Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time - Tim Wendel (2014)
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27, 1991
AT HUBERT H. HUMPHREY METRODOME
The Braves’ Mark Lemke best summed up the mood of both teams before the decisive Game Seven. “It seems every game we’ve played since the last week of the season was the seventh game of the World Series,” he said. “Might as well play in the seventh game of the World Series.”
As Jack Morris warmed up, Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” appropriately played over the Metrodome sound system, and when stadium announcer Bob Casey warned the sellout crowd that there was no smoking inside the facility, Kent Hrbek one last time pantomimed smoking a cigarette and then shaking his index finger disapprovingly. As the fans roared, he then pretended to slug back a beer, following that recommendation with a big thumbs-up.
In the six previous games the Twins usually scored in the early innings, and the longest wait for the first run to go up on the scoreboard occurred in Game Five in Atlanta, when the Braves struck for four the fourth inning. And of course, that contest eventually became a 14-5 laugher. Yet early in Game Seven both teams realized that the respective pitchers were in control. Right-hander Jack Morris had been the Twins’ Opening Day starter, the starting pitcher in the 1991 All-Star Game, against the Braves’ Tom Glavine. Morris had pitched the first game of American League Championship Series and the first game of this World Series. On this evening, with a 6-1 record already in postseason play, his split-finger fastball displayed a lot of life.
Morris loved to throw the pitch, which darted down at the last moment, when he got ahead in the count. As a result, the Braves’ hitters told themselves to be patient: try to stay out of two-strike situations because Morris would often then go with the split, which soon appeared unhittable this evening.
Atlanta did mount a threat in the second inning, when David Justice singled to center field. Running on the pitch, he went to second on Sid Bream’s groundout. With one out, the Braves had a runner in scoring position, and they almost brought him around, and then some when Brian Hunter hit a line drive down the left-field line that just hooked foul. After that close call Morris struck him out with a high fastball and then induced Greg Olson to pop out to second baseman Chuck Knoblauch.
“From then on you could tell that Jack had it going,” Twins shortstop Greg Gagne recalled. “All of his pitches had great movement in Game Seven. Especially that split of his.”
The split-finger fastball was a modification of the forkball, which was used to great success by Bullet Joe Bush in the 1920s and Elroy Face three decades later. The forkball was held more in the palm of the hand, while the split-finger was often wedged between the index and middle fingers. It was thrown with the same motion and arm position as the fastball. In the 1980s not only Morris but also Roger Clemens, Dave Stewart, Mike Scott, Donnie Moore, Bruce Sutter, and nearly everybody on the San Francisco Giants pitching staff threw the split or modified forkball with relative degrees of success. If the slider had been the pitch of the sixties, the split-finger soon became known as the pitch of the eighties.
Sports Illustrated called it the “newest of the substitute spitters,” following in the contrails of the curveball (allegedly originated by Candy Cummings in the 1860s), the screwball (perfected by Christy Mathewson and then executed so well by Carl Hubbell and, later, Fernando Valenzuela), the spitball itself (outlawed in 1920), and then the knuckleball, the slider, and even the circle changeup. Basically, all of these pitches, when thrown effectively, complement the fastball. A batter cannot be ready for a little high heat and some kind of breaking ball at the same time. Even a difference of six miles per hour between offerings can be enough to keep a hitter off balance and make a pitcher a winner.
The split-finger proved to be easy to learn and, back in the day, came with its own stirring advocate, Roger Craig. Standing six-foot-four, with an upbeat folksy manner, Craig believed only in God, country, and his longtime wife, Carolyn, more than the beloved split-finger. A right-hander, he had pitched for a dozen years in the big leagues, winning titles with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and St. Louis Cardinals. Still, Craig didn’t discover the split-finger fastball in time to save himself as he lost a league-high twenty-four games and twenty-two games in consecutive seasons with the New York Mets before they were ever Amazin’. It wasn’t until after his playing days were over that Craig stumbled upon the pitch that would change his life and the career of so many others as well.
