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)
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 22, 1991
AT ATLANTA-FULTON COUNTY STADIUM
The Braves had trailed throughout the 1991 season and rallied to win. So as the series shifted to Atlanta, the first time the South had ever hosted the Fall Classic, the attitude was, “Why not do it again?”
After all, the Braves had been nine and a half games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West at the All-Star Break and somehow battled back to clinch the division. Atlanta began that run by winning nine of eleven contests after the All-Star Game at Toronto’s SkyDome, quickly making a race of it. Coming down the stretch of the regular season, with the Braves and Dodgers never separated by more than two and a half games, Atlanta went on an eight-game winning streak. In going a remarkable 55-28 in the second half, Atlanta won ninety-four games and broke the two-million mark in attendance. To the disbelief of many fans in “Hotlanta,” the team grew up to be champions right before their eyes.
On September 11 the Braves’ young pitching staff combined to no-hit the San Diego Padres, with Kent Mercker, Mark Wohlers, and Alejandro Peña doing the job. As the season went on, the starting rotation soon became recognized as one of the best in the game. Left-hander Tom Glavine led the way for much of the regular season, with John Smoltz coming on in the second half and Steve Avery starring in the postseason showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates when the Braves again rallied, this time after trailing three games to two. In a series in which the teams combined for five shutouts, Atlanta blanked the Pirates in the final two games.
“That series, that season—we did the job,” said reliever Mike Stanton. “We made the pitches we needed to make.”
After the Braves eliminated the Pittsburgh Pirates to capture the National League pennant, David Justice said, “No one picked us to be in this position that we’re in, and that’s what makes it so sweet. Because coming into spring training, everyone picked us to basically be second to last, just ahead of Houston. But we knew what kind of team we had, and we knew it would depend how well we played together throughout the year and how much confidence we gained with each victory. We did it all.”
In Game Three the Braves spotted the Twins another early lead; this time 1-0 in the first inning. Atlanta’s adventures in the outfield continued as Twins leadoff hitter Dan Gladden lofted Avery’s third pitch to right-center field. Justice and Ron Gant converged on what should have been an easy out, only to have the ball fall between them for a triple. Gladden came around home on Chuck Knoblauch’s sacrifice fly. Justice had made his second fielding miscue of the series, ironically both coming on balls hit by Gladden.
Before the game Twins manager Tom Kelly told the media that the ballclub that usually wins the big games is the one that makes the routine plays, not the exceptional ones. As Game Three unfolded, he was about to be proven correct once again.
After the first-inning hiccup Avery settled down, delivering the kind of pitches that had made him the Most Valuable Player in the NLCS against Pittsburgh. He had the best fastball of any pitcher on either team, and his off-speed stuff was nearly as good as Kevin Tapani’s or Tom Glavine’s. Born in Trenton, Michigan, just south of Detroit, Avery turned down a scholarship to Stanford to sign professionally with the Braves. From 1985 through 1988 the Braves took a pitcher with their first-round pick in the amateur draft as they built up their staff. Bobby Cox declared the left-hander “a can’t-miss guy” from the first time he saw Avery pitch for John F. Kennedy High School in 1988. That spring Atlanta made him their first-round selection, and Avery followed Tommy Greene, Kent Mercker, and Derek Lilliquist into the Braves’ minor leagues. From the beginning, though, Avery exhibited a maturity and command of his pitches that belied his age and even those drafted in the years before him. “His concentration level is so great and his stuff is so great,” Cox once told Rob Rains, my colleague at Baseball Weekly. “He’s got three pitches, a fastball, curve, and changeup, and all are above-average.”
Cox expected Avery to reach the majors in 1993. He beat those expectations by three years, and even though he struggled with a 3-11 record with Atlanta in 1990, many saw that he was in the majors to stay. Avery said he made it to the big leagues so quickly in large part because of the advice of his father, Ken, who once pitched in the Tigers’ organization. For Detroit fans the 1991 postseason had to be painful to watch. Not only did Avery have strong Tigers ties, but right-hander John Smoltz now rounded out the Braves’ rotation. He also grew up a Tigers fan and came to Atlanta in a deal that sent veteran hurler Doyle Alexander to Detroit. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson called the 1987 trade the worst of his tenure in the Motor City.
Smoltz’s moment in this 1991 World Series would come soon enough, but tonight many expected Avery to take charge. Only twenty-one, Avery twice shut down the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS. In sixteen overall innings he had struck out seventeen and allowed just nine hits in a pair of 1-0 shutouts. His performance already drew comparison with such postseason phenoms as Babe Ruth (thirteen consecutive shutout innings in 1916) and Jim Palmer (a World Series shutout at the age of twenty). “Makes you wonder why we even showed up,” Kelly grumbled before the game after being reminded one too many times about Avery’s impressive record so far in the postseason.
Once Avery retired the Twins in order in the top of the second inning, the Braves promptly tied it at 1-1. With two outs, catcher Greg Olson walked and Mark Lemke singled. After that, shortstop Rafael Belliard came through with a hit to left field to bring Olson around.
Although Avery was expected to get stronger as the game went on, building off his success earlier in the postseason, the Twins were unsure what to expect from their starting pitcher, Scott Erickson. During the regular season the right-hander became the first pitcher since Bob Grim in 1954 to win twenty games in his first calendar year in the major leagues. (In Erickson’s case this was June 1990 to June 1991.) The young hurler had also taken Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black” motif to another level by wearing black spikes, with any white covered with shoe polish as well as black stirrups pulled down low so no white sock was showing, and using a black glove instead of the customary brown one. Erickson denied he was superstitious (“It’s just a style I prefer,” he said).
“It’s not his stirrups, shoes, or glove,” said catcher Junior Ortiz. “It’s his arm. I haven’t seen a pitcher with his kind of nasty movement, and I’ve caught Dwight Gooden, Doug Drabek, and Tom Seaver.”
Teammate Kevin Tapani came to call Erickson’s starts “another day of death” for the opposing teams. Nicknamed “Rockhead” when he first made the team because he didn’t say much of anything to anybody, Erickson soon demonstrated a wry sense of humor and a flair for the practical jokes. He once froze Ron Gardenhire’s underwear and framed a teammate to take the blame. “He’s like a snake in the grass,” the third-base coach grumbled.
Intensely private away from the clubhouse, Erickson often stayed up until three in the morning after his starts, watching movies. Rocky, Predator, and First Blood were favorites, and he claimed to have seen Top Gun at least one hundred times. When more than one thousand fans turned up at a Twin Cities appearance for his autograph, he mumbled that they needed to get a life. Still, Erickson was proud of winning twenty games by the age of twenty-three. He would have started the All-Star Game for the American League if he hadn’t been sidelined with a sore arm. Instead, teammate Jack Morris got the honors. “When I look at what else I have to worry about, there really isn’t anything,” the young hurler said.
