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

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

Game Four

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 23, 1991

AT ATLANTA-FULTON COUNTY STADIUM

ATLANTA, GEORGIA

Less than twenty-four hours after the Braves’ extra-inning victory the two teams were ready to go back at it, with a pitching matchup between youth and experience. Atlanta’s John Smoltz was eager to take on his boyhood idol, Jack Morris. Interested parties, though, couldn’t quite leave last night’s game in the rearview mirror. Twins manager Tom Kelly said that if Game Three had gone on much longer, he would have had outfielder Dan Gladden pitch and shifted reliever Rick Aguilera to the outfield.

“If I’d gone to the mound,” Gladden said, “I would have been the most underpaid pitcher out there.”

Commissioner Fay Vincent declared that Game Three had been one of the best ever played in postseason history, comparing it with Carlton Fisk’s home run in the 1975 World Series, the 1986 National League Championship Series between the New York Mets and Houston Astros, and Kirk Gibson’s dramatic homer off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series.

Vincent added that the World Series coming to Atlanta and the South for the first time gave this series “a freshness. The tomahawking, the chanting makes it special.”

Undoubtedly, the Twins disagreed.

In Game Four Minnesota again took the early lead as Mike Pagliarulo singled in Harper, who had doubled to lead off the top of the second inning.

In the bottom of the third inning Morris was sailing along, striking out Smoltz and Lonnie Smith. He seemed to be in control until Terry Pendleton smacked a 3-1 fastball, driving it out for a home run to right-center field. The game was tied at 1-1 and promised to be another tense one.

“That’s the way almost every game of that Series was,” Scott Leius remembered. “Soon you just kind of fell into it, just going from pitch to pitch, inning to inning, knowing you’d come out the other end—someday, somehow.”

By the bottom of the fifth Morris was falling behind too many Atlanta batters. Smith led off the inning with a single to left field. In the stands Jane Fonda sat alongside Braves owner Ted Turner, both of them wearing Atlanta ballcaps, and to Turner’s left was former president Jimmy Carter. They cheered as Smith stole second base, moving into scoring position for Pendleton, who had homered two innings earlier. The National League MVP smoked a line drive to center field, which sailed over Kirby Puckett’s head. In a base-running blunder and a harbinger of what was to come, Smith mistakenly tagged up. As a result, he was at least a step late rounding third base as Braves third-base coach Jimy Williams waved him toward home.

Chuck Knoblauch took the relay throw from Puckett and briefly appeared surprised that Smith was even trying to score on the play. Knoblauch collected himself and threw accurately to Harper at home plate. The ball arrived on a difficult in-between hop the instant before Smith ran headlong into Harper, who was on his knees. The force of the collision knocked Harper onto his back, with Smith flying over the top of him.

“I thought Kirby [Puckett] was going to catch it, so I got a few steps down the line,” Smith recalled. “When I saw it drop in I knew I had to kick in the speed. I came around third, and I saw Brian catch the ball. I couldn’t go around him and I couldn’t go under him because he was down.”

A close play at the plate ranks among baseball’s classic moments. Home runs certainly linger in the mind, often due to their unexpected nature, that dry crack of a branch in the woods. Great pitching performances, shutouts, no-hitters, and alike can creep up on us over the course of a game, with the magnitude of what’s at stake revealing itself only in the late innings when everything is on the line. In comparison, a play at the plate remains easily understood by the most casual of fans and certainly appreciated by longtime observers. The base runner rounds third, here comes the throw, and so much is at stake. Game Four of the 1991 World Series offered three magnificent plays at the plate involving Twins catcher Brian Harper. “I think back now, look at the replays, and I became the guy in the right place at the wrong time,” he said. “Or maybe it was the wrong place at the right time.”

Although Harper spent the game becoming part punching bag, part hockey goalie, part hit-and-run victim, he later said he was never really hurt on any of the key plays in Game Four. “Maybe it’s the adrenaline of playing in a game like this,” he said. “But I never saw stars. Not on any of them.”

Ray Fosse, Rick Dempsey, Buster Posey, and Buck Martinez are a few of the catchers who have been seriously injured in collisions at home plate over the years. In Martinez’s case he suffered a broken ankle and somehow hung in there long enough to make not just one but two putouts. It happened on July 9, 1985, with the Toronto Blue Jays visiting Seattle. With the Mariners’ Phil Bradley on second base, Gorman Thomas singled to right field. In a violent collision at home, Bradley was out as he ran over Martinez, breaking the catcher’s ankle.

As the play continued, Thomas rambled for third base. Despite being unable to stand up, as the broken ankle was incapable of bearing any weight, Martinez attempted to throw Thomas out. For his trouble he saw his errant throw sail into left field, where Blue Jays outfielder George Bell retrieved it. Now, a real teammate would have perhaps hung on to the ball or thrown it to somebody else. But with Thomas now heading for the plate, Bell decided to peg it home. Thanks for nothing, right? Martinez somehow caught the ball while still sitting down, and finally somebody showed some heart or simple common sense as Thomas didn’t slide into his friend. (He and Martinez had been teammates in Milwaukee.)