In the winter of 1980 Craig was teaching at the San Diego School of Baseball. Most of his students were teenagers, and he wanted to come up with a breaking ball they could quickly use in games. That’s when Craig tried the variation on the forkball, shifting the ball slightly away from the palm and throwing it with a fastball pitch motion that many of students could duplicate. The rest, they say, is history. Not only did Craig’s kids soon gain mastery of the pitch, but when he joined the Detroit Tigers as Sparky Anderson’s pitching coach the next season, he brought the inspiration along with him.
In the Motor City Craig’s first disciples of the split were Milt Wilcox and Jack Morris. The Tigers won the World Series in 1984 and led the league in team ERA. Morris had two complete-game victories in that Fall Classic and later said that the split-finger fastball “turned me into a strikeout pitcher.”
Despite widespread success, many in baseball soon became concerned about the pitch. Anderson maintained that if a pitcher threw the split too much, his fastball could lose velocity. “In the beginning it was so wonderful because it was a freak thing for the hitters,” the Tigers’ manager said. “But once you throw it, throw it, throw it, the hitters sit there and watch, and it’s no longer the same pitch.”
Craig strongly disagreed with his old friend. After leaving Detroit, Craig became manager of the San Francisco Giants in 1985. I met him the following season when I first began covering baseball for the San Francisco Examinerin the Bay Area, and I never found a more delightful person to talk baseball with. By that point Craig had become such an evangelist for the split-finger that he received a half-dozen or more calls weekly from across the country about throwing the pitch. The ballclub put together a question-and-answer form letter, ROGER CRAIG TALKS ABOUT THE SPLIT-FINGERED FASTBALL, which was sent to pitchers at all levels, including the major leagues.
In time Anderson and other critics of the split pretty much carried the day. Almost a quarter-century after the “Worst to First” World Series between the Twins and the Braves, the number of major-league pitchers throwing the split-finger fastball had dropped markedly, with Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, Jonathan Papelbon, and Koji Uehara among the star hurlers still using it on a regular basis. Such ballclubs as the Reds, Padres, Rays, Twins, and even Craig’s old ballclub, the Giants, advised their younger pitchers to try another secondary or breaking pitch. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said the pitch “put a lot of pressure on the elbow.”
Pitcher Mark Grant on the Atlanta bench, sidelined for the 1991 season with a shoulder injury, watched Morris in Game Seven and thought about what could have been. Drafted in the first round, tenth pick overall, by the San Francisco Giants in 1981, this right-hander also fell under the tutelage of Roger Craig, but Grant hadn’t been able to fully master the split-finger fastball. In addition, Grant saw how his elbow often tightened up after he threw the pitch. That’s what made Morris’s performance in Game Seven so amazing to Grant—he knew how painful and how difficult the split could be to throw, especially for strikes.
“Jack Morris’s split was the probably the best ever,” Grant remembered. “[Hall of Famer] Bruce Sutter’s was right there with it… . It can be a devastating pitch.”
This is also true sometimes for the catcher as much as the batter, because a split invariably results in pitches in the dirt. In Game Seven Morris wanted Braves hitters to chase that wicked breaking ball that dropped like a stone as it neared home plate. So it wasn’t surprising when a passed ball by Twins catcher Brian Harper in the top of the third inning moved the Braves’ Rafael Belliard to second base with one out. After walking Lonnie Smith, Morris again bore down, getting Terry Pendleton to fly out to left field and then inducing Ronnie Gant to chase another split, which he grounded weakly to Gagne at shortstop.
“Jack was locked in, able to get out of trouble, and when a pitcher is on like that, you get excited playing behind him,” Gagne said. “You tell yourself to just do your job. He’s on—just back him up and make the plays that come your way. You may be playing in Game Seven of the World Series, with the whole world watching, but it’s not like you have to do things out of the ordinary. You just need to remember to do your job.”
