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)
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 20, 1991
AT HUBERT H. HUMPHREY METRODOME
The Metrodome opened for business in April 1982, becoming the third domed facility in baseball, after the Astrodome in Houston and Seattle’s Kingdome. Over the years it would host the World Series, NCAA’s Final Four, the Super Bowl, and such rock headliners as Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones. In essence the Metrodome, which was eventually rechristened Mall of America Field, stood as the multipurpose venue that cities were once so eager to embrace. But when you talk to the ballplayers about the Teflon-topped, multipurpose stadium that was slated to be replaced after the 2013 football season, what they remember is the earsplitting noise and that infernal, mesmerizing roof.
Sellout crowds jammed the Dome in the autumn of 1991, with the off-white lid holding all the commotion inside, making it as loud as a jet plane taking off. One of the loudest noise levels ever recorded at a sports stadium occurred here during the 1987 World Series. St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joe Magrane wore earplugs, and infielders for both teams had to use hand signals to communicate with each other, with bullpen coaches putting a foot atop the phone receiver. Often it was too loud inside the Metrodome to hear the next call for a reliever, so coaches learned to go with the vibration instead.
“They ought to nuke this place,” St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog said after his ballclub lost four in a row there in the postseason.
Opposing pitcher Dan Quisenberry echoed this theme of annihilation, adding, “I don’t think there are any good uses for nuclear weapons, but then, this may be one.”
Besides the high-decibel noise, the stadium’s off-white, daze inducing roof also drove the ballplayers to distraction. As ESPN’s Jim Caple once wrote, the space-age lid was “so thin that you can tell when the sun goes behind a cloud during a day game. You can also hear the rain pelting on the roof during a thunderstorm.”
Sounds kind of poetic, almost tranquil, doesn’t it? But good luck getting a bead on a ball hit in the air in the old Metrodome, especially with the stands filled and everyone yelling their heads off. “Everybody that plays here has a problem with the roof,” said Chuck Knoblauch, who lost track of a fly ball in the American League Championship Series despite having a season’s experience in the place. “Line drives seem to get lost in the lights. Even a simple pop-up gets lost for a split second.”
Catcher Brian Harper added, “In outdoor ballparks you can take your eye off the ball and then pick it up again when you’re an outfielder or base runner. You cannot do that in the Metrodome because the ball and roof are so close to being the same color. We knew that on the Twins. We knew that you never took your eye off the ball.”
Never take your eye off the ball. To their regret, the Braves would be reminded of this adage throughout the series, once at the most inopportune time.
In Game Two of the 1991 series where the game took place did make headlines again. After the Braves went down in order in the top of the first inning, Twins leadoff hitter Dan Gladden lofted Tom Glavine’s first pitch to short right field. Mark Lemke, who had taken Jeff Treadway’s spot at second base, ran out headlong in pursuit.
“Lemke has much better range,” Atlanta manager Bobby Cox told the media when explaining the lineup switch.
Between the roar of the crowd and the tint of the roof, however, Lemke looked like a man chasing his hat in the wind. At the same time Lemke was running out, Braves right fielder David Justice was running in, ready to position himself to make a play on the ball. The two of them bumped together, and the ball fell to the artificial turf, putting Gladden on second base.
A bit rattled, Glavine walked Knoblauch, and the Twins were in business. Not even Kirby Puckett hitting into a double play could stem the tide as Chili Davis followed by homering to left-center field. The blow staked Minnesota to a 2-0 lead, and the home run was the first World Series hit of Davis’s career.
The Twins’ slugger initially thought he had hit a Glavine fastball. But later, after studying the replay, he decided it must have been a changeup. “Sometimes a guy guesses right, you know?” Davis said.
A switch-hitter, Davis was in his eleventh big-league season in 1991 and had come to Minnesota after breaking in with the San Francisco Giants and then spending three seasons with the California Angels. Bothered by a lower-back strain, he was held to 113 games in 1990, hitting only twelve home runs. After the Angels let him go in free agency, the Twins became his only real suitor. Through it all general manager Andy MacPhail believed Davis would be a good fit in the Minnesota order. A switch-hitter, David could balance the Minnesota lineup, helping to protect Kent Hrbek against right-handed pitching.
Such negotiations underscored the growing divide between the richer and poorer teams in baseball, even back in 1991. The top team payrolls that season belonged to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, and, ironically, the Oakland Athletics. They were all at $33 million, give or take a few million. The Twins’ payroll stood at more than $22 million, roughly the middle of the pack financially. As a result, MacPhail couldn’t bid that high for such top free agents as Terry Pendleton, Rob Deer, or Darryl Strawberry, especially after signing Steve Bedrosian, Carl Willis, and Jack Morris to bolster the pitching staff.
Healthy for the 1991 season, Davis led the team in home runs (twenty-nine) and runs batted in (ninety-three). He insisted that he wasn’t on a mission or trying to prove anybody wrong after most teams ignored him during free agency. Still, Davis told his agent, Tom Reich, that “they’ll be sorry that they let me get away. I’m not hurt. I’m not lazy. I’m not stupid.”