That meant the Blue Jays catcher could tag his old buddy for the final out of the inning—to boos from some in the crowd—and then be removed from the field on a stretcher. Martinez went on to be the team’s broadcaster and, for a brief time, the Blue Jays’ manager. He also wrote a couple of books, including Worst to First, about Toronto capturing its first division title in 1985.

“Sometimes playing catcher means putting yourself out there,” he said. “Then you’re praying something terrible doesn’t happen.”

In Game Four of the 1991 Series Harper’s teammates were left to marvel at their catcher’s courage and lousy luck. “He’s going to be sore tomorrow,” Kirby Puckett said. “I guarantee you.”

“We hit straight on,” Harper said of his first collision with Smith. “We pretty much hit shoulder to shoulder. He got me pretty good.”

Somehow the Twins’ catcher held on to the ball—jumping to his feet and gripping it in his bare hand.

“How did I hang on to the ball?” Harper later said. “I still don’t really know. It’s being in the moment, I guess.”

Tim McCarver, a former big-league catcher, told his television audience, “That was as about a tough a collision as you’ll see in a baseball game.”

On the play Pendleton moved to third base, and with Ron Gant coming to the plate, the Twins had no choice but to bring their infield in, trying again to cut off the go-ahead run. When Gant walked, the Braves had two men on with one out—a situation that put Harper back in the spotlight again.

Morris bounced an 0-1 pitch to David Justice and Pendleton headed for home, looking to score. In hindsight the ball didn’t bounce far enough from the plate for Pendleton to take this kind of chance. Harper scrambled after the ball, and with Pendleton coming down the line, he dove to the opposite side of home plate, tagging out the Braves’ base runner. Knowing he had made a mistake, Pendleton walked to the Braves’ dugout, muttering to himself.

Harper, a guy who several ballclubs deemed didn’t catch all that well, had made a pair of defensive gems in the same inning. Drafted by the Angels in 1977, Harper performed exceptionally in the minor leagues, hitting .293 at Quad Cities and .315 in El Paso. Inexplicably, after he hit .350 with 122 RBI at Salt Lake City, the Angels traded him to Pittsburgh, which already had established catchers in Tony Peña and Steve Nicosia. With no room on the roster, Harper tried unsuccessfully to play first base and the outfield. When that didn’t work out, Harper began a magical mystery tour of the majors, seeking a job. By the time he reached Minnesota, Harper was a bona fide journeyman after failing to catch on with St. Louis, Detroit, and Oakland. “He lost a lot of his career to other people’s stupidity,” statistician Bill James later wrote. “He was slow, didn’t have real power, didn’t walk and didn’t throw well, but he could hit .300 in his sleep.”

Growing up in southern California, Harper had also played football in high school, and he remembered being tackled “a lot”—nothing on the gridiron compared to the pounding he would take in Game Four, though.

They say playing catcher gives one “God’s view” of the game of baseball. Everything plays out in front of you, and nobody is more involved in the action. Being front and center can come with a price. Not only are there the balls in the dirt, bouncing off all parts of your body, a catcher also needs to become part shrink, part confidant in calling the pitches for a staff that invariably comes with individuals of various temperaments and personalities. Then, to top it all off, you’re a target. A guy who’s supposed to stand in there no matter what, even if the other guy, the base runner who just barreled into you, will often be the one the crowd cheers after the play at the plate.

“A catcher must want to catch,” Hall of Famer Bill Dickey once said. “He must make up his mind that it isn’t the terrible job it is painted, and that he isn’t going to say every day, ‘Why, oh why with so many other positions in baseball did I take up this one?’”

Harper had long ago made his pact with this devil. He didn’t care about the price of playing behind the plate as long as he could win a place on a major-league roster. “By the time I got to the Twins I was satisfied if I could just be a backup catcher,” he said. “I had almost given up being an everyday player. So to have a chance to catch, to be in the everyday lineup in the World Series, I knew how precious that was by that point in my career.”

Other players acknowledge, perhaps begrudgingly, what a catcher goes through on a daily basis. “I knew that Brian was strong because I played with him in St. Louis,” Lonnie Smith said. “I found how strong he was that night, in that game.”

But there are always a few who will take advantage of the situation, twist the meaning of old school and hard ball to their own advantage. In part that’s why some old-timers don’t think much of Pete Rose. In the 1970 All-Star Game, in what many consider an exhibition, or a “friendly,” to use soccer terminology, the Reds’ star plowed into catcher Ray Fosse in a play similar to the Smith-Harper collision. The media hailed Rose for scoring the game’s deciding run. Fosse, who played for the in-state rival Cleveland Indians, was never the same player after fracturing his shoulder. “I knew I was hurt, but didn’t know to what extent,” Fosse said decades later. “I don’t care if someone is a hundred and fifty pounds or three hundred pounds—if they are coming full blast at you while you are standing still and they hit you, you are going to feel it. There was no fake about it.”