Erickson regularly pitched to backup catcher Junior Ortiz, who was as easygoing as the pitcher was intense and cryptic. Always good for grins and giggles, Ortiz once brought his young son, who was named after him, into the Twins’ clubhouse and introduced him as “Junior Junior.” Even though Ortiz played only about one game a week, he did hit over .400 for a stretch in 1990, prompting the nickname “Ted Ortiz” in honor of Ted Williams, the last man to hit better than .400 in the major leagues.
By the postseason, though, Erickson’s struggles weren’t a laughing matter. Despite having Ortiz behind the plate, his arsenal of pitches was markedly slower. Since a stint on the disabled list in late June, he had struggled—something the Braves were well aware of.
In the bottom of the fourth inning Justice gained a measure of redemption for his earlier fielding error as he homered to right field. Erickson barely got out of the inning without any further damage, leaving Sid Bream stranded at third base. An inning later Erickson got into trouble again. With one out, Lonnie Smith hit a home run to left field. Terry Pendleton followed by working a walk, advancing to second base on an Erickson wild pitch. When Knoblauch made an error on Justice’s hot grounder, the day was over for baseball’s Man in Black. His line for the day would be four and two-thirds innings, three earned runs, and two home runs given up.
The ballclubs in Atlanta and the Twin Cities had come from somewhere else. The Senators vacated Washington in 1961, becoming the Minnesota Twins, and the Braves’ pair of moves bookended baseball’s first major wave of franchise relocation.
The Braves initially shifted from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953 and saw more than 2.2 million people go through the turnstiles in 1957 when they culminated a memorable season by upsetting the New York Yankees in the World Series. In the season following the Braves’ relocation to Milwaukee, the Athletics left Philadelphia for Kansas City, and in 1958, there was the radical realignment that rocked the baseball world, as the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants headed to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. After the American League Angels set up shop in southern California in 1961 and a National League franchise began in Houston a season later, the map of baseball was forever altered.
“When Walter O’Malley moved his Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958, it marked the era of disloyal teams and changed the sports world forever,” wrote economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of Baseball and Billions. “Despite O’Malley’s perfidy in the eyes of Brooklyn, for many, family ownership is associated with stability in sports.”
One can argue the pros and cons of family ownership, and Zimbalist himself maintained that corporate decision-makers are “more likely to be professional and proficient; less likely to be eccentric and errant. But no matter who was now in charge, ballclubs became more prone to leave town after the exodus by the Dodgers and Giants to the West Coast.”
By the early 1960s the Milwaukee Braves themselves were struggling on the field, and their attendance in Wisconsin dropped below 1 million patrons annually. In 1965 ownership announced it was moving the ballclub again, this time to Atlanta. After several rounds in the courts, where arguments about baseball antitrust exemption and what, if anything, local ownership owed its fan base were debated, the Braves (with the help of Bowie Kuhn, who was a National League attorney at the time) got necessary approval to flee town and headed south in a hurry.
As Major League Baseball had gone west in a big way with the Dodgers and Giants, in doing so the national pastime had kind of forgotten about the Deep South and what a rich regional market that could be. In particular, many stellar ballplayers hailed from the “Peach State.” In 2010 the Magnolia Chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research selected its all-time, Georgia-born all-star team, which included Jackie Robinson at second base, Josh Gibson behind the plate, and Fred “Dixie” Walker and Ty Cobb in the outfield. From 1901 to 1965 the Atlanta Crackers won fourteen championships at the minor-league level, more than any other team in organized baseball except for the Yankees. Eddie Mathews, Luke Appling, Tim McCarver, Paul Richards, Chuck Tanner, and announcer Ernie Harwell were among those who spent time in Atlanta before moving on to the major leagues.
When the Crackers went on the road their home field, Ponce de Leon Park, became home to the Black Crackers. When the park hosted Negro League teams, including two appearances by Satchel Paige in 1940, seating was open for Black Crackers games and segregated when the White Crackers returned home. According to historian Leslie Heaphy, black fans were relegated to bleacher seats in left field.
In April 1949 the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town for a three-game exhibition series with the Crackers. Of course, the Dodgers had such African American athletes as Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson on the roster, and even though the Ku Klux Klan urged Atlanta residents to boycott the games, local fans packed the stands to overflowing, with hundreds more atop the three tiers of billboards between the outfield fence and the railroad tracks. The highlight of the final game was “Robinson’s steal of home on the front end of a double steal in the second inning,” Norman L. Macht later wrote. “There were no fights, no riots, or disturbances of any kind at any of the games.”
At the local level professional baseball received impressive support, with the Coca-Cola Company, the Georgia Power Company, and the city of Atlanta owning the White Crackers at various points. Even the Reverend Billy Graham proved to be a real fan of baseball in the South; in fact, the preacher once dreamed of playing first base for the Philadelphia Athletics and helped link fundamental Christianity and the national pastime together in the modern era. As a teenager Graham played on his high school baseball team in Charlotte, North Carolina, and met Babe Ruth when the Yankees came through town on a barnstorming tour.
“I’ll never forget meeting him,” Graham once told me. “He put his hand on my shoulder.
“It was my goal in life to be a baseball player. I went on to play semi-pro—paid five dollars a game, two dollars if we lost. The problem with me is that I couldn’t hit very well.”
At the age of five Graham had also heard Billy Sunday preach. Once an outfielder with the Chicago White Stockings, Sunday was the first baseball player to use his notoriety on the ball diamond to draw crowds in the name of his religious beliefs. Known for his blazing speed but weak bat, Sunday played in the majors from 1883 to 1890. He eventually quit the game at the age of twenty-eight. Drunk, sitting on a street corner, he was overcome with emotion when he heard the singing of a Salvation Army gospel group, wrote Mike Sowell in his book July 2, 1903. Sunday decided to be a preacher and soon became a household name, reportedly once converting 98,264 people during a ten-day revival meeting in New York.
Still, only after World War II did religion became an integral element in clubhouses and locker rooms of professional sports. Some ballplayers simply couldn’t justify playing on Sunday. Lee Pfund, whose son Randy would one day coach the Los Angeles Lakers, pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. Added to his contract, in Branch Rickey’s handwriting, was a clause citing that Pfund didn’t have to pitch on Sundays.
Baseball and girls were Graham’s major pursuits until he experienced a religious conversion in his senior year in high school and decided to become an evangelistic preacher. When Graham began his ministry, he turned to sports celebrities to draw a crowd. American mile runner Gil Dodds, the 1943 Sullivan Award winner, often ran while Graham spoke—once doing lap after lap for a crowd of sixty-five thousand at Chicago’s Soldier Field. After his run Dodds would come up to the pulpit and say a few words about how sports and religion were a perfect match for anyone.