Kelly agreed that Davis’s arrival initially took pressure off Hrbek and Puckett. Then, as he continued his comeback season, Davis’s performance forced everyone to eventually step up their game too. “They didn’t want to be embarrassed by the new guy,” Kelly told the (St. Paul) Star-Tribune. “He helped everybody.”
But of what help would Davis be when the series shifted to Atlanta for Games Three, Four, and Five? The team’s designated hitter, Davis wouldn’t have a regular spot in the batting order and would probably be relegated to a pinch-hitting role. Hrbek and others feared that could severely slow the Twins’ attack. Through it all Davis tried to stay upbeat. “I think the guys won about 75 percent of the games I didn’t start,” he said.
As long as there are umpires, there will be a degree of human error in the game. The national pastime, unlike the National Football League, wouldn’t fully embrace instant replay until the 2014 season. Well-trained human beings, not machines, are always considered the best option, but it can lead to intriguing twists and turns, even with the game’s top officials between the lines.
Of course, baseball has had plenty of umpiring controversies over the years. For example, Jim Joyce’s blown call in 2010 cost the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Yet when it comes to postseason miscues, Don Denkinger still tops the list. He became a household name to angry St. Louis fans after he called Jorge Orta safe at first base in the ninth inning of Game Six in the 1985 World Series. Replays showed that Orta was clearly out, and the Cardinals could have closed the game out and been crowned world champions.
“A bad call—it’s synonymous with my name,” Denkinger told the Associated Press after Jim Joyce’s blown call with Galarraga. “Any time there’s a bad call they call me.”
He also told ESPN, “Had I got that play right, or they had instant replay and got it corrected, they would remember the ’85 World Series, but they wouldn’t have remembered my name.”
Six years later after the 1985 controversy, the Braves came into the World Series ready to take advantage on the basepaths. Several of the Twins’ pitchers had high leg kicks, which led to good jumps, and Twins catcher Brian Harper had an average arm at best. “My back and my arm were killing me by the end of that season,” Harper later admitted. “And they liked to run. It wasn’t the most comfortable of situations for me.”
With two out in the top of the third inning and Lonnie Smith on first base, Gant slapped Kevin Tapani’s 1-1 fastball into left field. Dan Gladden’s throw to third base was off line, and the ball dribbled past the bag toward home plate. Tapani backed up the play, and once he saw Gant take a wide turn around first base, he fired the ball across the diamond to Hrbek.
In the Twins’ dugout manager Tom Kelly wasn’t thrilled with Tapani’s decision. “I was angry because I don’t like seeing the ball thrown all over the field,” he later wrote. “If Tap makes a bad throw, we have a circus with people running all over the place. We try to stay away from circuses.”
Yet what ensued proved to be much more than an errant throw and could have played in the main ring at Bozo’s Big Top. Gant beat Tapani’s throw and returned to first base safely, standing up. Hrbek slapped the tag on Gant anyway, and the two of them became entangled, looking like a pair of awkward dancers at the far edge of the dance floor. Together they stumbled into foul territory, with Hrbek still holding the glove with the ball on Gant’s leg. When Gant came off the bag, first baseman umpire Drew Coble called the Braves’ base runner out.
The Atlanta dugout erupted in protest, with manager Bobby Cox running onto the field to join Gant and first-base coach Pat Corrales in confronting Coble.
“I was clearly on the base,” Gant later said, pointing out that Hrbek was “double my size.”
In the official tale of the tape Gant stood six-foot, 170 pounds, with Hrbek four inches taller and easily weighing more than 200 pounds.
“The officiating has got to be better than that,” Gant added. “If he hadn’t pulled me off, I would have stayed on the base.”
Of course, Hrbek had a different interpretation of the pivotal play. “He came into the base and pushed into me. I kind of fell back and he fell over me with his foot coming off the base. If I had pushed him, I’d have pushed him back on the base.”
The Twins’ first baseman added that he played the moment like “a charge” in basketball.
Coble had umpired in the American League since 1979, and this was his first World Series appearance. His take on the play? “[Gant] lunged into the bag. His momentum was carrying toward the first-base dugout. When he did that, he began to switch feet. He tried to pick up one foot and bring the other down… . [In] my judgment, his momentum carried him over the top of Hrbek.”
Ironically, Don Denkinger himself was on the field that night, umpiring down the right-field line. A bit of cruel irony that Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton, who was on the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series, couldn’t help but notice.
At one point, after Game Two, Denkinger took it upon himself to answer questions from the pool reporter directed at Coble. “There is a judgment call by this umpire,” Denkinger declared. “There is no appeal to the plate umpire in this case.”
The explanations, on the field and after the game, didn’t sit very well with the Braves and certainly not their manager. “You don’t like to cry about umpire’s call,” Bobby Cox said. “[But] you can’t move a guy off an occupied base. I don’t care if it’s just a little nudge. You can’t do it. I don’t think [Coble] meant to call the play wrong, but in our minds it was wrong. It was as simple as that.”
The Twins’ Dan Gladden disagreed: “The only thing controversial about that play,” he said years later, “was that Ron Gant forgot to slide.”
