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)
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 19, 1991
AT HUBERT H. HUMPHREY METRODOME
As the hometown Twins took the field, the sellout crowd broke into another sustained roar. Clamorous and downright chaotic, the rising earsplitting din could have been a beast reawakening after a long sleep.
As shortstop Greg Gagne jogged out to his position, he decided the fans were as loud as they had been in 1987, the last time the Twins played in the World Series. They just had to be. The fans were ready to raise a ruckus and wake up the echoes of yesteryear. The best home-field advantage in sports had been brought back to life again, with the promise of another wild ride in the offing. Now, would the hometown team be able to do its part?
As Gagne took his position for the top of the first inning, he thought about how much the Twins’ lineup had changed in recent years. Sure, such Minnesota favorites as Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett were still among the regulars, but besides those two stars, only Gagne, Randy Bush, Al Newman, Dan Gladden, and Gene Larkin remained from the last World Series team, and Larkin had somehow stayed on the postseason roster despite a bad knee, leaving him barely able to run. Here in the infield of hard-bounce Astroturf, with only dirt cutouts around the bases, Gagne was flanked by a pair of relative newcomers on this night. Scott Leius had taken the place of Twins favorite Gary Gaetti at third base. Gaetti, a.k.a. “The Rat,” now played in California. To Gagne’s left stood another rookie, Chuck Knoblauch. Even though the sparkplug of a kid had led first-year American League players in hits, doubles, and RBIs, the hands-down favorite to win rookie-of-the-year honors, no one knew how he would react when things became fickle and unpredictable, as they surely would with so much at stake. After all, this was the World Series, with everybody watching, and like any good story, nobody dared predict the ending or who would be the hero or the goat.
One last time Gagne glanced at the fresh faces to either side of him, everyone now ready for the first pitch, and he could only smile at how baseball worked—so cutthroat one minute, in need of team unity the next.
“What people forget is that both of them—Chuck Knoblauch and Scott Leius—were originally shortstops,” he said years later. “They came into the organization playing my position, looking to take my job… . But the thing with baseball, once things are decided, you pick yourself up and do your best. I mean, what choice do you have? Either of those guys, Knobby or Leius, wanted my job back in the spring. But it didn’t matter. Now we had to come together and try to beat a really, really good Braves team.”
Behind the plate Twins catcher Brian Harper caught the last of Jack Morris’s warm-up pitches, heartened that Black Jack’s split-finger fastball, his signature pitch, had plenty of bite on this night. After throwing down to second base, Harper glanced around the infield one last time before settling into his crouch. Years later the Twins’ catcher and shortstop would realize that they were thinking nearly the same thing at this point, on the eve of it all: the Twins’ infield, ready to go amid the noise, alternated between veterans and kids—Hrbek to Knoblauch, Gagne to Leius—all the way around the horn. Although Harper had almost as many years in the majors as Hrbek or Puckett, he hadn’t exactly made a mark for himself, at least not on this big a stage. After bouncing between five ball clubs—California, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit, and Oakland—he hadn’t caught more than a hundred games in a season until after he arrived in the Twin Cities in 1988. Now he was back in the World Series, after almost being an improbable postseason hero once with the Cardinals.
The Atlanta Braves liked to run the bases, push the envelope, and Harper’s arm wasn’t the strongest in the league. He couldn’t argue with that. So as the Braves’ Lonnie Smith stepped in and the crowd ramped it up a few more decibels, Harper took a deep breath and told himself be like Hrbek, Gagne, and Puckett out there in centerfield. Nothing against the newcomers—they had plenty of talent, for sure. Still, Harper couldn’t help thinking that experienced hands would ultimately carry the day in this unlikely matchup.
Nobody in uniform for either team knew they were about to take the first step into a series for the ages, one that many would soon regard as among the best in baseball history, perhaps the best of all time. Such postseason classics can be counted on a hand or two and include the 1975 matchup between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox, when Carlton Fisk homered in the twelfth inning of Game Six. Back in 1972, the start of Oakland’s dynasty run, that Series served up six one-run games. In 1968 a taut seven-game series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals helped a grieving nation carry on after the tragic assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Of course, there was Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in 1960 that carried Pittsburgh past the New York Yankees. And in 1955 the Brooklyn Dodgers finally broke through against the Yankees’ juggernaut. All of them were memorable times for sure, but none would have five games determined in the home team’s last at-bat. That would be the case in 1991—a Series that would see four games decided on the last pitch.
To truly appreciate what unfolded in 1991, we need to go deep into each ballgame, letting these contents play out in the actions and words of those who were on the field. “Every pitch, every strike, every ball every inning—everything mattered in every game,” said Terry Pendleton, who played third base for Atlanta in this epic showdown.
“My father told me—and I think he was right—he said that each game is like you’re reading a book,” Twins manager Tom Kelly later said. “You’ve got chapter one or Game One, and then Two, and it’s getting better and better and better and better and better.”
Yet, as we do so, we need to keep in mind that almost everything of merit often cuts both ways. Braves general manager John Schuerholz called the 1991 series “great for our industry.” Maybe. Maybe not.
