AFTERMATH - Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time - Tim Wendel

Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time - Tim Wendel (2014)


The Twins

KIRBY PUCKETT Puckett spent his entire twelve-year career in Minnesota, where he hit .318, won six Gold Gloves and appeared in ten All-Star games.

During spring training in 1996, Puckett awoke with blindness in his right eye. The diagnosis was glaucoma, and it forced him to retire before his time. A decade later, he suffered a fatal stroke and became the second-youngest person to die who had already been enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Lou Gehrig, at thirty-seven, was the only Hall of Famer younger than Puckett.

“A seven- or eight-year-old kid watching the game would pick him out, and he just looked different,” sportscaster Bob Costas once said of the Twins’ star. “He had an affection for the game, and there was a kind of energy about it that was fun.

“I’m sure he took it seriously. You have to take it seriously in order to be a great player, but there was nothing grim about the way he went about it.”

Puckett was cremated after his death but left no written instructions about what should become of his remains. Jodi Olson, his fiancée, claimed that Puckett had told her he wanted his ashes spread across an inner-city ballfield. In addition, she said she would like some of his ashes to wear in locket around her neck. But Puckett’s children were the primary beneficiaries in his 2003 will. The battle over his ashes and his estate went to court, where five of Puckett’s siblings agreed in court papers that Catherine and Kirby Jr., then sixteen and fourteen years old, respectively, should have the ashes, and the remains should not be divided in any way. Judge Benjamin E. Vatz in the Maricopa County (Arizona) Superior Court agreed in his ruling in October 2006. He wrote that if Puckett had wanted his remains to go to Olson “then he would have taken care to express that wish in writing.”

A statute to Puckett stands outside the Twins’ new home at Target Field in Minneapolis. Unveiled before the home opener in 2010, it joined statues to such Twins greats as Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew. Local artist Bill Mack portrayed Puckett in the moments after his Game Six home run, as he rounded second base, his arm raised overhead in a fist.

JACK MORRIS Soon after Game Seven, Morris exercised his option for free agency and signed with Toronto, briefly becoming the game’s highest-paid pitcher. Perhaps the World Series MVP understood better than others that the national pastime was first and foremost a business, and often a cruel enterprise at that. After losing out as a free agent in 1986, Morris wasn’t about to let it happen again. He said that leaving the Twin Cities became strictly “a business decision.”

“The majority of people in the world today have played Little League baseball or some form of baseball,” he told USA Today’s Hal Bodley in the spring of 1992. “It’s easy for them to say, ‘I could have done that.’ Everybody relates to baseball, so it’s difficult for them to comprehend what’s going on today with salaries. They ask, ‘How much is enough?’ I guarantee you, in their right mind, if they are thinking clearly, they would have done the same thing.”

Even though Toronto’s offer was about $2 million higher than Minnesota’s proposal, some in the Twin Cities derided Morris for leaving after one season, saying he had shed crocodile tears upon becoming misty-eyed at his Twins signing. “But I think he was sincere when he returned to town to play for the Twins,” official scorer Stew Thornley said, “and I think he was sincere when he left, too.”

As the new member of the Blue Jays’ rotation, Morris won a league-high twenty-one games and found himself back in the World Series on another winner. Yet in the ’92 postseason, Morris went winless on the big stage and Lonnie Smith, of all people, hit him up for a grand slam in Game Five of that year’s World Series.

As part of his free-agent windfall, Morris bought a seventy-five-hundred-acre farm near Great Falls, Montana. By 1994, he was in Cleveland, and at age thirty-nine he was expected to be elder statesman on the Indians’ young staff. When two of his farmhands back in Montana quit, Morris began to split time between the ball club and his farm. In August 1994, the Indians gave the five-time All-Star his unconditional release. “You can be benevolent to a point, but there comes a time when you’ve got to do something,” Indians general manager John Hart said. Two pitchers from Triple-A, Chad Ogea and Julian Tavarez, competed for Morris’s spot in the rotation.