Watching from the Minnesota dugout, catcher Brian Harper also noted who the men in blue were this evening. He had been on the 1985 Cardinals along with Pendleton. Until Denkinger’s blown call, Harper was in line to be the hero, as his pinch-hit single had driven in the go-ahead run for St. Louis. In fact, Harper was rehearsing his answers for the press with teammate Andy Van Slyke, another member of that Cardinals team, when Denkinger called Orta safe.
“Andy was asking me the usual questions,” Harper said. “How does it feel to win the World Series? That kind of stuff until Orta was ruled safe. Then it all went out the window. I was soon forgotten when it came to being the World Series hero.”
In this World Series game things settled down without anybody being ejected. That had been Cox’s main goal when he left the dugout—to make sure Gant didn’t get tossed. Although the Braves’ manager would be ejected a record 158 times during his twenty-nine-year major league career, he was downright civil this time. “Umpires don’t like to be embarrassed,” Cox later explained. “[Coble] probably thought he made the right call.”
The play wasn’t soon forgotten, though, not in the days or even years to come. Two decades later the Twins offered a Hrbek/Gant bobblehead of the play to the first ten thousand fans through the turnstiles. Even so the Atlanta ballclub remained a bit touchy about what had happened. “[We] begrudgingly gave our approval because although it wasn’t a great moment in Braves history, it was for the Twins,” a Braves’ spokesperson told the (St. Paul) Star Tribune.
Twenty-two years later, when the Twins visited Atlanta for interleague play, Gladden brought along his Hrbek jersey and the two-headed bobblehead for announcing the game on Twins radio. After the Braves swept that two-game series he decided the whole incident “was still cursed, at least from my point of view. Winning in Atlanta, at least for teams from Minnesota, rarely seems to work out.”
Seeing a chance to tie the game go by the boards would annoy many starting pitchers. Yet Braves starter Tom Glavine was unlike most pitchers. Almost from the time he made the big-league team for good in 1988 Glavine reminded pitching coach Leo Mazzone of Whitey Ford, the staff ace of the New York Yankees dynasty teams in the 1950s and 1960s. Both were left-handed control specialists, used to changing speeds and hitting spots, who kept their composure when the game was on the line. “Tommy is a stoic figure on the mound, like Whitey,” Mazzone said. “And Tommy represents our Braves pitchers the same way Whitey represented those great Yankees teams.”
In the bottom of the second inning, with the Metrodome faithful cheering for an early knockout, Glavine walked Ken Hrbek but then got Scott Leius to ground into a double play. In the bottom of the third he retired the Twins in order, striking out Dan Gladden and Kirby Puckett.
Earlier in his career Glavine would show all of his pitches—fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup. But after going 10-12 in 1990 the left-hander had decided to throw his two-seam circle changeup more. In doing so, he reached the twenty-victory plateau for the first time in this season—an amazing turn of events for a pitch he literally picked up one day.
The story goes that Glavine came to his signature pitch during spring training of 1989. With a fastball that would never be compared with Nolan Ryan’s heater, Glavine knew he needed another offering to keep hitters off balance. Scouts often talk about range when it comes to pitching—that’s why they will settle like crows behind home plate at games, monitoring every pitch with their own individual radar guns. What they often track is the difference in speed between a fastball and whatever kind of breaking ball the pitcher is throwing. A range of only a few miles per hour between different pitches won’t get the job done. Batters will soon adjust and start hitting rockets to the far corners of the ballpark.
“They can dial up on that heater,” Billy Ripken said. “But Ryan had that nasty hook to go along with the fastball. Randy Johnson had that nasty slider.”
Glavine experimented with a split-fingered fastball and other breaking pitches, but he couldn’t get any of them to work for him on a consistent basis. One day, in 1989, he was shagging balls during BP when he picked one up and adjusted his grip. His middle and ring fingers extended along the ball’s seams, and he placed the tip of his index finger on top of the thumbnail. It was a more exaggerated grip than the four-seam changeup, and as Glavine threw it back into the infield, he realized he was on to something. The grip wasn’t much different from other breaking pitches, “but it made all the difference to me,” he said.
So much so that Glavine soon threw his changeup as much as forty times in a game and was never reluctant to deliver it on pivotal counts—3-and-2 or 3-and-1. That’s how much he believed in what he had found. As Braves general manager John Schuerholz later pointed out, Glavine put together an impressive career “with his style of changeup after changeup after changeup. Come and hit this pitch if you think you can. If you do, I’ll make it even more difficult for you to hit it the next time. As a painter of corners, he was an absolute Michelangelo.”
In Game Two Glavine soon made believers out of the Twins, retiring fifteen batters in a row at one point. With him in control, Atlanta battled back to tie the game at 2-2 in the fifth inning.
Glavine, like many great athletes of yesteryear, learned early on to do what works and not to think too much about the where and why. When he was growing up every sport still had a season, giving players valuable time to reflect when that equipment from the last season was stowed away in the closet. Glavine’s father, Fred, remembered when a scout wanted to see his son pitch again after Tom had appeared in a late-summer tryout camp before his senior year. The young pitcher told the scout he would have to wait until spring rolled around. Hockey season was on the horizon, and Glavine was so adept at his second sport that he would be offered a scholarship to play hockey at the University of Lowell and later be drafted in the fourth round by the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League.