In having two teams go from last place to the Fall Classic, it underscored that any team could—dare we say should—be able to reach such heights. In the profound changes of the early 1990s—the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror, the shift in national leadership from the “Greatest Generation” to the baby boomers, the rapid transition from family-owned companies to corporate multinationals—everything became much more demanding. Everybody seemingly became more impatient for results and success. Nobody really talked about rebuilding anymore, about being in it for the long haul. Instead the buzz word became retool, which often was explained as an almost magical phenomenon that didn’t require methodical and careful reconstruction or perhaps even due diligence. You could almost hear owners throughout sports, strongly mirroring what was going in the private sector, saying to themselves that if the Twins and the Braves could reach the World Series, then why not us? Telling their general managers and front-office personnel to fix it or else they would be sent packing too.
The notable firsts began early and often in this 1991 championship. The Braves’ Lonnie Smith was the designated hitter for Game One, and in batting leadoff for the visiting Braves, his appearance marked only the third time in the last sixty-one World Series games that the DH had taken the first swings in a contest. Amazingly, in all three cases Smith was the guy. He was also the designated hitter, batting leadoff, in Game Four of the 1980 Series and in Game Five of the 1982 series. Also, on this night in Minneapolis Smith became the first player in baseball history to appear in the World Series with four different teams—the Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, and now the Atlanta Braves. Perhaps these were nothing more than footnotes for anybody else, but Smith’s exploits at the plate and certainly on the basepaths would loom large in this Fall Classic.
Smith began the game by lining out to Twins left fielder Dan Gladden. From there Morris kept the Braves off the scoreboard early on, with Atlanta starter Charlie Leibrandt matching him. Some had found Leibrandt a curious choice to start Game One over twenty-game winner Tom Glavine. Yet Braves manager Bobby Cox often depended on Leibrandt, who had a decade at the major-league level, between Cincinnati and Kansas City before coming to Atlanta in 1990. The left-hander had posted a 15-13 record during the regular season and was regarded as the elder statesman on a pitching staff of young guns that also included Steve Avery and John Smoltz.
In the bottom of third inning the Twins broke through for the Series’ first run. Gladden, who had tracked down three fly balls in the first three innings of the game, walked and then stole second base. Rookie Chuck Knoblauch promptly drove him in with an opposite-field flare to right field. Gladden crossed home plate, and Knoblauch was tagged out trying to stretch his single into a double.
The Twins had decided months before that they could live with such rookie mistakes, though. Drafted in the first round out of Texas A&M in 1989, Knoblauch had risen quickly through the minor leagues, sticking with the big-league ballclub coming out of spring training. His father, Ray, had been a minor-league pitcher, and his uncle, Ed, was an outfielder in the Texas League. Originally a shortstop whose boyhood hero had been Ozzie Smith, Knoblauch switched to second base at Double-A Orlando, realizing it was the fast track to the majors. In winning the regular job during the spring, he filled a hole in the Twins’ lineup that had seen the likes of Steve Lombardozzi, Tom Herr, Chip Hale, Fred Manrique and Wally Backman in recent years.
Off field, the twenty-three-year-old often acted like the rookie he was, telling reporters how big a fan he was of the soap opera Days of Our Lives and how breakfast most mornings was a heaping bowl of Frosted Flakes. But on the field Knoblauch regularly came through, and that’s all anybody in the Twin Cities cared about at the time.
“Chuck’s development is a major reason why we’re here,” Twins general manager Andy MacPhail said. “What I first liked about him is that he knows the game.”
Twins hitting coach Terry Crowley added, “What Chuck has done this season is one of the most difficult things to do in baseball. He’s stepped in and made a good team that much better.”
“I don’t think of him as a rookie anymore,” Kent Hrbek said. “He’s done too good a job to still be called a rookie.”
Throughout baseball, teams were increasingly on the lookout for somebody like Knoblauch, a kid who could move into the regular lineup without a lot of fanfare or hand-holding. For opportunity awaited with the ballclubs that could quickly flesh out their rosters and prove that they could compete. Since the 1969 season Major League Baseball no longer crowned one regular-season champion in the American and National Leagues, respectively, and then had them go directly to the World Series. Instead, baseball now sported divisional winners, a total of four teams in the postseason, with the promise of more divisional champions and even wild-card berths on the horizon.
As the 1991 season began, the Atlanta Braves had plenty of young stars of their own. The pitching staff not only sported Glavine, who would go on to win the Cy Young Award, but also left-hander Steve Avery and right-hander John Smoltz as well. In the everyday lineup fan favorite Dale Murphy had been traded to Philadelphia the year before to make room for David Justice. Perhaps this was a painful move for Braves followers, but it certainly paid off. Despite such potential, the Braves spun their wheels throughout the first half of the season. It wasn’t until after the All-Star break that they took off, winning fifty-five of eight-three games, including twenty-one of their last twenty-nine, as they surged past the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“It was a glamour team against a Cinderella team,” team president Stan Kasten said of the National League stretch drive. “This was a race people will talk about for years to come.”
The Braves clinched the Western Division title on the next-to-last day of the 1991 season, finishing with ninety-four victories. That total was an Atlanta team record and twenty-nine more victories than they recorded the year before.
