Atlanta Braves closer John Rocker--a magnet for microphones and cameras, as well as for loutish Mets fans and, apparently, tractor-trailers--was standing on a makeshift stage in the middle of the Braves' clubhouse early this morning, screaming above the chaos about his emotions or his confidence or perhaps his favorite obscene gestures. Suddenly, a beer can appeared, attached to a hand, through the curtain that served as the backdrop, and emptied its contents on Rocker's head.
After a decade's worth of celebrating clinching victories, the Braves still relish these giddy moments, perhaps none more so than this National League Championship Series win over the New York Mets, which they wrapped up with a thrilling 10-9 victory in 11 innings in Tuesday night's Game 6.
Beginning today, the Braves will turn their attention to the New York Yankees, whom they will face in the World Series in a rematch of the 1996 Series, which the Yankees won in six games. Already this series, which begins Saturday night at Turner Field, is being spoken of as a battle for the designation of Team of the Decade.
Including division-title clinchers, first-round series clinchers, NLCS clinchers and their lone World Series title, in 1995, the Braves have been through the champagne-and-cigar routine a total of 19 times this decade.
But in the wee hours this morning, while the euphoria of the moment and the exhausted satisfaction of a difficult mission completed was still fresh, the Braves partied as if they had never tasted success before.
"We never take these for granted," said Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. He and John Smoltz are the only two Braves who have been with the team for all eight NLCS appearances. "We understand how hard it is to get here. This one may be more special than most because of what we went through to get here."
Not only did the Braves overcome season-ending injuries to their closer (Kerry Ligtenberg), their cleanup hitter (Andres Galarraga) and their all-star catcher (Javy Lopez) to win 103 games this season, they also survived the Mets' furious, fatalistic charge in this classic NLCS. The Braves nearly became the first team in baseball postseason history to lose a three-games-to-none series lead. They also blew a 5-0 lead after the first inning of Game 6 to find themselves down 9-8 in the 10th inning.
The emotions "were brutal," said Braves pitcher Greg Maddux. "You wanted to call time out and go puke or something. It was hard to watch. It's a lot easier pitching than sitting around watching."
The game began to get nutty in the seventh, when Smoltz was pounded for four runs, nearly matching Al Leiter's dubious feat of failing to retire a batter. The only out Smoltz recorded was on Robin Ventura's fly out to the wall.
In the deciding sequence, Valentine let the left-handed Kenny Rogers pitch to the right-handed Andruw Jones with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th, even though right-hander Octavio Dotel was ready in the bullpen.
"I was surprised," Jones said. "I saw they had Dotel up."
As the 3-2 pitch went wide, Jones began the triumphant walk to first base, bat still in his hands, and Valentine pounded the dugout railing and screamed out, "No!" with the anguish of someone who has just lost a loved one.
"This is my life," Valentine said. "I love the game of baseball."
And the Braves retreated to their clubhouse for another celebration, the likes of which never grow old.
"This makes up for all the times we were down," Smoltz said, "all the times we lost in the playoffs, all the disappointment. None of that matters now. It's on to the World Series."