For Glavine there were few if any similarities between baseball and hockey. Still, he played them both through high school, believing that the routine gave him time to heal and stay mentally fresh. Of course, today’s youth sports stars rarely are allowed such opportunities. Once a kid begins to excel at a particular sport, coaches and parents urge him to specialize—play his supposed sport year-round. But in doing so, so much can be lost.
Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, for example, pitched no-hitters in Little League and excelled so much at high school basketball that he was offered a college basketball scholarship.
Mark McGwire quit baseball temporarily during his sophomore year in high school to play golf. If he hadn’t been caught up in the steroids controversy, he would be playing in more pro-ams and may have caught on with the senior PGA Tour. He was almost as good with a golf club in his hands as he was with a baseball bat. The Braves’ Deion Sanders was such a well-rounded athlete as a kid that he became the first athlete to play in both a World Series and a Super Bowl. “Parents need to make the major decisions that affect their kids’ lives,” Sanders said. “But when it comes to play, they shouldn’t discourage a broad approach. When a child wants to color, do you tell him to use just one black crayon?”
Due to the huge influence of travel teams and the tantalizing hope of a college sports scholarship, the days when kids marked the seasons by a particular sport—football in fall, basketball and hockey in winter, and track, lacrosse, and baseball in spring—are just about gone forever. One wonders what would have happened to Glavine, Montana, or Sanders if they were young sports stars in this day and age.
Summer hockey, fall baseball, indoor winter soccer, elite year-round teams that travel far from their neighborhoods—these are all part of a new kid-centric culture in which specialization supposedly breeds success. But does it?
Sports psychologist Rick Wolff, author of Coaching Kids for Dummies, cautioned that “excelling in sports has become as much a part of the American dream for parents as getting their kids into the best school and living in the best neighborhoods.”
Sanders added that parents “are using their kids as a lottery ticket. Before all this money came along, moms and dads didn’t go crazy at games. They didn’t curse their kids and get on them to play better. It was just fun. Now, there’s a Yellow Brick Road, and parents think it’s their ticket.”
Years ago, when Joe Montana was as All-Pro quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, he rallied his team for a last-minute victory at Candlestick Park. When reporters asked Montana about one of the pivotal plays, when he evaded a blitzing defender coming from his blind side, he smiled that Cheshire Cat grin of his and said, “Didn’t you guys recognize that move?”
Puzzled looks all around. Nobody knew what he was talking about.
“It’s an old basketball move,” Montana explained. “Spin away from your man, remember? You guys forget I was a pretty good basketball player too. They offered me a college scholarship in that too.”
Perhaps only a pitcher like Tom Glavine would really understand.
It takes two to have a pitching duel, and Kevin Tapani soon proved to be Glavine’s equal in Game Two of the Series. He was nicked for a single run in the second inning and another in the fifth, when Minnesota native son Greg Olson doubled, went to third on Mark Lemke’s groundout, and then scored on Rafael Belliard’s sacrifice fly. After that, though, Tapani shut down the Braves’ offense.
While Glavine dominated as the game went into the later innings, Tapani continued to match him on the scoreboard, zero for zero. Lying in the weeds, going about his job without a lot of fanfare had always been Tapani’s way. Raised in Escanaba, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, Tapani played baseball in a land where the winters were so long that the high school season really didn’t happen. There was only time left for American Legion ball, later in the short summers, for Tapani to show his stuff. “Everyone dreams about playing in the majors,” he once told the Sporting News, “but I never thought I’d get a chance. Almost no one else from there had ever done it, so I didn’t think about it. Baseball was just for fun.”
Somehow Tapani received a scholarship offer to play at Central Michigan after turning heads at a tryout camp the Los Angeles Dodgers held. In 1986 Oakland drafted him in the second round, and he signed with the Athletics. After pitching at four levels of the A’s system (Medford, Modesto, Huntsville, and Tacoma), Tapani became part of a three-team, eight-player deal that saw reliever Jesse Orosco go from the Mets to the Dodgers and starting pitcher Bob Welch move from Los Angeles to Oakland. For the next two seasons Tapani rose through the Mets’ minor-league system. At the trading deadline in 1989 he came to Minnesota along with David West and Rick Aguilera in the deal that sent Frank Viola to the New York Mets. After another brief stint in the minors, Tapani was called up for good and finished fifth in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting, behind winner Sandy Alomar of the Cleveland Indians. In 1991 he finished seventh in the Cy Young balloting, behind Roger Clemens and teammates Scott Erickson and Jack Morris, who finished second and fourth, respectively.
Tapani, unlike many young pitchers, didn’t suffer any delusions of grandeur. He knew his personal limitations, and according to Twins pitching coach Dick Such, he stayed within himself and didn’t try to overpower hitters when he got behind in the count. At his best, as he was on this evening in late October 1991, Tapani attacked hitters with a methodical, measured approach. In that way he was a lot like Glavine. Neither pitcher was overpowering. At their best, though, they could make even major-league hitters look downright foolish.
“I’ve got to control their bat speed and keep them from getting good swings,” Tapani once explained. “I know my pitches are hittable.”
At his best Tapani was a poor man’s Catfish Hunter. He could be roughed up some, even give up the occasional long ball, but he would invariably work through the tough patches and do what was needed to win.