The Twins also got off to slow start in 1991 before putting together a fifteen-game winning streak that lifted them into first place in June. Minnesota had a promising young hurler of its own in right-hander Scott Erickson, who won twenty games, including twelve in a row this season. Perhaps the decisive series of the regular season occurred in mid-August when the Oakland Athletics, the reigning American League champions, arrived in the Twin Cities for four games. Although Minnesota had been in a slump, after dropping three of four to the California Angels, the Twins turned the tables on the Athletics, winning three games behind Morris and bullpen victories by relievers Carl Willis and Rick Aguilera.
Perhaps the telling moment that the worst-to-first underdogs could take the AL West came after the third victory. In the bowels of the Metrodome several of the A’s hurried from the visiting clubhouse, eager to avoid questions from the media. One of them appeared to be José Canseco, who was considered to be among the best players in the game at the time after hitting forty-two home runs and stealing forty bases in 1988. Of course, this was long before evidence of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs became so overwhelming.
Canseco opened the clubhouse door and saw a half-dozen or so members of the press. Glaring at them, he swung the door shut, and the loud thud echoed down the hallway. With that, Canseco strode off. Yet after a few long strides he stopped and looked back with a thin smile. “Just kidding,” he said.
The Twins weren’t kidding around in 1991 as they finished with ninety-five victories, one more than the Braves over in the National League, eight games ahead of the Chicago White Sox, and eleven games up on Canseco’s Athletics when the regular season ended.
“I just never felt like we were a last-place team,” Brian Harper said when comparing the Twins’ 1990 and 1991 editions. “It was unbelievable how [in 1990] when we hit we didn’t pitch, and when we pitched well we didn’t hit. Last year was the weirdest year I’ve ever seen.”
But it wouldn’t hold a candle to what was about to happen in the 1991 postseason.
Round ball. Round bat.
Ted Williams once said that having them greet each other so the impact is square and solid remains the most difficult feat to accomplish in sports, and any slugger who has come before or after him will echo those words.
What do we make of those moments when ball and bat do meet just so? When the ball flies off the bat as though it had a mind of its own and for an instant the only role it knows in life is to soar over the outfield fence like a flock of geese heading for the horizon? What registers in the batter’s box? What does one remember?
“It’s the feel,” said Frank Robinson, who hit 586 home runs during his career. “You don’t feel anything down the bat handle. I’m not trying to make a joke. That’s how it is.
“When you’ve really hit the ball there are no vibrations. You could be swinging through air. That’s how perfect it is.”
Besides the feel in the hands, there is the sweet smack to a well-hit ball. Robinson cautioned that each ballpark has different acoustics and dimensions, so the sound can sometimes fool you. But every slugger worth his salt knows the crisp reverberation that a home run ball often makes. At first Robinson described it as “a gun shot,” but then he searched for better words. A gun shot, in this day and age, seemed too callous for something so magical.
Robinson and I once discussed such things during batting practice at a major-league game. As the home team continued to hit, Robinson paused, simply listening, waiting for that sound again. Even though the clamor built for another game, Robinson was able to tune such diversions out. When the next batter stepped into the cage the rhythmic rat-tat-tat of bat-hitting-ball began again. It could have been a carpenter driving nails or a woodsman splitting wood, except there was a particular fullness or certainty to this particular sound.
“There it is,” Robinson said, and moments later a deep fly sailed past the outfield fence. “It’s like you’re out in the woods and you step on branch. A dry branch. It’s that snap that goes just so. But you have to be careful. The sound comes and goes depending upon the ballpark, the crowd that day. You can’t wait for the sound to tell you every time the ball is going out.”
Together we turned back to the batting cage, and here it came again. For a brief second that sound, that snap of a ball well hit, broke through the mounting anticipation of another game, no matter how loud the commotion may have been. Another well-hit ball soared into the sky and landed in the stands beyond the fence.
“Nothing else offers the kind of excitement that a home run does,” Robinson said. “Not even a perfect game. Because a home run is instant—it’s so surprising.”
And so it was again, this time in Game One of the 1991 World Series. In the bottom of the fifth inning Kent Hrbek roped a 2-0 pitch from Charlie Leibrandt to right field for a stand-up double. Scott Leius followed with a soft single into left, with Hrbek holding at third base. Leibrandt may have trailed only 1-0 at this point, but he wasn’t fooling many of the Twins’ hitters.
Then came that sound again. Despite the crowd of more than fifty-five thousand at the Metrodome, pretty much all of them now on their feet, cheering and waving those infernal white Homer Hankies, that sound of a dry branch breaking in the woods, an echo of every long fly that’s ever happened in this game, was about to occur again.
Gagne, the number-nine hitter in the Minnesota hitter, came to the plate. If anything, the Twins’ shortstop wanted to do better this time around, his second appearance in the World Series. Back in 1987, when the Twins defeated the Cardinals, the last time the Metrodome was really transformed into the “Thunderdome” for an extended period, Gagne had hit a paltry .200.
