The same day O.J. walked, John Vander Wal grounded into a double play. Then Andres Galarraga struck out. And that was the beginning of the end for the 1995 Colorado Rockies.
Not even manager Don Baylor expected his overachieving club to take the dominant and confident Atlanta Braves (30-6 against the Rox coming in) out of last week's National League divisional playoffs. He didn't really expect to beat the Braves' Greg Maddux, who's been the best pitcher in baseball for the past three years, and he didn't actually expect to stay with Tom Glavine, who has been the second- or third-best pitcher in baseball for the past three years.
So Don Baylor had to be a little startled when his team took a one-run lead into the ninth inning of both games at Coors Field.
But Baylor didn't expect his weary relief pitchers to blow both saves.
Now that it's done, the wintering Rockies can only speculate about what might have been if Curtis Leskanic hadn't yielded young Chipper Jones's second home run of the game in the top of the ninth last Tuesday night.
They can but wonder what might have happened if Baylor, following Galarraga's critical "K," hadn't been reduced to sending the next night's starting pitcher to the plate with the bases loaded and two down in the bottom of the ninth. Poor Lance Painter. Against the hundred-mile-an-hour smoke of Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers, he might as well have been Lance Ito.
What would have happened if Darren Holmes hadn't given up a second homer to Marquis Grissom in the last frame on Wednesday? What if second baseman Eric Young hadn't made a wild throw that let in two more Atlanta runs?
What if, what if, what if...
The Rockies' dream season is over, but one more enormous "what if" remains to be resolved.
What if Dante Bichette is named the National League's Most Valuable Player?
It's unlikely, of course. Almost as unlikely as Colorado beating the Braves in the playoffs. Or beating the '27 Yankees in the playoffs, for that matter.
But there's a difference in this issue. Dante Bichette deserves to be MVP. No matter what the Eastern press says about the flight of the ball in Coors Field. No matter how great the aforementioned Mr. Maddux was again this season. No matter how often Barry Bonds opens his mouth to speak on his own behalf. No matter how many Hollywood publicists stand on one another's shoulders to pump up the chances of Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza.
Dante deserves it. And if that sounds like a hometown call, so be it. Except that your present correspondent remains a Mets fan. Always will. No, we're talking justice here. We're talking about what's right. We're talking about a verdict that should take no more than four minutes to decide.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, kindly consider:
Bichette led the league in home runs with 40--four more than Chicago's Sammy Sosa. He led the league in runs batted in with 128--nine ahead of Sosa. He was first in total bases (359)--59 ahead of teammate Larry Walker--and slugging percentage (.620). He tied San Diego's superb singles-hitter Tony Gwynn in total hits with 197--both 17 ahead of the Cubs' Mark Grace. Bichette had the league's third-highest batting average at .340, trailing perennial batting-crown winner Gwynn (.368) and Piazza (.346). He was second in doubles and fourth in runs scored.
Also consider the value of chemistry. Four Rockies--Bichette, Galarraga, Walker and Vinny Castilla--hit 30 homers or more this year (a mark last reached by the 1977 Dodgers), but without Bichette's threat looming at the plate, the rest of the Blake Street Bombers wouldn't have gotten enough good pitches to hit 30.
Bichette had a 23-game hitting streak between May 22 and June 18 (equaled this year only by the Angels' Jim Edmonds) and put together a 19-gamer from July 19 to August 8.
Meanwhile, the heavy-lidded slugger led both leagues in heart. The club almost didn't re-sign him last spring, but he swallowed his pride and came back for less money. Then he weathered a midseason storm over an old spousal-abuse incident, fielding all questions with honesty, patience and dignity.
Something else, too: He'd been a starter (and a star) with the Rockies for two seasons, but when the club landed blue-chip free agent Walker from the Montreal Expos in April, Bichette moved from right to left field without a squawk. Although he has one of the great throwing arms in baseball, he's never been considered strong with the leather: Still, he committed just three errors in 136 games while piling up nine assists against base runners foolish enough to test his gun.
Achievements like that don't fall out of thin air.
"Just look at the progress of Dante in the last three years," manager Baylor says. "Where he's come from. He had 90-plus RBIs in '93, 100 RBIs last year. And he's been a clutch hitter from the day he got here. From the seventh inning on, he's won big games for us with home runs. He had a lot of distractions early--the spring-training hoopla about not coming back. And Dante pretty much has to be settled in. And he pretty much put all that aside and worked his way into MVP numbers."
But that's not enough. At least not for some baseball writers who believe only cavemen and cowboys lurk beyond the west bank of the Hudson, and others who are convinced the altitude in Denver turns banjo hitters into bashers. A staff writers' poll in last week's edition of Baseball Weekly, for instance, ranked Bichette fourth in the MVP race behind pitcher Maddux (whose 19-2 won-lost record and 1.63 earned run average will win him his fourth straight Cy Young Award), Piazza and the Reds' Reggie Sanders. Let's see: Sanders struck 28 homers this year, batted in 99 runs and hit .308.
But he didn't play in Coors Field.
The devaluation of the valuable Dante Bichette derives from the fact that he hit his first 17 homers--and 31 of 40 overall--in the new ballpark. After knocking two out of Coors himself last week, Atlanta rookie Chipper Jones proclaimed that he hit both balls "decent" but not very well. And slugger David Justice allowed that every power hitter in the National League would love to play half his games in Coors Field because mere pop flies jump out of the place.
Sometimes they do. But that doesn't account for Bichette's 197 hits. Or his .340 batting average. Or his immeasurable value to a third-year club that got to the playoffs. Critics can say what they want about home runs on Blake Street--the Rox led the league with 200 of them--but the left-fielder also consistently got the fat part of the bat on the ball when it counted. And thin air has nothing to do with that. Besides, the Rockies were assembled with power in mind: They out-homered their opponents in Coors Field by 40 dingers.
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For his own part, Bichette is characteristically modest about the MVP. "I'm very excited to be considered," he says. "It became less important as the divisional race went on, because I heard all the negative things that came along with it. So I didn't take it seriously. It was more important to help put my team in the playoffs, which I was able to do. I think the fair thing was to get someone from our club considered because we made the playoffs."
If the matchless Maddux wins the MVP, that will be fine with Bichette. "I totally agree that a pitcher can be MVP," he says. "But I wish they had a separate award for an offensive player, like a Babe Ruth Award. The pitchers would have their award, the hitters theirs, and then there'd still be the MVP."
And Piazza, Gwynn, Bonds, Sanders, Barry Larkin, Ron Gant and Sosa? How do they stack up in Dante Bichette's estimation? "All deserving," he answers carefully. "All very deserving. All of them were MVPs on their teams."
But what does that little knowing twinkle in his sleepy eyes signify? Hard to know. As they like to say up in the Rockpile: Bichette Happens. But if he doesn't win the MVP this year, we can conclude that the justice system doesn't work very well.