———

A few seasons after I joined Baseball Weekly I wrote that it was time to allow Rose, baseball’s all-time hits leader, into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Although Rose had gambled on baseball, we should let bygones be bygones. After all, he had just served five months in prison for income tax evasion in January 1991. Rose had suffered enough, I wrote. In the days after that column I heard from several Hall of Famers. Pretty much they told me I was dead wrong and didn’t know what I was talking about. Several urged me to have an audience with John Dowd, the one who had investigated Rose’s activities for Major League Baseball.

Back then Dowd’s office window overlooked New Hampshire Avenue, just off Dupont Circle in a high-rent section of Washington, DC. The man who busted Rose was waiting for me that morning. Moments after shaking hands he handed me a 225-page report—the boiled-down version of the Rose investigation.

“The actual report is up here,” he said, pointing to the top shelf of his bookcase. “What you have there is the summary. I must have sent out at least five thousand copies of this over the years, trying to set people straight.”

Born in Brockton, Massachusetts, the mill city that produced boxers Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler, Dowd brought a similar combative style to the courtroom. “It’s all crap, and crap goes nowhere” was how he once characterized a rival’s case against a recent client. To Dowd, law was a full-contact game. Although such an approach didn’t make many friends, his peers did admire how much evidence he could assemble effectively in a hurry.

Early in 1989 Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and his number-two man, Fay Vincent, met at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington. For months it had been rumored that Rose was deeply involved with gamblers in the Midwest and New York City. Rose had already appeared before Peter Ueberroth, the previous commissioner, to discuss such accusations and whispers. In that meeting Rose flatly denied that he had bet on baseball or that he had any problems at all with any bookies. Ueberroth may have doubted Rose’s claims of innocence, but with only months left in his tenure the ongoing commissioner didn’t appear eager for a full-scale investigation. That left it to Giamatti, the former president of Yale University and a distinguished scholar of Renaissance literature, to pick up the pieces and decide what to do about Peter Edward Rose.

At the Hay-Adams Giamatti asked Vincent whether he knew somebody who could get to the bottom of this Rose mess and do it in a hurry. Vincent suggested Dowd.

The two of them had first met during a trial years earlier in Richmond. While initially put off by Dowd’s take-no-prisoners approach, Vincent came away convinced that Dowd would do anything and everything to ferret out the truth. From the Hay-Adams Giamatti phoned Dowd at his home in suburban Virginia. The next morning, backed up by a dozen other investigators, including Kevin Hallinan, Major League Baseball’s director of security, Dowd was on his way to Cincinnati to begin the Rose inquiry.

Dowd grew up a big baseball fan. He, like Giamatti, followed the Boston Red Sox as a boy. Even though Dowd knew Rose only from afar, he liked what he saw. “The impression in my mind was a guy who didn’t have natural ability but was Charlie Hustle,” Dowd recalled. “I admire people like that. There are people a lot smarter than me out there, but I can outwork anybody.”

And once his plane landed in Cincinnati, that’s what Dowd proceeded to do: outhustle the Hit King. Within weeks Dowd and his investigative team had assembled an impressive stack of circumstantial evidence. Dowd participated in every interview. Key witnesses, such as Paul Janszen and Ronald Peters, were interviewed a minimum of three times each. Rose himself was interviewed over two days at a nuns’ convent in Dayton, Ohio. Through it all Dowd allowed Rose and his lawyers to see every bit of evidence against Charlie Hustle. “That was Bart’s doing,” Dowd said of the former commissioner. “The idea was not to grill [Rose] but to let him see all the evidence and let him have a chance to answer. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done in my life.

“I told [Rose] everything. That was the brilliance of Bart’s plan. We had no secrets. We weren’t going to play a normal detective-prosecutor kind of game. The way we did it took away any complaint of unfairness.”

Giamatti’s hope was that sooner or later the amount and detail of the evidence against him would overwhelm Rose and he would throw himself upon the commissioner’s mercy. “We wanted him to come to Jesus,” Dowd said. “[Then] we could have worked with him.”

If Rose had come forward, Dowd later said, Giamatti “would have sat him down for two to five years.” After that Rose could have returned to baseball. Today he would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, with his bronze plaque hanging with the game’s other immortals.

Looking back upon the investigation Dowd recalled only one incident in which Rose appeared ready to acknowledge his widespread and deep gambling involvement. The two-day session at the convent took place in the nuns’ cafeteria. First, Dowd revealed to Rose that the investigation knew about the huge sums he was putting down on games, especially baseball games.

“We’re talking about two, three, four thousand a game,” said Dowd, who cut his teeth busting racketeers. That led to the $500,000 Rose owed to bookies in New York. “The wise guys in New York owned him,” Dowd added. “Essentially what you had was the manager of the [Cincinnati] Reds indebted.”