In the 1940s many of the top sports stars were amateurs like Dodds. But as professional sports took center stage in the 1950s, Graham began adding new faces to his regular group of amateur sportsmen—former gangsters and movie stars, according to Wheaton College (Illinois) professor James Mathiesen. Graham went to college at Florida Bible Institute, outside of Tampa. He attended spring training games and eventually “became acquainted with several players, then the owners with many of the clubs,” he recalled. Bobby Richardson first attended one of Graham’s Crusades for Christ in the late 1950s. The New York Yankees’ second baseman would later speak at Graham rallies, including events in Hawaii and Japan. “He’s from North Carolina, and I’m from South Carolina. So there’s a common background,” Richardson explained. “We immediately hit it off.”
Their sons would later room together at Wheaton College, and Richardson attended Graham-sponsored seminars. Richardson and announcer Red Barber, who was from Columbus, Mississippi, organized the New York Yankees’ chapel services. At first such gatherings were held away from the ballpark, often in a hotel banquet room. But when Mickey Mantle once left a Yankee service in Minneapolis early to beat the traffic and half of the congregation followed him, it was decided that the chapel service should be held at the ballpark.
In 1973, when Detroit News sportswriter Watson Spoelstra founded the Baseball Chapel, only a few teams regularly held chapel. When Commissioner Bowie Kuhn gave Sunday meetings at the ballpark his blessing, their popularity soared. Today, all major-league teams have chapel meetings, and many offer weekly Bible studies for players and their wives.
“I think baseball is good as our national pastime,” Graham said. “We look to baseball as our game. It’s a wonderful clean sport.”
In the Old Testament the prophet Ezekiel envisioned that a river of new life, bringing with it hope and faith, would someday run through then-barren Israel. Some would claim that such a river, at least of dogma and good intentions, has flowed through the national pastime in particular and the sports world in general for several generations now. Yet anybody who has discussed religion at the family dinner table knows how divisive the subject can be. Baseball clubhouses are no different. Walk too much with the Lord, and a ballplayer can sometimes forget to walk with the bases loaded, Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said. When he managed in southern California Dick Williams lamented that his Angels pitchers didn’t throw inside enough. He blamed the distressing trend on too many of them being too clean living. After contending in 1978, several San Francisco Giants players—Gary Lavelle, Mike Ivie, Bob Knepper—went public about being born-again Christians, with Lavelle even warning that the Bay Area was the center of devil worship. They dropped well below .500 the next season, going 71-91, and faith became a lightning rod for team dissension and public criticism. If the Giants were a ballclub overwhelmed by religious fervor, the 1991 Minnesota Twins were arguably a squad that survived such a spiritual revival and the resulting controversy.
In winning it all in 1987, the Twins earned the reputation as a team that worked hard—real hard. “Whether we’re at home or on the road, we always have guys hitting extra,” Kirby Puckett once explained. “I’m one of those guys. I believe that there’s always something that you can do better… . I’m always working on it, man.”
For many of those seasons Gary Gaetti, the Twins’ fiery third baseman, was right alongside Puckett and the others when it came to extra batting practice, clubhouse antics, and off-the-field partying. Puckett went as far as to call Gaetti the soul of the 1987 championship team. He was nicknamed the “Rat” because if a fastball is sometimes called cheese by ballplayers, as in high cheese, no pitcher could throw it past this Rat.
“He was a completely different breed,” Puckett added. “Here was a guy who had such an impact, on me especially. He was the kind of guy that if you were beating the Twins, he couldn’t take it. Gary Gaetti was just [liable] to scream at you when he was hitting. The next pitch he’d hit five hundred feet for a home run and be screaming at you as he went around the bases… . That’s what I remember most about Gary.”
Everything changed in Twins Land when Gaetti became born again after the 1987 World Series triumph. The guy who was always eager for extra BP, to confront an opposing pitcher, began to arrive later at the ballpark and spend more time at his locker reading the Bible, Puckett remembered. For Kent Hrbek the transformation was especially difficult. He and Gaetti had been roommates since Class A ball in Elizabethton, Tennessee. For years they had played ball, hunted, fished, and hit the bars together. Soon after the 1988 season began, Hrbek asked for a separate room when Gaetti began to talk to him about Jesus Christ. “That’s where I drew the line,” Hrbek said. “That’s the only time we had any flak between us. He was into it deep the first year, and that’s what everybody I talked to told me how it would be.
“I was quoted in the paper as saying it was like a death in the family. It was like I’d lost Gary Gaetti someplace. It was like he was a different person. A lot of people took offense to that, saying it can’t be that bad. But it was. I’d lost somebody I’d like to chum with and hang out with, stay up to three o’clock in the morning and rant and rave all over the place and have a good time.”
Hrbek was reminded how much things had changed when he watched the 1989 All-Star Game on television. A few seasons earlier he made the team, and Gaetti had watched from home. When Hrbek was introduced he held up a batting glove with Gaetti’s number eight written on it. In 1988 Gaetti retuned the favor with HI REX, a reference to Hrbek’s nickname T. Rex. By the 1989 All-Star Game, though, Gaetti had left his old buddy far behind. Before that All-Star Game he distributed leaflets that included his picture and testimony. When it came time for the pregame introductions, his batting glove read, JESUS IS LORD. Back home in Minnesota Hrbek turned off the television.
By 1991 Gaetti was no longer on the Twins’ roster, prompting the platoon of convenience at that position with Scott Leius and Mike Pagliarulo. General manager Andy MacPhail said Gaetti’s newfound faith had “zero bearing” on the ballclub declining to re-sign him. “Gary Gaetti left us because he was offered $11.7 million over four years,” MacPhail said, “two of it guaranteed. It had nothing to do with one’s religion.”
Sports analyst Greg Cylkowski, who was based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and had advised several Twins players during this period, said the ballclub’s decision not to re-sign Gaetti was by design. MacPhail countered that the ballclub had not only offered Gaetti that four-year deal with $7.1 million guaranteed, but the unique contract also gave him the option to declare himself a free agent after the 1991, 1992, or 1993 seasons. In the end Gaetti headed to the West Coast, but the proposed deal with the novel option plan caught the eye of pitcher Jack Morris. When he signed with the Twins before the 1991 season he received a three-year deal and bargained a similar option, which could make him a free agent after his first and second years in the Twin Cities. Few at the time gave this wrinkle much thought. Morris was thirty-six years old and coming off a 15-18 year with Detroit. In addition, he was returning home, having been raised in St. Paul. Still, the Gaetti option would allow Morris to leave after one season with the Twins if he wanted.
