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)
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 24, 1991
AT ATLANTA-FULTON COUNTY STADIUM
When Chili Davis came to the Minnesota Twins he was told to put away his glove. His days of patrolling the outfield, which he had done with some flair earlier in his career with the San Francisco Giants, once leading the National League in assists, were now behind him. At thirty-one, Davis didn’t run like he used do, and the switch-hitter was assigned to be the team’s designated hitter for the season, playing 150 games at DH and making only two appearances in the field.
Back on September 29, the same day after the New York Mets fired manager Bud Harrelson, the eighth manager to be canned so far that year, the Twins found out they had clinched the American League West title while heading to the airport in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Hours earlier Minnesota had lost 2-1 to Toronto, the team they would soon defeat in the league championship series. When they received word that Seattle had downed second-place Chicago, the Twins were officially division champs and the first team in major-league history to go from last place to first place. The team buses pulled over on the Queen Elizabeth Way between Toronto and the Hamilton airport, and the players briefly congratulated each other. The next day, as the team finished its road trip in Chicago, Davis told manager Tom Kelly that he was open to playing some outfield in preparation of the team advancing to the World Series.
“I knew the National League parks from my days with the Giants,” Davis recalled. “I told him, ‘We’ve got a week now with nothing on the line, let me play the outfield, get some games at that position again.’ I remember him looking at me and saying, ‘Nah, we don’t need you. You’re our DH, and that’s it.’”
A few weeks later, as the World Series began, Kelly was asked whether he was tempted to put Davis in the field, with the designated hitter unavailable for the games in Atlanta. “I wouldn’t do that in a tie or close game,” he replied, “because of the defensive liability.”
Yet after the second consecutive close loss for the Twins in Atlanta, Kelly decided to roll the dice. Davis remembered that he and Kirby Puckett were walking out of the visitors’ clubhouse after the 3-2 defeat in Game Four when Kelly shouted out, “Get your rest.”
Davis turned and asked, “You’re talking to Puck, right?”
Kelly shook his head. “No, you, number forty-four,” he told Davis, “because you’re in there tomorrow. You’re starting in right field.”
In that off-hand way, it became official: Davis would replace Shane Mack in the Twins’ lineup and defensive alignment.
Before Game Five got underway Davis tried to make light of the situation, saying he was back in the field because Kelly “got sick and tired of seeing me on the bench.”
When asked about his troublesome back Davis replied, “You don’t know this, but three years ago I had surgery to remove my whole back. And now there’s nothing left.”
Decades later, though, Davis admitted he didn’t get much sleep the night before Game Five. “This guy—I told him to work me into outfield at the end of the regular season,” he said of Kelly. “And now he’s going to stick me out there in friggin’ Game Five of the World Series. Until that point in that season about the only time I’d touched the outfield was during BP, shagging flies.”
Game Five’s starters, Kevin Tapani for the Twins and Tom Glavine for the Braves, were sharp early, and the contest remained scoreless into the bottom of the fourth inning. That’s when Tapani fell behind Ron Gant, who laced a 2-0 fastball into left field for a single. David Justice followed by poking a Tapani fastball the opposite way, where it hit off the top of the fence and bounced into the seats for a home run. After Sid Bream walked and Greg Olson singled, Mark Lemke continued to be the man of the hour, lofting a fly ball deep to right field, out in Davis’s direction.
As they like to say, the ball will find you in this game, often when you don’t want to see it come calling. At first Davis appeared to be in a good position to make a rather difficult catch. But then Lemke’s blast continued to carry, sailing closer to the fence. When Davis tried to chase down the ball, he never really caught up to it. As he neared the wall the ball glanced off his glove and dropped to the ground. Bream and Olson easily scored, and Lemke ended up on third base.
“I was playing him shallow, but that Lemke was hitting everything in sight,” Davis remembered. “I had to go back after the ball. It hit the glove, and I almost caught it against the wall, only to see it pop out. Some people dogged me after that, saying any good outfielder would have made that play. But it was a tough play.”
The official scorers agreed and awarded Lemke a triple. That said, Davis would soon face his share of criticism. “Thankfully, Johnny Bench came to my defense,” Davis said, “reminding everybody that I’d once played center field at Candlestick Park. Bench told anybody who would listen that I was a good outfielder. I just hadn’t been out there the whole season.”
After Davis’s adventure in right field, Tapani battled to finish the inning and left, trailing the game, 4-0. The Twins’ starter didn’t return for the bottom of the fifth inning.
“I had my chance to make a great play,” Davis said. “I just didn’t come through.”
In 1991 what was going on away from the field sometimes superseded the action between the lines. Teams scrambled to fill out their rosters in large part because few ballplayers remained with a franchise for the entirety of their careers. In the growing era of free agency big money usually trumped any sense of team or civic loyalty, especially when even rookies were afforded high-powered counsel. In this new era Scott Boras soon became the most powerful sports agent in baseball and one of the most powerful individuals in sports. From 1983 to 1991 twenty-five of his clients were chosen in the first round of baseball’s amateur draft, with most going in the top ten for soaring contracts and signing bonuses.
The son of a dairy farmer, Boras grew up in Elk Grove, California, just south of the state capital of Sacramento. From a young age he excelled at playing baseball and attended the University of the Pacific on a baseball scholarship, going on to play four seasons in the minor leagues. When bad knees ended his playing career Boras returned to school, first earning a degree in pharmacy and then a law degree back at Pacific. His first clients in baseball were Mike Fischlin, a former high school teammate who played infield for the Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, and Houston Astros, as well as relief pitcher Bill Caudill, whom Boras met during his years in the minors.
From the start Boras proved to be adept at leveraging the marketplace, and he soon became a major headache for team owners. Big contracts and landmark deals were his signatures, in large part because Boras remembered when scouts had low-balled him when he was a minor-league player. The team representatives, whether they were a scout, a general manager, or even the owner, were never to be fully trusted, Boras told his clients. A ballplayer only had several key times in his entire career when he could compete on close to equal footing with management at the bargaining table—hence, the talk of leverage and waiting for the right moment to really strike a deal. Boras wasn’t reluctant to tell a high school player to go to college if that meant possibly a larger payday—in essence more leverage down the road.
