we loved the Giants that day, I’ll eat a catcher’s mitt. The next day, LA won while Houston crushed us 8-3, and absolutely nobody cared. We were going to the playoffs. “From Worst To First!” the headlines proclaimed. Tom Glavine earned NL Cy Young honors on the strength of his 20 wins and 2.55 ERA. One leg of a miraculous journey was complete, but the real theatrics, the stomach-churning drama, the heroics and heartbreak, hadn’t yet begun. As the team boarded a plane to Pittsburg for an NLCS showdown against the Pirates, no one could have known that our season was about to make the massive leap from “improbable” to “unbelievable.”


Game one at Three Rivers Stadium didn’t exactly give an impression of prolonging the magic. The Pirates routed us five to one, and in the irrational manner of fans accustomed to losing, we immediately started to wonder if the whole season hadn’t been some sort of elaborate sham, if the playoffs were a cruel joke. Then Steve Avery came out and put on a pitching clinic in game two: 8 1/3 scoreless frames, with Alejandro Pena coming in to slam the door in the ninth. Our offense was terrible, but our lone run, courtesy of a Mark Lemke double to left in the top of the sixth that brought Dave Justice across the plate, was enough. As the series shifted back to Atlanta, we were by turns excited and terrified, hopeful and nervous as hell. But the Pirates had to come to our turf now, and anything could happen. “Anything” turned out to be a 10-3 blowout victory in game three, as the Braves’ thus-far ineffectual bats came to life with a vengeance. Delirious with our offensive resurgence, the city shared a collective thought: “Surely we can get at least one more victory at home. We’ve got this, right?” Our mistake.

Game four merits its own paragraph, on account of its capacity to make me cringe even now. We jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first on a Ron Gant grounder and Greg Olson’s single into left. Pittsburg promptly cut the lead in half in the top of the 2nd, with Don Slaught singling home Bobby Bonilla. They tied the game in the fifth, and we were knotted at two all the way into the top of an extra frame. (The Braves actually had a chance to end it in the ninth, but Mike Stanton popped up to first to end the inning, stranding Mark Lemke on second. I distinctly remember sitting between my parents on the comfy tan couch in our den, declaring with all the authority my nine years could muster that despite the lateness of the hour, there was no way I was going to bed until the game was over. They didn’t argue.) We brought in Kent Mercker to pitch the top of the tenth, and after a leadoff walk to Andy Van Slyke, it looked like he was going to save the day, retiring the dangerous Barry Bonds/Bobby Bonilla combo on consecutive fly outs. People forget this now, but at the time, those two were the equivalent of facing David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez back-to-back on the ’04 Red Sox; they were just plain scary. Then Van Slyke stole second, and Mercker walked Steve Buechele. Bobby Cox decided to bring in Mark Wohlers to finish off the inning, one of those signature not-quite-necessary Cox pitching moves that were alternately brilliant or disastrous. This one turned out to be the latter. Wohlers gave up a single to pinch hitter Mike LaValliere, and Van Slyke scored, but Buechele got thrown out at the plate, giving us a reasonable chance to stage a rally in the bottom of the inning. Didn’t happen. Three straight outs and it was over. With the series tied at two games apiece, we had one more shot to do some damage at home before heading back to the hostile confines of Three Rivers.

Tom Glavine was back on the mound for game five, and we had abundant faith in our all star. To Tommy’s credit, he pitched a fantastic game, allowing only one run through eight innings’ work. Unfortunately, our bats went dead silent again. Or silent when it mattered, at least. We stranded a whole gaggle of runners in scoring position, and lost 1-0, forcing us to head back to Pittsburg down three games to two. Thankfully, as in game two, Steve Avery was there to save us. His game six line was eerily similar to his previous appearance: eight innings, no runs allowed. And, as before, the Braves’ only run was enough for a win. Still, the bottom of the ninth was more harrowing than I care to recall. Pena came out of the bullpen and allowed a leadoff single to pinch hitter Gary Varsho. Then an Orlando Merced sacrifice bunt moved him to second. Jay Bell lined out, and with two down, we looked to be free and clear, but Varsho advanced to third on a wild pitch. We held our breath as Andy Van Slyke, who had burned us so many times before in crucial situations, came to the plate. Finally, we were able to exhale when good ol’ Alejandro caught Van Slyke looking on a nasty slider to end the game. (By the way, one of my favorite things about that year was the way the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium public address guy announced Pena, almost musically, all in one swooping breath: “ALEJANDROOOOOOOOOPEEEEEEEEEENNNNAAAAA!!!!” Fantastic.)

Anyway, onward to game seven we went.

Mercifully, This turned out to be as anticlimactic as a deciding playoff game can be. We jumped out to a three-run lead in the top of the first, and it was all we needed. John Smoltz simply never took his foot off the gas. Allowing a total of six hits, Smoltzy clocked a complete game shutout and just destroyed the Pirates’ hitters. It was a stellar performance, and after the near-death experience the previous evening, we were grateful to sit through a completely non-threatening game for once. Of course, that didn’t stop me from going bonkers when Jose Lind grounded out to end the game. I was jumping around like a lunatic, screaming, “We won! We’re going to the World Series!” over and over. And over. Steve Avery took home the NLCS MVP on the strength of his combined 16 1/3 scoreless innings. And then the team was packing to fly to the cold of the north, to face the AL Champion Minnesota Twins. By this point, Atlanta was in such a euphoria it bordered on outright rapture. If you were spacing out at school, doodling Braves logos all over your notebook instead of paying attention in class, which I may or may not have been, the teachers cut you some slack. No Atlanta team had ever done anything like this before, and we were all prepared to lose a week or two of normal life to revel in it. Just when we thought the chaos and passion, the rush of it all, couldn’t possibly ratchet up one more notch, it went ahead and jumped several dozen notches instead.


