Atlanta’s 10 Most Heartbreaking Sports Moments #9

1997 NLCS Game 5– The 1997 NLCS as a whole could make it, but if you ask anyone what they remember about the 1997 post-season, well, any Braves fan, and they will tell you it was Game 5, and it was the name Eric Gregg.

Eric Gregg, God rest his soul, is probably the man third most responsible for the fact that the Atlanta Braves only won one World Series during their dominant run of the 90s, and Gregg never threw a pitch or took an at-bat.

To set the stage, let’s first look at how good the 1997 Atlanta Braves actually were.

1996, more on that in a few days, left as bitter a taste in the mind of the city of Atlanta as anything since that Sherman fella marched his way into town. Questions aplenty came up wondering how the Braves, and their fans, would rebound from such a painful setback as they opened up the brand new Turner Field.

It became clear over the off-season that John Schuerholz wasn’t pleased with coming up as the bridesmaid, and the tinkering began.

Only, this time, one could hardly call it tinkering.

The Braves had two right fielders in 1996, 1995 World Series hero and emerging Braves icon David Justice, and 1996 feel good rookie Jermaine Dye.

Justice began 1996 having one of his finer seasons, but a season ending injury put Justice on the shelf, and the Braves in seek of a replacement. Their primary option was rookie Jermaine Dye, who held his own quite well in the outfield.

With the emergence though of another young rookie, the uber talented Andruw Jones, suddenly the Braves outfield seemed rather crowded, as Ryan Klesko and Marquis Grissom, both key contributors to the 1995 World Series championship also had places in the outfield. Your math probably told you what it told Schuerholz, 5 is way more than 3.

Justice and Grissom were packaged in a surprising deal for Cleveland Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton. Lofton, as Braves fans remember, was an absolute pest in the 1995 World Series, and seemingly the only source of offense. Lofton had stolen 50 or more bases in each of the past five seasons, including 75 in 1996.

Having seen what the New York Yankee bench had done to the Braves last fall, Schuerholz was poised to add to the Braves, particularly in the infield.

With that in mind, he shipped Jermaine Dye off to Kansas City as the primary cog in a deal to bring in infielder Keith Lockhart and outfielder Michael Tucker.

The moves, for the most part, probably didn’t work out.

Lofton was hampered by a hamstring injury and never got things figured out. His defense and his ability to change games on the bases was greatly diminished. While Lofton posted an outstanding .409 OBP, the fact that he missed 40 games and stole just 27 bases, while being caught a whopping 20 times, has Atlanta fans thinking they had gotten the very wrong end of the deal, especially considering David Justice had arguably the best season of his entire career in Cleveland.

Keith Lockhart though was outstanding off the bench for the Braves, but Michael Tucker wasn’t anything overly special.

So giving up Dye, Grissom and Justice had essentially yielded a slap hitting center fielder who couldn’t really run on the bases anymore, a solid bench player, and what would turn out to be the second easiest out in the Braves everyday lineup.

Improved? One would think not.

All the Braves did was wsn more games than any team in baseball, and were nine wins clear of team with 2nd highest win total in the National League, the wild card winning Florida Marlins.

Atlanta opened the season winning 13 of their first 16 games, setting a tone that they weren’t going to let the disastrous conclusion of the 1996 season effect them.

On April 11th the Braves moved into a tie for first place. By the conclusion of the days games on April 15th Atlanta was two games clear. Never again would a team be that close to the Braves. The Braves would only lose more than two games in a row on four occasions, all year long.

The Braves offense was among the best seen during the Bobby Cox era, coming in 3rd in the National League in runs, and 2nd in OPS. Six (Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Jeff Blauser, and Ryan Klesko) hit 17 or more home runs during the 1997 campaign. Five Braves boasted an OPS of over .820 and only the light hitting Mark Lemke (17) failed to reach 20 doubles of all the clubs regular starters (Andruw Jones also contributed 18).

Despite the inability of the newcomers to provide an exceptional lift, the Atlanta offense hummed along just fine.

And then there was the pitching. Oh, the pitching.

The big three of Greg Maddux (2.20), John Smoltz (3.02), and Tom Glavine (2.96) combined to go 48-23 while combining for 17 shutouts.

The Braves team ERA was over a full run lower than the league average, and their 21 complete games more than twice the average for the National League. Opponents had an OPS of .655, .044 points lower than the next best mark in the league.

For as good as Braves pitching had been in the first part of the 90s, it appeared in 1997 it had gone to brand new heights.

Oh, wait, I’ve only mentioned three starters, right. This is where this rotation reaches a historical level of excellence. The number four starter on this stuff, darn near won the Cy Young award.

Denny Neagle was perhaps he best fourth starter in the history of Major League Baseball. Neagle went 20-5 with a 2.90 ERA. Neagle’s adjusted ERA of 140 gave the Braves four starters with such a stat, something no other staff in the modern era ever accomplished, and likely never will. MLB Network recently named the Braves 1997 rotation the 2nd best rotation, ever, in Major League history.

The Braves four starters went 68-28. The last place teams in the East and Central divisions both won 68 games, in total.

Just who was going to beat this team?