In the seasons leading up to the 1991 season Boras put together a series of deals that turned heads within the game. He negotiated a $1.5 million contract for his old friend Caudill that made the pitcher the second-highest paid reliever in the game at that time. In 1988 he represented a pair of young-gun pitchers (Andy Benes and the Braves’ Steve Avery). They were among the top in the amateur draft, and Benes signed for a record $235,000 bonus. A year later Boras got a landmark $350,000 deal for pitcher Ben McDonald with the Baltimore Orioles, and in 1990 he scored a stunning $1.2 million package for Todd Van Poppel, another top-prospect pitcher, with the Oakland Athletics. With the high-powered agent calling the shots, Van Poppel received that kind of money, even though he was taken thirteen players after Atlanta made shortstop Larry “Chipper” Jones the top selection in 1990.
Some teams tried to avoid players Boras represented. They disliked spending so much and having their negotiations often stretch past the eleventh hour. “Ask anyone in the business: It’s called The Boras Factor,” San Diego Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine told Baseball America. “Almost every Boras client underachieves in the major leagues, and that’s no accident. He takes the focus away from playing and puts it on the money.”
Padres scouting director Randy Smith added that some ballclubs were ready to draw a line in the sand. “Boras changed the industry with the Van Poppel and McDonald deals,” he said in August 1991, “but the industry is ready to say enough is enough.”
That proved to be easier said than done, as most ballclubs found that sooner or later they had to deal with Boras because he represented many of the top prospects. That became only more apparent in 1991 as four of the top eight selections, including pitcher Brien Taylor, were Boras clients. A six-foot-three left-hander with a fastball clocked in the midnineties, Taylor was just the kind of arm big-league scouts fall in love with. Ironically, the Taylor family decided to go with Boras as its representative only after a phone call from an anonymous baseball executive told them to steer clear of the high-powered agent. “Right then, I knew he was the man for us,” said Bettie Taylor, Brien’s mother.
Boras told the Taylor family that the marketplace had been set by the $1.2 million deal he had completed the year before for Van Poppel. The Taylors agreed and told the Yankees that they wouldn’t settle for a penny less. The negotiations soon became a high-stakes game of chicken. At the time Commissioner Fay Vincent had banned New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner from day-to-day involvement in his team’s operations for paying a gambler named Howie Spira to dig up “dirt” on Dave Winfield. But that didn’t stop the “Boss” from weighing in from the sidelines. With Boras telling the Yankees that Taylor would enroll in college, put off turning pro, if he didn’t get the right deal, Steinbrenner went public with his frustration. Days before the deadline for Taylor to sign or go to college, Steinbrenner said that if the Yankees let the pitcher slip through their fingers, those responsible “should be shot.”
Boras couldn’t have planned it any better. The Yankees soon caved, giving Taylor a record $1.55 million signing bonus. The deal rippled throughout the amateur draft, with number-two choice Mike Kelly, an outfielder, receiving $575,000 from Atlanta. Meanwhile, the asking price for the remaining Boras clients skyrocketed. Pitcher Kenny Henderson wanted $1 million and eventually enrolled at the University of Miami when Milwaukee offered only $500,000. Pitcher John Burke did likewise after refusing $360,000 to sign with Houston.
As always with Boras, the negotiations were all about leverage. “The truth is this is not a risk,” he said of the Taylor deal specifically and his philosophy overall. “If the player has a level of certainty, then pay for it.”
In the bottom of the fifth inning of Game Five the Braves tacked on another run against Twins’ reliever Terry Leach, a journeyman reliever who had seen his salary rise from $190,000 to $500,000 in recent seasons. In comparison, Atlanta starter Tom Glavine was destined to soon become the highest-paid player on the Braves and would see his salary triple from $775,000 to $2.9 million by the start of the next season.
In any event Glavine was staked to a 5-0 lead in Game Five and appeared ready to bring it home when he suddenly couldn’t throw a strike to save his life.
With one out, the Braves’ left-hander walked Chuck Knoblauch. After Puckett singled to right, Glavine walked Chili Davis and then Brian Harper. With one run already across, Glavine walked Scott Leius, and Minnesota was back in it, and the Atlanta ace was out of the ballgame.
In the sixth inning Glavine faced six batters, walking four of them. Although Kent Mercker did a quality job in relief, the Twins had cut the lead to 5-3 by the time the dust settled. “Tommy threw the ball great,” Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. “But he got the five runs and forgot to pitch.”
Thankfully for the Braves, Twins pitching soon followed suit. David West, who had thrown well in the American League Championship Series, came into the game in the seventh and proceeded to one-up Glavine. He allowed two hits and a pair of walks without getting anyone out. From there the game dissolved into a laugher, the only lopsided game of this epic series, as the Braves scored six runs in the inning, taking an 11-3 lead.
Such meltdowns on the mound can be more frequent than many would think. Over the years the list of prominent pitchers who overnight couldn’t throw a strike no matter how hard they tried includes Steve Blass, Pat Jordan, and Steve Dalkowski. A future victim of such ineptitude was in the Braves’ bullpen during the 1991 series. Mark Wohlers’s fastball may have been clocked at 103 miles per hour, making him a valuable closer on the Braves’ future championship team in 1995, but too soon he would forget how to throw a strike too.
Early signs of trouble came in the midnineties when Wohlers began to have difficulty throwing to first base on routine fielding plays. Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone feared that such wildness would carry over to Wohlers’s deliveries to the plate, and sure enough that was the case. Wohlers began to walk more batters, and his pitches sometimes sailed past the catcher to the screen. Ironically, Wohlers’s wild streak affected only his fastball. His other pitches, the slider and split-finger fastball, remained accurate enough, especially for somebody coming out of the bullpen. Hitters, however, soon realized that the hard-throwing right-hander couldn’t throw his best pitch, the fastball, for a strike, and they began to wait on the slower stuff.