I only need to refer to the box scores sparingly to remember what transpired over the next ten days. By all accounts, the 1991 World Series is one of the greatest in the history of the Fall Classic, and I watched every moment. Moreover, my family purchased the commemorative video afterwards, and I watched and re-watched it repeatedly, obsessively in fact, throughout the entire winter, until every play was ingrained permanently on my memory. My mother’s entire family being from Minnesota, I made a $1.00 bet with Grandpa that “my” Braves would beat “his” Twins and win the series. It would take us all seven games, three going to extra innings, to find out who was getting that dollar bill.

I’m retelling the World Series in the present tense because it’s more fun and more effective that way …

October 19, 1991. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, MN.

The Braves elect to pit veteran against veteran in game one, sending Charlie Leibrandt to the hill to face Twins ace Jack Morris. The first 2 innings are relatively quiet. Both teams put runners on base, but are unable to take advantage. The Twins strike first in the bottom of the third. With two outs, left fielder Dan Gladden draws a walk, then steals second. Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch shoots a seeing-eye grounder through the gap into right to score Gladden, but is thrown out at second to end the inning. “It’s just one run,” says Dad. Another 2 ½ inning lull ensues. Then, in the bottom of the fifth, things start to fall apart. A Kent Hrbek double and a Scott Leius single put runners on the corners with nobody out. A few pitches later, Greg Gagne blasts a homerun. Twins lead 4-0. We pull Leibrandt and replace him with Jim Clancy. As any baseball fan could tell you, pulling your starter with no outs in the 5th is a bad sign.

Once again wedged between my parents on the couch, I feel my stomach churning as Clancy warms up. Amazingly, he gets us out of the inning without further damage. In the top of the sixth, the Braves show moderate signs of life. Ron Gant’s two-out single to left scores Jeff Treadway from second, and Dave Justice advances to third on a throwing error. I’m on the edge of the couch now, irrationally hopeful despite the score. Unfortunately, Sid Bream strikes out to end the brief rally. In the bottom of the inning, Hrbek lofts a solo shot over the Metrodome’s hideous plexiglass outfield wall, making it 5-1, Twins. We go 1-2-3 in the top of the seventh, but Minnesota can’t do anything in the bottom half, despite a leadoff walk for Dan Gladden, who is caught stealing second. In the eighth, Morris walks Lonnie Smith and Treadway consecutively, and is promptly relieved by Mark Guthrie. Terry Pendleton grounds into a double play, but Smith advances to third. Guthrie walks Dave Justice, and is replaced by Rick Aguilera, who immediately allows a Ron Gant RBI single. 5-2. Maybe we’ve got a shot here … Nope. Once again, Bream ends the inning. The remainder of the game is a blur, 3 consecutive outs by both sides, and a numbness as Jeff Blauser flys out to end it. “Don’t worry, honey,” says Mom. “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow,” says Dad.

October 20, 1991. Again in the Baggie Dome, Minneapolis.

(Most people I know still refer to this as the “Kent ****** Hrbek Game”, but we’ll get to that later.)

Twins pitcher Kevin Tapani retires the side in the first, and then, the madness sets in. Tom Glavine gets leadoff hitter Dan Gladden to send what looks like a perfectly routine fly ball to shallow right-center. The TV cameras show Mark Lemke calmly drifting back from second base, his glove raised to make the catch. It’s unclear if he doesn’t call the ball, or if no one hears him in the noisy, echoing cavern that is the Metrodome, but here’s what happens next: Dave Justice comes flying in from right to field the ball, oblivious to the fact that Lemke has already positioned himself under it. The two collide in the outfield grass, er, Astroturf, and the ball drops out of Lemke’s Glove. Gladden hustles his way to second while Dave and Mark are picking their embarrassed behinds up off the deck. Our living room lets out a collective “aaauuugghh!!!” This is not a good way to start a ballgame. Glavine walks Chuck Knoblauch, but induces slugger Kirby Puckett into a rare (for him) groundball double play. With Knoblauch on second and two outs, Chili Davis homers to put the Twins up 2-0. Uh-oh. A Brian Hunter sac fly scores Justice in the top of the second, and we cut the lead in half. I’m feeling a little bit better about things, and Tommy looks like he’s settling in and starting to find a groove.

And then … top of the third: Kent ****** Hrbek. Twenty years later, and I’m still mad about this. After a leadoff groundout by Belliard, Lonnie Smith gets on base on an error. A Terry Pendleton fly out makes it 2 outs with Ron Gant at the plate. Gant rips a single to left, and a wild relay throw by Dan Gladden allows Smith to reach third base. Meanwhile, Gant rounds first, looking to stretch it into a double, but Tapani fields the errant throw, catching him too far from second to make it. As Gant sprints back towards first base, Tapani guns the throw to Kent Hrbek, and Gant is called out on the tag by first base umpire Drew Coble to end the inning. This, folks, is why we need more replay reviews in baseball: despite adamant arguments from both Gant and Braves’ first base coach Pat Corrales, Coble maintains that Gant’s own momentum carried him off the base. TV announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, watching the same slow-motion replay being beamed to millions of households, are incredulous at the call, as it’s abundantly clear that Hrbek played dirty pool, yanking Gant’s foot off the bag with his glove to force the out. I have watched that replay approximately 437,915 times, and it never gets any less sickening. (This was a series-altering call. If Gant had been ruled safe, and every at bat had unfolded exactly as it did for the rest of the game, I’m convinced we would have won, and the whole tenor of the series would have changed. Both ESPN and Sports Illustrated later ranked the play in their “Top Ten Worst Baseball Calls of All Time.”)

