THE ROX WIN THE PENNANT
October 18, 1994--Two days after the miracle, the stunned Montreal Expos are crying in their Beaujolais. Don Baylor is pinching himself. And Denver fans--all five million of them--can't seem to sober up. The Colorado Rockies have amazed the world by winning the National League pennant in just their sophomore year, and they are still wondering how they did it.
But you already know.
"HoJo! Armando! El Gato!"
That was the chant that boomed through jam-packed, baseball-mad Mile High Stadium this summer. And those are the names Rockies fans will carve in stone come winter.
Howard Johnson, the aging, battered slugger so many wrote off as a has-been, fled the tension and misery of the New York Mets clubhouse last year for a new life out west.
He became the life of the party.
Despite a chronically aching back and some mornings in Denver, Houston and sultry St. Louis when he could barely get out of bed, the former National League home-run champion was reborn in 1994. Starting in spring training, when he peppered the Arizona skies with moon shots, HoJo made it seem he was just reaching stride at age 33.
In April he hit nine home runs, two more than he stroked in all of his injury-plagued 1993, as the Rox jumped out to a sparkling 15-9 start. "The deep fences are shallow there," concluded Professor L.P. Berra, a physicist the team hired to analyze samples of Mile High's rarefied air. But Johnson defied even the long home-run lanes in right and right-center fields, confirming the faith of those who see him as one of the greatest fastball hitters in the history of the game. From both sides of the plate.
In May HoJo hit 7 more round-trippers, then 4 in June and 13 in the dog days of July and August, before really gearing up for the stretch. Counting that third-inning shot the other night against Montreal, he whacked 41 homers this year. Drove in 112 runs. Hit .307. Softened up opposing pitching staffs for Ellis Burks, Dante Bichette and Charlie Hayes.
Johnson's play in left field, his fourth defensive position in as many seasons, won't make the highlight reel. Remember those three elusive cans of corn against the Reds in June? Or the sailing mystery liners of July? Ladies, gentlemen and innocent children would rather not.
But Johnson's pair of game-winning blasts on successive September nights will replay forever in the minds of Rockies fans. Yes, HoJo single-handedly spelled doom for the second-place Giants in the final moments of the season. The "Rocket to Right" and the "Gram Slam," neatly gloved high in the left-field bleachers by 79-year-old grandmother Elena Lourdes (ESPN's Play of the Year), became Howard Johnson's greatest hits, lasting monuments in what may have been a glorious swan song to the game. HoJo will see after the surgery.
Then there was Armando!
Larry Bearnarth, the Rox pitching coach, began the year in a cauldron of worries and Maalox. Last season his pitchers failed to post a single shutout, and they had the highest ERA in the game. His no-name 1994 staff was improved (and far better paid), but it featured supposed castoffs like Marvin Freeman, Greg Harris and Mike Harkey, and largely untested prospects like David Nied and Marcus Moore. Would visiting NL players fight each other to get into the starting lineup again this year?
Not when Armando Reynoso was starting.
By midseason, when the "Jalisco Thunderbolt" had put together an 11-3 mark and set a fire under his mates ("Nied and Reed! Better take heed!" the throngs shouted), even Barry Bonds, Tony Gwynn and Gregg Jefferies started hanging around the hotel for a late cab to the ballpark.
Not since his great 1990 season in the Mexican League, when Reynoso went 20-3 in 27 starts for Saltillo, had it been like this. Tough Lenny Dykstra and the Phils? No problem. The Atlanta Braves, beset now by a few doubts? Bring 'em on. Florida? La-Sorda's Dodgers? New York in early September, with the Shea Stadium fans screaming for blood? Nothing bothered Reynoso, still a candidate for the Cy Young Award with an 18-7 record.
More important, he was the inspiration for uncertain fellow pitchers, those who sometimes doubted their skills. Remember that particularly gruesome stretch in July? The five blown saves? How about the infamous "Charade in Chi-Town," featuring those back-to-back-to-back eighth-inning home runs Cubs hitters smacked off--oh, let's not repeat their names here. It was Armando Reynoso who, by example, set the Rockies staff straight again. Nied and Ruffin and Holmes and Moore and Munoz.
Their comeback, and the team's, Armando says now with a wry smile, had absolutely nothing to do with those mysterious goat-bone amulets and that vial of "magic oil" an admirer in Quintana Roo sent to the Rox clubhouse on July 29. It was hard work, not voodoo, that won the pennant, the Thunderbolt assures us. Little matter that the entire pitching staff has been wearing the same sets of underwear since the Houston game of August 4. You recall that one: WP: Reynoso, two earned runs in eight innings pitched, final score Rox 3, Astros 2, on a three-run triple by Walt Weiss in the top of the ninth.
And what more can you say of El Gato!
Nobody on the planet or in the National League expected Andres Galarraga to hit .370 again and win another batting crown. So he didn't.
He hit .359 and won another batting crown.
That came decorated with 27 home runs (up 5 from last year) and 91 RBIs (down 7). He stole 4 bases (up 2), stroked 38 doubles (down 3) and scored 84 runs (up 13). Along with Johnson and third-baseman Charlie Hayes ("HoJo and Hayes! Forget Willie Mays!" the fans chanted), the Big Cat avoided major injuries in 1994--always the bugaboo of his long career. With the exception of a bad piece of fish on the plane from Montreal to New York in May, Galarraga remained the picture of health. Sure, there was that ringing collision with the first-base umpire in Atlanta, and for most of the year the Cat's right calf muscle looked like a football. But no one could get him out.
Last week, when he doubled off Chris Nabholz in Montreal, scoring a pair of runners, Expos manager Felipe Alou just shook his head. Why'd we trade him? Alou asked himself in three languages.
"HoJo! Armando! El Gato!" The cry reverberates all the way to Chicago, where the Rox will now meet the White Sox in the World Series. Starting Friday.
In any event, isn't it nice to think so? To daydream amid the gentle breezes of April?
How 'bout them Cowboys?
Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson may have been college teammates and roomies in the old days, but that hasn't kept 'em from going at each other like rattlesnakes--and from halting the Dallas Super Bowl streak at two.
The compliments and smiles the team owner and its departed head coach exchanged last week were purely cosmetic, and you can look for lots more trouble in Big D. Star running back Emmitt Smith is likely to follow Johnson out of town, key receiver Michael Irvin is grumbling and the franchise, QB Troy Aikman, now has second thoughts about that huge contract he signed last season.
The 'Boys dynasty is cooked. If you don't think so, look what happened when Joe Gibbs left Washington. Or when Bill Parcells said goodbye to the Giants. Volatile, that NFC East.
A hot ticket, Johnson is likely to take the reins when the Dolphins' venerable Don Shula steps down. Johnson was one of the University of Miami's most popular coaches in the Canes' heyday, and he remembers how to order Cuban food.
Meanwhile, back in Dallas, Jones took just 24 hours to replace his old pal Jimmy with that paradigm of virtue, Barry Switzer. Before getting run off at Oklahoma, this embodiment of college football hypocrisy had just as many coke dealers and rapists on his club as he did linebackers. But Switzer always looked the other way as long as his Sooners were ready to play on Saturday. Pro athletes are a different breed, of course, but the cops are probably backing a paddy wagon up to Dallas's dressing room door right now.
Now rout them Cowboys.
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