Cantankerous, outspoken, a bear to be around, especially on the days that he pitched, Morris rarely suffered fools gladly. Most players have their jersey number scribbled on the inside of their caps, usually on the bill. That assured everyone got the right lid when heading back out to take their positions. Instead of number forty-seven, however, Morris’s cap sometimes was inscribed with “A” for derriere. Still, the team became his refuge during the 1991 season. The right-hander was going through a divorce and spending time away from his two sons. “The clubhouse was my family,” he said years later. “It was my peace of mind. It was my serenity. It was everything to me.”
By 1991 Morris had earned a reputation as big-game hurler who regularly pitched to the situation at hand. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, he began his career in Detroit in 1977, helping the Tigers to that championship in 1984 and going 198-150 in fourteen seasons in the Motor City before signing with Minnesota as a free agent. In the 1980s Morris won 162 games, the most by any pitcher in the big leagues, and in another time this would have resulted in a big payday for the right-hander. Although he expected a bidding war for his services following the 1986 season, instead everything dissolved into a series of noncommittal meetings. At one point the pitcher expected to sign with his hometown Twins within a week. When Andy MacPhail begged off, telling the local newspapers he needed “to do some homework” and perhaps compare Morris with eventual Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven, it appeared that Morris would then sign with the New York Yankees. In the end, though, no contracts ever materialized. What Morris didn’t know at the time was that baseball ownership had conspired to not sign other team’s free agents. In other words, it was a classic case of collusion.
Morris, Roger Clemens, Tim Raines, Doyle Alexander, and Ron Guidry were among the stars who returned to their old ballclubs that offseason for a relative pittance as the average major league salary actually declined before the 1987 season. The Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance, and arbitrator Thomas Roberts eventually ruled that the owners had violated the basic agreement with the owners.
Morris would be forced to stay in Detroit for another four seasons before signing an incentive-laden contract with Minnesota before the 1991 season. But he wouldn’t forget about missing out on a major contract, and some of his teammates believed that became a defining moment for him. Starting, finishing, and winning the game were the only things Morris believed in. In essence, they became his personal bottom line and perhaps the only thing he could control in the game after the collusion cases of the mid-1980s.
“I’ve been in many games with him where he’d give up a four- or five- or six-spot in the first two innings and refuse to come out of the game,” said Kirk Gibson, who was Morris’s teammate in Detroit and another victim of collusion. “He’d walk in the dugout and say, ‘I’ve never lost with ten.’ We’d win, 9-8.
“Or if he’s out there and it’s the eleventh inning and we’re up by six runs and he has to give up four to win, he’s certainly not coming out of the game.”
Such an approach didn’t lead to the best of numbers at times. Morris finished his career with 254 victories but a 3.90 ERA, leading to debate whether he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. Still, within the game Morris was regarded as one of the best of his era.
“The pitcher who best fits the description of a workhorse today is Jack Morris, Detroit’s ace for so long,” Nolan Ryan wrote in his book Kings of the Hill, which came out shortly after the 1991 World Series. “The standard is going to be 250 innings, and Morris has been good for that nearly every season. He got to finish a lot of games with the Tigers because Sparky Anderson trusted him even more than he did his bullpen. That’s remarkable when you consider that Willie Hernandez, the Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player in 1984, was their stopper.”
Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek remembered when Morris was going through that bitter divorce in 1991, “and by August, I was siding with his wife. But he was a competitor to the max. He was the pitcher of the eighties. If he had good stuff, he’d just laugh at you, and if he didn’t, he’d battle you and figure out a way to beat you.”
Ron Gardenhire’s locker was located near Morris’s for the worst-to-first season in the Metrodome. “So I got a first-hand look, day after day, about how he went about his business,” the third-base coach remembered. “Nobody loved the big game, with it all on the line, more than Jack.
“If a start didn’t go his way, he’d be growling about it for days afterward. He wasn’t fun to be around then. But he’d find a way to eventually laugh it off and move on, and then he’d start getting focused on the next start, and nobody was better at that part of the process.
“He’d concentrate, do his homework, know the tendencies and weaknesses of every hitter he would face. He was a pretty serious guy and the most intense guy I ever came across in the game. Game Seven, with it all on the line? That was a perfect situation for him.”