Thankfully, we get another run when Greg Olson doubles to start the fifth, and a Lemke grounder moves him over to third with only one out. Rafael Belliard lofts a sac fly to right to bring him home. Tie ballgame! I’m bouncing up and down like a yo-yo. The next two-and-a-half innings are a mini-pitcher’s duel. Glavine and Tapani are masterful, pinpointing their spots and generally making the hitters look foolish. It looks like we’re going down to the wire, here. Then, in the 8th, Glavine makes one last mistake, hanging a pitch to Scott Leius, who crushes it to left-center to give the Twins a one-run advantage. Glavine finishes out the inning beautifully and without incident, and we move to a last-ditch top of the ninth, with Bream, Hunter, and Olson due up, and the Twins bringing in Rick Aguilera to close. Aguilera fans Bream to open the inning, but Hunter bloops a fly ball single into shallow center. Olson strikes out looking, and really, he gets a few pitches to hit, but I think the pressure just short circuits his brain. We’re down to our final out. Cox sends in Tommy Gregg to pinch hit for Lemke, and Tommy …. strikes out looking. Ouch. Not a dignified end to the game at all. With the Braves down 2-0 in the series, Grandpa calls the next day and jokingly asks if I’m ready to go ahead and concede the dollar. I’m so depressed I can’t even muster a response. At least we’re coming home for the next three games.

October 22, 1991. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

This wasn’t a baseball game, it was a bloody marathon.

Twenty-game winner Scott Erickson takes the mound for the Twins, facing the Braves’ young prodigy and NCLS MVP Steve Avery. Game three starts off in an eerily similar manner to game two. Again, Dan Gladden leads off with what should be a routine fly ball, and again, disaster strikes. Justice and Gant fail to properly communicate on the catch, the ball drops to the turf, and Gladden winds up at third with no outs. Here we go again. Chuck Knoblauch’s sac fly plates Gladden, giving the Twins the early lead. Nonetheless, Avery looks sharp, and retires the remainder of the side. In the bottom of the second, we tie the game with a two-out rally. Erickson walks Greg Olson, and Lemke singles to move him to second. Belliard rips a single to left to bring Olson across, and we wind up with runners on second and third when the Twins throw to home in an effort to prevent further scoring. Unfortunately, Avery is due up, and grounds out to end the inning. After consecutive 3-up, 3-down exchanges, Justice bangs a solo shot to right to lead off the fourth, and we’re up 2-1. Side Bream doubles in the next at bat, and we look to be putting something together, but Erickson forces three consecutive groundouts to end the threat. Avery is pitching brilliantly; he’s retired nine straight batters as we head into the bottom of the fifth. With one out, Lonnie Smith cranks a solo shot to left, 3-1, Braves. Erickson is clearly flustered, and he walks Terry Pendleton on the next at bat. Gant pops up to second to make it two outs, but Erickson’s wild pitch to Dave Justice moves TP over to second. Justices reaches base on an error, and we’ve got runners at the corners. Twins’ manager Tom Kelly yanks Erickson and sends reliever David West to the rubber, where he quickly walks to Sid Bream to load the bases, then walks Greg Olson to bring Pendleton home. The Twins pull West and put in Terry Leach, who strikes out Lemke to end the inning, but the damage is done. Up 4-1, with Avery in lights-out mode, this one feels like it’s in the bag.

Of course, Steve immediately starts to look mortal in the 6th. No runs score, but he gives up a few hits and the Twins batters are making solid contact, as evidenced by a scary deep fly out by Dan Gladden that almost starts a serious rally. Because of pinch-hitting Gene Larkin to try and generate some offense, the Twins are forced to bring in yet another reliever in Steve Bedrosian to pitch the sixth. He gets the job done and retires the side, but they’re burning through their bullpen at a furious pace. Avery finally lets one get away, giving up a solo shot to Kirby Puckett to open the seventh, but he retires the rest of the side, leaving us with a still-comfortable 4-2 lead. Bedrosian puts us down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning. The Twins use yet another pinch hitter, Brian Harper, to start the eighth, and he reaches on an infield error. Avery is clearly gassed after a brilliant outing, and we send in Pena, hoping he can close it out. No dice. He gives up a homerun to Chili Davis (yet another pinch hitter), and all of a sudden it’s a tie game. The Twins string a few more hits together, and my confidence of just an inning ago evaporates. I don’t have any fingernails left to bite, which is too bad, since I really could use them for the rest of the night. Pena finally gets back-to-back strikeouts to end the inning. The Twins make two more switches in the field heading into the bottom of the 8th (Carl Willis to the mound and Jarvis Brown to right, with Harper moving to catcher); their bench is starting to look paper-thin. Once again, we go down in order. They expend two more pinch hitters in the ninth, but aside from giving up a single to Harper, Pena gets us out scott free. Belliard draws a leadoff walk to start the bottom 9th, and the Twins intentionally walk TP with one out, but nothing comes of it. We’re headed to extra frames, and three of the craziest innings in postseason history.