Handwriting experts and a wealth of phone records supported this assertion. Calls were made to the same numbers, to the same bookies, before home or away games involving the Reds. It was at this point that Dowd remembered Rose “turning a little green.” Still, the Hit King refused to admit at the time that he had done anything wrong or had a gambling problem. Dowd pushed Rose’s attorneys to let him talk with Rose alone.

“We would have taken a walk on the beach or in the woods, some kind of private meeting,” Dowd recalled. “I would have said to Pete, ‘We’ve got you. We’ve got you cold. Look, why don’t you just come in?’ All Pete had to do was say, ‘Help me.’”

But Rose’s representatives nixed a private meeting with Dowd or any other member of the investigative team.

In May 1989 Dowd delivered his 225-page report, with more than two thousand pages of transcribed interviews and supporting exhibits, to Giamatti. The commissioner read over it three times in one day. Except for the questionable use of a semicolon, he told Dowd it was perfect. The report cost $3 million to produce. Over roughly the same time period Rose spent nearly $2 million on attorneys. This high-priced game of legal chicken soon backed both sides into their respective corners. Rose still refused to admit that he had a problem with big-stakes gambling. Giamatti, armed with Dowd’s exhaustive report, had no choice but to play hardball with the all-time hits leader. Since 1919, when the “Black Sox” conspired to throw the World Series, betting on baseball has been the game’s worst and most feared sin, a mistake that can harm the very integrity of the game.

In August 1989 the two sides began settlement talks. It was agreed that Rose would be placed on the ineligible list. His suspension would be called permanent, but he could apply for reinstatement after one year. Rose’s attorneys were able to insert a key sentence in the five-page report. “Nothing in this agreement shall be deemed either an admission or a denial by Peter Edward Rose of the allegation that he bet on any major league baseball game,” it read.

Dowd, who was present at that final meeting, emphasized that even though Giamatti allowed such language to be in the settlement papers, the commissioner told Rose and his attorneys that, if asked, he would acknowledge that Rose had gambled on baseball. Sure enough, the first question at the news conference that followed was, “Did Rose bet on baseball?”

Giamatti began, “In the absence of a hearing and therefore in the absence of evidence to the contrary … ” He paused, before continuing, “I am confronted by the factual record of Mr. Dowd. On the basis of that, yes, I have concluded he bet on baseball.”

Afterward, back in Giamatti’s office, Dowd recalled the phone “ringing off the hook. Ballplayers were calling in from all over the country, telling Bart that he did the right thing.”

Eight days after that news conference at the New York Hilton, Giamatti died of a heart attack. He was succeeded by Vincent, who would be forced from the commissionership by the owners a year after the 1991 World Series—an event that set the stage for the pending labor war.

With Giamatti dead, Vincent soon to be shown the door by the owners, it was left to Dowd to give the counterpoint to Rose’s ongoing campaign to be reinstated. To this day Dowd considers the Rose situation to be a tragedy of major proportions. “He had several openings,” Dowd said. “Even when Fay became commissioner, he still could have walked in there and said, ‘I’ve got a terrible, terrible habit. By God, I’ve gambled on the Reds.’ I think baseball would have acted very positively. But every year we are treated to what I call the PR wave. He goes on radio and television, and then I go back on radio and television and pull out my old reports.”

In 1990 Rose pled guilty to two counts of filing false tax returns. He was released early the next year and performed one thousand hours of community service in the Cincinnati inner-city schools. Also in 1991, the board of directors for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, barred Rose from appearing on the Hall’s ballot. Still, he received forty-one write-in votes. Six years later Rose applied for reinstatement, but it wouldn’t be until 2002 that he admitted his gambling activities to Commissioner Bud Selig.

Since then some former ballplayers, including old teammates, decided Rose had suffered enough. “I think if you’re going to allow guys with PEDs on the ballot,” former teammate and Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan told USA Today, “then we have to allow him to be on the ballot… . I think they have to take a second look at Pete now that this has come out.”

In September 2013 Rose was allowed to join with the starting lineup of the Cincinnati Reds’ back-to-back champions in 1975-1976 for the unveiling of a bronze sculpture of Morgan.

———

Growing up in central New York, Mark Lemke collected baseball cards, with his favorites being of Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, and Pete Rose. For the longest time those cards appeared to be as close as the utility infielder would ever come to being in the major leagues. A twenty-seventh-round draft pick by the Atlanta Braves in 1983, Lemke spent five-plus seasons in the minor leagues. Listed generously at five-foot-ten, 167 pounds, the switch-hitting infielder was often sent down in spring training. Although such demotions grated on him, Lemke played on, even if his teams were a long way away from the parent club in Atlanta.

“I wanted to play this game,” he said. “I’d heard that I wasn’t big enough. But I’d always been able to pretty much block that all out. Being a major league baseball player, that’s what I thought I always wanted to be ever since I can remember. I always wanted to make it to the big leagues, but more than anything I just wanted the chance to see how far I could go in this game.”

