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Braves, Giants franchises molded by 1993, MLB's last great pennant race

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 5 days ago Bob Nightengale

CHICAGO - 1993:  Greg Maddux of the Atlanta Braves pitches during an MLB game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois during the 1993 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

CHICAGO - 1993: Greg Maddux of the Atlanta Braves pitches during an MLB game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois during the 1993 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
© Ron Vesely

SAN FRANCISCO -- The last great pennant race left some with the most beautiful memories in their careers and others with the ugliest of scars. 

It created the most radical change in baseball’s playoff format, widely celebrated by today’s players, but lampooned by many who played the game before them. 

No matter what happens in the waning weeks of this year’s playoff races, nothing will compare to the drama 25 years ago. The Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants were engrossed in a pennant race that forever changed two franchises, altered the design of future playoff races, and perhaps will lead to dramatic change in the sport. 

'I'll never forget that'

The Braves won 104 games and the National League West on the final day of the regular season. The Giants won 103 games, but lost their final game and spent the playoffs at home. 

“When we lost that last game,’’ former Giants manager Dusty Baker told USA TODAY Sports, “I kept going back to Candlestick every day for a week. I would sit in my office every day watching the playoff games. All by myself. 

“My wife called one day, and said, 'Baby, it’s over. You’ve got to come home. Please come home.’ 

“I swear I’ll never forget that as long as I live.’’ 

Anyone and everyone who experienced the Last Great Pennant Race share the same sentiment, whether it was Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz and home run champion Fred McGriff from the Braves, or home run king Barry Bonds and All-Star first baseman Will Clark from the Giants. 

The Braves would win 14 consecutive division titles and the 1995 World Series, but they believe the 1993 team - which lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL Championship Series, was the greatest of them all. 

“I think that loss to the Phillies,’’ Smoltz said, “hurt more than any other loss just because that team was the best I played on.’’ 

The Giants would go on to win three World Series championships in 2010, 2012 and 2014, but they believe that their 1993 team may have been the greatest in franchise history. 

“It was as magical a season as it can be, without going to the playoffs," Giants president Larry Baer said. "That season was such an incredible shock to the system. We went from the dreariness of 1992, to the somber feeling of being ticketed to be the Tampa Bay Giants in 1993, to taking the field in San Francisco, Barry Bonds hitting a home run on opening day and becoming the MVP, Dusty Baker becoming the Manager of the Year his first season, to that great race. 

“It completely ushered baseball back to San Francisco after literally being pronounced dead and gone.’’

The McGriff factor

The Toronto Blue Jays wound up as World Series champions that year, but if the Braves had not been so exhausted from the epic race, maybe their fate would have been different. 

“That ’93 team was the best team I ever played on,’’ said McGriff, “but we went so hard to catch the Giants, we had nothing left in the end.’’ 

McGriff, who acquired by the Braves on July 19, 1993 from the San Diego Padres, perhaps was most responsible for baseball’s last great race. The Braves, even after signing ace Greg Maddux as a free agent during the winter, were down nine games to the team that signed Bonds to a record six-year, $43.75 million contract in the offseason. 

“I remember saying, 'I hope they got Fred McGriff too late,' ’’ Baker said. “Well, they got the quote wrong. They left out the word, 'Hope.' There was no way I would say that, but they used that for inspiration.’’ 

The Braves don’t recall Baker’s quote riling them up, but certainly remember the immediate impact of McGriff’s presence. 

“We had David Justice, Ron Gant, Terry Pendleton, Javy Lopez, you name it,’’ said John Schuerholz, the Braves general manager from 1990-2007. "But we didn’t have a fourth-place hitter. Everybody was trying to be that guy and they weren’t comfortable. When we got Freddy, everything changed.’’ 

McGriff hit .422 with seven homers and 12 RBI in his first 12 games, and the Braves caught fire. 

Literally. 

McGriff, who was at home nursing sore ribs when the Braves made the trade, drove from Tampa to Atlanta and was in the starting lineup for a 7:40 p.m. start. He immediately went to the trainer’s room for treatment. The next thing he knew, they were being evacuated when the press box at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium caught on fire. 