An incredibly durable athlete, Morris left the game having made fourteen Opening Day starts and at one point going 515 consecutive starts without missing a turn in the rotation. In his eighteen-year career, he was on the disabled list only twice.

Despite a rocky relationship with the media, many felt he deserved to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. From 1979 through 1992, according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, Morris won 233 games compared to Nolan Ryan’s 168. As of this date, though, Ryan was enshrined in Cooperstown, and Morris remained on the outside looking in.

“He’s arrogant, sure,” Detroit manager Sparky Anderson once said. “He knows he’s good. He’s like a great thoroughbred who’ll bite you if you try to get near him.”

Morris went on to a second career in broadcasting, first with the Twins and then with the Blue Jays, and maintained that compliments he received from strangers about his performance in Game Seven, what he termed as “warm fuzzies,” took the sting out of the Hall of Fame slights.

KENT HRBEK The first baseman played fourteen seasons in the major leagues, all with his hometown team. Stars like Hrbek, George Brett (Kansas City Royals) and Tony Gwynn (San Diego Padres) played with one team for their entire major league careers and now appear to be icons from a forgotten time. Hrbek left the game before he was ready, a victim of the baseball owners voting to curtail the end of the regular season and cancel the World Series in 1994. Even a larger-than-life star like Hrbek couldn’t rise above the looming labor war. After retiring, Hrbek took the lead in raising money and awareness in the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which had killed his father, Ed. “When we get a cure for this thing, I’m going to rent out the Metrodome for a party,” Hrbek told Sports Illustrated, “and everyone’s invited.” A restaurant/bar at Target Field, the Twins’ new ballpark, was named for him and has memorabilia from his playing days. A series of photographs there show him once again pantomiming the no smoking pregame warning from the old Metrodome and giving the thumbs-up to another beverage.

GREG GAGNE The shortstop played only one more year with the Twins before moving on to the Kansas City Royals and then finishing his big-league career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Afterward, he returned home to Somerset, Massachusetts, where he coached high school baseball.

CHUCK KNOBLAUCH Gagne’s double-play partner (with or without a ball in his hand) played in the Twin Cities for seven seasons, leading the league in doubles in 1994 and in triples in 1996. Before the 1998 season, he was traded to the New York Yankees for four players, including left-hander Eric Milton and shortstop Cristian Guzmán. With the Yankees, Knoblauch made key defensive plays to help preserve the perfect games by David Wells and David Cone, and was on three more World Series championship teams. Toward the end of his twelve-year career, Knoblauch began to have difficulty making accurate throws. The mental block became as debilitating as it would be for Steve Blass, Mackey Sasser, Dave Engle, Steve Sax, and the Braves’ Mark Wohlers. In 2001, the New York Times chronicled him making seven wild throws in three days and he retired after the 2002 season.

DAN GLADDEN After scoring the winning and only run in Game Seven, Gladden signed with the Detroit Tigers for the 1992 season. After two years in the Motor City, he played a season in Japan, helping the Yomiuri Giants win the championship in that country. His aggressive play sparked the first on-field brawl in that country in fourteen seasons. After his playing days ended, he found himself in the broadcast booth as a color commentator for the Twins Radio Network. A Harley-Davidson enthusiast, he attends motorcycle rallies when his schedule allows.

He loves to tell the story about how in the wee hours after he scored the winning run in Game Seven, he and some buddies returned to the Metrodome and found his broken bat in a garbage can. He brought it home, where it now hangs on his wall.

RICK AGUILERA The right-hander saved 318 games in his sixteen-year career, becoming one of the top closers of his era. His time with the Twins seemed to be over in 1995 when he was traded midseason to the Boston Red Sox as a cost-cutting measure. The Red Sox were in Minneapolis at the time, which meant Aguilera said his goodbyes in the home clubhouse and then walked down the hallway to the visitors’ dressing room. It was a far cry from his arrival to the Twins when Kirby Puckett personally greeted him. But Aguilera returned to play with the Twins from 1996 to 1999. He finished his career with Chicago Cubs in 2000, saving twenty-nine games, and now lives in southern California.