“He almost always could command his fastball, which goes a long way toward winning in the big leagues,” said Twins catcher Brian Harper. “And he had a real plus-major league changeup too.
“Tap could throw his change to right-handers and left-handers, and most importantly, he wasn’t afraid to throw it at any time. Some pitchers try to spot that pitch, only throw it when they think they may have a big chance at success. But Tap had real confidence in that pitch. He would throw it any time, to anybody.”
Such was the case, Harper remembered, in the top of the eighth inning. Belliard surprised the Twins by laying down a bunt up the third-base line on a 1-2 count. Lonnie Smith then sacrificed Belliard to second base, and the Braves now had the go-ahead run in scoring position. Terry Pendleton followed with a slow dribble to the right side. Kent Hrbek fielded it and threw on to first base, with Tapani covering. But in a bang-bang play, first-base umpire Drew Coble ruled a sliding Pendleton safe. (Replay showed it was the correct call.) That put men on first and third with only one out. Next up was up Gant, who was 4-for-7 to this point in the series.
With the count, 2-1, Tapani spotted a fastball on the outside corner. Gant, who was trying to pull the ball, popped up the offering behind home plate, and Harper barely tracked it down against the padded blue wall. Now there were two down.
“But who’s up next?” Harper recalled years later. “David Justice—the absolutely last guy we wanted to face in that kind of situation.”
Tapani and Harper huddled on the mound, with the catcher asking the right-hander what pitch he had the most confident in. Tapani told him that he wanted to use the fastball to set up the changeup. After Justice worked the count to 3-2, Tapani decided to roll the dice. Until this point in the at-bat, Tapani had been changing speeds and working the Braves’ slugger consistently low and away. Now Tapani went away one last time. Yet this time the pitch was up, almost at shoulder level.
Justice pulled slightly off the ball, barely hitting it off the end of the bat. It became a fly ball to Dan Gladden in left field, and Minnesota and Tapani had wriggled free again, leaving another goose egg on the scoreboard.
“In looking back on things I don’t know how I got out of that,” Tapani recalled. “I just battled my way through it. Thankfully, Harp was thinking right along there with me. I mean, Gant and Justice? You cannot be predictable as a pitcher with hitters like that coming up. They will hit it out of the park if they can guess what’s coming. I was thinking this and then that, always mixing it up, and my catcher was with me every step of the way.”
In his understated way Tapani regularly did the right thing at the right time. One of my favorite stories about him occurred a decade later, in the frightening aftermath of 9/11. He was coming to the end of his baseball career by then, pitching for the Chicago Cubs. When the planes struck the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, Tapani began to receive worried phone calls from the Twin Cities, where he still made his home. After receiving permission from management, Tapani drove the seven hours north to talk with his kids, who were then ages ten, six, and four.
The night he arrived the family all bunked down in the parents’ bedroom, a big slumber party that reassured everyone. After a few days at home, with the kids back to their old selves, Tapani returned to playing baseball.
In 1991 the sport was on the verge of several sweeping changes. Some of them, notably in ballpark construction, would be for the better. Yet on many other fronts—labor unrest, a precipitous rise in performance-enhancing drugs, the lack of patience in what became our “fix it now” culture—baseball was headed for the cliff. That’s why this season, specifically this Series, will always be remembered fondly among baseball pundits and aficionados.
“In a lot of ways it will always be this sweet spot in time,” said Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, who worked with CBS Sports for the 1991 Series. “Not only did this one Series have everything you ever wanted in terms of pressure games and great performances, you also look back on it fondly because of what was to come, the challenges the game would soon face.”
The previous spring the baseball owners had locked the players out of training camps for thirty-two days. Salary arbitration became the focal point of the dispute, with more problematic issues—a pay-for-performance system and a salary cap—also discussed. Ownership now saw a salary cap as a way, perhaps the only way, ballclubs in such smaller markets as Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Minnesota could compete. The players union, led by Donald Fehr, viewed such measures as a way for ownership to balance their books on the backs of the players.
Twenty-five years earlier Marvin Miller had taken charge of the Major League Baseball Players Association and transformed the organization into arguably the strongest union in the land. A former official with the United Steelworkers Union, Miller was adept, often acerbic in his dealings with baseball ownership, and the MLBPA grew in power while unions nationwide lost much of their clout.
“There’s no question he did an outstanding job for the players,” said Lee MacPhail, former American League president and Andy MacPhail’s father. “Certainly, when he took over, the players weren’t getting their fair share of the returns. If I had any criticism of Marvin at all, I didn’t think he has any great feel for the game itself. His concerns have been strictly getting as much as he can for the players.”
By 1990 Miller had stepped aside, replaced by Fehr, who proved to be just as capable when it came to hard-nosed negotiations. The owners were often represented by their six-member Player Relations Council, which included Chairman Bud Selig of the Milwaukee Brewers, Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, Fred Wilpon of the New York Mets, John McMullen of the Houston Astros, Fred Kuhlmann of the St. Louis Cardinals and Carl Pohlad of the Minnesota Twins.
“The owners wanted nothing more than to turn back the clock,” agent Tom Reich said. “To go back to that time before Marvin. Of course, Don Fehr had no intent of ever letting that happen.”