Through the scoreless 10th and 11th, both Cox and Kelly make so many substitutions and double switches that the box score starts to resemble the teams’ complete roster listings. We get two solid innings’ work from Mark Stanton, while the Twins utilize Mark Guthrie. By the time we get to the top of the twelfth, the game has become downright loony. With Wohlers now on the hill, we get a quick first out. Dan Gladden smacks a line drive single into right, and a fielding error on an easy Knoblauch grounder puts runners at first and third. Kent Mercker replaces Wohlers and strikes out Hrbek, but Knoblauch steals second. Jim Clancy comes relieves Mercker, and we intentionally walk the dangerous Kirby Puckett to load the bases. At this point, Tom Kelly has completely depleted his bench, and is forced to use reliever Rick Aguilera as a pinch hitter, since Guthrie, whom he’s replacing, has never had a major-league at bat. Aguilera lines out to center to end the inning, and will be pitching in the bottom half. (He is the Twins’ very last pitcher left.) After a Ron Gant fly out, Dave Justice singles to right. Brian Hunter pops out to second, and it looks like we might be headed for a 13th inning. I am literally sweating bullets at this point. If we lose this one and go down 3-0, our proverbial goose is almost assuredly cooked. Then Justice steals second, and Greg Olson draws a walk to bring up Lemke. Finally, finally, we get a win. Lemke singles to left and Justice races home, ending one of the most intense and bizarre games of all time. The game clocks in at 4 hours, 4 minutes, then a World Series record. The Twins and Braves used a combined thirteen pitchers in the game, and Tom Kelly later told the media, only half-joking, that if the game had lasted another inning he would have put left fielder Dan Gladden on the mound. What a night. Exhausted, I shuffle off to bed. We’re down two games to one, but at least we know we can beat them, even if it does take our whole team to do it.

October 23, AFCS, Atlanta, GA.

After the insanity of game three, we barely have the emotional reserves to deal with another close game, but the baseball gods drop one on us anyway. Game four pits our young hurler John Smoltz against his boyhood idol (and game 1 winner) Jack Morris. After a quiet first inning, the Twins strike first on a Mike Pagliarulo single that scores Brian Harper from second. Smoltzy strikes out the next two batters to end the inning, but we’re trailing early. Again. My apple juice tastes like ashes in y mouth. After Morris fans Lonnie Smith to start the bottom of the third, TP rocks him for a solo shot to tie the game. The bottom of the fifth is a heady stretch of time, starting with Lonnie Smith’s leadoff single and subsequent steal of second. Pendleton shoots a line drive to center, and Smith rounds third as Kirby Puckett guns a throw to the plate. His collision with catcher Brian Harper reverberates violently through the TV, but Harper holds on to the ball. Ronnie Gant draws a walk, putting runners at the corners with only one out and Dave Justice coming up. Morris throws a rare wild pitch that caroms away from Harper, who rips off his mask and darts after the ball while TP sprints towards the plate. Harper recovers the ball, and dives back to home just in time to tag Terry out. I slump back into the couch, barely coherent as Morris gets Justice to pop out to get out of the inning. Smoltz and Morris are vicious in the sixth, retiring both sides. Pagliarulo burns us again in the 7th with a solo homerun, but Lonnie Smith answers with one of his own in the bottom half. A flurry of pitching changes and no offense to speak of take us to the bottom of the ninth still knotted at two all, with Olson, Lemke, and Blauser due up against Mark Guthrie. After Olson grounds out, Lemke rifles a triple to the warning tack in left-center, and the Twins intentionally walk Jeff Blauser. For what feels like the umpteenth time in the series, we have runners on first and third with one out. Steve Bedrosian relives Guthrie for the Twins, and Bobby Cox elects to send seldom-used bench player Jerry Willard to the plate as a pinch hitter. At home, we’re downright baffled by this, but it turns out to be the right move. Willard skies a sac fly to right that brings Lemke home. Vicotry!!! We’re tied at two games apiece, with one more to play at home. (Since game three ended after midnight, Mark Lemke just technically won us two World Series games in the same day. Outstanding!) On a related note, I totally bombed a math quiz the next day. Oh well.

October 24, AFCS, Atlanta, GA.

Every so often, a team’s entire batting order gets dialed in simultaneously. They swagger from the on deck circle, looking ten feet tall and bulletproof, seemingly seeing every pitch in slow motion. Game five turns out to be such a night for the Braves. A game two rematch of Glavine vs. Tapani, this one is never really in doubt after the 4th inning. Heading into the bottom of the 4th, both teams have only mustered two hits each, and it feels like we’re in for another tight, low-scoring affair. Then our bats come alive like they just chugged thirty pots of coffee. Gant leads off with a single, then Justice crushes a two-run blast to center. A Lemke triple scores Greg Olson, and a Belliard double brings Lemke home in turn. By the time a shell-shocked Tapani gets out of the inning, it’s 4-0, and he’s done for the night. Glavine rolls through the top of the fifth, and we tack on another run in the bottom when a Dave Justice grounder off reliever Terry Leach scores Pendleton. Glavine melts down in the sixith, issuing four walks and a hit that add up to three runs, the last one on a groundball out with Kent Mercker on the mound after Cox wisely yanks our flailing starter. At 5-3, it’s the closest Minnesota will have a chance to get. We demolish relievers David West and Bedrosian for six runs in the seventh to put things permanently out of reach, on a barrage that begins with a Lonnie Smith homer and features a complete trip through the order when Smith flies out to end it. The interim sees two consecutive walks issued, and hits by Justice, Hunter, Lemke (with a monster two-run triple to right), and Belliard. Just for good measure, we add three more runs in the bottom of the 8th. When it was all over, we’ve racked up 14 runs on 17 hits with three homers. As I run around the living room joyously screaming, the TV cameras cut to a delirious group of fans waving brooms in the center filed stands, symbolic of our three-game home sweep of the Twins. Up 3-2, we’re headed back to Minnesota for game six, and a shot at Atlanta’s first championship in any sport.

October 26, 1991. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, MPLS.