Faith can rock a world. Combine it with vision, and everything can be turned upside down.
An independent operation for much of their history, the Crackers became the Class AA affiliate for the Braves in 1950. After the Southern Association disbanded, Atlanta moved to the International League, becoming the top affiliate for the St. Louis Cardinals and then the Minnesota Twins, of all teams, for another season.
As the only professional franchise in town, the Braves drew well at first and won the National League West Division in 1969. Yet within three seasons, they fell twenty-five games back in the standings, and despite having home run king Hank Aaron in the lineup, attendance dropped like a stone. That development soon opened the door for one of baseball’s real innovators—Ted Turner.
During the 1960s Turner brought his family’s billboard company back from financial ruin. A decade later he turned to television, buying an independent UHF station in Atlanta (WJRJ) and making its fare movies and reruns of old TV series. Desperate for more programming, Turner turned to baseball. In 1974 he paid $600,000 for a five-year pact that allowed him to broadcast sixty games annually. At first Turner sent his signal to cable television operators only in the Southeast. Despite being heavily leveraged, he decided to take it up a notch by leasing a channel on a communications satellite. That made his station, soon to be redubbed WTBS, available on cable systems nationwide, and the Braves were on their way to becoming “America’s Team” in the realm of baseball.
“When I look at heroes and people I worship, he has to be one of them I admire most,” Hank Aaron said. “You’re looking at a genius, someone who is two or three steps ahead of everyone else. Back when he was starting CNN, he’d walk through the stadium, and people thought he was crazy. Well, I’d like to be crazy like that.”
Turner said the keys to his success were simple. “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise,” he once said.
As Turner’s gambles began to pay off in a big way, Braves ownership continued to suffer at the gate, and they finally decided to sell. A group in Toronto was interested in buying the ballclub, but Major League Baseball wasn’t eager to move the Braves for the third time in nearly a quarter century. A local buyer was preferable, so much so that Turner’s offer to pay $1 million down and $9 million sometime in the future was accepted. At thirty-seven, with his only other sports experience being as the winning skipper in the 1977 America’s Cup, Turner had a major-league franchise to call his own.
Although he continued to build his sports and media empire, purchasing the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball League and founding the all-news cable channel CNN, Turner sure had a sweet tooth for his Braves. He signed free agents Gary Mathews and Andy Messersmith and clashed with Bob Horner, who had made the big-league club right out of college. He fired Bobby Cox in 1981, only to bring him back as the general manager five years later. In fact, one of Turner’s best quotes of all time came at the press conference when Cox was let go. Asked who was on his short list to be the Braves’ manager, Turner said, “It would be Bobby Cox if I hadn’t just fired him. We need someone like him around here.”
Perhaps Turner’s best can-you-believe-this moment happened soon after he bought the Braves. With the ballclub mired in a sixteen-game losing streak, Turner ordered manager Dave Bristol to take a leave of absence. With Bristol out of the way, Turner decided to manage the team himself, wearing uniform number twenty-seven. The stunt lasted only one game, as it was found to be a violation of a major-league rule that prohibits players and managers from owning shares of a team. Although Turner lost his only contest in uniform, a 2-1 defeat to the Pittsburgh Pirates, he does remain an owner with a managerial record, duly noted in the record books and at 0-1.
“[Pitching coach] Johnny Sain probably was the only person in Pittsburgh who didn’t know what was going on,” Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren said. “He finally said, ‘Where’s Dave?’ He had no clue.”
The defeat was the Braves’ seventeenth straight, and coach Vern Benson was the manager the following day when Atlanta snapped its losing streak, with a 6-1 victory.
“Well, I’d like be down there to take some credit for this,” Turner told the Washington Times.
Soon enough Bristol returned from his owner-imposed vacation, and things returned to normal in a season that would see Atlanta finish with a 61-101 record. With Bristol back at the helm, the Braves were shut out by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Despite such antics, Turner’s flair impressed ballplayers elsewhere, especially in locales that were fast becoming small-market have-nots. “The Braves had the resources to keep people, and we didn’t,” said Andy Van Slyke, who had joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1987 and would lose to Atlanta in consecutive National League Championship Series. “They, and the Cubs with WGN, were becoming America’s teams. Ted Turner wasn’t afraid to spend money. That certainly wasn’t the case in Pittsburgh.”
The Braves had chances to pull ahead in Game Three, but they were admittedly playing a few bricks shy of a load. Their running game, which had been a chief weapon during the regular season, remained stuck in neutral during long stretches of the postseason. The major reason? Otis Nixon, who led the team with seventy-two bases, was sidelined after testing positive for drugs.
Back in July the Braves’ center fielder was first caught for cocaine. Commissioner Fay Vincent studied the results and decided not take any action at that point because the data was inconclusive. “The test was very, very marginal,” Vincent told USA Today. “We looked into it, interviewed Otis, and concluded the best course was to give him a chance which it seemed to us he had earned by his conduct over the years.”
Unfortunately for Nixon and, ultimately, the Braves, the superb center fielder soon failed a subsequent random drug test, and Vincent had no choice but to suspend him for sixty days. That meant Nixon missed Atlanta’s final eighteen games of the regular season as well as the playoffs and World Series.
“We coped with the loss of a lot of key players this year,” Braves general manager John Schuerholz said at the time. “We’ll try to do the best we can to cope with this.”
With Nixon atop the batting order, the Braves offered an effective blend of speed and power. Not only did he steal seventy-two bases in 1991, but the switch-hitter also hit .297, with an on-base percentage of .371. On this ballclub he was the perfect table-setter for the big bats of Terry Pendleton, Ron Gant, David Justice, and Sid Bream.
When Pendleton signed with the Braves during the offseason, coming to Atlanta after seven seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, he did so because the Braves’ young pitching staff impressed him, and Schuerholz and Cox had assured him that the ballclub “would go out and get the pieces that were necessary to compete.”
“[The Braves] had a young Ron Gant, a young Jeff Blauser, a young Dave Justice,” Pendleton said. “Probably the final piece to the puzzle came when we got Otis Nixon. That was huge, because we really needed a leadoff hitter.”
With Nixon out of the lineup for the 1991 postseason, Ron Gant took over defensively in center field, and Lonnie Smith moved into the leadoff role. The latter was nicknamed “Skates” for his misadventures in the outfield and on the basepaths. In addition the Braves were missing another valuable cog with the postseason in full swing, as two-sport star Deion Sanders had to report to the Atlanta Falcons’ football camp. During the Braves’ stretch run for the divisional title Sanders came through, though, especially with a pivotal home run against Pittsburgh in late July. Ironically, Sanders would rework his contract in 1992 so he could play the entire season with Atlanta and participate in that year’s World Series against Toronto, in which he would bat .533 with two doubles and four runs scored despite playing with a broken bone in his foot. “Neon Deion” may have been a part-timer in baseball, but the Braves certainly could have used him in the 1991 World Series.