BRIAN HARPER The Twins declined to pick up the $2.5 million option on the catcher’s contract before the strike-shortened 1994 season, leaving Harper to wonder how much his religion had come into play. “As a Christian, when I do something wrong, I ask God to forgive me,” he told the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. “So when somebody does something wrong to me, I’m obligated, according to the Bible, to forgive them. I felt that there have been some wrongs done, but I’m obligated to forgive.” After his playing days ended he became a minor-league manager for the Angels, Giants, and Cubs. Playing for the ’91 Twins remained the highlight of his sixteen-year playing career with seven different teams. “We were a loose bunch, joking around, laughing, enjoying our work,” he said. “We just loved coming to the ballpark.”

GENE LARKIN He was one of seven Twins to be a part of the 1987 and 1991 World Series teams. (The others were Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Randy Bush, Greg Gagne, Al Newman, and Dan Gladden.) Larkin retired after the 1993 season and still makes his home in the Minneapolis area, where he works as a financial planner. His son, Geno, followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a switch-hitter who can play first base or the outfield. Occasionally, the two of them watch footage of the 1991 World Series together.

SCOTT LEIUS In his first full season in the majors, Leius played in all seven games of the ’91 series. After four more seasons in Minnesota, he played a season in Cleveland, was out of the majors in 1997, before returning to play two more seasons in Kansas City. He served as a youth coach in the Minneapolis area.

KEVIN TAPANI Traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tapani played briefly for the White Sox before moving across town for five seasons with the Cubs. After retiring, he returned to the Twin Cities, where he still makes his home.

SCOTT ERICKSON A twenty-game winner in 1991, Erickson lost a league-high nineteen games two seasons later. He went on to a fifteen-year career in the majors, but the closest he came to the twenty-victory plateau again came in consecutive seasons in 1997 and ’98 with the Baltimore Orioles. After his pitching days were over, Erickson returned to the West Coast, where he had grown up, and went into television and film production and was a minor-league pitching coach. In 2004, he married Lisa Guerrero, a former sideline reporter with Monday Night Football.

CHILI DAVIS He finished his nineteen-year playing career with the New York Yankees in 1999, the only other team that he said was as close knit as the ’91 Twins. After two seasons in Minnesota, Davis returned to the West Coast. As the designated hitter with the California Angels, he set a major league record for most RBI in a season (112) without the benefit of a sacrifice fly.

“A big part of what allowed me to set that record was how Kirby Puckett and I just talked about hitting, your approach at the plate, about hitting with runners in scoring position,” Davis remembered. “Puck would say, ‘Don’t let them steal your at-bat. Pick out your pitch, and drive him in with a hit, drive him in with a knock.’”

That remained his philosophy after his playing days were over and he became a hitting coach, most recently with the Oakland Athletics.

TOM KELLY He managed for sixteen years in the majors, compiling a 1,140-1,240 record, which included two pennants and two World Series titles.

The Braves

MARK LEMKE After eleven years in the majors, Lemke tried to make it as a coach, but his arm couldn’t take throwing batting practice day after day. He moved to the broadcasting booth, hosting the pre- and postgame shows for the Braves Radio Network. When Skip Caray died, Lemke was the choice to be color analyst, joining Pete Van Wieren. Years after being the best Braves player in the World Series, Lemke remains close to the team and a fan favorite in Atlanta.

“Even though we didn’t win that year, I’d say for most of us we never were a part of something with more excitement and just general passion than those games,” he said. “And then to see the city where you play go berserk over baseball, that’s something you never forget. We wouldn’t win it all until ’95, but nobody on either team will forget that Series in ’91.”

Lemke hit .286 in four World Series and .282 in five NLCS. In comparison, he hit only .246 during the regular season in his career. “He was a postseason phenomenon about every year,” Andy Van Slyke said. “I always used to kid him. I’d say, ‘Mark, if you were in the playoffs for the whole year, you might make some real good money.’ There always seem to be that guy in postseason—the guy who comes out of nowhere.”