His approach began back home in Utica, a town of sixty-two thousand between Albany and Syracuse. In these parts one learned to just play even if it meant basketball (Lemke’s other favorite sport) outdoors in freezing temperatures when the school janitor refused to unlock the gym. Or learning to switch-hit because the field where Lemke and his buddies played pickup games had too many trees in left field and drives in that direction were deemed long outs. That ballpark was on the grounds of the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center, beside the trees in left field, and sometimes games were halted so the mental patients could take a stroll. “I go back to that field sometimes now, and I laugh,” Lemke told the New York Times. “It looks so small, and we used to think it was so big. It was a lot of fun. It was a beautiful place.”

Back then sports moved with the seasons in this part of the world, and Lemke later realized this was becoming increasingly unusual. “When it became spring,” he recalled, “warm enough to play ball, you were really excited about it. Sometimes I feel sorry for kids today, especially the ones in a warm-weather climate. They get overexposed to one sport too often, and then it’s not much fun. I can safely say I was more interested in basketball than baseball growing up, but you’re never sure how things are going to work out.

“I believe I was in eighth grade when Andy Van Slyke got drafted in baseball, and we couldn’t believe it. Sure he was from Utica, but we knew Andy Van Slyke as a basketball player, not a baseball player. Back then you played everything.”

Playing just for the joy of playing became about the only thing Lemke had going for him early in his pro career. After several solid seasons in the minors, including winning All-Star honors in the Gulf Coast League, Lemke’s trajectory stalled. In 1985 he hit .216 in the South Atlantic League and his professional career appeared to be coming to an end. But then Lemke hit a team-best eighteen home runs the following season, and by 1990 he had somehow climbed through the Braves’ minor-league system to become a part-time player with the big-league club in Atlanta.

As with Brian Harper, being a backup in the big leagues was just fine with Lemke. He worked hard at becoming a proficient pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive replacement. In 1991 he hit a .333 as a pinch-hitter and made only ten errors in 136 games. When Jeff Treadway, the Braves’ regular second baseman, was sidelined with a wrist injury, Lemke moved into the starting lineup. During the final weeks of the 1991 regular season, as the Braves surged past Los Angeles, Lemke had several key hits, and his performance continued into the postseason.

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox often called Lemke “Dirt,” a term of affection and accuracy because Lemke loved to get his jersey dirty, perhaps as much as his boyhood hero, Pete Rose.

“It doesn’t shock anyone on this team that he has hit,” Cox said. “He’s paid for his defense, sure, and in that role he can turn the double play as well as anyone. But he can hit. He hit in the minors, he’s hit in spots here.”

When it came to the 1991 Series, when he became a household name Lemke explained that every “player is going to have a hot streak in a season. I guess I waited all season for mine.”

———

In the seventh inning of Game Four the Twins and Braves traded solo home runs. Mike Pagliarulo homered to right field. The run batted in was Pagliarulo’s second of the evening and a mistake by John Smoltz. Using his curveball to get ahead in the count, Smoltz came inside with a fastball, and Pagliarulo turned on the pitch, driving the ball out of the park. For a moment it appeared that the Twins would capture their first World Series road victory since 1925, when they were the Washington Senators and Walter Johnson pitched them to victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yet that tenuous grasp on the past soon slipped away. Minnesota starter Jack Morris, who, with his bushy moustache and prickly disposition, looked like he could have pitched in the Roaring Twenties, had already been lifted from the game. Seeing a chance to open up a bigger lead, Tom Kelly pinch-hit Gene Larkin for Morris in the top of the seventh inning. So it fell to the Twins’ bullpen to bring this one home, with Carl Willis now taking the mound.

This right-hander was rumored to throw an occasional spitball, and he got two outs before the Braves’ Lonnie Smith stepped in. Smith blasted the first pitch he saw from Willis out to straightaway center field, and the game was tied again, this time at 2-2.

Without the interest of the Atlanta Braves and, specifically, manager Bobby Cox, Smith probably wouldn’t have been in the major leagues in 1991. Due to a series of disastrous personal decisions and actions, the outfielder had worn out his welcome in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Kansas City. For here was a guy who once tackled the Phillie Phanatic because the mascot wouldn’t stop poking fun at him, testified against a teammate or two in a well-publicized drug trial, almost died from a cocaine overdose in a hotel room, and once seriously considered shooting his general manager.

The last incident occurred in 1987 after Smith was summoned to testify in the trial of Curtis Strong, the one-time clubhouse caterer convicted of dealing drugs to major leaguers. Heading into a new season, the only offer Smith received was a low-ball one from John Schuerholz, then the Royals’ general manager. Smith appeared in just forty-eight games in the majors in 1987, hitting .251, and was released by Kansas City at the end of the year.

Back home in South Carolina, seemingly out of baseball for good, Smith plotted his revenge. He purchased a 9mm pistol at a pawn shop and schemed about how he could go to Kansas City and shoot Schuerholz in the stadium parking lot. Even though Smith didn’t care whether he spent the rest of his life in prison, he held off and began to call teams, looking for a job instead. Only Atlanta general manager Bobby Cox showed any interest, so Smith began the 1988 season in the Braves’ minor leagues. After hitting .300 with nine home runs in Richmond, the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate, he was called up to the parent club and became the team’s starting left fielder.