After saving ninety-seven games in three seasons Wohlers was sent down to the minors in 1998, and his career never really recovered. When asked what went wrong, Wohlers replied, “I wish I knew.”
Nolan Ryan, who suffered through epic bouts of wildness early in his career, believed that the real measure of a pitcher couldn’t be found in wins and losses or earned run average or any other statistic, for that matter. Instead, the pitcher nicknamed “The Express” said it came down to “Can you deliver the pitch you need to throw, with little margin for error, in the place you need to put it with the whole world watching you? That’s the mark of a quality pitcher.”
In 1991 Ryan rose to the top level of the game one last time. On May 1 of this memorable season Rickey Henderson made history in the afternoon by breaking Lou Brock’s all-time steals record of 938. The whole event was staged to the hilt with Henderson holding the record-setting base aloft to show the crowd at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and proclaiming himself now the greatest of all time.
That evening we were closing on the next week’s issue of Baseball Weekly when the buzz spread that Nolan Ryan had a no-hitter going in Arlington, Texas, against the Toronto Blue Jays. Despite the approaching deadline, we began to redo pages, demoting Henderson’s accomplishment, which had been expected for some time, and giving more space to Ryan, if the no-no happened. There was a connection between the two superstars, as Henderson had been Ryan’s five thousandth career strikeout victim and one of the final outs in Ryan’s previous no-hitter.
“If he ain’t struck you out,” Henderson said years later, “you ain’t nobody.”
Reports from Texas said people continued to file into Arlington Stadium as Ryan mowed down the Blue Jays in order on his way to sixteen strikeouts in the game. Once more things had fallen into order for the laconic right-hander, he was able to place his epic fastball precisely where he wanted.
Ryan secured his record seventh no-hitter when he struck out Roberto Alomar to end the game. Coincidentally, Alomar’s father, Sandy, had been the second baseman behind Ryan in his first two no-hitters with California in 1973.
“Normally you say that luck is involved in pitching a no-hitter,” former manager Bill Rigney said of Ryan. “But there’s no luck involved with him anymore.”
“No contest, it’s Ryan,” Frank Robinson told the New York Times when asked what was the bigger baseball story on this historic Wednesday in May. “The thing that I admire most is that he’s a complete pitcher, 150 percent better than he was at any other time in his career. Hitters go up there, now, with hardly a chance.”
The ability to throw a ball, one going nearly a hundred miles per hour, for a strike can elude the best of them. Yet as Ryan’s evening in 1991 demonstrated, the baseball gods aren’t necessarily fickle and cruel all the time. Occasionally they can be open to epiphanies and sometimes revelation. Almost three decades before Ryan’s final no-hitter, in a spring training game in Orlando, the Dodgers took the field with Sandy Koufax on the mound. Until this point in his career Koufax had been a disappointment. Everyone knew the promising left-hander could throw hard, but he didn’t throw many strikes or quality pitches for outs. Until this point in his career he was 36-40 in six seasons at the major-league level.
Before the game began, Koufax told Norm Sherry, who was catching for the Dodgers that day, that he wanted to work on his breaking stuff. After walking the first two batters, Koufax decided to rear back and fire only fastballs, throwing them as hard as he could. Soon enough the bases were loaded with nobody out.
Sherry came to the mound and told the stubborn left-hander, “Sandy, we’ve only got nine or so guys here to play this game. If you keep this up, you’re going to be here a long time. Why don’t you take something off the ball? Lay it in there. Let them hit it. We’ll catch the ball, get some outs, and maybe we’ll get out of here at a decent hour. Nobody is going to swing the way you’re going now.”
Koufax followed Sherry’s advice and promptly struck out the side.
A few days later, back at the Dodgers’ spring complex in Vero Beach, the buzz was that the fireballer had somehow turned the corner—gone from wild prospect to a pitcher with real control. In “the string area,” a series of practice mounds with strike zones of various heights, Koufax pitched with command to Sherry. As the Dodgers’ brass looked on, Sherry covered the plate with dirt. Then the catcher drew a line at the outside of the plate, with another for the inside part. With that Sherry moved his mitt from one corner of the plate to the other, and Koufax had no trouble hitting the target. “It was unbelievable how much he changed,” Sherry remembered decades later. “The previous years he couldn’t have come close to that. Heck, the previous week he couldn’t have done it.”
That season Koufax broke through for good, going 18-13 and leading the National League with 269 strikeouts. He pitched the first of his four no-hitters the next season and led the league in victories and strikeouts in 1963, 1965, and 1966.
Jeff Torborg, who caught Koufax’s perfect game in September 1965, agreed with Ryan’s assessment of quality pitching. Sooner or later the key becomes “Can they harness their stuff?” he said. “That’s not an easy thing to do. Sometimes it can take years. Just ask Nolan or Sandy.”
By the time Steve Bedrosian replaced David West in the bottom of the seventh inning, Game Five had turned into a laugher for the hometown team. The Braves put up six runs in the frame and then tacked on three more in the bottom of the eighth inning.
The Twins’ offense was still swinging for the fences as Minnesota scored five runs over the last four innings. But with the bullpen unraveling fast, the Twins simply couldn’t keep up on the scoreboard. West gave up four earned runs without recording an out. Bedrosian lasted an inning and allowed two more earned runs, and Carl Willis finished off the evening with three earned runs of his own in one inning of work.
“Some nights you just have to forget about it,” Willis said, “and try to turn the page.”
“[Build it to be] compatible with the warehouse and Baltimore’s civic buildings in terms of scale, configuration, and color… . [Build it] so the fans can see the city.
“Reduce the height of the second deck. Reduce the height of the third deck… . Trees, plants, and other greenery are critical to designing this facility as a ballpark, not a stadium.”