It sure wasn’t going to be their first round opponent, the National League Central Division champion Houston Astros.

The Atlanta Braves swept the Houston Astros in the opening round with relative ease, outscoring the Astros 19-5 and limiting them to a paltry .231 OBP with a .167 average. The Astros team OPS was over .300 points lower in the series against the Braves pitchers than it was during the regular season. In their three games, Houston totaled just two extra base hits.

The Braves rolled into the National League Championship Series feeling pretty good about their chances.  All that was left was the small matter of the Florida Marlins and the Braves were going to be in their third straight World Series and have their fifth National League Pennant in six tries.

Someone must have forgotten to tell Florida. Perhaps Braves fans should have entered this post season series with a bit more caution, and concern.

After all, Florida did take 8 of 12 against the Braves during the regular season, outscoring the Braves by 14 runs in doing so.

Many are familiar with what the Marlins did in 1997. They went out and acquired as many big name superstars as they could, with one goal, win the 1997 World Series, and then gut the team and be resigned to being among the league’s worst the following year. These Marlins weren’t lacking for talent.

Names like Bobby Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria, Charles Johnson, Kevin Brown, Rob Nenn, and Al Leiter littered the Marlins clubhouse. The team had players, no doubt.

All that said, there was a reason the Marlins won nine fewer games than the Braves, and why their average run differential was a full run worse than the Braves. The regular season was just a flukish occurrence of match ups, no way this fifth year franchise was going to unseat the mighty Atlanta Braves.

The Braves didn’t exactly do themselves any favors by letting Florida score three runs in the top of the very first inning of the series in route to a 5-3 Marlins victory. Atlanta evened the score in game two with a 7-1 route, only to see a four run Marlins sixth in game three give the Marlins a 2-1 lead.

Denny Neagle responded with a shutout in game four, and the series was all knotted up, with two of the last three to be played Atlanta. Advantage Braves.

Enter Eric Gregg.

Gregg was an accomplished Major League umpire. This was his fourth National League championship series, and his sixth post season overall. Gregg had also done an all-star game. So this was not a rookie on a stage he wasn’t accustomed to.

No, what it was was one of the most incompetent officials to ever officiate a major professional sporting event. Baseball America went so far to call it the third worst umpiring performance from 1975-2000. I’ll say it went beyond that.

Fred McGriff walks across the plate (the only way to reach these strikes) after an Eric Gregg "strike"

Greg Maddux took the hill for the Braves, and pitched well, really well, maybe too well. Maddux went seven innings, allowing just four hits, and striking out nine while allowing two runs to score. Unfortunately, Maddux probably spent too much time around the plate.

A young rookie for the Marlins, Livian Hernandez, a 22 year old veteran of all of 99 innings in his regular season career looked like one of the greatest pitchers of all-time.

Hernandez struck out 15 Braves on this day. Or did he? Hernandez supposedly threw three strikes to 15 Braves hitters, but watching this game, one could argue that over half of them weren’t strikes, and probably nearly that many simply were not close.

To say Gregg’s strike zone for Hernandez that day was liberal would be like saying Bill O’Reilly is a conservative. And I’m not still not sure it’s accurately described. It was later said that the strike zone was five feet high and a ridiculous six feet wide.

Keep in mind, most baseball players are in the six foot range in terms of height, so if you’re only taking off half a foot at the top, and half a foot at the bottom, there really isn’t much room left that isn’t a strike. On on instance, a ball over the head of first basemen Fred McGriff was a called strike.

Now, factor in that home plate is only 17 inches wide, which is not quite a foot and a half, and you can see the uproar over the egregious strike zone.

Of the 49 strikes Hernandez threw that were not put into play, 37 of them were called looking. Consider that Greg Maddux totaled just 13 strikes looking. Yes, we’re talking NBA type disparities here.

The tone was set from the very outset. The Braves had first and third to lead off the first for the Braves, and then Hernandez sat down the next three Braves hitters by way of the strikeout.

The strikeouts kept rolling for Hernandez, and the Braves hitters, attempting to adjust, did expand their zone. But there’s only so much you can do with a baseball that’s chin level, or a half foot off the ground, all the while being two feet off the plate.

The game ended on such a call on McGriff, a strike three called on a ball that was literally FEET off the plate.

Atlanta, as you know, went and lost game six at home, thus enabling the Florida Marlins. But for Braves fans, this series wasn’t about game 1, 3, or 6. It was all about game 5. It was about game 5 because game 5 wasn’t a baseball game. The rules that had been in place for the Braves first 169 games they had played that year suddenly no longer applied. There were rules for this game 5 that have never been implemented in any baseball game since.

So while we can lament the fact that the Braves could have, and perhaps should have, done a better job of handling their business in three other games in that series. They should have had a more fair chance to to enter game six up three games to two, as opposed to down a game. It should have been Florida facing elimination.

Yet it wasn’t, and not at all for the feats of the actual players achieved on the field. All because of Eric Gregg and his inexcusable failure to remember, or recognize, what the strike zone, home plate, or apparently anything else to do with baseball was.

Not surprisingly, Gregg never again umpired in a post-season. But that’s of little solace to Braves fans.

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