Cox once told explained that Smith “was a special player. He had absolutely no fear. He stood up on top of the plate and dared a pitcher to come inside. Then when they did, he didn’t say a thing. And he’d knock the shortstop halfway into left field” to break up a double play.

Of course, when Cox became manager the following season Schuerholz was hired as the Braves’ new general manager. For the most part Smith steered clear of his old nemesis. Yet when the Braves clinched the National League West in 1991, Smith and Schuerholz found themselves next to each other in the victorious clubhouse. Amid the champagne and celebration they hugged, even though Smith later said that he “hated it. It was something that had to be done. It was a joyous time, and I didn’t want to disrupt it.”

———

Before the series began, most experts graded the Minnesota bullpen ahead of Atlanta’s relief corps. But that hadn’t proven to be the case in the Fall Classic itself. Except for Alejandro Peña’s gopher ball to Chili Davis in Game Three, the Braves had come through in a big way. They would again tonight, as Mark Wohlers and Mike Stanton kept Minnesota off the scoreboard as the game headed to the bottom of the ninth. The Twins went down in order in the top of the frame, thanks in large part to David Justice’s sliding catch in right field.

Needing to rest closer Rick Aguilera, Kelly turned to Willis and then Mark Guthrie to close things out. The plan worked at first, but Guthrie got into trouble when Lemke tripled to the gap in left-center field. After driving in the winning run the night before, the Lemke hit parade continued, as he now had three hits (single, double, and now a triple) in Game Four.

“Mark Lemke, Mark Lemke,” Gene Larkin repeated years later. “Forget about Ron Gant or Terry Pendleton or even David Justice. Mark Lemke was the hitter for the Braves that just wore us out.”

———

Near the end of the 1991 regular season Jim Lefebvre reached me at Baseball Weekly’s office in Rosslyn, Virginia.

“You trying to get me fired?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, confused by what he was talking about.

“Because that last column of yours made me look pretty bad,” he continued.

“I’m not trying to make anybody look bad,” I replied.

“It’s lousy enough that the local writers have it out for me,” Lefebvre said. “You learn to expect that, but to get it from the national media just makes things that much worse on my end.”

For the life of me I couldn’t remember what I had written that was so awful in this manager’s eyes.

“Do me a favor,” Lefebvre added. “Before you write anything more, call me, okay?”

“Well … ”

“Call the direct number to the team. I’ll leave your name with the switchboard. They’ll pass you right through to me.”

With that, he hung up.

Curious, I looked at the previous week’s issue, and all I found was a short item in which I second-guessed Lefebvre’s use of his bullpen in a recent loss. What was going on to have Jim Lefebvre so concerned about what I was writing? After all, he was a colorful guy who knew the game. If anything, the powers that be in Seattle could have marketed him as the face of the franchise.

During his playing days in Los Angeles Lefebvre enjoyed playing minor characters on such popular television shows as Gilligan’s Island and Batman. In 1965 he joined Wes Parker, Jim Gilliam, and Maury Wills in the Dodgers’ all switch-hitter infield, and the courtship of his wife had demonstrated real determination. Lefebvre first glimpsed the beauty with long black hair and dressed in a purple miniskirt at a hotel coffee shop in Los Angeles the day after Christmas in 1968. He returned to the hotel for three consecutive mornings until he saw her again. Jean Bakke told Lefebvre that she didn’t recognize him and didn’t follow his team. “I was a Braves fan,” she later explained, “and I hated anyone who’d beat them.” But that didn’t deter the ballplayer nicknamed “Frenchy.” The two began dating and were married the night before the All-Star Game.

When Lefebvre’s major-league playing career ended he signed with the Lotte Orions and became the first player to win a championship in America and Japan. After his playing days were over he was named batting coach for the Dodgers until he ran afoul of manager Tommy Lasorda and was replaced by Manny Mota before the 1980 season. The Lasorda-Lefebvre feud made headlines in Los Angeles when the two crossed paths during a taping at KNBC-TV. After his interview Lasorda waited for Lefebvre, calling him disloyal to the Dodgers. When Lasorda tried to take a swing at Lefebvre, the former coach split his old boss’s lip.

“Lasorda left with blood on his face, and Lefebvre left with a smile on his,” said sportscaster Steve Somers.

Lasorda later claimed that Lefebvre had sucker-punched him. Yet Lefebvre told the Los Angeles Times, “Well, I’ll tell you what, it was the sucker who got punched all right.”

Lefebvre recalled that his former manager took off his watch and suit jacket before trying to land the first punch in a vacant studio in Burbank. “Then I decked him. His lip was bleeding, and it definitely wasn’t bleeding Dodger blue. He kept saying, ‘Look what you’ve done to me, look what you’ve done to me. I’ll sue.’ The only regret I had then was that I knew I’d never be able to wear a Dodger uniform again.”