Now, four years later, Leibrandt got him to swing wildly at an off-speed offering in the dirt. But when the second pitch sailed toward the inside half of the plate, Gagne was ready. With an almost effortless swing, he caught it square and solid, and the ball began to soar toward the left-field fence, landing eight rows or so into the bleachers. With that, Minnesota took a 4-0 lead.
Decades later, watching footage of the game, you can still hear that sound Robinson talked about. For an instant it was there again. The surprise. The snap. The siren call that Robinson and almost any other slugger who has ever picked up a bat through the years knows by heart. For this is what any slugger dreams about, what they worry won’t ever return when they’re buried in a slump.
“I told myself to be ready for the fastball,” Gagne said. “Actually, I was looking to go the other way. I wanted to hit the ball in the hole [between the first and second basemen], but I got a hold of it, and out it went.”
Twins manager Tom Kelly and others on the Minnesota bench were stunned that Leibrandt threw Gagne a low fastball on the inner half of the plate. “That’s what Gags can hit out of the park, and somehow that’s what he got,” Kelly said.
Years later, in describing this particular home run, Gagne still sounded surprised with himself and what had actually transpired. “It reminds me how unpredictable baseball will always be,” he said. “In my previous at-bat, Leibrandt had made me look foolish. He struck me out, and every pitch had been a changeup. I wasn’t close to any of them.
“Back in the dugout I talked with Kelly, and he told me to just sit on the change. Just be ready for that one pitch. I’ll be honest with you—that made me kind of uncomfortable. Everybody has a different approach at the plate, and somebody like Dan Gladden, well, he could go up there looking off-speed and be confident that he could also get around on the hard stuff. I wasn’t so sure of myself… . But my last at-bat had been so lousy, I decided to try it Danny’s way.
“So I’m up there now, looking for Leibrandt’s changeup, and he had a good one too. I just wanted to drive it the other way. Then he threw me a fastball, and it caught too much of the inner half of the plate.”
When Gagne saw the fastball from Leibrandt, he simply reacted to it. “If I’d thought at all about it, I would have missed it. It would have been by me,” he said. “I saw fastball and just swung, and as soon as I hit it I knew it was gone.”
The homer was Gagne’s fourth in postseason play and the first ever given up in the playoffs by Leibrandt, who was soon lifted from the game and replaced by reliever Jim Clancy.
The Twins squandered a chance to break the game wide open later in the same inning when Gladden was thrown out at the plate. With one out and Gladden on third base, Brian Harper hit a liner down the left-field line. Believing it would drop for a hit, Gladden first broke for the plate and then had to scramble back to the bag when Braves outfielder Brian Hunter caught it. He compounded his mistake by then trying to tag up and score, coming in with spikes somewhat high on Atlanta catcher Greg Olson. Even though the ball arrived well ahead of Gladden, the resulting collision sent Olson flying backward, rocking him on to his head and flipping him completely over. It became the cover shot on Sports Illustrated. “I never saw Danny do that before,” Kelly later told team announcer Ted Robinson. “You learn from day one that if the ball goes in the air to the outfield, you go back to the base.”
It wouldn’t be the last bang-bang play with major contact at the plate in this Series. Despite the hard slide, Olson refused to criticize Gladden afterward. Instead, the catcher stuck up for Leibrandt, insisting that outside of the mistake to Gagne, Atlanta’s starting pitcher had done a good job. “He’s got the best changeup on the team,” Olson said. “He struck out Kirby Puckett twice, and anytime you can do that you’ve got to be doing something right.”
Legend has it that the Curley brothers, Tom and John, were pretty bummed when they heard that the Sporting News was dropping baseball box scores. The bad news came in late 1990, and we were years away from such results being computerized and available 24/7 on the Internet.
So when the Curley brothers heard about the “Bible of Baseball” dropping full boxes, their first reaction was, how were they going to keep their fantasy league going? But the baseball-loving brothers held a far different station in life from most seamheads. As top executives for the Gannett Corporation, they soon realized that if the Sporting News wasn’t going to publish baseball box scores anymore, they very well could.
In short order they told Paul White, then baseball editor for USA Today, to pull together a prototype of what a baseball-only, tabloid-style publication could look like, with a week’s worth of box scores filling up the back end. The frenzied process continued into the new year, and soon several of the top advertisers in the United States—Budweiser, General Motors and Miller—showed major interest. A staff of twenty was proposed, and after some dickering, eighteen of us came on board, the new tenants on the twenty-first floor of the second of the company’s skyscrapers along the Potomac River.
Start-ups invariably mean long hours and making up things on the fly. Still, I love them, and I’ve been a part of several during my journalism career (Sports Bulletin, Sports Inc., and The National). Most start-ups fail, and perhaps that’s why I’ll always have a soft spot for Baseball Weekly. It still exists in kind of an altered state out there in the marketplace.
What made the “Worst to First” World Series so unlikely, so improbable, was that the Twins and Braves arguably defeated better ballclubs on paper—the Toronto Blue Jays and the Pittsburgh Pirates—in the league championship series. The Blue Jays and Pirates were considered to be among the best teams in baseball, with their rosters studded with such stars as Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla, and Barry Bonds. Both teams would lose in gut-wrenching fashion in this year’s postseason. Only one team, the Blue Jays, would soon rebound from such heartbreak.