In the end the lockout of 1990 concluded after three weeks. Instead of playing thirty spring training games, most clubs played fifteen. Although there was some grumbling about lost gate revenue for Cactus and Grapefruit games, overall losses were minimal. The season began on time, and soon most players and owners forgot about the shutdown. Yet the lockout had drawn Tom Glavine into union affairs. He explained that he “hated the feeling of waiting for someone to call.” So the left-hander moved closer to the flame of labor relations and what would soon be an epic showdown between the players and owners. Although most players avoid labor issues at all costs, Glavine became the Braves’ player representative, succeeding Dale Murphy. By 1994, when deep-seated labor acrimony and distrust on both sides caused the World Series to be canceled, he was the union’s National League representative. He and David Cone became the public face for the MLBPA on television and in the papers.
“Fans were ticked off seeing my face on TV all the time,” Glavine told USA Today’s Erik Brady. “I was associated with the problem. It was a kill-the-messenger thing. The thing about it is I was just trying to do my job.”
Whether he was on the mound or at the negotiating table, Glavine didn’t shy away from confrontation. Even though his best weapon was a changeup, a pitch of real deception, he threw it with a poker face and with as much resolve as any fireballer that brings the high heat: Here it is. Try to hit it. Just try.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the score still tied at two apiece, third baseman Scott Leius led off for the Minnesota Twins. Raised in Yonkers, New York, Leius had grown up a diehard Yankee fan, and his favorite player was Mike Pagliarulo. “I was a big fan of Mike’s,” Leius said. “I watched how he played defense. He was one of the best ever, in my opinion.”
In one of the ironic twists that baseball often offers, Leius ended up platooning at third base with his boyhood hero during the 1991 season. Coming out of spring training, Twins manager Tom Kelly struggled to find a roster spot for Leius, a shortstop at heart. Soon the only choice was the team giving him a crash course at third base.
With only a handful of games left in spring training, Kelly decided to try a platoon system, with Leius and Pagliarulo at the hot corner. The left-handed Pagliarulo would hit against right-handers, and Leius would go against left-handers and back up Greg Gagne at shortstop. The only wrinkle was that Leius had never played third base in his life, at any level, even going back to Little League. “When I was a kid I was a center fielder, pitcher, and shortstop,” Leius said. “I can’t recall ever playing third base before that spring training.”
Despite that, he joined Kelly at a back field in spring training, with coaches Terry Crowley and Dick Such taking turns snagging his throws from third base. Things went well enough that first afternoon, but it wasn’t until the following morning, when Leius was riding the bus up to Dunedin, Florida, for a spring game against the Toronto Blue Jays, when he realized how far things had gone in a hurry. Greg Gagne, the regular shortstop, wasn’t on this road trip, and when Leius saw the line card, the number five, for third base, instead of the number six, for shortstop, was penciled next to his name.
“At first I thought, ‘Five. What in the hell is five?’” he recalled. “Then I saw that Al Newman was playing shortstop. That’s how I learned that I was getting my first start at third base. I didn’t know if I was really ready or not.”
Despite the uncertainty, Leius remained determined to make the big-league ballclub. “I saw an opportunity and I went for it. I wasn’t complaining. They were giving me a chance to make the team, a real good team, and I wanted to hold up my end of the deal to show that they were right, that I could do this.”
Chuck Knoblauch, who was Leius’s roommate, said the two of them “were both happy to make the team at first, but we wanted to do more than that. Both us wanted to prove that we could help the team.”
Leius and Pagliarulo combined to hit eleven home runs and drive in fifty-six runs at third base during the regular season, and both won accolades for their defense.
Now, in the late innings of Game Two, Leius wasn’t sure how to approach his at-bat against Tom Glavine. He spoke with Crowley, asking him what he should do, but the hitting coach refused to give him specific instructions, a refusal Leius later appreciated. “That’s what made Terry a great coach,” Leius recalled. “He never told you what to do. I was a hitting coach later in my career, and I learned you have to let guys figure it out for themselves. Be there, but they’re the ones up there, against the pitcher.
“His advice was great: ‘Know what you want to hit and get after it. If it happens to be the first pitch, so be it.’ I mean I was just looking to get on base. Everybody knew I wasn’t your prototypical home-run hitter.
Stepping in against Glavine, Leius decided that the Braves’ left-hander would probably work him like Tapani had done in the top half of the eighth to the Atlanta hitters: some hard stuff away and get him to chase the change. Leius told himself to be ready. The main goal was to simply get on—a walk, hit … anything.
“Glavine had all his pitches going, so I had to find a pitch I could do something with. Not necessarily hit a home run, but see if I could hit the ball hard,” Leius remembered. “When you’re facing a guy like that, who’s been so dominant in a ballgame, you don’t want to fall too far behind. If that happens, the chances are he’s going to get you.
“So I was lucky. He put a fastball out over the plate, pretty much where I was looking for it, and I was fortunate enough to put good wood on it.”
The Twins’ rookie drove Glavine’s first pitch just over the Plexiglas atop the left-field fence at the Metrodome. The drive settled a few rows into the stands, and the game had turned again. Moments after nearly taking the lead against Tapani, the Braves now trailed, 3-2.