Few regrets, a guy willing to stand on principle—Jim Lefebvre was the kind of manager who could really rally a ballclub. Certainly he couldn’t be worried about holding on to his job, could he? But then I looked at the latest standings, with the Mariners a half-dozen or so games behind the Twins in the American League West. In 1991 more and more major-league managers found themselves under the gun. A major shift was taking place in how they were judged and, ultimately, rated. Ownership arguably held them to higher standard—perhaps an unfair one.

A record fourteen managers would be fired in 1991. The Cubs went through two skippers all by themselves this season. The long list of dismissals had begun in April, only a few weeks into the season, when Philadelphia let go Nick Leyva. The pink slips really started to fly when three managers—the Cubs’ Don Zimmer, the Royals’ John Wathan, and the Orioles’ Frank Robinson—were fired on consecutive days a month later. By midseason seven teams had decided to make a change.

“With free agents, owners put out a lot of money and expect instant results,” Robinson told Baseball America after his dismissal. “But there’s no guarantee. These people still have to execute, but what we have now is a society syndrome of win or else.”

Despite leading the St. Louis Cardinals to a winning record (84-78) after Whitey Herzog quit the season before, Joe Torre knew that he wouldn’t be cut any slack. “If we don’t do well next year, if we start out under .500, guys are going be out for my scalp,” he said at the time. “I understand that. It goes with the job. It has nothing to do with being fair.”

As the national pastime gained a corporate identity, with Disney and the Tribune Company buying big-league franchises, the new bosses often couldn’t understand why what worked in other areas of industry regularly fell flat in baseball. “You have people in ownership who aren’t around baseball,” Detroit manager Sparky Anderson said. “They understand tire companies or department stores.”

Second-guessing and the concept of “win now or else” spread throughout the game, with managers becoming the convenient fall guys. After all, it’s easier to blame and fire the manager than reconstruct an entire twenty-five-man roster. As Don Zimmer explained, the new wave of ownership didn’t really want to understand the game’s nuances. On paper, for example, Ryne Sandberg certainly had the numbers to bat third in the Chicago lineup. Yet the All-Star second baseman was more comfortable batting second, so that’s where Zimmer put him despite second-guessing from on high.

In many ways this was the beginning of “Moneyball,” in which numbers and formulas superseded hands-on experience and personal insight. In fact, the first time I ever saw the term Moneyball was on the cover of Baseball America in late 1991, with the subhead, “Managers, GMs and Scouting Directors Come Under the Gun.” In 1991, however, baseball had not quite fallen into two distinctive camps—the haves and the have-nots. Believe it or not, the Oakland Athletics, the ballclub that would eventually usher in the new days of “Moneyball,” had one of the biggest payrolls in the game this season, at almost $34 million. The San Francisco Giants, California Angels, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, and Los Angeles Dodgers were right up there at $30 million-plus, with the New York Yankees close behind. If you took away the Houston Astros at $12.8 million or the Baltimore Orioles at $15 million, most teams were still in the ballpark financially.

“This time was the end of payroll balance in baseball,” said Ted Robinson, who was the Twins’ television voice in 1991. “In that era you had Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Oakland, and Minnesota winning division titles. Back then the financial disparity in terms of team payroll wasn’t nearly as wide between teams as it is today.”

One could argue this trend mirrored a growing rift in our society when it came to compensation and job security. Between 1982 and 2003 the top 5 percent of music acts took home 90 percent of all concert revenues. On the home front the richest households, the top 1 percent, doubled their share of the national income over roughly the same time frame, going from taking 10 percent to 20 percent of the riches. “We’re increasingly becoming a winner-take-all economy, a phenomenon that the music industry has long experienced,” said Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, in an address given at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. He could have just as easily given the address at baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

“Over recent decades technological change, globalization, and erosion of the institutions and practices that support shared prosperity in the US have put the middle class under increasing stress,” he added. “The lucky and the talented—and it is often hard to tell the difference—have been doing better and better, while the vast majority has struggled to keep up.”

Even after leading their respective teams to the World Series, Bobby Cox and Tom Kelly realized they didn’t have much job security in this ever-shifting economy. The baseball world was changing too fast for any guarantees, especially for a pair of baseball lifers. Not only were fourteen managers fired in 1991, such longtime baseball men as Davey Johnson, Syd Thrift, Dallas Green, and Jack McKeon were shown the door too.

“It used to be if you became a general manager or a club president you’d have it for life if you wanted, you’d die with your boots on,” Green told the New York Times in the fall of 1991. Green had led the Philadelphia Phillies to their first title in 1980 and tried his best to rebuild the Chicago Cubs before being let go. “But times have changed, feelings have changed. That’s why I think it’s almost impossible to conceive of there ever being dynasties or long-term managers or long-term general managers.”