RON GANT He would play sixteen years in the majors, including seven with Atlanta. During his career, Gant hit thirty or more home runs in four seasons. In 2005, he began as a color commentator for TBS in Atlanta and seven years later debuted as a news anchor for WAGATV, cohosting the morning show Good Day Atlanta.

STEVE AVERY The future looked bright for the left-handed phenom in 1991 as he went 18-8 and became the youngest pitcher to win a playoff game. But Avery would reach that victory total only once more in his eleven-year career, going 18-6 in 1993. Eventually, he was dropped from the best rotation on baseball, which included Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux. By the 1996 World Series, he was relegated to mop-up duty and he went on to pitch for Boston and then Cincinnati before returning to the game for a brief stint with his hometown Detroit Tigers in 2003 in which he went 2-0 and batted 1.000 (1 for 1).

Yet Avery will tell you that the biggest miracle in his life is his son, Evan. Born in 1994, three months premature, Evan Avery wasn’t expected to survive. Years after his father was out of baseball, Evan graduated from high school, where he played football and baseball.

TERRY PENDLETON A key figure in the Braves’ ’91 run, Pendleton led the league with a .319 batting average, along with twenty-two home runs and eighty-six RBI in 1991. He tied for the league lead with 303 total bases, helping him earn the National League MVP Award, as well as Comeback Player of the Year honors. He retired in 1998 after fifteen years in the majors, which saw him average .270 and capture three Gold Gloves (in 1987 and ’89 with St. Louis and in ’92 with Atlanta) as the best defensive player at his position.

In 2002, Pendleton joined the Braves’ staff as the hitting coach and he had a major hand in helping such young hitters as Andruw Jones. The Braves collected three hundred doubles in a season nine times in franchise history, including each of the last eight seasons (2003-2010) in which Pendleton served as the hitting coach. In 2011, he became the team’s first base coach.

TOM GLAVINE After winning the National League Cy Young in 1991, the left-hander went on to capture the award again seven years later. Glavine would lead the league in victories five times in his twenty-two-year career. He would finish with a 305-203 record in the majors and be elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014.

JOHN SMOLTZ An eight-time All-Star, Smoltz won the Cy Young Award in 1996. After starting much of his career, he became a reliever in 2001 after Tommy John surgery. A year later, he became only the second pitcher in history to enjoy both a 20-win season and a 50-save season (the other being Dennis Eckersley). Smoltz is the only pitcher in major league history to top both 200 victories and 150 saves in his career.

Smoltz, who once organized the golf outings by the Braves’ pitchers, continued to excel at the game after his baseball days were over. Tiger Woods said Smoltz, who had a plus-4 handicap, is the best golfer outside of the PGA Tour that he has seen. Smoltz became a broadcaster, doing games for TBS and the MLB Network.

DEION SANDERS Despite potential on the diamond, playing for the Braves, New York Yankees, Cincinnati Reds, and San Francisco Giants, “Neon Deion” proved to be even better on the gridiron. He played in the National Football League with the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, and Baltimore Ravens. He was on Super Bowl champion teams in San Francisco and Dallas. Besides bringing the Tomahawk Chop to Atlanta, he’s also credited with making the do-rag bandana a sports fashion statement.

An outstanding cornerback and kick returner during his fourteen-year football career, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011. He was an analyst with CBS and then the NFL Network.

ALEJANDRO PEÑA The right-handed reliever stayed in Atlanta for another season before moving on to pitch for Pittsburgh, Boston, and Florida, with a brief return to Atlanta. He retired after the 1996 season and became a pitching coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Dominican Republic.

GREG OLSON In 1992, Olson was behind the plate when a collision late in the season, this time with the Houston Astros’ Ken Caminiti, broke his right ankle. After one more season in Atlanta, Olson was released to make room for catching prospect Javy Lopez. He still lives in the Twin Cities area.

MARK GRANT A leader of the rally caps, Grant never recovered from the shoulder injury that sidelined him for all of the ’91 season. After pitching only forty-three more games at the big-league level he joined the San Diego Padres’ television broadcasts, teaming up with Mel Proctor, Matt Vasgersian, and, most recently, Dick Enberg.

