OGDEN — It is cramped in the manager’s office at Lindquist Field and bleak, the fluorescent light bouncing off the cinderblock walls somehow failing to illuminate as much as add to the grim atmosphere.
Across from the office is a plastic folding table displaying a cornucopia of ointments, gauze pads and athletic tapes, and next to that is a row of trainers’ tables, the triage unit of the clubhouse.
A bit further down is the players’ locker room. The faint smell of it, sweat mixed with the vapor of one or two too many spritzes of cologne, has wafted throughout the clubhouse and into the manager’s office.
This is a minor league clubhouse, stripped of glitz and extravagance, and it is here that Damon Berryhill, in his fourth season managing the Raptors, sits, papers strewn in chaos on his desk. Berryhill is, in both a figurative and a very real sense, about as far away from the major leagues as you can be.
Berryhill has spent much of the last decade in offices like this — he coached at various minor league stops and managed the single-A Bakersfield Blaze before coming to Ogden — but the glum bowels of minor league clubhouses have done nothing to dull his memory of his major league career and of one exceptional month in it.
Leaning back in his chair, a grin sneaking from the corner of his mouth, Berryhill tells what it was like 20 years ago this fall, when he, a part-time catcher throughout much of his career, found himself starting every game during the Atlanta Braves’ playoff run to the 1992 World Series.
“It was probably the highlight of my career,” Berryhill said. “Getting to catch that staff and playing in a World Series.”
It was October 1992, and before that season, Berryhill had never played in more than 95 games or accumulated more than 334 at-bats in a season. But in late September, Greg Olson, with whom that season Berryhill had split catching duties, broke his ankle in a home-plate collision with Ken Caminiti.
Just like that, with the snap of a fragile bone, Berryhill was the starter — at the time of Olson’s injury, Berryhill had had 286 plate appearances to Olson’s 340 — and he’d go on to catch all but two innings in the playoffs.
Berryhill acknowledges that being behind the plate for any playoff game would have been special — especially considering he had never been to the postseason — but the names of the pitchers Berryhill caught that October roll off his tongue with a sense of gravity, their significance giving them weight.
John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery. The first two are now waiting for calls to Cooperstown that will almost certainly come. And Avery, at the time, was considered nearly their equal — from 1991-1993, his highest season ERA was 3.38 — before a precipitous decline derailed his career.
“I was fortunate in my career in that I got to catch a lot of talented pitchers,” Berryhill said. “That was a special staff. As far as catching, that’s as good as it gets.”
The memories of that October are thick and plentiful, and Berryhill pulls them out with ease, like, as the cliché goes, it was yesterday. But there are two that come to the forefront. Still, 20 years later, it is these two moments that largely comprise his legacy as a player. Two moments: a 10-year major league career encapsulated to that.
Berryhill wasn’t the star of the first moment, and when one thinks about it, his name doesn’t immediately comes to mind. But without his contribution, the moment never could have occurred.
There was one out in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, the Pittsburgh Pirates up 2-0 over Berryhill’s Braves, who were two outs away from blowing a 3-1 lead in the series. Terry Pendleton had led off the inning with a double, David Justice had reached on a crucial error from Pirates second baseman Jose Lind, and Sid Bream had walked to load the bases.
After a sacrifice fly to the warning track from Ron Gant — off the bat, the ball looked like a potential game-winning grand slam — Berryhill came to the plate, a role in Atlanta Braves lore, small or large, good or bad, resting on one at-bat.
Berryhill fouled straight back Stan Belinda’s first pitch, a splitter that caught too much of the plate, but he didn’t swing at another pitch and walked to again load the bases. The call on the 3-1 pitch, a fastball down and in that the umpire called a ball, soon became a source of debate.
“That still sticks in my mind, that borderline pitch,” Berryhill said. “I still say that’s a ball.”
Two batters later, after Brian Hunter’s pop out, Francisco Cabrera lined a single through the left side. Justice scored easily, and third base coach Jimy Williams sent Bream from second. Barry Bonds’ throw from left field was up the line, and Bream slid in fractions of a second before Mike LaValliere’s lunging tag. The Braves, and Berryhill, were going to the World Series.
“I just remember watching. I wasn’t running hard, because I knew the whole play was on (Bream),” Berryhill said. “I hit second, and I had good hops that time, because I felt like I got about five feet off the ground.”
As with the 3-1 pitch to Berryhill, disagreement has since raged about whether Bream actually beat the tag. To Berryhill, perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s no question.
“He was safe. He beat it,” Berryhill said. “We were lucky it was Sid and not me, because he was a step faster than I was, even as slow as he was. That’s what it took, one step.”
The play, as it turned out, has become one of the most famous in baseball history and would define the two organizations for much of the following two decades. Atlanta went on to win 14 straight division titles and played in five World Series in the ’90s. The Pirates haven’t finished over .500 since, though they are in position to do so this year, and their streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons is unprecedented in major American sports.
The second moment came three days later, and this one would be Berryhill’s, alone.
Seventy-two hours after Sid’s slide, as it came to be known, the Braves were losing 1-0 to the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 1 of the World Series.
Jack Morris, who had pitched a 10-inning shutout against the Braves in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, regarded as one of the greatest baseball games of all time, had shut out the Braves through the first five innings on one hit.
But the Braves had broken through for a walk and a hit in the sixth, and with two outs Berryhill again came to bat with a chance at baseball history wrapped into one trip to the plate.
After getting Berryhill down 1-2 in the count, Morris hung a splitter, and Berryhill was expecting it: “I knew that at some point I was going to get a split.”
This time, he was not merely a cog in a larger mechanism. This moment was his.
Berryhill swung and connected, and the ball arced into the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium twilight. It landed only once it had cleared the right-field fence.
Now, Berryhill sits up in his chair, and the pace of his speaking escalates. What he describes, he knows, has been felt by only a handful of people in the history of baseball, and he understands what it means to have been one of those people.
“I knew it right off the bat, and right then that rush, that excitement, came on,” Berryhill said. “That whole time around the bases, you’re basically floating. You’re cruising those bases.”
The three runs from Berryhill’s homer were the only runs the Braves would score that night. But the Atlanta bullpen retired the next nine Blue Jays, giving Berryhill the distinction of having hit a game-winning homer in a World Series.
Toronto would go on to beat the Braves in six games, the first of consecutive world championships for the Blue Jays, but 20 years later, people still remember Berryhill’s homer, just as they recall his role in Game 7 of the NLCS.
“It goes too quick. All of a sudden, it’s the seventh inning, and you’re back behind the plate,” Berryhill said of the thrill of hitting the homer. But he could also be talking about his career. Fifteen years after it ended, a 10-year career can seem fleeting.
Left are the moments and the memories. Here, in the constricted confines of a minor league manager’s office, those remain crisp.