ATLANTA - If you knew nothing about baseball, you might well have wondered what on earth was happening inside the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium Monday night. With TV cameras capturing every moment, the Cleveland Indians were dousing themselves in champagne, dancing and hollering as they sprayed the stuff around the room.
Was this: a) the most expensive frat party ever, b) a taping for "Ballplayers Gone Wild" or c) a team celebrating a championship?
The answer, of course, is none of the above. Because unlike in other sports, baseball teams start breaking out the champagne nearly a month before the sport's championship series even begins.
It starts when teams clinch a playoff spot - even wild-card teams, which by definition finish second. It continues after the Division Series, in which Cleveland advanced Monday, and after the League Championship Series. By the time a team wins the World Series, players will have gone through hundreds of bottles of bubbly in about six weeks.
"We know how to party," the Braves' Jeff Francoeur said.
Players don't actually drink all that champagne. Most of it ends up on the floor - or on each other. But the tradition of teams soaking themselves in it after postseason series victories is as much a part of baseball as chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds.
And for players, it becomes a cherished part of October memories.
"It just seems like what you do in baseball," Chipper Jones said. "You've been watching it ever since you can remember. And when you achieve something special like we have so many times here, it's nice to be able to let your hair down and have some fun."
Teams in other sports are often reluctant to celebrate too much before reaching their ultimate goal of a championship. But players said baseball is different.
First, baseball teams play 162 regular-season games, far more than any other major professional team sport. And only eight of 30 teams qualify for the postseason, compared to 16 in basketball and hockey and 12 in football. So just reaching the playoffs is seen as more of an achievement in its own right.
Then, once teams start popping corks, there's no reason to stop until they lose.
"A good thing like that can never get old or silly," said Milwaukee Brewers infielder Craig Counsell, who has won championships with Florida and Arizona. "Because you're always celebrating a pretty good accomplishment. Moving to the next round is always a huge step."
For clubhouse employees, it's also a huge amount of work. Putting on a champagne celebration is no small effort. And with the unpredictability of when a team will clinch a playoff spot or a postseason series, planning for one can be tricky.
During Atlanta's run of 14 straight division titles, the team would buy at least 10 cases of champagne from a local distributor before every potential clinching game and store it in a walk-in freezer.
The team would also buy and pre-cut large sheets of plastic to hang over players' lockers to keep them dry, although now Budweiser sponsors the plastic and provides it to teams free of charge.
Braves assistant clubhouse manager Chris Van Zant said he usually waits until the team is just a few innings away from clinching before preparing the clubhouse for a post-game soaking. If Atlanta blows a lead, all the champagne and plastic must disappear.
"You don't want any remnants of what they missed out on," Van Zant said. "The minute something goes wrong, you're pulling it down as fast as you can and putting it back in the storage room and out of sight."
A clubhouse manager's greatest fear is something like Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. The Braves were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with a trip to the World Series on the line. And when Pittsburgh took a 2-0 lead in the sixth inning, employees began preparing the visiting clubhouse for a celebration.
By the time the game went into the bottom of the ninth inning, with the Pirates still leading 2-0, everything was in place. Then, for Pittsburgh, everything fell apart.
The Braves rallied for three runs in the inning, winning the game, 3-2, on a two-run single by Francisco Cabrera.
The crowd was delirious. Visiting clubhouse manager John Holland was not.
"As soon as the run scored," Holland said, "I looked at my staff and said, 'Get this down. Get this out. Get everything out!'"
There was another problem. The Braves bought only enough champagne for one team, since only one would be drinking it that day. So Holland's crew had to get about a dozen cases' worth down the hall and into the Braves' clubhouse before players came in from the field.
"I was shaking," said Holland, 54. "There's three times in my life I've been nervous - when I got married, when my first child was born and that ninth inning there."
Holland said the champagne arrived just as Braves players were coming into the clubhouse. Most neither knew nor cared what went on behind the scenes. It was their moment, just as it was for each Atlanta team that popped corks from 1991 to 2005.
Even now, as the Braves look to get back to the playoffs in 2008, the celebration is as much a part of the goal as the feat itself.
Before the Braves' final game of 2007, on Sept. 30 at Houston, general manager John Schuerholz ran into Mark Teixeira in the dugout. The first baseman talked about how much he had enjoyed merely competing for a playoff spot after four and a half mostly losing seasons with the Texas Rangers.
"This has been fun for me," Teixeira said.
Schuerholz replied, "Wait until you have somebody pouring champagne on your head. That'll be really fun."
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