OTIS NIXON The leadoff hitter and top base stealer returned atop the Braves’ lineup after serving his sixty-day drug suspension. He hit .294 with forty-one stolen bases during the 1992 regular season and added another eight bases in the postseason. In a curious twist, he made the final out of the 1992 World Series when he attempted to bunt for a base hit with a runner on third base with two out.

From 1994 to ’97, Nixon played in the American League, with Boston, Texas, and Toronto, before returning to the National League with Los Angeles. He finished his seventeen-year career fittingly back in Atlanta. In the 1999 National League Championship Series against the New York Mets, Nixon made one of the key plays. After the Braves had given up 5-0 and then 7-3 leads in Game Six, he stole second base in the eighth inning and went to third when the throw sailed into the outfield. Nixon would score and the Braves won the game in extra innings.

After his playing days were over, Nixon stayed in the Atlanta area, beginning On-Track Ministries. Unfortunately, in May 2013, Nixon was arrested for cocaine possession.

LONNIE SMITH While he was with the Braves when they returned to the World Series in 1992, by the following season he was on to Pittsburgh before finishing his seventeen-year career with Baltimore. Smith played for three different World Series-winning teams (St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Kansas City). After retirement, he still lives in the Atlanta area and in 2002 he returned to the Braves’ home ballpark and signed autographs.

“I’ve known how it is to struggle,” he said. “I’ve had the struggles with my drug problems, struggles with a divorce, struggles of having great years and coming back with poor years. Something like [1991] isn’t going to affect me.”

BOBBY COX He won fifteen division titles (one with Toronto), five pennants, and a World Series in 1995. In addition, Cox was manager of the year four times in three different decades (1985, 1991, 2004-2005) and did it in both leagues. He finished with a 2,504-2,001 record.

He lives outside of Atlanta, where he has a farm and is a director at a bank in Adairsville, Georgia. Cox makes regular trips to the ballpark to chat with his successor, Fredi Gonzalez.

In 2013, Cox, Joe Torre, and Tony La Russa were elected to the Hall of Fame.

Other notables from the 1991 season

RICKEY HENDERSON After breaking Lou Brock’s all-time steals record, Henderson won a second World Series ring in 1993 with the Toronto Blue Jays. He retired, at least at the big-league level, in 2003 after twenty-five years in the majors.

“He’s the greatest leadoff hitter of all time,” Oakland general manager Billy Beane said, “and I’m not sure there’s a close second.”

In the end, Henderson said the only thing that left him perplexed was how others misunderstood “the type of person I really am and what I accomplished. People who played against me called me cocky, but my teammates didn’t.”

DENNIS ECKERSLEY Before Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, there was “the Eck.” The right-hander with pinpoint control would go on to save 390 games in his twenty-four-year career and put together several of the best seasons a relief pitcher has ever enjoyed. In 1992, he led the American League with fifty-one saves and became only the ninth pitcher to capture the MVP and Cy Young Awards in the same year.

“He taught me something about fear,” Oakland manager Tony La Russa said. “Eck tells me he spends the whole game being afraid. Fear makes some guys call in sick or be tentative. He uses fear to get him ready for every stinking time he pitches.”

BRIEN TAYLOR Two years after the New York Yankees made him the first overall pick in the 1991 amateur draft, Taylor was involved in a bar fight, injuring his pitching shoulder. The left-hander was never the same pitcher and by 1999 he had been released. According to, he and catcher Steve Chilcott were the only top picks never to play at the major-league level. In 2012, Taylor was arrested on multiple drug charges and sentenced to thirty-eight months in prison.

JIM LEFEBVRE After being fired by the Seattle Mariners in 1991, Jim Lefebvre took the helm of the Chicago Cubs the following season. Even though he led the Cubs to a winning record, going 84-78 in 1993, he was let go again. After a brief stint with the Milwaukee Brewers, Lefebvre became the coach of the Chinese Olympic team in the 2008 Summer Games. Along with former major-league pitcher Bruce Hurst, Lefebvre tried to raise the bar on one of baseball’s last frontiers.