Sanders, for one, came to Nixon’s defense after the suspension made headlines. “This man was having the best year of his career, a free-agent year, the team’s winning, he had an outside chance at the MVP and the man already gets drug tests three times a week,” he told the New York Post. “They were on his bandwagon just a couple of days ago when he was driving in runs and doing it for the team and now they say it was drug-aided.”
Speed can be the great equalizer in any sport. Deployed correctly, a fast team has the definite edge over a slower one. Yet many coaches seemingly distrust the concept, fearful that speed will disappear when a team needs it the most. The Orioles’ Earl Weaver, for example, believed in pitching, defense, and the three-run homer. Rolling the dice on hit and runs, stolen bases, and putting the runners in motion wasn’t his way. Perhaps that’s why somebody like Alan Wiggins didn’t fit in during his final seasons when he was in Baltimore. Or perhaps it was simply that drugs had already eaten away too much of him by that point in his career.
No doubt that Wiggins had wheels. In his seven-year career, 1981-1987, he hit only .259 but stole 242 bases in 631 games for a 38.4 percentage. In comparison, all-time stolen-base leader Rickey Henderson stole 1,406 bases in 3,081 for 45.6 success rate. But, of course, Rickey was unabashedly the greatest of all time. Among the game’s top base stealers of all time, Lou Brock stole 938 bases in 2,616 games for a 35.9 percentage, whereas Ty Cobb sported a 29.6 rate, and Honus Wagner 25.9. The Braves’ Otis Nixon would finish his seventeen-year career with a mark remarkably similar to Wiggins’: 36.3 percent.
Only a few years before, on the 1984 San Diego Padres, another manager, “Trader” Jack McKeon, had seamlessly employed Wiggins’s talent. With Wiggins as the leadoff batter on that team, Tony Gwynn hit .351 behind him and secured his first National League batting title. As a team, the Padres won the pennant, advancing to the World Series, where they lost in five games to the Detroit Tigers and Jack Morris, then their staff ace.
McKeon said that Wiggins “became our catalyst in 1984. He was a good kid who ran into problems. When we lost him it took three years to find another second baseman [Roberto Alomar] and five years to find another leadoff hitter [Bip Roberts].”
Former Padres shortstop Garry Templeton later told the San Diego Union that Wiggins “was one of the best sparkplugs any club ever had.”
Unfortunately, Wiggins missed the 1985 opener at Dodger Stadium and was soon admitted to a drug rehabilitation center. When Padres owner Joan Kroc refused to allow Wiggins to rejoin the team, McKeon was forced to trade his speedster to Baltimore.
From a baseball standpoint, Kroc’s stand made little sense and ran counter to the working agreement between the players and owners. Yet she remained adamant that Wiggins had to go, that he would never play in a Padres uniform again.
“The game of baseball was not something she was very familiar with. The business side, even less,” Padres executive Dick Freeman once told San Diego Magazine. “If I said, ‘Oh, she was great to work for and it was a piece of cake,’ I wouldn’t be telling the truth.”
On the East Coast Tony Attanasio, Wiggins’s agent, said his client’s new teammates soon ostracized him, and as a result, he turned to drugs anew. The Orioles would finish the 1986 season with a 73-89 record. As they began to struggle, Weaver told his players to steer clear of the media; he would do all the talking with the Fourth Estate. At the same time in world events Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi had drawn an imaginary “Line of Death” in the Mediterranean Sea, telling US forces to stay away. Wiggins, who regularly read the Wall Street Journal beyond the sports section, joked around the batting cage that Weaver had drawn a line of death between the Orioles’ ballplayers and the media. For his trouble, Attanasio said, Wiggins was literally beaten up by his new teammates.
“After that Alan said he couldn’t play for them, and who could blame him?” said Attanasio, whose clients have included Goose Gossage, Bobby Valentine, Reggie Smith, Steve Howe, and Ichiro Suzuki. “Here was a guy who could have been the best second baseman Baltimore ever had. A guy who could run and field and hit. Instead, they didn’t want anything to do with him. They shunned him.”
Soon Wiggins was back doing drugs, and he shared needles as part of his addiction. His family believes that’s what led him to become the first major-league player to die of an AIDS-related illness (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), which took him in early 1991. Wiggins’s death was another pebble thrown into the vast pool called sports that soon sent major waves throughout society by the end of that particular year. Even among those playing on the biggest stage later that season, Alan Wiggins’s death wasn’t forgotten.
The Braves’ Terry Pendleton remembered that he would speak with Wiggins when either one of them were on base—the one taking up his defensive position in the field, the other looking to stretch his lead. “It was, ‘How you doing?’ That kind of thing,” Pendleton said. “I really didn’t know him, but I knew him as a player, the speed and talent that he brought to the game. Unfortunately, he got into the wrong thing. He could have had a great baseball career.
“I was saddened by [his death]. It shocks you when anybody—ex-player, ex-teammate—passes away. It shocks you because we all think we’re still twenty-five years old. But we’re not.”
Former teammates Steve Garvey and Lee Lacy as well as Attanasio and Freeman attended Wiggins’s funeral. Although Candice Wiggins was just three years old at the time, the day remains one of her earliest memories. She can still close her eyes and see the Calvary C.M.E Methodist Church in Pasadena, California, packed to overflowing, and she will never forget how frightened everyone was.
Although the initial reports said her father had died of respiratory failure from lung cancer, many in attendance knew better. Soon it came out that her father was the first major-league ballplayer to die because of AIDS.
“It was a very scary time,” Candice recalled. “There was a lot of fear because of AIDS, and people back then knew so little about it. Back then some people felt you could get it by breathing. Just breathing.”
Looking back on Otis Nixon’s absence from the Braves’ lineup, his suspension underscored a growing problem the national pastime had with drugs during this period—performance enhancing or otherwise—and the owners’ and players’ inability to agree on a way to effectively test for them. Steroids wouldn’t make major headlines for a few more seasons. Yet the signs were there, with little in place to curb their escalating use. According to José Canseco’s book Juiced, steroids were being used in baseball as early as the mid-1980s. His Oakland Athletics, with fellow Bash Brother Mark McGwire, would soon become a major focus for such activity. No matter that Peter Ueberroth proclaimed baseball to be drug-free before he stepped down as commissioner in 1989, PEDs were becoming a huge part of the sports scene overall, and they would soon be blamed for football player Lyle Alzado’s premature death in 1992. Through it all Major League Baseball couldn’t agree on an effective formal policy. In most cases the Major League Baseball Players Union opposed random testing. For example, the only way Nixon was caught for cocaine was because he tested positive as part of an earlier rehab program. Originally arrested in 1987 while playing at Triple-A Buffalo, Nixon had pled guilty to obstruction. Those drug charges were dropped, but the ballplayer was required to begin a rehab program that later resulted in the sixty-day suspension.