Even today, after so many copycat ballparks have arisen, the words still jump off the page. The memo written by Baltimore Orioles vice president Janet Marie Smith to HOK Sport ranks among the most important documents ever penned regarding stadium design in this country.
In the fall of 1991 the Orioles raced to finish their new jewel of a ballpark in time for Opening Day the following season, and they had to be a little like the Beatles before the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Others may have forgotten about what they were up to, but everybody in the band knew they were about to shock the world. Even today, when it comes to baseball stadiums in this country, one can separate the eras into Before Camden Yards and After Camden Yards.
Before the Baltimore ballpark, which did open to acclaim in 1992, most stadiums were multipurpose facilities. They were not only home to baseball games but also football, rock shows, monster truck shows, and on and on. The emphasis was on a quick turnaround, maximizing the calendar to fill as many dates as possible. Where the Braves and the Twins called home in 1991 fell into that category. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was as cavernous and as soulless as Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, or Riverfront in Cincinnati. The Metrodome in Minneapolis may have been domed, putting it at first glance into the same company as the Astrodome in Houston or SkyDome in Toronto, yet when it came to sightlines and general ambience, the Metrodome had more in common really with the cookie-cutter, multipurpose stadiums. For here was a domain in which a Hefty garbage bag, stretched taut and true, stood in for the outfield wall in right field, and the fence in dead center was sported by a stretch of Plexiglas straight out of a local hockey rink, and it was all topped off by that Teflon roof.
In the decade leading up to the 1991 World Series many in the game realized that oval concrete bowls, which could host so many events, didn’t truly serve the national pastime. The search began for something more memorable and appropriate to showcase the game. With construction costs escalating, cities and sports franchises only had to look north to Canada for a pair of vivid demonstrations about what was now at stake.
In Montreal Olympic Stadium had replaced Parc Jarry, where the Expos played from 1969 to 1976. Located in north Montreal, Jarry was hardly an ideal place for the first major-league baseball franchise outside of the United States. Less than thirty-thousand fans could cram into the place, and initially the makeshift ballpark was supposed to be the ballclub’s home for only a season or so. Thanks to political haggling, however, construction of a new stadium was delayed for years. Despite the minor-league-like digs, outfielder Rusty Staub, nicknamed “Le Grand Orange” for his reddish hair, helped the new team draw a following.
After suffering through eight seasons at Jarry, the Expos and their fans went upscale in 1977 when they moved into Stade Olympique, which had been the main venue for the 1976 Summer Olympics. On paper the new facility was stunning, with a retractable roof that was supposed to rise up like a giant handkerchief in good weather. Unfortunately, the apparatus rarely worked, and the roof soon began to leak. Eventually, the ballclub replaced the roof with a permanent lid.
Built in a hurry for the 1976 Games, the new ballpark soon began to fall apart. During the 1991 season a fifty-five-ton piece of concrete fell onto an exterior walkway. Although nobody was injured, the Expos were forced to play their final thirteen home games on the road. In the ensuing years part of the roof collapsed in a snowstorm, and as recently as 2012 another concrete slab fell in the facility’s underground parking garage. Called “The Big O” when it opened for the Olympics, the stadium soon became known as “The Big Owe.”
As Gary Gillette and Eric Enders wrote in their classic book Big League Ballparks, “By the time the stadium was finally fully paid off in 2006, the Olympics were gone, the Expos no longer existed, and interest and repairs had driven the stunning final price tag to an estimated $1.61 billion.”
In the world of ballpark design Olympic Stadium became a real cautionary tale. So when Toronto followed them to the drafting board a few years later, also with a retractable dome in mind, the first goal was not to duplicate Montreal’s folly. The improbable design team of Roderick Robbie and Michael Allen won the contract for Toronto’s new stadium along the Lake Ontario waterfront. Though neither one of them had ever attended a baseball game in their lives, they certainly did their homework, even talking with the team’s beat reporters about what they liked in particular stadiums around the league. But it was left to Allen to eventually solve the riddle of how to move the roof back and forth economically and efficiently.
As Allen remembered it, he was on a flight to Ottawa, sitting in the front row, when it was time for a beverage and snack. (Yes, this was back in the day when domestic carriers still served complimentary meals.) With no tray table to pull down from the back of the seat in front of him, Allen was instructed to snag the table out of his armrest. As he did so, Allen realized here lay the answer—how to solve the riddle of the great dome roof. As the flight attendant waited, he repeatedly folded the table in and out of the armrest in amazement by what he saw. “That was it,” Allen recalled. “The answer to how we could put it all together.”
When completed, the SkyDome roof towered thirty-one stories into the sky, more than twice the height of Houston’s Astrodome. The roof was divided into four sections, and to open to the heavens the larger ones moved back along tracks, with the remaining smaller section swinging in underneath, mirroring that airline tray on the flight to Ottawa. In the early days the roof’s opening and closing sometimes drew more applause than the teams on the field. Pretty much everyone was impressed, and some were left to wonder what could have been. “It’s great,” pitcher Mike Flanagan told Sports Illustrated, “but I was kind of hoping they’d have retractable fences.”
With its plethora of restaurants, wide concourse, and a hotel with rooms overlooking the field, the Toronto stadium came with a slew of modern-day bells and whistles. And unlike Montreal, its retractable roof actually worked—opening or closing in about a half-hour. Although truly functional, some still didn’t care for the overall ambience. Michael Janofsky of the New York Times compared SkyDome to “an airplane hangar or merchandise mart or a place in which Crazy Eddie might hold a giant warehouse sale.”
When Larry Lucchino, then the Orioles’ president, first saw Toronto’s SkyDome, he said, “They built the eighth wonder of the world. We’re just building a nice little ballpark.”
Baseball had yet to see the best in ballpark design, so the door remained ajar for the Baltimore Orioles to turn back the clock and throw in a few novelties at the same time.