The Braves elect to put Steve Avery back on the mound with only three days’ rest for game six, facing Scott Erickson, whom our hitters abused in his previous outing. Erickson looks shaky in the first, giving up a walk and a hit, but eventually retires us without any runs scored. It quickly becomes evident that Avery is not well suited for pitching on short rest. After Dan Gladden’s leadoff groundout, he gives up a single to Knoblauch and a triple to Puckett to make it 1-0. Chili Davis pops out for out number two, but a Shane Mack single plates Puckett, and Scott Leius dings him for an additional hit before Avery finally gets Hrbek to line out to left. Rattled but resilient, Avery settles down to work and pitches three good innings. Erickson still looks a little discombobulated out there, but he holds us without any runs until the top of the fifth, when TP sends a two-run blast into the stands that brings us off the couch in a fit of excitement, during which I spill a glass of water. We hastily clean it up during the commercial break of a now-tied game. Our joy is cruelly short-lived. Avery gives up a sac fly to Puckett in the bottom half to score Dan Gladden, and we’re down a run. After a scoreless sixth, Erickson gives up a leadoff single to Lemke, and he’s done for the evening. Reliever Mark Guthrie strikes out Blauser, but the loads the bases on a wild pitch, and walk, and a Terry Pendleton single that the Twins’ infield can’t handle. Tom Kelly sends Carl Willis to the mound, and he forces a grounder that ties the game but also takes us from bases loaded and one out to first-and-third with two outs. For the 47th time in the series (approximate, but it feels like that many), we leave multiple runners stranded. After the seventh-inning stretch, Bobby Cox sends out Mike Stanton, and he and Willis trade two scoreless frames to take us to the bottom of the ninth. Pena comes in, strikes out the first two batters, and gets a groundout to end the inning in order. He looks positively nasty tonight. With things still tied at three, for the second time in the series, we’re forced into extra frames.

The Twins put Rick Aguilera back out to pitch the 10th, and after a leadoff Pendleton single, he forces a line-drive unassisted double play and a Dave Justice fly out to end the inning. Pena again retires the side in the bottom half, pitching like a man possessed. I feel like we can pull this one out. Aguilera gives up another leadoff single, this one to Sid Bream. Sadly, it’s followed by another anticlimactic inning for the Braves offense. We send in Keith Mitchell to run for Bream, but he’s thrown out stealing second, and two straight pop outs end it. As we cut to commercial, I’m feeling extremely apprehensive. When we return to the game, we see Charlie Leibrandt on the hill for Atlanta. Dad and I start screaming at the TV: “BOBBY, NOOOOOOOOO!!!! PENA’S PITCHING GREAT, LEAVE HIM IN!!!!!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?!?!!??” Unfortunately, Bobby can’t hear us, and probably wouldn’t listen to us if he could. Which is too bad, because Kirby Puckett proceeds to crush a monster homerun into deep, deep, center to win the game. I feel like I just got punched in the stomach by Mike Tyson. I don’t sleep well at all that night. The next day is Dad’s birthday. I honestly couldn’t tell you how we celebrated, but whatever we did, we made sure we wrapped it up before the first pitch of game seven.

October 27, the Baggie Dome. MPLS, MN.

We need a term other than “pitchers’ duel” to fully and accurately describe this game. What’s more intense than “duel”? Pitchers’ feud? Pitchers’ war? Pitchers’ Illiad? However you parse it, this was one for the ages. John Smoltz against Jack Morris in a game four rematch, in a fittingly dramatic conclusion to one of the most memorable World Series of all time.

From the first pitch, Smoltz and Morris are virtually untouchable. Even when runners reach base, we just have the sense that neither hurler is going to allow them anywhere near the plate. The Twins threaten in the third, when Gladden knocks a one-out double into left, and advances to third on a sac fly by Knoblauch, but Smoltzy fans Kirby Puckett to get out of the jam. We get our turn in the top of the fifth. Lemke leads off the inning with a single, and Belliard bunts him over to second. Lonnie Smith reaches on a bunt to third, giving us … you guessed it …. runners at the corners with one out. Unfortunately, Morris gets TP on an infield fly out, and freezes Ronnie Gant on a brutal pitch to shut us down. The tension is so thick in our living room I’d need a chainsaw, or maybe a blowtorch, to cut it. The 6th and 7th innings are a workshop of pitching dominance; 3-up, 3-down on both sides. Buck and McCarver are falling all over each other raving about the masterpiece we’re witnessing. Really, it’s incredible to watch, the revered veteran and the young ace who idolized him going toe-to-toe like Ali and Frazier. I am breathless.

The top of the eighth goes down as one of the all-time “slap your forehead and scream at the TV” moments of my life as a sports fan. Lonnie Smith leads off the inning with a line-drive single. The next play is soul-crushingly perplexing. With the hit-and-run on, TP drills a double into the gap in left-center, but the Twins’ infielders act like they’re turning a double play, briefly flummoxing Smith, who ends up at third. Lonnie’s a freaking speed demon. He could easily have scored on that play. Easily. My head hurts. Anyway, despite the base-running gaffe, we still have runners at second and third and no outs, but Morris refuses to let us rattle him. He gets Gant to ground into an infield out, forcing the runners to hold. After intentionally walking Justice to load the bases, Morris induces Sid Bream, who has struggled at the plate all series, to ground into a double play to end the inning. In the bottom of the frame, Smoltzy gives up a pair of hits and is removed from the game with runners at the corners and one out. With Mike Stanton now on the mound, Bobby Cox orders an intentional walk to Puckett, loading the bases. I can barely watch. Then Hrbek lines a shot right into Lemke’s glove, and he quickly steps on second for an unassisted double play. Whew. We’re still alive!

