CLEVELAND — He was a cold weather kid throwing a cold weather ball, and this was just fine with him, he liked it, it reminded him of the days back in Michigan when his high school team would play in the snow. How could there ever have been a question about using Steve Avery in this World Series? Under a black Midwestern sky? The wind whipping off Lake Erie? The autumn chill nipping at the earlobes and leaving them numb?
Why, he was born to a night like this.
And he lived up to it. Avery, the downriver kid out of John F. Kennedy High School in Taylor, lit the floodlights Wednesday night in Game 4 of the World Series. He pitched out of trouble in the early innings, and he pitched into glory in the middle, striking out the fiery Kenny Lofton on a hard inside pitch, and striking out the brutish Albert Belle with a ball so well- placed, all Belle could do was look at it and walk away. You could blow smoke on this night. Or you could throw it.
Avery threw it — at least often enough to get his team onto safe ground. He knew when he took the mound Wednesday that he had to last awhile, he had to last until the seventh inning, because the bullpen was weary from the night before, the longest World Series night game ever. This is not an easy task against the likes of Lofton, Belle, Baerga and Murray.
Never mind that. And never mind that Avery hadn’t thrown a pitch that counted in 10 days. And never mind that there was doubt as to whether he should start. Never mind. He was a good soldier, and he did his duty. He blanked the best batting order in baseball for five innings, made one mistake, a solo home run to Belle, then put them down again.
Six innings, one run, three strikeouts. When Avery sat down to start the seventh inning, Bobby Cox, the manager, and Leo Mazzone, the pitching coach, told him, “That’s it. You’ve done enough.”
And Steve Avery pulled on his jacket, dug his hands into the pockets and waited to see if history would give him credit.
The game was tied, 1-1. If the Braves did not score in this frame, someone else would get the decision. Avery would simply be the pitcher who started the game. That was nice, but not what he wanted, at least not deep down. He had started World Series games before.
Remember 1991? Avery pitched twice against the Minnesota Twins, in Games 3 and 6, but didn’t get a decision. The following year, when his Braves faced the Toronto Blue Jays, he again started Games 3 and 6, and again, came out without a victory. In that last Game 6 appearance, the Braves had looked to him to keep their season alive. Avery couldn’t do it. He lasted only four innings. By the end of the night, the Blue Jays were celebrating the first world championship outside American borders.
Avery got on the plane and went home.
So it had been a long wait for this chilly night. And it didn’ help that the Braves weren’t sure they wanted to use him. He had not had a great regular season. When the Braves got into the postseason, there were a lot of people thinking Steve Avery should only come out of the bullpen.
Ah, but they were forgetting something. This is the season for Michigan kids. The turning leaves, the graying skies, the sniffing, the pumpkins, the overcoats. This is when we kick into gear.
And so Avery did. He did some relief pitching in the first round, and in the league championship series he started the clinching game, and he didn’t give up a run. He shut out the Cincinnati Reds, and he joined the pile of happy teammates when the game was over.
They were going back to the World Series.
Avery was getting another chance.
So now he sat, in the chilly dugout at Jacobs Field, and he watched the seventh inning unfold. He watched Marquis Grissom scratch a walk off Ken Hill, and he was thinking, “That’s good, because Grissom can run.”
And a few moments later, Grissom was running, all right, because Luis Polonia had whacked a ball into the gap. Here came Grissom, around third, and it wasn’t close, he was safe. He carried the lead across home plate and into the arms of his teammates, including a particularly happy, young-faced pitcher from Taylor.
Understand something. When you are as good as Steve Avery or John Smoltz or Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine — this dream team of a pitching staff — you are already rich and you are already recognized. There is only one thing left.
The Atlanta Braves are within a victory of that now. They are there because they hit the ball Wednesday night, yes, but they are mostly there because they kept the mighty Indians from hitting it. And as they gathered at the pitching mound to slap each others’ backs, the words that had never before been uttered in a World Series game blasted over the loudspeakers: “WINNING PITCHER, AVERY
. . .”
The cold weather kid gave a smile, and he and his warm weather teammates went off into the Midwestern night, wondering if finally, this could be the end of the rainbow.