Guidelines and standards—baseball has plenty of both. So much so that the line between such designations can become blurred at times. The pitcher’s mound lies sixty feet, six inches from home plate. That’s a rule, of course, as is the ninety feet between the bases. “The ball field itself is a mystic creation, the Stonehenge of America,” Roger Kahn once wrote.
As the Orioles began work on their new ballpark, though, they realized that perhaps too much was set in stone when it came to ballpark dimensions. Major League Baseball’s guidelines called for 330 feet down either line, a symmetrical outfield of equal proportions. Certainly that made it easier for baseball and football to share the same venue. Such formulas remained perfect for multipurpose facilities. Yet in Baltimore the Colts had already fled to Indianapolis in the middle of the night in 1984, leaving the Orioles as the only professional team in town at the time. That meant “the stars were aligned” to try something new and distinct, remembered Janet Marie Smith, the team’s vice president for planning and development.
At the time recent industry standards for baseball stadiums were Kansas City’s Royals Stadium and Chicago’s new Comiskey Park. The former was located off a freeway, a fair distance from downtown, and Comiskey had a steep upper deck that many fans found challenging and, god forbid if you suffered from vertigo. Baltimore’s new ballpark would be downtown and baseball only. As a result, the Orioles decided to embrace the game’s past and emulate such old-style structures as Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Fenway Park in Boston’s Back Bay, and Wrigley Field in northern Chicago. What did these places have in common? An asymmetrical outfield, seating low and close, and light towers instead of banks of lights ringing the stadium’s upper lip. “We wanted our ballpark to be old-shoe comfortable,” Smith said, “even if it was brand new.”
This nod to the past extended to the small touches at Camden Yards. The flags above the right-field wall flew in descending order of the team standings and are changed each game day to reflect the current rankings. A small silhouette of Wee Willie Keeler can be seen in the chairs. The bullpen areas remain visible so most fans can view who is warming up. Seven-foot walls, instead of the eight-foot ones MLB guidelines called for, line the outfield, which makes it easier for leaping catches that take away would-be home runs. After much debate and local opposition, the famed B&O warehouse, which stands fifty feet wide and a thousand feet long, became part of the overall design. Amazing to think that it was slated to be demolished in the original plans.
“It was fitting that the new age of the retro-park was celebrated in Baltimore, a provincial, blue-collar, crabcakes-and-beer town with thick roots and a thicker accent,” wrote Tim Kurkjian of ESPN The Magazine. “It is a neighborhood town, a brick town, which is why the ballpark was built of brick and steel, not of concrete like the flying saucers that landed in too many major league cities.”
Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in April 1992, with the hometown team edging the Cleveland Indians, 2-0.
“I made sure I took in the whole experience on my way to the ballpark that day,” recalled Charles Nagy, the Indians’ starting pitcher that day, “and when I got to the park hours before the game, I went on the field to soak it all in.
“It was very exciting. When Jacobs Field [in Cleveland] was built, I saw a lot of Camden Yards. It was special to be a part of the opening of a great new ballpark. I just wish we’d won.”
The new ballpark in Baltimore would usher in a new era in stadium design and change industry standards forever. “If you look at three-quarters of the ballparks built since Camden Yards, they have been built in a downtown setting,” Smith said. “It’s been part of an urban renaissance, which is nice because there are not a lot of things that bring people into a downtown today.
“We don’t have any need for a central banking center or central anything really anymore. But we’re still social animals, and it’s good to have cities alive. Sports has found a way to help this process with its newer ballparks.”
When the dust settled in Game Five, the Braves had trounced the Twins, 14-5. Right fielder David Justice finished with five runs batted in, with Mark Lemke right behind him with three RBIs on a pair of triples. With his home run in the seventh inning, outfielder Lonnie Smith became only the fifth player and the first from the National League to drive one out of the park in three consecutive games. He joined Lou Gehrig, who did it in 1928; Johnny Mize (1953); Hank Bauer (1958); and Reggie Jackson (1977). Yes, all the others were members of the New York Yankees when they accomplished the feat.
Atlanta’s fourteen runs stood as the most in a World Series game since the Yankees scored sixteen runs in Game Two of the 1960 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lemke’s two triples tied a World Series record last accomplished by the Dodgers’ Tommy Davis in 1963. More puzzling was that Lemke had continued the grand tradition of second basemen—yes, second basemen—stepping up big in postseason play.
Usually second base is home to one of the smaller guys on the team, somebody who doesn’t exhibit the best of arms. That’s not to denigrate second basemen, but take a look at any team, even one on the sandlot: the best arms are in center field, right field, third base, and short. Big guys who can hit but don’t have much range are often put at first base. Second sackers? They’re usually the last ones chosen when picking up teams, and perhaps that’s why Atlanta fans embraced this little guy named Lemke.
“My two favorites on that team were Mark Lemke and Ron Gant,” recalled Larry Taylor, a former major general in the Marines who attended the games in Atlanta. “Lemke because I’ve always been partial to smallish second basemen, the position that usually attracts the guys with the least natural baseball talent. Smallish and not much natural baseball talent, that pretty much describes me.”
For some reason in the postseason, though, second basemen often step up. Back in 1953 the Yankees’ Billy Martin had twelve hits in the World Series. Seven years later Pittsburgh second baseman Bill Mazeroski homered off Ralph Terry in the ninth inning of Game Seven to give the Pirates a 10-9 victory and the title over New York. In 1961 another Yankee second baseman, Bobby Richardson, collected nine hits in five games as New York downed Cincinnati.
The Amazin’ New York Mets in 1969 wouldn’t have upset the Baltimore Orioles without Al Weiss hitting .454 in the series and delivering a key home run. Then there was Brian Doyle, another Yankee, who hit .438 in the 1978 World Series. A fill-in for the injured Willie Randolph, Doyle helped New York defeat Los Angeles. “If it happened for a few games during the season, they would just say you were lucky,” Doyle said. “But everything is so magnified in the World Series that they start comparing you with Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio.”
