The idea, or part of it, was to tell Francisco Cabrera what he did to me. I wanted to let him know that the greatest moment of his otherwise anonymous big-league career was such a gut-punch in my life. I wanted to relate to him how funereal things were for me the next day at school, and how long that feeling of dread lingered, considering it took more than 20 years for the Pittsburgh Pirates to crawl out of the black hole Cabrera sent them careening into on Oct. 14, 1992, exactly 25 years ago this past Saturday.
But when I got Francisco Cabrera on the phone on Friday afternoon, the first thing I did was ask him what he’s been up to all these years.
Cabrera said he’s back in his hometown of Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, where he’s spent time working in various roles—manager, hitting instructor, catching instructor—for several teams in the Dominican Summer League. He has seven children (two girls, five boys), but is no longer married. At the moment, he’s hoping to land a job with the Atlanta Braves, either as a scout or at their Dominican baseball academy.
The 51-year-old Cabrera gets back to Atlanta for alumni events pretty much every year. He’s considered royalty there even though he made just 361 plate appearances (out of 374 in his entire MLB career) across his five seasons with the team. That’s what delivering a two-run, walk-off single in a Game 7 to propel a team to the World Series can do for a guy.
People in the Dominican recognize Cabrera and remember for him for that “hit against the Pirates,” he said. It’s not uncommon for those who bring it up to get the year wrong; they might remember it as 1993 or 1994, Cabrera said, but he’ll be quick to inform them it was ’92. He just wasn’t aware of the date, or that the anniversary was upon us. That I had to remind him probably says more about my own issues than anything about his memory.
“I didn’t even realize that it was [Saturday],” Cabrera said. “I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking about it.”
The Pirates and Braves were about to blast in opposite directions by October 1992. The Pirates won the old NL Eastern Division for a third straight year, and they had already crapped out in the LCS against the Reds and Braves in the previous two years, only to get a rematch against Atlanta. But it was widely understood that this would be the Buccos’ last hurrah. Stars like Doug Drabek and Barry Bonds were headed to free agency, and the Pirates had no chance at retaining them.
The Braves had been awful for much of the ’80s before going from last place in the old NL West in 1990 to first place in ’91, kick-starting a run of 14 consecutive playoff appearances. They won three of the first four games of the ’92 NLCS, only to have the Pirates win Games 5 and 6 to force a Game 7.
The Pirates had Drabek, their ace and the 1990 Cy Young Award winner, on the mound, and he carried a shutout into the bottom of the ninth inning, which he began with a 2-0 lead. I was 17 years old. I watched the first eight innings in my bedroom, pretending to do homework. For the ninth, I came downstairs to the living room to watch with my father and siblings. We were nervous and excited. We had tickets for Game 1 of the World Series, which would have been at Three Rivers Stadium. I have no idea what we wound up doing with them.
Terry Pendleton led off the bottom of the ninth for the Braves with a double to right field. Then David Justice hit a ground ball right at Jose Lind, as sure-fielding a second baseman as there was at the time. The ball went through Lind’s legs. The scars of the previous two playoff disappointments—the Pirates had lost Games 6 and 7 at home to the Braves the year before, without so much as scoring a run—were starting to itch a little. But it was still a two-run game. Deep breath.
Drabek then walked ex-Pirate Sid Bream, loading the bases with no outs. Manager Jim Leyland lifted Drabek for Stan Belinda, his closer. Belinda got Ron Gant to line out to left for the first out, which brought in Pendleton to make the score 2-1. But then Belinda walked Damon Berryhill on five pitches to load the bases again, and oh god this was torture.
Cabrera, a backup first baseman and catcher, spent the most of the game in the bullpen, where he warmed up the Braves’ relievers. He told me he was summoned to the dugout around the ninth, where he was told to “be ready” in the event he was called upon to pinch hit. Cabrera remembered Brian Hunter batting in the pitcher’s spot, and that he had stepped in for shortstop Rafael Belliard. As it happened, it was the other way around. Hunter, in place of the banjo-hitting Belliard, looped Belinda’s second pitch out over second base, where Lind was able to snare it. Two outs, the ninth spot in the order due up. This was it.
“And now the Braves’ season hangs in the balance as Francisco Cabrera comes to bat for the pitcher,” CBS play-by-play man Sean McDonough said during the live broadcast. Cabrera had played in just 12 games during the regular season, delivering all of three hits in 10 at-bats. He was 0-for-1 in the series. Come on, Pirates.
“I was thinking what to do because the pitcher I was supposed to face was Doug Drabek, who was a good pitcher who threw a lot of breaking pitches,” Cabrera told me. But Belinda was more of a straight fastball pitcher. The year before, in his only prior at-bat against Belinda, Cabrera had homered.
“I had more confidence when I went to the plate because he throws a little harder and has a little bit of a sinker and slider,” Cabrera said. “What I was thinking was, ‘Now I have to be ready for a fastball.’”
Belinda’s first pitch was a breaking ball that sailed low and away for ball one. His second delivery was a fastball that was up and away. Ball two. Cabrera told me he might have been wise to take the next pitch, but when Belinda came at him with a belt-high fastball, he went after it. “We don’t have no tomorrow,” he said he remembered thinking. He hit the ball square, but lined it foul into the seats deep down the third-base line.
“I said, ‘Wow, that was my pitch, and I missed it,’” Cabrera said.
It was a high-pressure situation, but Cabrera told me his status as a no-name took some of the edge off.
“If I got the hit, I was going to be a hero,” he said. “If I didn’t do nothing, nobody knows me, then nobody knows me yet. I don’t have as much pressure on me, like if it was David Justice or one of those guys that was a big name. So it was easy for me to just go in and relax and try to be the hero.”
The 2-1 pitch was a fastball toward the outside of the plate. I really don’t want to have to type out what happened next. Just fucking watch it.
All I remember was someone in my parents’ living room—hell, it might have even been me—just muttering, “They lost” before we all slinked off in silence to mope ourselves to sleep. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, and I’m telling you it seemed like no one even spoke in the halls the next day. We were all stunned. The entire city of Pittsburgh seemed to mourn for a while, and it took two decades after that for the Pirates even to have a winning season. It was that bad.
“You know that wasn’t on purpose,” Cabrera said after I finally told him the truth about who I was, and why I wanted to talk to him. “Because I didn’t know that you were a Pirate fan. You could be a Braves fan and be happy right now,” he added. I didn’t laugh. But I did tell him how surreal it was to actually speak to him after all these years.
At the end of our conversation, Cabrera had a little story to relate to me.
“Barry Bonds, he don’t like me,” he said. “He don’t want to talk to me no more.”
Why was that? I asked.
The next season would be the last of Cabrera’s brief big-league career, though he did play several more seasons in the minors. That year, he and Bonds crossed paths in San Francisco when the Braves were out there to play the Giants. Bonds had signed with the Giants and would spend the rest of his career there. Bonds would of course achieve many things, but he never did win a World Series. And in 1993, anyway, even after he moved on from the Pirates, Bonds was still openly seething over Game 7 of the ’92 NLCS.
“He was like, ‘Hey, don’t talk to me, I hate you,’” Cabrera remembered.
We both laughed at that.