We go down 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, as Morris continues his brilliant performance. Stanton gives up consecutive singles to Chili Davis and Brian Harper to open the bottom of the ninth, and comes up injured on the second pitch. Cox sends Pena to the hill with runners on first and second and no outs. Pena gets Shane Mack to ground into a double play that moves pinch runner Jarvis Brown over to third. After an intentional walk to Mike Pagliarulo, Pena destroys pinch hitter Paul Sorrento with a series of brutal pitches, and he goes down whiffing by a mile. Could we have had any other ending to this epic series than a game seven going to extra innings? I say no.

Amazingly, Morris comes back out for the tenth inning. He’s got a look in his eyes like he could go for another ten if he has to. You’d think the old man would be exhausted at this point, but he’s not giving an inch, and we still can’t touch him. He gets Jeff Blauser on a leadoff pop up, fans Smith, and forces Pendleton into a grounder to short. One, two, three. To the bottom of the tenth we go. I’m so wired you could give me a heart attack by whispering too loud. Pena gives up a leadoff double to Gladden, and a Knoblauch bunt moves him to third. If nine-year-old me knew any curse words, I’d be rattling them off in one long stream at top volume right now. Bobby Cox orders intentional walks to both Puckett and Hrbek, loading the bases. (Can we look up the record for intentional walks by a team in a single game? I think the Braves might have broken it tonight.) Tom Kelly sends Gene Larkin in to pinch hit. Come on, we have to get out of this, right? Our season can’t end at the hands of some no-name bench player, right? Apparently, it can. Larkin laces a hit into left-center, bringing Gladden home, and it’s all over. As the Twins mob each other at home plate, I start crying. (Hey, I’m nine.) Disconsolately, I head off to bed in a fog, feeling like the punch line in a country song. My woman left me. My truck broke down. My dog died. My team just lost the World Series.


As a city, what do you do when you’ve just had your collective hearts broken? If you’re us, you throw your boys a big honkin’ parade. (I’m not sure how many losing World Series teams have gotten parades, but the number can’t be large.) Most of my school, including me, got excused by our parents to attend. The streets of downtown Atlanta were jam-packed, and as the Braves rolled by amidst all the floats and fancy cars, we gave them the most heartfelt, exuberant round of cheers and applause we could. It wasn’t a victory parade, obviously. It was a thank you for a magical season, for giving us so many amazing moments and indelible memories. It was an outpouring of love, and an acknowledgement that this was the start of something bigger. This team, these players, had already taken us somewhere special, but we knew they were just getting started.

You know the rest. The unprecedented fourteen straight division titles, the eventual World Series win in ’95. For the coming decade, we had an extended run of excellence to rival any in sports history. The media called us “America’s Team”, and maybe we were. But more than that, we were the Atlanta Braves, who in the course of a single season went from worst to first, from baseball doormat to Cinderella story. For a city mired in sporting mediocrity, what the 1991 Braves really did was give us hope.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Change Your Para-Dime.

We’ve been hearing it for the better part of two seasons now. From barroom arguments to columns to radio and TV talking heads. The recent upsurge of young, talented point guards in the NBA, not to mention a few veterans who still merit consideration, has set off a firestorm of opinion and controversy over that fundamental sports query: “Who’s The Best?” To be sure, there are a bevy of players for which you could make a reasonable argument in the “Best PG” debate. But when we talk about the best, what exactly are we discussing? What criteria define our opinions and assessments? Before we get into that, let’s take a look at our likely candidates (in no particular order):

Rajon Rondo, when he’s on, is the perfect catalyst for the Celtics offense, the sparkplug that keeps the aging Big 3 moving, and his recent semi-lockdown of Lebron James in the fourth quarter of a close game against the Heat evidenced his defensive prowess and tenacity. With the lowest points-per-game of anyone under consideration at 10.6, he’s the perhaps the least likely player in the discussion, but think where the Celtics would be without him.

Despite all the hype surrounding Kevin Durant’s breakout performance in the FIBA Championships this past summer and his run at a second straight scoring title, it is his teammate Russell Westbrook who has turned heads and made a decisive leap this year, becoming Durant’s offensive foil and considerably refining his all-around game. (Check out his stats from last season as compared to this year; he’s improved either moderately or significantly in every single category.)

The Nets’ Deron Williams is perhaps the most well-rounded of the current elite point guards, averaging 20 points, 10 dimes, and close to 4 rebounds per game, and the fact that New Jersey was willing to give up so much to get him should say enough. Jersey needs to add a few more pieces before we can see him scratch his true ceiling, but when they do, assuming Williams elects to stay, we’re going to see something special.

The aging, or ageless, Steve Nash, still has one of the best assists totals in the league (11.4 per game), and is once again on pace to crack the vaunted 50/40/90 shooting percentile. (Currently, Nash is at 50.5% FG, 40.6% 3FG, and 90.9% FT). The fact that the Suns probably won’t make the playoffs this year diminishes the strength of his case, but Nash is still the most skilled and intuitive passer in the game, and the glue holding a fractured team together.

Tony Parker remains an essential part of the Spurs’ success. At 17.5 points and 6.6 assists per game, his numbers don’t necessarily scream “elite”, and he’s not (and never has been) seriously in the conversation. However, I can’t justifiably keep such an important player on a team with the league’s best record off the list of potentials, especially given the fact that he’s had to assume an even greater role with Tim Duncan on the bench due to a recent ankle injury.

Chris Paul, once considered the near-undisputed heir apparent to the point guard crown, is still notching impressive stats, but he has become a different player since returning from a knee injury, lacking some of the explosiveness and change-of-pace ability that once made him nigh unstoppable. Nonetheless, he continues to have a strong year, anchoring a playoff-bound Hornets squad despite lacking much in the way of quality help.