The coronation was underway for Lemke, and if the Braves could close things out in Minneapolis, he had the inside track to be the series MVP. Heading into Game Six back in Minneapolis, he stood one triple away from tying Tommy Leach’s World Series record for four, which was set in 1903. “There’s a phenomenon at second base,” Commissioner Fay Vincent said. “The World Series is the coming out of second basemen.”
Justice’s five RBIs marked only the fifteenth time anybody hit that many in the history of World Series. The last guy to do it was the Twins’ Dan Gladden in 1987.
Justice admitted to feeling pressure to come through in the clutch. “From the team standpoint this has been a lot of fun,” he said. “But from a personal standpoint it has been something else. I feel like I’ve got a thousand knife marks in my back.”
Ron Gant added, “Everybody expects you to do well. But what happens is then you try to do too much and try to play over your head. What you need to do is learn how to relax. You just have to try to do the best you can, and you will be better off.”
After the game Atlanta fans lingered in the stands, some still doing the Tomahawk Chop. The mind-numbing chant could be heard well below the stands, echoing through the corridors outside the team clubhouses.
“It’s all about home-field advantage,” said Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz. “The Twins play inside a place they call the Thunderdome. And now we have this cheering to remind us that we’re home, in front of our crowd.”
That the Braves had anything to call their own, even if it was just a rousing cheer, after so many years in the baseball wilderness was something to behold—perhaps even indicative of the season at hand. In the two decades leading up to the 1991 Series the Braves had only five winning seasons. Now, after sweeping the Twins at home, the Braves stood one victory from a championship many thought was downright impossible when this season began.
“I remember that the Braves were in third place at the All-Star break, only one game under .500 and nine and a half games out of first at the time,” said Terry Sloope, a longtime member of Atlanta’s Magnolia Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research. “For the Braves that was great. I remember thinking the Braves were actually playing decent ball that year, were actually competitive. Over the previous seven years or so they had been just horrible. A third-place finish somewhere near the .500 mark would have been just fine for most fans.”
Of course, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox believed his ballclub could reach higher, could be the first ballclub to go from last place to the world title in a single season. The Braves had fired him after the 1981 season only to put him back at the helm in Atlanta nine years later. He had returned in large part because he saw the potential in this organization. Still, if anybody understood how baseball could break a guy’s heart, it was Cox.
Born in Tulsa, he grew up in Fresno County, California, and signed with Los Angeles for $40,000 after attending Reedley Junior College. He spent five years in the Dodgers’ minor league system before eventually going to the Braves in their first year in Atlanta. Cox never made that big-league team as a player, but he did catch on with the New York Yankees in 1968 and was named to the Topps’ Rookie All-Star Team. A year later he lost his job in New York to Bobby Murcer and, as a result, soon turned to managing.
In 1971 he guided the Yankees’ farm team in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and had a winning record in each of his six years in the minors. He became Billy Martin’s first-base coach in 1977 in New York as the Yankees won the World Series. That’s when Atlanta hired him to assist with such promising young players as Bob Horner and Dale Murphy. Cox led the Braves to their first winning season in six years in 1980. But that didn’t keep owner Ted Turner from firing him the next season.
Cox returned to the American League, taking over as manager for another young team on the rise, the Toronto Blue Jays. Cox nearly led them to the World Series in 1985, as the Blue Jays lost in seven games to the Kansas City Royals for the American League pennant. That fall Turner lured Cox back to Atlanta, this time as the Braves’ new general manager. Throughout baseball the Braves were considered to have plenty of young stars—on the major-league roster and especially down on the farm—so when manager Russ Nixon failed to get results, Cox stepped in as manager in 1990. John Schuerholz was named as the new GM, and the two became one of the most successful duos in baseball history.
“It wasn’t only the Xs and Os and knowing all the strategy with Bobby,” remembered pitcher Mark Grant. “Somehow he stayed a humble human being through it all. I can guarantee you the day he stands at the podium in Cooperstown, one of the first things out of his mouth will be something like, ‘One of the reasons I was here was that I had such great talent.’ He’s not afraid to recognize that. He’s so humble. He was a guy who got along with everybody, but he didn’t play favorites.”
Terry Pendleton said he loved playing for Cox because the manager “had the patience of grandma out there. The rest of us could be in a mean, crazy panic and Bobby would be saying, “No, no, we’re good. Things are going to be just fine. You wait and see.’
“When a player is struggling, he knew that Bobby would stick with him, and sooner or later the player would break out of it. Often Bobby had a better idea of how good his players could be then they did. Also, some guys want to manage before the first pitch is ever thrown. Bobby would let the guys play and manage when he had to manage. He never got ahead of the game and what needed to be done at the time.”
As a baseball lifer, Cox knew that warm and fuzzy stories didn’t carry the day as much as some people wanted to believe. Baseball was like everything else now—it was “What have you done for me lately?” And how long a manager stayed in his job had little to do with how loud folks cheered on a particular evening in October. During his two decades already in baseball Cox had seen it all and could detail the broken hearts and find the dead bodies as well as anyone. Carlton Fisk waving the ball fair at Fenway Park during the 1975 World Series, for example, was replayed over and over again on the TV this time of year. But the Red Sox had lost to the Cincinnati Reds in seven games in that Fall Classic, and their manager, Darrell Johnson, was soon sent packing. Few remembered that, but Bobby Cox did. A decade later Boston again had the championship within its grasp after winning the first two games over the New York Mets and later holding a three-to-two games lead. They had to win, right? But they didn’t, did they?
After Game Five Cox tried to tell those around him that the St. Louis Cardinals had once held a one-game lead heading back to the Twin Cities against the Twins. Those 1987 Cardinals were then the best team in baseball, in his opinion, with a quality pitching staff and superb team defense. Another veteran manager, Whitey Herzog, led them. Yet in the din of the Metrodome the Cardinals came unhinged and lost the remaining two games and the World Series.
As Cox briefly surveyed his victorious clubhouse, he knew that the same thing could happen to his ballclub. When the media began with questions about being on the brink, being only one win away from baseball’s promised land, Cox refused to play along.