“The only thing I know is we knew [Nixon] was on an aftercare program when we acquired his contract,” Braves GM John Schuerholz said in 1991.
In large part baseball wasn’t able to focus on steroids and drugs because of the growing labor storm. Owners and players couldn’t agree on the framework for a new collective bargaining agreement, let alone a standardized drug policy. In testimony years later on Capitol Hill, MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred said, “No one believed that there was significant steroid use in the game at the time,” adding that “economic issues” took precedence over a stronger drug policy.
Canseco recalled that the owners’ attitude bordered on, “Go ahead and do it.”
As a result, more players took the overall dysfunctional situation as permission to dabble with steroids. In the summer of 1994 the owners would lock out the players, resulting in the World Series to be canceled for the first time in ninety years. “It really, really spread like wildfire after that,” Andy Van Slyke said. “Very few people say this, but steroids saved baseball and made a lot of players rich today. And everybody, it seemed, was drinking from the juice by the midnineties.”
Well, maybe not everybody. Rickey Henderson, Canseco’s teammate and the game’s all-time base stealer, claimed he didn’t know about steroids back then. “They kept that [stuff] a secret from me,” he told the New Yorker in 2005. “I wish they had told me. My God, could you imagine Rickey on ’roids? Oh, baby, look out!”
(Henderson was the first professional athlete I ever encountered who talked about himself in the third person, as in “Rickey is in a bit of a slump, but he’ll be good” or “Rickey slides head first because it’s closer to the ground. That way Rickey doesn’t get hurt.”)
In the spring of 1991 I had been in the Phoenix area, making the rounds of the training camps. I finished the American League previews I was responsible for and, more importantly, established better contacts throughout the league. I told anybody who would listen that I was writing for a new publication, Baseball Weekly, which would be published nationwide beginning in a few weeks by USA Today.
But through those days in the desert one baseball star eluded me. In fact, he wasn’t sitting for interviews with anyone. And he was the guy I needed the most—Rickey Henderson.
Even though the A’s outfielder would soon begin the regular season only three bases away from breaking Lou Brock’s all-time stolen base record, Henderson had gone public earlier in spring training about wanting to renegotiate his contract. As a result, Henderson said crowds booed him throughout Arizona early in 1991. The superstar blamed the media for this debacle and refused to talk with any of us.
That was well and fine with most writers. After all, speaking with Rickey Henderson could be a bit like listening to a combination of hip hop and haiku. But I needed fresh quotes from the “Man of Steal.” The premiere issue of Baseball Weekly would have Henderson on the cover, and I had been assigned the story. Everybody else could wait out Henderson’s latest snit—except me.
That afternoon in Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the Athletics’ spring home, Henderson started the game in left field against the Seattle Mariners. By the middle innings Oakland manager Tony La Russa began to sub out his regulars, replacing them with rookies or journeymen who needed another audition under the Arizona sun before their station for the season was decided upon. Henderson ran in from left field to a smattering of boos and cheers. As he did so, I slowly walked to the back of Municipal’s open-air press box. I was trying to be nonchalant, acting like I was heading to get another hot dog or ice cream swirl. But my notebook was in my back pocket, and as soon as I came down the steps of the press box I picked up the pace, heading for a door behind the stands that led down to the A’s clubhouse.
Downstairs nobody was in sight at first. But then coming around the corner was Rickey Henderson himself. He had a towel fastened around his waist and another draped around his neck. Even though he was thirty-three years old at the time, he had the physique of a guy in his midtwenties—defined torso, thick shoulders, and thick, cable-like legs.
When Henderson saw me he turned in one movement, ready to escape to the areas of the clubhouse that were off-limits to the media.
“Rickey,” I shouted.
But he kept going.
“I don’t want to talk about your contract. I want to talk about you about to break Lou Brock’s record.”
Thankfully, Henderson stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder back at me.
“Nothing about the contract?”
“That’s right,” I replied. “I just want to talk about you and Brock’s all-time stolen base record.”
Henderson considered this for a moment.
“Just about Rickey and Lou?”
“That’s right,” I said. “Just about you and Lou—the two greatest base stealers of all time.”
“Rickey and Lou?”
“Yes, this is for USA Today,” I said, not wanting to complicate things by explaining about a publication that hadn’t made the newsstands yet.
“Rickey and Lou,” Henderson again said, pulling up a stool in front of his locker. He motioned for me to sit down next to him. “Rickey would like that.”
So we spent the next half-hour talking about Rickey’s upbringing in the rough streets of Oakland and how in high school he sometimes raced the team bus to the next neighborhood game to build up his legs. Once he was between the lines he remembered to come home with a dirty uniform or else his mother wouldn’t believe that he had even gone to the game. As a result, if he hadn’t done much on the basepaths on a particular afternoon, he would go back out on the field, “sliding in the dirt” after the final out.
In the early 1990s the national pastime once more mirrored the world around it. Even when the conversation wasn’t about money, it somehow came back to the all-mighty dollar. Although I kept my word and didn’t bring up the contract hubbub, Rickey Henderson couldn’t help but comment on the booing he had heard an hour or so earlier. Granted, it was hard to feel sorry for a guy making $3 million annually. Yet Henderson wasn’t among the top twenty-five in salaries as this season began. He felt he had no choice but to complain—even threaten to hold out for a higher wage.
“This should be my golden moment, but I’ve gotten so much heat about my contract,” Henderson said as more of his teammates began to file into the A’s clubhouse. “I’m not even thinking about Lou Brock or his record. This is maybe the most important thing of my life. What I’ve played years for. But with all this other stuff going on, breaking Brock’s record could be kind of hollow.”
He glanced around the room before adding, “The last year and half I was the best anybody can be. They say they can’t renegotiate, but that’s crazy. In baseball right now there are no rules when it comes to money and contracts. No rules about anything except what happens out there on the field.”
Without Otis Nixon and Deion Sanders in uniform, no high-quality speedster like Rickey Henderson at the top of the lineup, the Braves needed new heroes in the 1991 Fall Classic. With novelist Stephen King looking on in Atlanta, the bottom part of the Braves’ lineup began to step up. Catcher Greg Olson, second baseman Mark Lemke, and shortstop Rafael Belliard would eventually go 4-for-11 in Game Three, with three runs batted in, as the heart of the Braves’ order batted only 2-for-16.