In 1991 Toronto’s chances took a major hit in Game Three when Joe Carter, their all-star right fielder, crashed into the outfield wall and injured his ankle. Until this point Toronto seemed to have things well in hand. But with Carter hobbled, coupled with curious decisions by Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, the Twins soon won out and advanced to the World Series.
The League Championship Series began in 1969 as a five-game series and expanded to a seven-game format in 1985. Back in 1991 that seemed to favor the Blue Jays, who had a deeper pitching staff than Minnesota did. Yet Gaston chose knuckleballer Tom Candiotti to pitch the first game in Minneapolis over young fireballer Juan Guzmán and consistent left-hander Jimmy Key. The Twins scored two runs in the first and second innings off Candiotti and held on for a 5-4 victory.
In Game Two of the ALCS the Blue Jays did what other teams could only dream of: they defeated the Twins in the Metrodome. With Guzmán in command, Toronto stopped Minnesota from winning its eighth consecutive game at home, which would have tied a postseason record.
After gaining a split on the road, Toronto returned home and once again appeared to have the pitching advantage. Twins right-hander Scott Erickson may have gone 20-8 during the regular season and been nicknamed “The Prince of Darkness” for using a black glove and wearing dark socks on the days he pitched, but due to a sore elbow, his aura of invincibility had been broken weeks ago. In Game Three Erickson’s scowl was still there, yet his pitches lacked velocity. Twins manager Tom Kelly later admitted that he had been worried when Erickson threw thirty-one pitches in the first inning as the Blue Jays took a 2-0 lead. “Damn right I was worried,” he said. “[You’re] trying to get through a best-of-seven series with just three starters like we are, then you’d be worried too.”
As Erickson labored, Toronto starter Jimmy Key tied an American League postseason record by retiring the first eleven batters he faced. In the top of the fifth, though, Carter climbed the fence in right, trying to corral Shane Mack’s hard liner. In doing so, Carter strained ligaments in his right ankle, and Mack’s drive went for a triple. He would later score on Kent Hrbek’s groundout.
“Sure, you wonder what could have been,” Carter said years later. “You wish you could always play at your best, be healthy. Unfortunately that’s not the nature of the game. It’s something you file away and look to have go your way the next time you find yourself in that position.”
Meanwhile Kelly successfully deployed his bullpen, setting down several Toronto threats. The game went into extra innings, and this would soon be a trend for this postseason, when the Twins caught lightning in a bottle. Mike Pagliarulo homered off rookie reliever Mike Timlin, and then Rick Aguilera pitched a scoreless inning to cement the Minnesota victory.
Kelly said Pagliarulo’s home run “surprised everyone in the stadium, including me.”
After hitting just .254 for San Diego, Pagliarulo signed with the Twins before the 1991 season. “I wasn’t begging for a job,” he later insisted. “There were a couple of teams still interested. But I needed to find a situation that was right for me. That’s why I signed with the Twins.”
In doing so, he got together with Twins hitting coach Terry Crowley, who tweaked Pagliarulo’s swing, searching for more power. “A lot of people thought he was washed up,” Kirby Puckett said. “But we knew he could play.”
The next two games would be in Toronto, and Puckett cautioned that his Twins “weren’t exactly in the driver’s seat.” Still, the Blue Jays were heading for the ditch thanks to the extra-inning loss and Carter’s injury. The Toronto slugger stayed in the lineup as the designated hitter and tried to stay active by playing ping-pong in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse. But it was no good. With Toronto already holding a 1-0 lead, Carter struck out with two men on in the third inning.
The Twins took Game Four, 9-3, and then clinched the AL pennant by scoring six runs in the last four innings to win 8-5 the following evening.
As Gladden drifted back to catch a fly ball on the warning track for the final out, CBS Sports’ Dick Stockton told viewers, “And the Minnesota Twins have gone from the cellar to the penthouse in the American League.”
Once again the Blue Jays had come close to reaching the World Series, only to fade in the ALCS. Three times (1985, 1989, and now 1991) in the previous six years Toronto had been one step away from reaching its first World Series and fell agonizingly short.
Despite such disappointment, Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick decided to retain Gaston as his manager. “We had a very patient ownership group in Toronto, which allowed us to build that team the way it should be,” Gillick explained decades later. “It was like we were climbing a mountain. We went through a lot of trials and tribulations. We made the playoffs in ninety-one, and we didn’t get there. All those bumps along the road just make you appreciate when you do win a World Series.”
Thanks in large part to Gillick’s patience, the Blue Jays finally did reach baseball’s summit the season after losing to the Twins. It began a run for the Blue Jays that would see them win two consecutive World Series titles, the first team to do so since the New York Yankees in 1977 and 1978.
Gillick was once asked what makes a general manager successful. “Respect,” he replied. “Not respect for myself but respect for the employees who are in those positions. Many times we hire people to do jobs, and we don’t let them do their jobs.”
To be an effective leader Gillick believed that “you have to be a good listener. And you can’t be a good listener when you’re talking.”