“There’s no place like it,” Cox said of the Metrodome as the Tomahawk Chop continued several levels above him. “There really isn’t. Our job is to focus on the next game up there. That’s all there is for us.”
“We play this game every day.”
That’s a bromide often bandied about in baseball. I’m told Earl Weaver and Sparky Anderson said it, often to new reporters on the beat who were too excited, too intense for a sport that delivers a box of score results almost daily for half of the year.
San Francisco Giants Roger Craig gave me the following piece of advice my first year covering baseball in the Bay Area, back when I tried to interview half the team in a single afternoon at Candlestick Park for a sidebar that eventually ran in the back of the sports section: “Son, we play this game every day.”
In essence, like any piece of advice, it remains equal parts wisdom and warning. A reminder that baseball will never be like football, where a week of mind-numbing practices culminates in a game seemingly always bigger than the one the week before, and to win or lose it means the world. No, a baseball team can look downright terrible one night and terrific the next; it’s which identity that eventually emerges over the course of another long season that eventually decides things. Ballclubs rarely reveal themselves in grandiose star turns; instead, it’s the little moments, what happens every day that defines everything by the end of the season.
One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about baseball is how methodical it can be. How such due diligence can add up over time.
In those early years at Baseball Weekly I didn’t have much time for other things I dreamed about doing. Besides doing my part to get a new publication off the ground I also had two young kids at home. Decades later it’s strange to look back on those days, with both of my children now in their twenties and moved out of the house, and remember how little free time there once was to even think about and ponder other projects.
That’s how I came to write on my commute to work on the Washington, DC, subway. It wasn’t much time, only twenty-five minutes from the parking garage where I left my car to the long escalator ride back above ground at the Rosslyn station and face to face with the USA Today skyscraper headquarters for another day. Yet I began to write in a spiral notebook that I brought along—a page at best in an unruly scrawl, and that was enough for now. Soon it was either time to go to work or, on the evening commute back home, time to do my best to be a family man with all that it entails. Back in the day there were major responsibilities at either end of that subway line.
The summer after starting at Baseball Weekly I made my first trip to Cuba, and the level of play there stunned me. The starting infield for their national team back in the early 1990s, Orestes Kindelan, Antonio Pacheco, German Mesa, and the great Omar Linares, ranks as one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Even in such an exotic, star-crossed place the game could still be the same. Before one contest several of us were speaking with Linares, hinting to him how much more money he could make in the major leagues, what a star he could be in America. But the third baseman, who could field like Brooks Robinson and hit like Mike Schmidt, only smiled and said, “But there’s another game here to play tomorrow.”
In his own way Linares was staying as true to things as Roger Craig or Earl Weaver or any other wise baseball man. He was reminding us that one always had to be mindful, that it was necessary to stay in the moment. To be successful you had to remember, “We play this game every day.”
After Game Five, with Atlanta now holding the upper hand, the buzz among both teams was remarkably similar. Everyone was reminding everyone else that this Series was far from over, that it would ultimately go to the team that stayed focused on the next game and didn’t allow its attention to waver.
Down the corridor from the Braves’ clubhouse, past the swells hanging around owner Ted Turner and his wife, Jane Fonda, was the visitors’ clubhouse. Inside Twins skipper Tom Kelly appeared to be as relaxed as Cox was wound tight. Kelly talked about the state of his team as though he were viewing a wreck on the highway from a good distance away. Perhaps that was the correct approach to take, seeing as his ballclub had lost by nine runs on this night in Atlanta.
Kelly, like any good manager, focused on what could turn things around for his team. As he reminded everyone, the remaining games of the 1991 season, whether it was one contest or two, would be back in Minneapolis, an American League venue. Prior to 2003 home-field advantage alternated between the American League and National League. So, like in 1987, the Twins could enjoy the last two games at home. After 2002 the home-field advantage went to the winner of the All-Star Game, a change made by Commissioner Bud Selig in the wake of the Midsummer Classic ending in a 7-7 tie when both teams ran out of pitchers. Even under Selig’s new guidelines, the Twins would have been going home with a chance to turn the tables as the American League won the 1991 All-Star Game, 4-2, at Toronto’s new SkyDome, with Cal Ripken the game’s MVP.
Returning to an American League city meant that the designated hitter was back in play. Shane Mack, even with seven strikeouts so far in the Series, would be in the outfield. Kelly said he was confident that Mack could turn it around. “We’ve hidden all the razor blades,” the manager said. With Mack back in right field, Chili Davis would again be the designated hitter.
“There are just some things Chili just can’t do,” Kelly told the press.
“Like what?” he was asked.
“Catch the ball,” Kelly tersely replied.
As Kelly saw it, the Twins’ hitting attack had been shut down for long stretches during the first five games of the series. How much this had to do with lack of a DH in Atlanta or the impressive trio of Braves starting pitchers—Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery—was left to hang in the air.
“And we’ve been in this situation before,” the manager said, again alluding to 1987. “The way it works out, we got to play three games here but have a chance to play four at the American League park. It looks like we’re going to need all four to get the job done. Hopefully, it works our way.”
Twins closer Rick Aguilera remembered being impressed by Kelly’s calmness through it all. “Many of us kept waiting for this big team meeting prior to the playoffs or even during the World Series, that kind of thing. But he just went along like it was business as usual. Why make this bigger than it is? We already knew how big playing in the World Series was.
“In keeping things going along, he didn’t create anxiety for the players. That’s what I saw from TK and the staff back then. I don’t remember sensing any panic after the games in Atlanta. There was no more anxiety. We battled well. We almost won Games Three and Four, and we got blown out of Game Five. Now we were going home to the Dome, which was already in the Braves’ heads. So we knew there was a little bit of advantage there for us. Why panic? That was really TK’s message to all of us.”