Heading into the postseason Lemke decided that he had no reason to worry. “We had other superstars, so right away that took a lot of pressure off me,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I would, in turn, look out at the pitcher say, ‘The pressure’s on you. We all know who the big bats are. You have to get me out.’”
In the middle innings of Game Three it appeared that the Braves could ride starting pitcher Steve Avery to their first World Series victory. After the fielding mishap in the first inning, which resulted in the Twins’ first run, Avery cruised into the seventh inning with a 4-1 lead. That’s when Kirby Puckett, who had struggled to this point, drove the second pitch he saw well out to left field. The blow was only a solo shot and the Braves retained a two-run lead, but the Twins’ bats were on the verge of waking up.
An inning later, after Twins pinch-hitter Brian Harper reached on an error by Terry Pendleton, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox decided to go to his bullpen. Managers point out that they make so many choices in any game that it can be easy to second-guess. Although Cox could have kept Avery in the game—he had set down fifteen in a row at one point—the left-hander did seem to be tiring. Into the game came right-hander Alejandro Peña, who had come over from the New York Mets during the regular season and recorded three saves in the NLCS against Pittsburgh. A hard-throwing right-hander, Peña worked the count to 1-1 on another Twins pinch-hitter, Chili Davis.
But as they say, baseball is a game of adjustments, ones often made on the fly. When Davis found he couldn’t get around on Peña’s fastball over the inside half of the plate, he opted to hit the next one he saw the other way. “Right after that he threw me a fastball up and away, and I fouled it straight back,” Davis recalled years later. “That’s when I said to myself, ‘Man, if you throw that one more time, I ain’t missing it.’ Then he threw it again. I couldn’t believe it.”
Davis got his arms extended and was able to drive the ball out the opposite way to left field, tying the game at 4-4. “That stadium in Atlanta was a great place to hit in,” Davis said. “If I’d played in that ballpark instead of Candlestick Park, I might have four hundred or more home runs today.”
As Terry Pendleton watched Davis’s home run sail into the seats, he couldn’t believe how the tables had been turned once again in the Series. “Just when you feel like it’s under control, they come back and tie the ballgame,” he recalled. “It’s not a good feeling. But that’s what that series soon became all about. You never felt easy with where you stood, even when you had the lead.”
After this new swing in momentum, Peña was fortunate to hold Minnesota to just two runs scored in the inning. The Braves’ reliever gave up singles to Chuck Knoblauch and Kent Hrbek, and the Twins appeared poised to take the lead and seize control of the series. At this point Peña bore down, going with hard stuff to strike out Puckett and Shane Mack. The contest was now tied at 4-4.
After the Braves went down in order in the bottom of the frame, both teams put men in scoring position in the ninth inning, but neither squad could score. With that, Game Three headed into extra innings in search of a hero, and an unlikely one would soon emerge.
More baseball in Atlanta meant that the chant of the Tomahawk Chop became ever-present, loud, and obnoxious, the new soundtrack of this Fall Classic and soon to be on the greatest hits playlist for postseason action. Legend has it that Deion Sanders brought the cheer to Georgia after the chop became a hit at Florida State in the eighties. Sanders was a two-time All-American cornerback for coach Bobby Bowden at FSU, whose nickname is the Seminoles. To properly perform the cheer one needs to swing an arm, hinging at the elbow, in rhythm with the OHHH, a-ooooo cadence of those around you. Go ahead—it’s easy to follow along.
Once The Chop took hold in Atlanta, many fans really got into the swing of things, so to speak, by wielding Styrofoam tomahawks back and forth in time with the chant. Such accessories were found at the souvenir stands inside the Atlanta stadium. No matter that the Tomahawk Chop and the war chant had no basis in Native American history or in the South itself, The Chop was here to stay.
In fact, the cheering and chanting soon became so controversial that protests greeted fans outside of both stadiums during the Series. “We want Ted Turner to meet with us and put a stop to this stupid, ignorant, racist behavior,” Clyde Bellecourt, founder and chairman of the American Indian Movement (AIM), told the (Baltimore) Sun. “Why don’t they just call them the Atlanta Bishops? They don’t issue crucifixes when people come in the gate. They don’t wave crucifixes when someone hits a homer. Why don’t they call them the Klansmen, so they all wear sheets? How would the American people feel about that? During the seventh-inning stretch, they could hang Jews and blacks.”
The protests, which many consider the first united opposition to Indian sports nicknames, certainly put Jane Fonda in an uncomfortable position. The onetime activist sat alongside Turner, her husband, cheering for the Braves, despite that she had been arrested as part of an AIM protest in Seattle in 1970. When asked how he felt when he saw Fonda doing The Chop, Bellecourt replied, “I feel betrayed.”
The chanting became louder as the Braves put two men on with two out in the bottom of the tenth, only to see pinch-hitter Jeff Blauser line out to Chuck Knoblauch at second. As the innings went by, Twins manager Tom Kelly kept a parade of pinch-hitters going up to the plate. Disgruntled about the lack of a designated hitter in the National League ballparks, Kelly was still determined to deploy his deep bench and keep his pitchers from being a laughingstock with a bat in hand. Here in Game Three, Kelly used his pinch-hitters in the following order: Gene Larkin (sixth inning), Brian Harper (eighth), Chili Davis (eighth), Mike Pagliarulo (ninth), Randy Bush (ninth), Paul Sorrento (tenth), Al Newman (eleventh), and Rick Aguilera (twelfth). Yes, that last guy is a pitcher.
Near the end of the regular season Kelly ordered his pitchers to take batting practice under the watchful eye of hitting coach Terry Crowley. Aguilera, who had come over from an occasional at-bat in the National League, remembered the sessions becoming pretty competitive, reminding him of times with the Mets when Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, and even Sid Fernandez swung away for team bragging rights. For his part, Kelly wasn’t nearly as impressed with most of the Twins’ pitchers when they had a bat in hand. “We got through [Game Three] with only one pitcher getting embarrassed,” Kelly said.
That was starter Scott Erickson, who struck out on three pitches in the third inning.
“We saved everybody else from that, and I felt good about that,” the Twins’ manager added. “I didn’t want my pitchers to go up there and have to hit. It was a joke. [They] had no chance.”
With so much mixing and matching, Kelly used a record eight pinch-hitters and a record number of twenty-three players in the ballgame. The only guys who didn’t see action in Game Three for the Twins were pitchers Kevin Tapani and Jack Morris, who was scheduled to pitch the next evening.