“At the international level, baseball is still very young in China,” Lefebvre said, “but in time, I really think it could become the number-one team sport in the country. And someday, China will be a world power in baseball.”

Returning home, Lefebvre tried his best to make sure baseball remained popular with American kids. He worried that showcase tournaments and travel teams were taking the fun out of the national pastime. “The average retirement age of the average baseball player in the U.S. is twelve years old,” he warned youth coaches. “Twelve years old.”

SCOTT BORAS A year after he brokered Taylor’s record $1.55 million contract with New York, Boras negotiated the five-year, $28 million deal that saw Greg Maddux move to Atlanta. The deal reportedly eclipsed the second-best offer by $9 million. Since then Boras has represented a number of baseball superstars, including Alex Rodriguez, Matt Holliday and Prince Fielder.

JANET MARIE SMITH After being a driving force in the construction of Camden Yards in Baltimore, the architect/urban planner helped with the building of Atlanta’s Turner Field and renovations at Fenway Park in Boston and Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles.

CANDICE WIGGINS On November 7, 1991, only a week after the World Series concluded, basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced that he was retiring immediately because he had the HIV virus. While the sports world mourned Johnson’s sudden exit, a young Candice Wiggins had a much different reaction.

“Magic Johnson announcing that he was HIV positive probably had a bigger impact on me at the time than my dad dying,” she said decades later. “That’s because Magic may have been HIV positive, but he wasn’t dead. It wasn’t like life was over. There was some hope. Maybe it’s not the end after all.

“From then on, I really followed Magic Johnson and what he’s done with his fight against this, against the perception of AIDS. It changed from judging people about this issue to how we can help people who suffer from this.”

Wiggins began to play basketball competitively in large part because of Magic Johnson. She remembered that Pepsi-Cola had a “We Believe in Magic” advertising campaign centered on the NBA star. “That was a great indication of what his impact was with all of this,” she said. “That it was OK to believe in magic, miracles, just life. It was something that was so desperately needed in my life. As a four-, five-year-old, I was desperately trying to make sense of all this—AIDS, my father’s death. But I could understand that Magic Johnson was alive and maybe things could work out.”

Candice Wiggins went on to become a four-time basketball All-American at Stanford University. After college, she played professional in the Women’s National Basketball Association, with the Minnesota Lynx and the Tulsa Shock, and she became an advocate for AIDS research and understanding.

In 2011, Wiggins threw out the first pitch at a Minnesota Twins home game and ended up staying for the afternoon at Target Field.

“Until that point, you have to remember, baseball wasn’t something my family loved anymore,” she said. “It was something that took a person from us. But in 2011, I stayed and I watched the whole game. I got to feel the energy and people told me how it was played and what to look for and I saw that this was my dad’s game. What he loved and was good at. This is what his life was and it was so crazy that it took me years to find it.”

PETE ROSE How the crime, or at least the perception of it, can change over the years. By the end of the 2013 season, in the wake of the Biogenesis steroids scandal, support grew for Rose to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

After decades of denial, Rose acknowledged that he had gambled on baseball. “I made mistakes. I can’t whine about it… . They haven’t given too many gamblers second chances in the world of baseball.”

Then Rose added that if baseball’s powers that be gave him “a second chance, I won’t need a third chance.”

Former Commissioner Fay Vincent said that Rose’s statement was “the first time I’ve heard him recognize the reality of the situation. If he had done this twenty-five years ago, or was better advised, it might be different for him. But he handled it as badly as a person can handle it. He kept talking about how we mistreated him and how his rights were violated.”

USA TODAY BASEBALL WEEKLY Despite a drop in circulation, blamed in large part upon baseball’s labor dispute in 1994, the publication continued to exist. The name was changed to Sports Weekly and it began to cover other sports—football, stock-car racing, basketball and hockey.

Paul White, the first editor, is the only one from the original staff still employed by USA Today Sports.