Gillick maintained that his employees “knew that I listened to them. They went back and said, ‘I made a contribution. He listened to me. He took in what I had to say. He may not have done exactly what I told him to do, but I know he listened to me.’”
Gillick would eventually be selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, a member of the class of 2011, along with former Twins pitcher Bert Blyleven and former Blue Jay Roberto Alomar.
Back in 1991, though, Gillick seemed a long way away from the victory champagne. This time around it was Andy MacPhail’s eyes that were smarting, his hair matted down from a dousing of the bubbly after the Twins took the American League pennant. In the victorious Twins’ clubhouse, he was the general manager explaining how he had rebuilt his ballclub into a pennant winner when a massive right hand broke through the throng surrounding him.
“Thanks for that phone call,” said Twins designated hitter Chili Davis, who signed with Minnesota during the previous offseason. Davis, like Mike Pagliarulo, had proven to be a key addition for Minnesota.
“Thanks for coming here,” replied MacPhail. “Thanks for leaving home.”
Davis smiled and said, “It was the best phone call I’ve ever made.”
In becoming the first team to win three games on the road in a league championship series, the Twins had plenty of heroes to go around, many of whom MacPhail had brought aboard. Besides Pagliarulo and Davis, there were pitchers Kevin Tapani, David West, and Rick Aguilera. Those young arms had come to the Twin Cities in a controversial trade with the New York Mets when MacPhail sent staff ace Frank Viola packing. Tapani, West, and Aguilera had pitched in the deciding game against Toronto.
“I said it last year when it wasn’t a popular thing to say, but I’ll say it again: everybody got what they thought they were going to get in that trade,” MacPhail said. “The Mets got a twenty-game winner. They were a big market team—they could afford him. We needed numbers. We needed a little bit of relief from payroll. We got the young pitchers we thought we were getting, and they got the big-stud left-hander that they thought they were getting.”
In the bottom of the sixth inning of World Series Game One, the Twins’ Kent Hrbek lofted a high foul ball down the left-field line. Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton drifted over toward the temporary box seats where the game’s VIPs were often seated, but he couldn’t snag it. Instead the ball came straight down, striking Anne Vincent, the commissioner’s daughter, on the back of the head. She would be taken to the Metrodome’s first-aid room, but she refused treatment. Sporting a good-sized lump, she soon returned to her seat.
“She was more embarrassed than anything,” said Fay Vincent, her father and baseball’s commissioner.
Anne Vincent was still rubbing the back of her head when Hrbek laced a 3-1 offering from Braves reliever Jim Clancy into the upper deck in right field. The solo shot gave the Twins a four-run lead. After going only 3-for-21 (.143) in the ALCS against Toronto, Hrbek already had a double and home run in the 1991 World Series.
A local hero in the Twin Cities, he grew up near the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington and in 1982 was the runner-up to Cal Ripken for American League Rookie of the Year. A big guy, outspoken and even goofy, Hrbek was a favorite with fans and media alike. ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian once called Hrbek “the most human baseball player ever.”
“The only person who tells me what to do now is my wife,” Hrbek once said. “TK [manager Tom Kelly] can’t tell me to bunt. The coaches can’t tell me what to do. The only person I take orders from is my wife. She told me to cut the lawn today. So I cut the lawn.”
If Herbie was smiling and circling the bases, then life was good in Twins Land. But one wouldn’t know it from by looking at Kelly. The Twins’ manager either had a scowl or thin smile as he watched the Series begin to unfold. Sure, he slapped hands with Hrbek, even stealing another glance down to the commissioner’s box to see how Anne Vincent was doing. But Kelly was already scheming how best to shut down the Braves over the next three innings, the quickest way to securing nine outs and the victory of this World Series game.
In 1991 Tom Kelly and Andy MacPhail may have been the oddest couple in baseball. MacPhail’s father, Lee, once presided as president of the American League, and his grandfather, Larry, was general manager with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. In comparison, Kelly came from the other side of the tracks. The oldest son of a minor-league pitcher, Kelly was born in Graceville, Minnesota, and this gave him as much claim to being a local hero as Hrbek. In reality Kelly spent much of his childhood in New Jersey, where his father pursued semi-pro baseball.
“We’d always wondered what Tom would be doing if he wasn’t in baseball,” his younger brother, Joe, once said. “Thankfully, none of us ever had to find out.”
“If I wasn’t managing baseball, what would I be doing?” Tom Kelly answered. “Probably be [working] on a farm.”
Undoubtedly on a farm with race horses. Until a few months before the 1991 World Series began he and his brother had owned several harness horses and ran them at Freehold, the Yonkers and the Meadowlands raceways. “We were small-time,” Joe Kelly said. “It was a hobby for us. We sure didn’t get rich from it.”
Together the brothers mucked stalls and walked their horses over a few winters. “It gave me an understanding of horses,” Kelly later told the New York Times, “and I think you can often understand people when you understand horses. I learned patience. I learned that you can’t be too hard on horses. I learned the saying in racing: ‘If you send out a good horse, you’ll get a good horse back. Send out a lame horse, and you’ll get a lame horse back.’