Aguilera was warming up to pitch the bottom of the twelfth when the bullpen phone rang, asking whether he wanted to swing the bat too. Aguilera said sure, and moments later he ran down to the Twins’ dugout to put on a helmet and try to find a bat. “I grabbed the lightest bat that I could find,” he said. “To this day I don’t recall whose bat it was.”
As the top of the twelfth inning unfolded the Twins had another major opportunity to go up three games to zip in the best-of-seven series. With one out, Gladden singled to right, and Knoblauch reached on an error by Braves second baseman Mark Lemke. Kent Hrbek, who was being constantly jeered by the Atlanta fans for his tussle with Ron Gant in Game Two, struck out in short order. When the Braves intentionally walked Kirby Puckett, that left the bases loaded with two out and the pitcher’s spot coming up. Kelly figured his closer, Aguilera, could do a better job at the plate than Mark Guthrie, who had never swung a bat in a big-league game to this point in his career. Even though Aguilera had last batted in 1989, he did have a .203 career average, with three home runs and eleven RBIs, and he was originally signed as a shortstop. As a result, the Twins’ closer became the first pitcher to pinch-hit in a World Series game since 1965, when the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale faced the Twins’ Jim Kaat. In addition, Aguilera was the first pitcher to pinch-hit in the Fall Classic since the advent of the designated hitter in 1973.
As Aguilera stepped into the batters’ box—Aguilera and Greg Olson had once been in the Mets’ organization together—he jokingly asked catcher Olson what Braves reliever Jim Clancy was going to throw him. Olson replied that they planned to come right at him, and, indeed, Clancy’s first pitch was a hard slider.
“Believe it or not, I felt pretty comfortable in that at-bat,” Aguilera recalled. “I was seeing the ball.”
Clancy’s first pitch, a slider in the dirt, was blocked nicely by Olson. The second offering was a fastball on the outside corner. Years later Aguilera wondered whether he should have swung at that one, perhaps flared it to right field. But the bat sat on his shoulder for that offering. Clancy’s third pitch was another fastball, moving over the inside part of the plate, and Aguilera went for it.
“I got a decent swing on it, but I got jammed a little bit,” he said. “Not enough to get it in the gap. I knew that I made pretty good contact, so it was not going to bloop in over the shortstop’s head. It was hit better than that. But I also knew it probably wasn’t hit hard enough to get in the gap or get over Ron Gant’s head. So it was decent contact and put your head down and run to first base. [Clancy] just got a little bit inside on me.”
In the end Aguilera gave a good account of himself, driving a ball fairly deep to center field, where Gant had to make a running catch. Still, it went down as nothing more than another out in the scorebook, and the Twins had left the bases loaded.
“I surprised a few people,” Aguilera added. “I know Crowley was impressed. I didn’t embarrass myself, and I didn’t embarrass TK for putting me in there. In looking back on it I’m more disappointed about how I did on the mound in the next inning.”
Kelly added, “We tried to win the game within a nine- or ten-inning structure, and we couldn’t get the job done. We had our chances. We had the hitters we wanted up in those situations, but they just couldn’t get the job done.”
Chili Davis, one of the few pinch-hitters to deliver on this night, added, “We get those opportunities again, and I guarantee you we get some runs.”
Aguilera’s well-hit out also got Mark Lemke off the hook. The Braves’ second baseman had stood with his head down, pawing the dirt with his feet after making the error on Knoblauch’s grounder that put the winning run in scoring position in the top of the twelfth. When Cox went to the mound to make a pitching change, Lemke tried to push the word “goat” out of his mind. Teammates told him not to worry about it—keep his head up. Still, Lemke knew he had put the Braves “in a real tough situation.”
Now that the Braves had wriggled out of the jam, Lemke would soon have the chance to redeem himself and, possibly, end Game Three. During the regular season Lemke had batted just .234, with a pair of home runs and twenty-three RBIs. He remained a utility guy who struggled so much that he sought out the advice of Terry Pendleton, the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1991, who told Lemke to put the regular season behind. “When the playoffs start nobody cares what you did back then,” Pendleton said. “They only care about what you do in the playoffs and the World Series. That’s what people remember.”
Lemke took the veteran’s advice so much to heart that he began using Pendleton’s bats when the third baseman wasn’t looking. “I guess you could say he had open range to them,” Pendleton said. “Mine was a bigger bat than the one he’d been using—thirty-six inch, thirty-two ounces. With my bat he started to do what he was capable of doing.”
Lemke remembered that he “was getting out on too many balls tailing away. So Terry and I talked, and he suggested that I go with a bigger bat, so I tried his. It was about two inches longer and several ounces heavier than mine, and sure enough I was able to get good wood on those outside pitches. With that bat I began to flair them the opposite way, and with each hit that postseason my confidence really grew.”
The twelfth inning soon became one curious situation heaped upon another for Aguilera. Not only had the Twins’ closer pinch-hit, almost giving the Twins the lead, but now he began the inning of a tie game—not with the lead, which closers usually prefer. Also, he was making his third appearance in a row, realizing that he would probably need to keep pitching until the game was decided. Aguilera knew that he was in it for the long haul, ready for “two, three, or more innings,” he said. “I knew I was the last guy.”
Later Aguilera admittedly became too fine with his pitches.
With one out in the bottom of the twelfth, David Justice singled and stole second after Brian Hunter popped out. The theft was the Braves’ first stolen base of the series, underscoring Nixon’s absence. Olsen drew a walk off Aguilera, and that brought Lemke up with two on, two out, and the hometown Chop crowd raising a real ruckus now.
Batting left-handed against Aguilera, Lemke worked the count to 1-1. Aguilera threw him a pitch on the outer half of the plate, and Lemke stroked it the opposite way. As the crowd roared, the ball dropped in front of Twins left fielder Dan Gladden, who came up throwing. Charging around third base, Justice cut to the inside and slid in just ahead of Harper, who was trying to apply the tag.
Safe at the plate, Justice had won the game for the Braves, and Lemke’s hit had given the hometown team its first World Series victory ever in the South.
“We’ve been on such a roller coaster ride,” Olson said afterward. “We really felt if we could win this game, we could win the Series. But if we lost, who knows what would happen.”
“The weirdest thing in this game is that Clancy gets the win for getting out a pitcher,” said Kevin Tapani, one of the few Twins who didn’t play in Game Three.
The Twins’ Randy Bush added, “It could have been a storybook ending for Aggie. But nobody here is down. If anything, you can’t wait to play again after a game like that.”
That said, the Twins knew they had missed a golden opportunity to go up three games to none in the Series. In battling back to win in extra innings, the Braves had guaranteed that a more boisterous crowd of Tomahawk Choppers would be back tomorrow night.