“The stadium is on fire, we’re all on the field bound and determined to get the game in,’’ Schuerholz said, “when the fire marshal came and said the fire was out. I’m standing next to (former owner) Ted Turner, and he says to me, 'Tonight, the stadium caught on fire, and so will the Braves.' ’’ 

McGriff, who had not played in nine days, homered that night in the Braves’ 8-5 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. They went on to win 27 of their next 35 games before meeting the Giants. They swept them, and on Sept. 10, the race was even. 

“I remember everybody writing us off at the All-Star break,’’ Smoltz said. “I went up to Bonds at the All-Star Game in Baltimore, telling him, 'Hey, why don’t we play a round of golf for this nine-game lead.' He said, 'No, I’m going to enjoy this one all summer.' ’’ 

Says Bonds, who hit .336 with a league-leading 46 homers and 123 RBI: “What I remember most is how they beat up on the Colorado Rockies. They couldn’t beat the Braves in a single game. Not once. They went 13-0.’’ 

It was the Rockies’ inaugural season. They were the opponent in the Braves' final series, in Atlanta. The Braves swept them, winning the season finale, 5-3, and then retired to the clubhouse to watch the Giants play the L.A. Dodgers in their finale at Dodger Stadium. 

103 wins, no playoffs

Baker, whose pitching staff was depleted, debated on starting Jim Deshaies, Scott Sanderson or rookie Salomon Torres. He ruled out Deshaies, a left-hander, because of the Dodgers’ powerful right-handed lineup. Baker took Torres to dinner, trying to judge his nerves, and prayed that evening. 

Baker opted to go with Torres, utilizing his own experience in a winner-take-all game. He remembered their one-game playoff when he was with the Dodgers in 1980 against the Houston Astros. Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda chose veteran Dave Goltz over rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela, and it backfired. 

“We begged Tommy to start Fernando,’’ Baker said. “Really, that made up my mind there.’’ 

The final regular-season game - Oct. 3, 1993 - also marked the 42-year anniversary Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World’’ to win the pennant. The Giants brought in Thomson to sit on one side of the Giants’ ownership group, and Hall of Famer Willie Mays to sit on the other side. 

“We tried to reprise 1951,’’ Baer said, “but that plan didn’t work out so well.’’ 

Together, they watched future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza hit two home runs and Eric Karros produce three hits and two RBI in the Dodgers’ 12-1 rout. Torres lasted just 3 1/3 innings. It turned out to be the last 100-victory team Baker managed. The last Giants’ team to win more games was in 1905. 

“That hurt, and it still hurts,’’ says Clark, the Giants’ great. “You play so extremely well all year, and on the last day of the season, they’re playing the expansion Rockies and we’re playing our hated rivals. 

“You win 103 games and go home. You kidding?’’ 

Says Karros: “We didn’t have much going on that year, but it was a big deal to try to make life miserable for them. And we did that. It had to suck to win 103 games and get nothing for it. That’s just crazy.’’ 

Wild card changes game

MLB realigned in 1994 with three divisions and a wild card, only to see the strike cancel the postseason. The Braves finally won the World Series when baseball resumed in 1995. The Giants had to wait until 2002 until they reached the World Series, losing to the Los Angeles Angels, before their historic run in 2010, 2012 and 2014. 

“That pennant race led to the manifestation of the wild-card system, which has been so great for baseball,’’ said Bud Selig, Commissioner Emeritus of Baseball. “When you win 103 games, you should be rewarded.’’ 

Now, 25 years later, playing in their second new ballpark since that year, the Braves are poised to return to the postseason after a four-year absence with a 7 1/2 game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. The Giants will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Maybe one day, they’ll meet again in the postseason, as they did  in 2010, but never again will they have the feeling of the summer of ’93. 

“Unfortunately, we won’t have that because of the fail-safe of the wild card scenario,’’ Smoltz said. “Every (team) in the league played the same schedule back then. Now, I personally don’t understand it? How can how you have a sport play 162 games and the schedules are not the same? It’s just mind-boggling to me.’’ 

Says McGriff: “Life ain’t fair now. The Rays have to play the Red Sox and Yankees 19 times, while Oakland plays them six times. So Oakland goes to the playoffs instead of Tampa because of the schedule? It’s not right.’’ 

The reality is that the last great pennant race might actually be the last pure race, too. 

“All I know is that none of us will ever forget 1993, how could you?’’ Schuerholz said. “It was remarkable. Absolutely remarkable. A classic. It couldn’t have been more dramatic. 

“Never again will we see anything like it.’’ 

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