“So I like to rest my players as often as I can. You want to keep them healthy. And that’s why I try to use the entire roster of players. And attitude is important with horses and players. I like to rest a player on the up note. If he goes 0-for-four and I rest him, he’s bothered about his bad day. But if he goes two-for-three and I rest him, he’s a happier player.”
Although there were lessons to be learned at the horse track, nothing overshadowed the ball diamond for Tom Kelly. He played in the minors for thirteen seasons, and in 1975 he reached the Twins for forty-nine games, where he batted .181 and hit his only major-league home run off the Tigers’ Vern Ruhle. In 1987, his first time managing in postseason play, Kelly was sometimes abrasive and ill at ease with the influx of media. But he huddled with media consultants before the 1991 postseason and then insisted he was actually enjoying his team’s return to the World Series.
Certainly his players enjoyed playing for him. Hrbek told a story about when the Twins once trailed the Angels, 3-0.
“You ain’t doing diddly, TK,” said Hrbek, who had been given the day off and wasn’t at his usual post in the field.
“Think you can do better, Herbie?” Kelly replied.
“Can’t do worse.”
So Kelly sat alone at the end of the bench, and nobody did much of anything as the Twins rallied to tie the game.
“That’s it, Skip,” Hrbek finally said. “I’m exhausted from thinking so much. You have it back.”
The bench broke up as Kelly once again officially took the helm.
Heading into the top of the eighth inning, Kelly and the Twins appeared to be in control. They held a 5-1 lead, with their best pitcher, Jack Morris, on the mound. Despite such success, Kelly debated with himself whether to lift his staff ace. The Twins’ bullpen was well rested after having five days off before the start of the World Series, and the Minnesota manager noticed that Morris didn’t exactly have his best stuff in Game One. The right-hander with the bushy mustache, which gave him the air of an ornery aging gunslinger, had gotten by more on grit and guile this evening. Still, he had thrown only eighty-nine pitches to this point, so Kelly decided to let him start the eighth inning against the top of the Atlanta order, his fourth time through the lineup.
From the get-go, Kelly realized that leaving Morris in the game was a mistake, perhaps even a game-changer. He watched his starting pitcher walk Lonnie Smith and then Jeff Treadway to start the inning. That put two men on with none out, leaving the Twins’ bullpen in a bit of a bind. Kelly, like many managers, liked to give his relievers a clean slate when possible—nobody on base to start an inning. In his autobiography, Season of Dreams, Kelly said that his father, a minor-league pitcher, instilled another important lesson in him: “When you see the ball hit hard, it’s time to make a change. If you’ve seen some warning signs and you wait too long, then you’re not doing your job.”
Although Morris hadn’t exactly shot up red flares of distress—he had sent down the Braves in order in the seventh—by this inning he was out of sorts, slipping several times in his delivery to the mound.
“Jack was such a competitor that he rarely wanted to come out of games,” catcher Brian Harper said. “He was from the old school, where starting pitchers were determined to finish what they started. He was a throwback to guys like Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan. But he had also pitched a lot of innings that year and the seasons before. He was a workhorse, no doubt about it, but TK knew that sometimes those are the guys you have to really keep an eye on.”
Later Morris said he had “just run out of gas” in Game One. So much so that when Kelly came out to the mound, Morris simply handed him the ball without any protest. Atlanta had two men on with the heart of their order—Terry Pendleton, David Justice, and Ron Gant—due up. The first Twins’ reliever would be left-hander Mark Guthrie to face the switch-hitting Pendleton.
As things shifted in their favor, many in the Braves’ dugout began to manipulate their hats, going to their “rally caps.” This had become the team’s MO during the great run in the second half of the season, catching the Dodgers and then upsetting the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Championship Series. Although rally caps, an appeal to the baseball gods, seemingly have been around forever, they didn’t really take off at the big-league level until 1977 with the Texas Rangers. Those on the bench turned their ballcaps inside out or backward to inspire a rally, usually in the later innings. During the 1986 season the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, and New York Mets joined in, with the Mets continuing the practice all the way to a World Series title.
Certainly no ballclub ever had as many rally formations for their team lids than the 1991 Braves. There was the “Bonnet,” where the back of the cap was tucked in and the bill pointing upward, and the “Spout,” in which cap wasn’t turned completely inside out and the bill of the cap stuck out like a spout of a watering can or jug.
“We didn’t invent the rally caps, but we sure had a lot of fun with them,” said Mark Grant, who traveled with the team and was in uniform on the Braves’ bench despite missing the season with a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. “We started to develop different types of rally caps for different times of the game. Pretty much everybody got into it because not only was it fun, but the rally caps thing seemed to be working for us.”
Atlanta’s favorite saw the bill turned sidewise, sitting atop the head like a dorsal fin on a large fish. This rendition, credited to pitcher Steve Avery, was simply called the “Shark” and was deployed “when we’ve got a rally in progress and we want to go for the kill,” the left-hander explained. Now, in Game One, many players on the Atlanta bench, urged on by Grant and Avery, turned their cap around in this fashion, a smile creeping across their faces. They had rallied many times in the late innings this season, so why not do it again? This time in the belly of the beast—the feared Metrodome.