Heading into Game Seven, Morris had pitched 273 innings—246 2/3 in the regular season and 26 1/3 in the postseason. The workload left his manager, Tom Kelly, wondering how much he had left—how many more innings could he pitch at such a high level?
For his part, Morris felt no trepidation about fatigue or being on the mound in the biggest game in years. “It’s going to sound wrong, but I knew everybody was watching, and how much fun is that?” he told Bob Costas decades later. “I mean, I pitched games in Cleveland when there were 250 people in the stands—and 200 of them related to somebody on the field and the rest were only there for the beer. So I remember those games, and to be on a stage when the whole world is watching, if you don’t relish that, you’re in the wrong business.”
In the fall of 1991 John Smoltz’s best pitch was the fastball, which he complemented adeptly with a slider, changeup, and curveball. No sign of a split at that point in his career. That Smoltz was about to go against his boyhood idol must have bordered upon the surreal for him and his family. Growing up, he was raised to be a polka player, not a big-league ballplayer. By the age of four he regularly played accordion in his father’s band, the Sorrentos. His mother gave lessons, his uncle owned a music store, and young John competed in contests, playing in recitals and in the family band throughout southern Michigan. As the oldest child, he remembered being “the anointed leader of the next generation of proud accordionists.”
Within a few years, though, Smoltz announced that his dream was to be a professional baseball player and that he needed to stop playing music. “I don’t know if I can adequately explain how big a deal it was for my parents to let me quit the accordion,” he wrote in his autobiography, Starting and Closing. “This was like the oldest son shunning the family business, and not because he wasn’t capable, but because he wasn’t interested. It was clear I had inherited the same musical gene that my parents were blessed with, and to my family it was a tough pill to swallow. My mom says to this day that she really thought her uncle was going to disown her and our entire family for allowing me to quit.”
On the surface Smoltz’s decision didn’t make much sense. Unlike his accordion playing, Smoltz was entirely self-taught when it came to sports. He didn’t attend camps or have expert instruction. Instead, he watched games on television, usually his favorite team, the Detroit Tigers, and threw a rubber ball against a brick wall at the family home in Lansing, Michigan. There, he had sketched out a strike zone with tape. About the only advice he received came when one of his deliveries missed its mark and hit the aluminum screen door. Only then would his mother yell at him to throw strikes.
If music was the common thread in the Smoltz household, baseball came a close second, though. Smoltz’s grandfather worked at the old Tiger Stadium for more than thirty years, first on the grounds crew and then in the pressroom. As a boy Smoltz listened to the Tigers games on the radio and made several trips to Detroit every summer to see his heroes in person. Throwing a rubber ball against the brick wall, Smoltz often imagined himself pitching in the big leagues, and it was always the postseason, usually the deciding game of the World Series that he held in his mind. So as Smoltz began his warm-ups on this evening in the Metrodome, he felt a sense of déjà vu. Not only was he in the Fall Classic for real, but he was also going up against his boyhood hero, longtime Tiger Jack Morris.
Any butterflies disappeared as Smoltz stood with the rest of the sellout crowd, listening to seven-year-old Jacqueline Jaquez belt out the national anthem. Years later Smoltz said something clicked after he heard the rendition. In his mind he was back at the brick wall back home in Michigan, ready to live out his dream.
“No one could catch me,” he recalled. “I took a rubber ball and I imagined it. So when I was getting ready to go out there and do it, I was right where I wanted to be.”
That Smoltz was here, starting Game Seven, had as much to do with the power of the mind as anything else. He had gotten off to a terrible start in 1991, going 2-11. Time after time things would unravel in a hurry on him, to the point that once runners reached base, he began to expect them to score. He wasn’t injured or suffering from any mechanical flaw; his delivery remained fundamentally sound. What he was dealing with, he later recalled, was “a complete collapse of confidence.”