Although Leius was a relative unknown to most fans, his improbable home run didn’t surprise his teammates. “Like I say, ‘Every night it’s somebody different’,” Kirby Puckett explained. “All season long different people have been stepping forward. Scott’s done it before, and we knew he’d do it again sometime soon.”
Staff ace Jack Morris said Leius’s homer was another example of matters going the Twins’ way in 1991: “This is the kind of team that we were,” he said. “It was the kind of thing that wins championships.”
After his dramatic hit, back in the Twins’ dugout, Leius had to be prodded to take the first curtain call of his professional career. “I didn’t know what to do,” he remembered. “Puck said, ‘You better go out there.’ I just wanted to think about going back out to play defense, finish things off and take Game Two.”
After giving up a single to Greg Gagne on the pitch after Leius’s home run, Glavine soon settled down. Even though Gagne went to second on a balk, the Braves’ starter got Knoblauch and Puckett to then ground out. So heading into the top of the ninth inning the Braves somehow found themselves trailing by a run.
With one swing of the bat, from an improbable source at that, the Twins were now in position to go two games up in the series. Closer Rick Aguilera came in from the bullpen to start the top of the ninth inning. Before the game Minnesota manager Tom Kelly had reassured the media that Aguilera would be ready if needed, even though he had closed out Game One the night before.
Although relief pitchers had been deployed in baseball for some time, their role became more specialized in the seasons leading up to the 1991 series. New York Giants manager John McGraw occasionally went with right-hander Claude Elliott to shut down the opposition as far back as 1905. In the 1950s knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm began putting up impressive numbers in relief, peaking with twenty-seven saves for the Chicago White Sox in 1964. Thanks in large part to manager Earl Weaver, Steve Dalkowski appeared destined to be the game’s first bona fide closer, at least as we envision him today—a hard-throwing guy who could strike out the side with the game on the line.
In 1962, at Class A Elmira, Weaver simplified things for the bespectacled fireballer, telling Dalkowski to only throw his fastball and slider and to only throw as hard as he could when Weaver whistled from the dugout. (That signal came only when there were two strikes on the batter.) In the second half of that season Dalkowski, who rarely exhibited much control up to this point in his career, walked only eleven batters in fifty-two innings. The following spring, in Grapefruit League action, he struck out eleven batters in seven and two-thirds innings. Just like that the myopic left-hander with the thick Coke-bottle glasses was slated to head north with the parent club as the Baltimore Orioles’ short-relief specialist.
Baseball, though, often proves to be the cruelest of sports. On the same day Dalkowski was measured for his big-league uniform, he pitched against the New York Yankees in a spring training game. Things began smoothly enough. As his teammates marveled, Dalkowski struck out Roger Maris on three pitches. But when Dalkowski threw a slider to New York’s Phil Linz, he felt something pop in his elbow. Despite the pain, he tried to stay on the mound. Yet a pitch to the next batter, the Yankees’ Bobby Richardson, flew to the screen, and Dalkowski had to come out of the game. Ironically, if Dalkowski had been injured a decade or so later, after Tommy John successfully underwent ligament replacement surgery at the hand of Dr. Frank Jobe, his career probably could have been saved. As it was, however, the Orioles broke camp and headed north for the start of the regular season without Dalkowski. Instead, he started the season in Rochester and couldn’t win a game. From there he was sent back to Elmira, where Weaver was still managing at the time. But not even the skipper who would one day be inducted into the Hall of Fame could save the career of one of his favorite players ever. Dalkowski threw forty-one innings, winning just two games. His legendary fastball was gone.
As Dalkowski soon disappeared from baseball, relievers such as Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and Rich “Goose” Gossage began to dominate in the late innings. Called firemen or stoppers, they often pitched two innings or more and filled in as the ballclub required. A season after saving a league-high twenty-six games for the White Sox in 1974, for example, Gossage started twenty-nine games and threw 224 innings.
Saves didn’t become an official statistic until 1969, and those who performed this duty became known as closers because they finished or closed out the game from whatever point they went in. Specialized late-inning relief work and how closers could be deployed was relatively new to the game in 1991. This phase was redefined beginning in 1987 by Oakland Athletics manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, and its beneficiary was a very reluctant Dennis Eckersley.
In the late 1980s the Athletics were a pennant contender. Their attack was keyed by Rickey Henderson, José Canseco, Dave Henderson, and newcomer Mark McGwire. The top of the rotation had Dave Stewart and Curt Young, and that was where Eckersley figured he would be. After all, he had won at least twelve games in seven of his first eight seasons in the majors. He had pitched a no-hitter for Cleveland in 1977 and reached the twenty-victory plateau the following season. First and foremost, Eckersley saw himself as a starting pitcher.
That changed when Jay Howell, the A’s primary reliever, developed arm problems. Howell had arrived in Oakland as part of the three-way trade that landed Kevin Tapani in New York. In a separate deal with the Chicago Cubs, Eckersley came home to the Bay Area. He was battling alcoholism at the time and wasn’t looking for any major changes in his professional life. Yet La Russa and Duncan told Eckersley that he would be in the bullpen and pitch no more than an inning at a time. In other words, the entire relief corps, mixing and matching left-handed and right-handed pitchers depending who was at bat for the opposing team (something La Russa loved to do), a conga line of hurlers, would lead up to Eckersley, who would nail down the final outs.