Only a few days ago the Braves had shut out the favored Pirates in back-to-back games behind young pitchers Avery and John Smoltz to reach the Fall Classic. “I was doing deep-breathing exercises,” Braves general manager John Schuerholz remembered. “I was trying prayerful concentration, anything I thought could work.”
Against Pittsburgh, Braves pitchers had stopped Barry Bonds, one of the game’s best hitters. “We noticed that Barry had a tendency to swing for the fences once the playoffs rolled around,” explained Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone. “He was such a great hitter during the regular season, but we felt the bigger the game, the more he tried to pull the ball and jack it out of the park. We felt we could get him out down and away, that we could pitch him so that he could do everything but pull it.”
Bonds hit only .148 in the 1991 NLCS versus Atlanta and didn’t drive in a run.
Behind Avery, the Braves won Game Six of the NLCS, 1-0, and a night later they took Game Seven, 4-0, with Smoltz in command. As Mazzone pointed out decades later, “[We] had a twenty-one-year-old, a twenty-three-year-old, and a twenty-five-year-old, Steve Avery, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, plus Pete Smith and Charlie Leibrandt, a guy a lot of people thought was washed up. They got us to the seventh game of the World Series.”
Avery pitched a playoff record sixteen and a third scoreless innings in the NLCS, prompting Pirates outfielder Andy Van Slyke to say, “If he’s going to keep pitching like that, I’m going to come up with a disease every time we see him. It’s going to be some kind of stomach disorder, Avery-itis. No, make that Poison Avery.”
Certainly some kind of malady hit hard in the Steel City after the 1991 NCLS. Thanks to the game’s economics, the escalating gap between the rich and poor teams, the small-market Pirates weren’t able to hang on to their stars for much longer. Bonds would sign with the San Francisco Giants after the 1992 season, while Bobby Bonilla would soon join the New York Mets and Van Slyke would finish his career in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
“Back in ’91 we knew we were right up against the team with the best pitching in baseball,” Van Slyke said. “In looking back on it I think if [the Braves] had gone on that winning streak of theirs earlier in the season, it could have been a different story for us in the NLCS. The reason I say that is they were just on such a great winning streak, we just knew it was going to be tough for us.
“It’s like when you’re on a run and you get into your third or fourth mile, the endorphins are released in your body and you feel like you could go for another ten miles after that. You could see that those Braves were on an endorphin run when we faced them in the postseason. The way they won—how they won—set them up for the postseason.
“I think it’s similar to how you see teams that get the wild card these days coming down the stretch. They’re still on this great run, and they aren’t feeling any pressure. They think that they can’t lose. And when you think you can’t lose, you often end up being a better player than you probably are.”
Of course, the Pirates returned to the playoffs in 1992, only to lose another Game Seven to Atlanta again, as Sid Bream this time rumbled around third base for the winning run. After that, a curse seemed to settle upon western Pennsylvania. Despite management’s best intentions and the construction of a beautiful downtown ballpark, the ballclub wouldn’t finish above .500 for more than two decades and wouldn’t return to postseason play until 2013. Yet such angst and agony was well down the road on this night, the first game of the 1991 World Series. There were most pressing decisions at hand.
When Jack Morris had been on the mound for Minnesota, the Braves’ Pendleton batted from the left side, going 0-for-3. Despite such success, Tom Kelly liked to turn switch hitters around late in a game, make them hit from the other side. The Twins’ manager felt it played with the batters’ mind. In addition, Pendleton had hit only four of his career-high twenty-two home runs during the regular season from the right side. All in all Kelly liked his odds with a left-hander, even a journeyman like Mark Guthrie, on the mound.
For a moment it appeared such mind games wouldn’t add up to much, as Pendleton smoked Guthrie’s second pitch to the right-field side of second base. Yet somehow Chuck Knoblauch backhanded the ball on one hop and then threw to Gagne to start a double play. Time and again in the Series the Twins’ middle infielders looked like they had been together for years rather than being thrown together for this season. They could turn a double play with the best of them and, by the end of this Series, would turn a DP for the ages, a pantomime of style and grace, done entirely without a ball.
Tonight it was good enough for a crucial, real-life twin killing. With first base now open, Guthrie pitched carefully to David Justice, eventually walking him, the third free pass of the inning. That put runners on first and third with two out. Twins closer Rick Aguilera was brought in to face Gant, who singled to bring home Smith. It was Gant’s third hit in the game. Once again the Braves were threatening, with the tying run now coming to the plate. But Aguilera made sure there would be no late-inning heroics from Sid Bream on this evening, as he induced the Braves’ first baseman to fly out to Puckett in center field on his first pitch.
From there Aguilera would set down the Braves in order in the ninth, and Minnesota took the opening game of the 1991 World Series, 5-2.
Afterward Kelly walked to the commissioner’s box and gave the lineup card to umpire Steve Palermo. Partially paralyzed in a shooting incident, Palermo had gone to the mound on crutches and thrown out the first pitch. Kelly had seen Palermo in the Twins’ dugout before the game but wasn’t sure what to say, so he decided to give him the lineup card instead. To Kelly, that seemed more appropriate than any attempt at chit-chat. After all, things were about to get serious in a hurry.