Braves manager Bobby Cox and general manager John Schuerholz suggested that Smoltz see a sports psychologist, and the pitcher began to meet with Dr. Jack Llewellyn during the 1991 All-Star break. Their sessions had nothing to do with a shrink’s couch and baring one’s soul; instead, they usually met at Llewellyn’s house, often shooting pool and just talking. Soon the psychologist suggested that the videotape personnel from the team assemble a highlight reel for the pitcher. The final result ended up being about two minutes of the right-hander at his best on the mound, and after it was assembled, Smoltz began to watch it repeatedly.
“The very next game after the tape was made I faced that same moment on the mound that had owned me all season,” Smoltz later wrote. “Runners were in scoring position and things were on the verge of getting ugly. But this time I thought about the tape: I saw myself overcoming adversity in the past, and I didn’t let myself think I couldn’t do it. I stood there on the mound and dug in deep.
“I made the adjustment in my mind, and I faced adversity in front of me. And not only did I face it my first time out, but I nailed it my first time out, pitching my way out of a jam and keeping runs off the scoreboard for the first time in what seemed like all year.”
Soon Smoltz didn’t need the VHS tape anymore. He could picture his personal highlight tape in his mind and go to it whenever he needed. As a result, Smoltz turned his season around, going 12-2 in the second half of the regular season and picking up two victories against Pittsburgh in the National League Championship Series.
Mental imaging and mind games have long been an integral part of sports, even though few athletes like to talk about it publicly. In the days leading up to the coming Sunday’s game quarterback Fran Tarkenton would visualize the game plan until he was “running whole blocks of plays in my head.” Gold-medal decathlete Bruce Jenner said he used to dream of running the fifteen hundred meters, his sport’s final event, and he always crossed the finish line winning the overall competition. Golfer Jack Nicklaus claimed he “never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.”
Life coach Jim Fannin once explained that “Visualization works because your subconscious mind does not know the difference between fantasy and reality”—hence, the philosophy that to do anything of merit and consequence, you first have to imagine it.
But not that long ago such mind games were kept strictly hush-hush. In 1991 sports shrinks and plumbing the mental side remained downright radical to many players, coaches, and, certainly, fans. Smoltz became one of the first pro athletes to go public with how a psychologist helped him raise his game. Cameras began to be trained on Llewellyn in the stands for Smoltz’s starts. Some were convinced that the shrink was somehow flashing secret signs to the pitcher. None of it was true, of course, and Smoltz admittedly waited too long, well into the following season, before setting the record straight. Still, the power of the mind was on display in Game Seven as both starting pitchers settled in.
In the bottom of the second inning the Twins put two men on with two out, and Smoltz got Mike Pagliarulo to ground out. An inning later Dan Gladden doubled and then moved to third. Smoltz ended the threat by striking out Game Six hero Kirby Puckett.
On this night, going against his boyhood idol, Smoltz found that he could match Morris pitch for pitch. Both proved adept at wriggling out of jams, and soon a series of zeroes began to stretch across the scoreboard inside the Metrodome.
While Smoltz had his personal highlight reel going on, Morris at times embraced being both a native son and a hired gun on this evening in Minneapolis.
In the top of the fifth inning Mark Lemke singled to right field—his tenth hit of the series. As expected, Rafael Belliard followed with a high-hopper sacrifice bunt, and just like that, the Braves were back in business, with a man on second and one out.
Lead-off hitter Lonnie Smith, always one for surprises, decided to bunt too. After taking a wild hack for strike one, Smith laid one down along the third-base line. Twins third baseman Mike Pagliarulo was playing deep, and his throw pulled Hrbek off the bag, as Smith slid into first base for some reason. When the dust cleared the Braves had men on first and third base, with one out.
Terry Pendleton, who was 4-for-9, with runners on base to this point in the series, stepped in to face Morris. Even though the Metrodome had grown so loud by this point that Morris could understand his teammates only by reading their lips, he later said he never felt more at peace, more determined about what he had to do. Morris had grown up in the Twin Cities, as disappointed as everyone else in town when the Vikings lost four Super Bowls during the 1970s. He was tired of his hometown teams losing the big game, so he told himself that a Minnesota team wasn’t about to drop one this time, not with him on the mound. Decades later, he said, “I never had so much will to win a game as I did that day.”