Baseball’s new reality left Thrift, a former general manager with the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees, wondering about loyalty and whether he had been played for a sap. “It used to be you’d turn down jobs to stay,” he said. “I did that in Pittsburgh, turning down a five-year job with the Orioles. I wanted to stay because I thought I’d get to finish what I started. But I got fired. I guess that makes me loyal—and an idiot—doesn’t it?”

Even Tom Kelly couldn’t help thinking that the deck was becoming increasingly stacked against him too. Although he may have led his team to another World Series, what did the future really hold for a guy with only a high school degree, with corporate types becoming as thick as loons on a Minnesota lake in his sport?

“I always was encouraged to read more growing up,” Kelly said, “but I spent more time in the pool hall and playing ball. I used to sit on the buses when we would travel as minor leaguers. There’d be guys reading. And there’d be guys doing some crossword puzzle. There’d be guys shooting the bull. And there was a card game. Well, I was in the card game. I wish I did more reading.”

After Seattle ownership didn’t land another right-handed bat, Lefebvre’s Mariners couldn’t keep pace with the Twins in the American League West in 1991. Although the Mariners improved in each of Lefebvre’s three seasons at the helm, setting new attendance records, they didn’t come close to winning the division. Even with an 83-79 record, the franchise’s first winning season ever, Lefebvre was fired.

“I came to Seattle with a mission to make the M’s a winner and build fan support,” he said in a statement. “I feel that we’ve accomplished these goals.”

It wasn’t good enough. Not with the way things were changing in 1991.

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With runners at first and third, with one out, the Twins brought in right-hander Steve Bedrosian, who, in 1987, had won the National League Cy Young Award with Philadelphia. Stepping in against him was journeyman Jerry Willard, who was more expendable than Mark Lemke within the Atlanta system. The catcher had spent ten years in the minors and been demoted to the Braves’ Triple-A team in Richmond three times in this season alone. Now, with everything on the line and Lemke standing at third base as the potential winning run, the guy coming to the plate had collected only fourteen at-bats for Atlanta this season.

“I’d been with several clubs, and it just seemed for a long period of time like I never got a break from 1987 until now,” Willard later explained. “I never got a chance to either be an everyday catcher, a backup catcher or something.”

After falling behind 1-2 in the count, Willard lofted a high fly ball to right field, and the game appeared to be over, to be remembered as a gritty comeback victory by Atlanta against the Twins’ bullpen.

As Lemke tagged up at third base, Minnesota outfielder Shane Mack retreated three steps. He squared nicely up on the ball and had it in his possession only for an instant before making a great throw through to home.

To everyone’s amazement the ball and base runner seemed to be converging at the plate at nearly the same time. Lemke decided he wouldn’t follow Lonnie Smith’s example and try to mow Brian Harper over. Frankly, he wasn’t big enough for that kind of play and he knew it.

Instead, Lemke dodged to the outside, away from the Twins’ catcher. In a much closer play than many expected, when Willard first hit the ball, Harper caught Mack’s throw and edged across the plate, trying to tag Lemke out. The pair definitely made contact, with Harper doing everything he could to cut Lemke off.

In a bang-bang play, home plate umpire Terry Tata ruled that Harper didn’t touch Lemke with the glove or ball. Instead, the only contact occurred when Harper’s elbow brushed against Lemke.

“He’s out,” Jack Buck told his television audience, “safe, safe, safe.”

It didn’t matter that Harper ended the close play sprawled out, holding his glove up high, showing the umpire that he still had the ball. The call was safe, and the hometown crowd roared the Braves’ 3-2 victory.

Lemke remembered that when he “looked for Mack, somebody was blocking my view. When I finally got a glimpse of him, he already had the ball. I knew it was going to be close, and the only chance I had was to go around [Harper].

“We made contact, but he hit me with his arm. I knew there was no way I could knock him over. I knew it would take a perfect throw to get me.”

Jogging up the first-base line, Willard realized how close he came to not being a World Series hero after all. “When I hit it I thought it was deep enough,” he said, “but then I looked back at Lemke, and it looked like he got a bad jump. I couldn’t see the play at the plate, but I saw the umpire give the safe sign, and I just said to myself, ‘Thank God.’”

Upon Tata’s safe call, Harper jumped in the air and threw his mitt to the ground in disgust. Later, in the Twins’ clubhouse, he was more subdued and said if the replays indicated that Tata’s call was correct, then “it was a helluva call.”

Yet Harper maintained he had gotten such calls in the past. “I made contact and hung on to the ball,” he said. “Often that’s enough.”

Across the visiting clubhouse Twins leader Kirby Puckett added, “I thought he was out. In a collision like that, where two players make contact, you’re out most of the time. It was just like Smith’s play. I’ve been called out on plays like that, right here in the big leagues.”

Meanwhile, Jack Morris grumbled about Kelly lifting him for a pinch-hitter after six innings. “TK screwed up by taking me out,” he later told Sports Illustrated. “We would have won it.”

With the Series now tied at two games apiece, with another contest remaining in Atlanta, everybody was feeling the pressure.

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