“Eck always throws strikes,” Duncan explained to Sports Illustrated, “and he has the heart of a giant. His natural response is to challenge a crisis head-on. That’s what makes him such a great reliever. And it’s not tough on his arm if he’s used right. Think of it this way: Aren’t you less likely to break down running two miles every day than 10 miles every fifth day?”
Despite Duncan’s logic, the move upset Eckersley. I was covering the A’s at the time, and the right-hander spoke about how disappointed he was. In his first season as a closer Eckersley saved sixteen games. “I sure wasn’t happy about it,” he said. “I thought it was a demotion, and I hoped it would only be a part-time assignment. When I first came up, the bullpen was pretty much where they put the guys who couldn’t start.”
But anyone could see that Eckersley was truly suited to his new role. Even when he lost a game he was able to turn the page better than any player I’ve ever covered. Along the way he came up with different nicknames for pitches like “cheese,” “hair” and “cookie.” He’s often credited with coming up with the term “walk-off,” as in a walk-off home run. Or a similar term he coined, “bridge job,” meaning the losing pitcher wanted to jump off the nearest bridge after giving up the winning hit. I remember when Eckersley first mentioned bridge job one night after a rough outing, how he was tempted to jump off the Bay Bridge on the way home. That’s when several of us in the media horde, hanging on his every word, offered to drive him home. That’s how good a quote he was.
The 1987 season proved to be just the beginning for Eckersley in his new role as a closer. The following season he saved forty-five games, one fewer than Dave Righetti’s major-league record at the time, and he saved all four games of the American League Championship Series against Boston before the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson hit a game-winning home run off Eckersley in the opener of the 1988 World Series. Talk about a bridge job.
The reluctant closer would go on to save 390 games and, in 1990, put together a season for the ages when he struck out seventy-three and walked only four batters in seventy-three and a third innings while compiling a 0.61 ERA. By the time 1991 rolled around, every team was looking to trade for or develop their own version of Dennis Eckersley.
In 1987 the same season Eckersley arrived in Oakland, Minnesota landed Jeff Reardon in a trade with Montreal. A fine closer in his own right, Reardon saved 162 games between 1979 and 1986. After helping the Twins win the 1987 championship, Reardon eventually signed with Boston, so the Twins were again looking for a new closer.
Before the 1990 season manager Tom Kelly called right-hander Rick Aguilera at home and told him he would be replacing Reardon as the team’s closer. After hanging up, Aguilera wondered whether he had the necessary makeup to do the high-pressure job. After coming over in the Frank Viola trade, Aguilera had pitched in only eleven games for Minnesota, all as a starter. Yet with a quality split-finger fastball that he mixed with an above-average fastball and effective slider, Aguilera soon proved up to task, giving Minnesota its own version of the one-inning, shutdown closer. He saved thirty-two games in 1990 and forty-two the following season, when the Twins returned to the World Series against the Braves.
An all-league shortstop and third baseman in high school in southern California, Aguilera tried his hand at pitching only after his American Legion team ran out of hurlers. His versatility sometimes worked against him when he was with the Mets, as the team wasn’t sure whether he should start or come out of the bullpen. Even after Aguilera stabilized the Twins’ bullpen, Kelly still wondered what would have been if he had kept the promising right-hander in the rotation. “I called Aggie and said, ‘You’ve got to be our stopper’,” he remembered. “He said, ‘Whatever you want.’ But I hated to do that. It just broke my heart to move him out of the rotation after he’d finally gotten the knack of changing speeds.”
Despite the second-guessing, Aguilera settled into his new role arguably as well as Eckersley had in Oakland. “It’s easy to say you like something when things are going well for you,” Aguilera told the (New York) Daily News in 1990 soon after the move was announced. “But I’m used like Jeff Reardon was, only in save situations.”
On this night, in the first real nail-biter of the 1991 World Series, Aguilera knew he had to be at his best. He began by striking out Atlanta’s Sid Bream. But when Brian Hunter singled sharply to center field, the Twins’ closer briefly appeared more tired than his manager had let on in his pregame press conference. That’s when Aguilera found something extra, striking out Braves catcher Greg Olson and then doing the same to Tommy Gregg, who was pinch-hitting for Mark Lemke.
“Off the field Aggie’s a shy, almost unassuming guy,” catcher Brian Harper later explained. “But put him on the mound, game on the line, and he becomes so locked in, all serious and sure of himself. There was no better closer in the game at that time.”
In closing things out, Aguilera became the first reliever to save Games One and Two of the Fall Classic since Goose Gossage had accomplished the feat in 1981. With the 3-2 victory, the Twins appeared to have a firm hold on the World Series as the Fall Classic prepared to shift to Atlanta and the Deep South for the first time in baseball history.
Despite the heart-breaking loss, Braves manager Bobby Cox believed his team simply needed some home cooking. “If they’re going to win it,” he said after the Twins’ Game Two victory, “they’ll have to come back here to do it.”