Even young John Wall, while he’s certainly not in the discussion yet, is averaging comparable totals to many of the players mentioned above. (16.1 PPG, 8.7 APG, 4.6 RPG.) Provided that the Wizards can surround him with better players sometime in the future, he’s almost certainly going to enter the PG conversation within the next few seasons, despite being largely overshadowed by Blake Griffin in the ROY race this year.

And then, of course, there’s Derrick Rose. The MVP candidate is having a truly impressive season, shouldering the load of both distributor and primary offensive weapon for a Bulls team that currently holds the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Rose is as skilled as anyone in the league at getting to the cup, and his improved shooting range makes him a threat from anywhere on the floor, opening up more space for Chicago’s other players to operate. He’s the answer you’re currently most likely to hear if you ask who the best point guard in the league is. But that doesn’t seem to be a fair or even realistic question, at least not the way it’s currently being parsed by fans and analysts.

The position of point guard is the most malleable and system-dependent in the NBA. The requirements of the player are predicated on the pieces around him, and what those pieces dictate in terms of team needs. Given the disparity of offensive systems and personnel around the league, doesn’t it seem a little flawed to compare these players and attempt to draw a definitive conclusion, when their teams demand such different skills and styles of play? It feels like what’s really being asked is: who’s the best basketball player who happens to play at the point? If that’s the case, then the discussion becomes much more simplified. It’s Derrick Rose. But that’s an entirely different question than who the best point guard is. I know it’s largely a difference in semantics, and I know it’s fun to argue about this stuff. The opportunity for a good barroom banter-fest over things like “Was Emmit Smith or Barry Sanders the better running back?” is one of the more enjoyable facets of being a sports fan. I understand that air time has to be filled, that columns have to be penned, and that a topic like this provides a great deal of fodder for those under such obligations, but it still seems like an apples-to-oranges scenario to me.

Please understand, I’m not saying Derrick Rose doesn’t deserve the Best Point Guard title or the MVP award. He’s an extraordinary player by any calculation. But for argument’s sake, let’s say Rose, as he currently exists, were playing for the ’06-‘07 Phoenix Suns, for which Steve Nash averaged 18.6 points and 11.6 assists. How does that team’s record look? Obviously, we can’t know for certain, but I’m betting not as good. I’m sure Mike D’Antoni would have loved a player with Rose’s quickness in the 7-seconds-or-less offense, but without Nash’s passing acumen and uncanny court vision, and his penchant for keeping teammates focused and involved, do Rose’s superior athleticism and 6 more points-per-game (he’s averaging 24.9) necessarily translate into more wins or a deeper playoff run?

What about a more contemporary hypothetical? Say this year’s Bulls and Celtics teams swapped point guards. (I’m not talking about going to the ESPN trade machine and engineering some convoluted way to make this happen. We’re assuming both teams’ rosters remain otherwise unaltered.) On paper, this seems like a no-brainer. Unquestionably, the Bulls would be worse off. Rondo’s (relative) lack of offensive firepower would be a huge problem, and his distribution skills and general on-court savvy wouldn’t translate nearly as well to a team lacking the caliber of players he’s used to having around him in Boston. But how would the C’s fair with Rose? Te be sure, he has improved his passing skills and overall Basketball IQ, but those elements of his game still aren’t quite on Rondo’s level. Could he consistently find the Big Three in their preferred spots? Would he be as good a floor general? Could he learn how to operate without the ball effectively? The answer to all three questions is “maybe, but probably not; at least not yet.” And despite his reputation as a good teammate and a humble, genuine young man, would he be able to integrate and maintain the close-knit chemistry Boston has so carefully constructed over the past few seasons? Again, perhaps, but it’s unlikely. And Rondo is the better current defensive player, averaging 1.3 more steals a game and playing smarter and more tenacious at that end of the floor in general, though under Tom Thibodeau’s watchful eye, Rose is getting there.

Swap Rose for Russell Westbrook and you essentially break even. Westbrook averages one more assist and two less points per game, with all other stats being almost equal, and he’s showing some Rose-esque creativity and explosiveness this year. But, again, we don’t know how Rose would handle being a secondary option to Kevin Durant, or how Westbrook would deal with being a primary offensive weapon, for that matter. Switch him with Deron Williams and you’re giving up 5 PPG but gaining two more assists and better court vision. The Nets’ lack of offensive weapons might make Rose a slightly better fit in the present, but if and when they are able to add more quality assets, Williams’ superior distribution skills may well be more beneficial down the line. At this point, putting Rose in the place Tony Parker or Chris Paul would make the Spurs and Hornets better on paper, but it’s still hard to predict his affect on those teams’ chemistry and style of play. (Paul would be a reasonably good replacement for Rose on the Bulls, Parker, not so much.)

The upshot of this admittedly overly-protracted rant is this: the “best’ point guard is a nebulous conception at best. The position is so tied to the intricacies of the team, so inextricably linked to the ratio of passing-to-scoring that best serves the franchise, that there is no correct answer. Legendary Celtics’ point guard Bob Cousy once said, “The playmaker has to be a respectable shooter, but scoring is not his real function. He has to keep the other four guys happy. He has to pass out the sugar.” Right now, Rose’s situation dictates that scoring, for the most part, is his real function. It’s what his team needs him to do in order to succeed. But it’s unclear how well he would fair with a team on which he were required to scale that part of his game back and focus more on “passing out the sugar.” He’s currently 10th in assists this season, behind everyone mentioned above except Tony Parker, and has a worse assist-to-turnover ratio than any elite PGs besides Westbrook and Wall. Look, I’m not detracting from Rose’s considerable skills. He is undeniably a very special player, maybe Top 5 in the league, and he’s only getting better. But calling him, or anyone else, the best point guard in the NBA is like calling Elvis the best singer of all time. Sure, he’s in the uppermost echelon of the discussion, but you just can’t declare “The King” THE KING. Not irrefutably, anyway.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spiral Evolution: Is this the beginning of the end of the Archetypal QB?