Certainly what nobody wanted to hear about in the visiting clubhouse was that the franchise, between its tenure in Washington and the Twin Cities, had now lost fourteen consecutive World Series games on the road. That dated back to 1925 and Walter Johnson’s Washington Senators.
Instead, Kelly was asked whether he could convince his players that a defeat, either by 1-0 or 14-5, was still just one loss. “I don’t think it’s easy,” he replied. “We’re off track.”
The Twins’ players would agree with their manager’s assessment. Team leader Kirby Puckett said he didn’t fault Kelly for trying to get Davis’s bat (with its twenty-nine home runs and ninety-three runs batted in the regular season) into the lineup despite the accompanying defensive liabilities.
“You can’t blame TK,” he said. “You can’t take anything away from him. He’s done this sort of thing all season long.”
Kent Hrbek, who put up twenty home runs during the regular season, had only three hits in sixteen at-bats so far against Braves pitching. For his trouble, Kelly had demoted him to the seventh spot in the Minnesota order.
“Maybe we win at home because of the fact that we don’t have a pitcher in the lineup and we get to use the lineup that got us here,” Hrbek said. “We’ll be fine once we get home. That’s what I think anyway.”
Asked whether the Twins could pull off a repeat of 1987, Hrbek replied, “I certainly hope that déjà vu strikes again.”
Throughout the three-game stretch in Atlanta, Hrbek had received threatening phone calls at the team hotel, and in the stadium Braves fans chanted his name and continued to boo him because of the wrestlemania incident with Ron Gant back in Game Two.
“I know he has been a little quieter the last few days,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if it’s affected him, but I know it’s affected his family.”
Certainly Tina Hrbek, Kent’s mother, had had her fill of Atlanta. She became especially rankled by signs at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that read, “Hrbek is a Jrk.”
“You know, every player gets hassled now and then,” she said, “but I didn’t like them picking on the family name.”
Organizations pride themselves on turning over every stone in the search for talent. Yet sometimes the best players can be found right next door. Such was the case with Kent Hrbek. Perhaps that’s why he was as eager as anybody in a Twins uniform to return to Minnesota.
Born in May 1960, the season before the franchise vacated Washington, DC, and headed north to become the Twins, Hrbek grew up in Bloomington, Minnesota, so close to the old Metropolitan Stadium that he could see the lights from his bedroom window. Despite the proximity, a young Hrbek usually attended games only on Mondays because on those days tickets were just a dollar. Growing up, Hrbek watched such Twins stars as Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles, and Harmon Killebrew. Like most kids back in those days, Hrbek played several sports, eventually deciding to concentrate on baseball. He didn’t enjoy football’s five days of practice to play just one game a week, and with basketball he seemed destined to foul out most of the time. (Undoubtedly, Ron Gant would agree.) Even though Hrbek played a ferocious left wing in hockey, his father, Ed, urged him to go with baseball. It helped that first base opened up on the Kennedy High squad in Bloomington about the same time.
Although the left-handed slugger often hit for power, few scouts took notice. It wasn’t until a concessions manager at the old Met told scout Angelo Giuliani about the homegrown talent that the Twins decided to draft Hrbek in the late rounds of the 1978 draft. “He was a seventeenth-round pick who would have been a first-rounder if people would have known about him,” Giuliani said.
Indeed, Hrbek didn’t stay in the minor leagues for long. He hit .379 for Visalia, at that point the best average anywhere in professional baseball, and led the California League in slugging and on-base percentage too. Those numbers resulted in Hrbek becoming one of the few players to make the jump from Class A ball to the majors. He made his Twins debut in Yankee Stadium, where his twelfth-inning home run defeated New York. His meteoric rise soon got everyone’s attention in the baseball world, with even Reggie Jackson chatting him up.
In 1982, Hrbek’s first full season with the Twins, he hit twenty-three home runs, with ninety-two RBIs, and finished behind the Orioles’ Cal Ripken for American League Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, by the end of his storybook season amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, had claimed his father’s life. Years later Hrbek described that season as “a high point and low point for me.”
By the 1991 World Series Hrbek could see the end of a fourteen-year career that had made him a fan favorite in the Twin Cities. As a free agent, he signed for millions less to stay in his hometown. Whereas the Twins of this era were often considered Kirby Puckett’s team, Hrbek played a strong role in the clubhouse. “He was the hometown guy,” Greg Gagne remembered. “We were in his town, playing in front of his fans, and it gave all of us kind of a comfort zone. For a long time he was the heart of the Minnesota Twins.”
Gene Larkin added that Hrbek “just tried to enjoy every minute of his time in the big leagues. Obviously, he felt pressure being the hometown boy helping the Twins win. When he got to the park he thought baseball, and when he left the park it was over. He had done what he could do. Then he would try to forget about it and not think about it until he came to the park again the next day.”
That proved to be increasingly difficult, however, in the 1991 Series. Not only did the lumbering first baseman hear the catcalls in Atlanta, but he and rest of the Twins knew they were on the verge of losing four consecutive games and, with it, the world championship. In the postgame discussions Kelly spoke briefly about how he hoped the Twins fans would “retaliate” in kind for Game Six for the abuse that Hrbek had received in Atlanta.
“In the games that we’ve been here, there’s been a lot of flashbulbs going off when we were at bat and calling Hrbek a cheater,” the manager said. “They’re trying to do whatever they can to distract us. Hopefully, our fans will counter in a similar way when we get home.”
Now things were beginning to sound like a professional cage match.
Still, as it grew late after Game Five in Atlanta and both teams packed up to return to the Twin Cities, the discussion turned to a more pressing concern—the Twins’ slumbering attack. One game away from elimination, Puckett was hitting only .167. As a team the Twins were batting .218 after averaging .276 in defeating the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series.
“All I have to do is hit one ball hard,” said Puckett, one of the last Twins to leave the visiting clubhouse that evening.
How he hungered to once again hear the distinctive sound of a baseball well hit and dare to wonder whether it had enough to clear the outfield fence. For Puckett knew as well as anybody that if he could square one up, it could make all the difference now.