- By Travis Lund

     With the NFL draft coming up, Cam Newton has triggered yet another debate about the benefits of drafting a hyper-athletic quarterback with questionable passing accuracy and pocket presence.  (Let’s blissfully ignore the fact that this draft may not be followed by an actual season.  Shut your eyes, clap your hands over your ears, and repeat after me: “La la la la la la la la …”)  All good?  OK.  The thing is: this isn’t the first time we’ve heard such a debate.  Last year, we went through it with Tim Tebow.  We’re still going through it, actually.  And before him it was Vince Young and Michael Vick.  It’s safe to say this is becoming somewhat of a trend.      

Like many things in life, football has survived and flourished largely on the basis of evolving. Popular music was different before Les Paul invented multi-track recording and the electric guitar.  Literature was different before James Joyce started pushing the limits of what constitutes a novel.  In every arena, new innovations are usually met with a mixture of enthusiastic embrace from those willing to take the leap and studied skepticism or outright disgust from those who think things ought to remain as they are.  Football is no different.  Seventy years ago, no one would have believed the forward pass would become the sport’s primary offensive weapon.  Forty years ago, people couldn’t conceive of hybrid backs like Reggie Bush.  Heck, as recently as fifteen years ago, you’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting that the game would someday be populated by 300 lb. defensive ends who could run a 4.6 forty.  Evolution is the name of the game. 

So where is pigskin Darwinism taking the modern quarterback?

Increasingly, we’re seeing an athletic sea change at the game’s most important position.  In colleges and high schools across the country, the statuesque, cerebral pocket passer that has been the game’s ideal since the days of Montana and Elway is being replaced by a fresh paradigm. The new breed of QB seems to be predicated on explosiveness and athleticism, while exhibiting a pronounced, if fixable, downturn in the well-drilled fundamentals of generations past.  They throw too many picks, but they evade sacks.  They don’t plant their feet properly, but they turn routine draw plays into sixty-yard gains.  These are today’s college stars, and therefore theoretically tomorrow’s (possibly elite) NFL QBs.

Non-pro coaches are more than willing to embrace these athletes, because keeping their jobs means scoring points, and if the most effective way of doing that is letting their quarterbacks dart around the field like whirling dervishes, so be it.  And maybe they’re on to something.  Of course, there are numerous points of contention over how such players will ultimately translate to the NFL.  Draft geeks and scouts are always leery of them, cautioning that while they may have “tremendous upside”, there are concerns about their ability to operate effectively at the next level.   

The reasons:

-       Pro-style offenses don’t really cater to this type of player.  Teams mostly draft to fit an offensive system, and no NFL organization currently runs the kind of offense that makes the Tebows of the world so effective in college.  (Though the Eagles gave it a shot last season with Vick.)
-       Nearly every previous attempt at integrating college-style play into the NFL has been a failure.  Tennessee tried to integrate Vince Young’s prodigious running skills into their playbook.  Didn’t Work.  Miami started running the Wildcat in 2008.  Defensive coordinators figured it out, and we now only see it in specialty packages that don’t get a lot of use.
-       The speed and power of defenses in the NFL is nothing like what these kids see on Saturday afternoons.  Even with the recent rule changes designed to protect offensive players, the hits are still far more vicious.  If you’re an NFL owner, you surely don’t want your multi-million-dollar, face-of-the-franchise QB subjected to the kind of weekly punishment and potential injury that comes with an offensive system looking to take advantage of these new-school players’ skills.

Michael Vick’s season last year was a great test case for both the aforementioned concerns and the benefits of utilizing this kind of quarterback:

When the nation tuned in to the Monday Night Eagles/Redskins game this past season, we bore witness to one of the great performances in NFL history.  Vick shredded Washington’s D in every way, from every conceivable angle.  He threw accurate deep bombs to receivers, he rushed for touchdowns, he evaded pressure and made difficult throws in heavy traffic.  It was a virtuoso performance, the likes of which had rarely been witnessed before at the NFL level.  Maybe, just maybe, this stuff could work after all.

Of course, the downside of playing this way was in evidence as well.  When Vick went down with a rib injury earlier in the year, it was on one of those athletic running plays.  Eagles coach Andy Reid has more than once voiced concerns about Vick’s ability to remain healthy while consistently absorbing the kind of punishment that comes with frequent runs.  But you can bet the Eagles are scheming right now on ways to maintain that element of unpredictability while ensuring Vick’s safety.  As for our other test cases, Tebow and Newton, we’ll just have to wait and see.  We don’t know what Tim Tebow’s ultimate roll with Denver will be yet, and we probably won’t for another year or two, because the Broncos’ organizational and systematic direction is, to put it politely, up in the air at the moment.  We don’t know who Cam Newton will be playing for or in what capacity. 

The question is: will there come a time in the NFL when Vick-esque quarterbacks are equally as coveted and utilized as the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the league?  If the proliferation of the quarterback-as-playmaker/athlete in the college game continues, I can’t help but think that the answer is yes.  Maybe not soon, but sometime down the road., we could see teams borrowing more aggressively from high school and college playbooks or concocting entirely new schemes designed to take advantage of these remarkable athletes.  The pocket passer will probably never die, but the influx of this new breed of elite quarterbacks may eventually alter the offensive status quo. 

Eddie Vedder said it best: “Do the evolution, baby!”