On the mound Morris’s mannerisms became more deliberate, forcing Pendleton to briefly call timeout. After Pendleton stepped back in, Morris placed a split-finger fastball on the outside corner. Pendleton popped it up, not deep enough to score Lemke.
With two away, Ron Gant came to the plate. Although the Braves’ outfielder was struggling at the plate, Morris knew nobody outside of Justice could “ruin his day” faster than Gant. In the regular season the Braves’ slugger had hit 32 home runs and driven in 105 runs. The inscription inside his cap had nothing to do with “A”; instead, Gant’s message read, “I Will. I Can. I Am.”
Working carefully, Morris bounced a 1-2 pitch in the dirt, and Harper wasn’t able to field in cleanly. The ball bounced well in front of the plate toward Morris, who couldn’t resist throwing to third base in an attempt to pick off Lemke. Pagliarulo snared the ball, with Lemke getting back to the base safely. As Kelly shook his head in the Twins’ dugout, Morris decided to throw over to first base in attempt to get Smith. In the end both base runners were safe, and the Twins somehow kept the ball in the infield.
Gant worked the count to 3-2. Throughout the game both starting pitchers voiced their displeasure at times with home plate umpire Don Denkinger. His strike zone wasn’t exactly generous on this evening. But when Morris hit Harper’s glove on the outside corner, Denkinger raised his arm in the air. Gant had struck out for the final out, and Morris celebrated by windmilling his arm around as the hometown crowd roared. Of all the innings Morris pitched in 1991, he was never better than in this one.
In early innings Morris had gotten by with a good fastball and slider. He remembered his changeup and split not being all that sharp early on. But the split-finger, his best pitch, “came back around in the sixth [inning], and it was a very effective pitch in the late innings,” he said.
That proved to be pivotal because the Braves were about to come at him again. In the top of the eighth inning, with the heart of the Atlanta order due up, Lonnie Smith led off with a single to right field. In the Twins’ bullpen, relievers Steve Bedrosian and Mark Guthrie began to warm up.
Concerned that Smith would try to steal second, Morris threw over to first base several times with Pendleton back at the plate. Although Morris admitted he never had much of a pick-off move, he had worked hard to develop a slide step in 1991, allowing him to hold runners slightly closer that season.
With the count 1-2, Morris and the Twins believed they had struck out Pendleton on a pitch down in the dirt. But third-base umpire Terry Tata ruled that the National League MVP had fouled the pitch off. Replays later showed the call was incorrect. Pendleton had missed the pitch entirely; although the Braves’ hitter should have been ruled out, there he stood, still in the batter’s box, ready to drive in the first run of the game.
“The biggest turning point in the game, where an umpire could have made the right call and didn’t,” Morris later told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press. “So now Lonnie becomes the goat for all Braves fans.”
On Morris’s next offering, his hundredth pitch of the evening, Pendleton lashed a liner toward left-center field. So much of baseball can be waiting, considering all the possibilities, making the necessary adjustments until the game bursts open again at the seams. That’s when so many things can be in play that keeping up with it all becomes next to impossible. After climbing and climbing the incline at the roller coaster, we’re suddenly plummeting downhill, and everything dissolves into a glorious train wreck. Now it began anew, here in the top of the eighth inning at the Metrodome.
Pendleton’s drive split the Twins outfielders—Dan Gladden in left field and Kirby Puckett in center field. Running on the pitch, Smith had good speed and could have scored easily. But he hesitated, coming to a brief yet full stop around second base. Only after he saw that the ball had dropped in for a hit did he begin to run again, ending up at third base as Pendleton pulled into second with a double.
As with any big play, everyone soon had an opinion about what had happened. On the television replay CBS analyst Tim McCarver maintained that a fake double play, pulled off in high style by second baseman Chuck Knoblauch and shortstop Greg Gagne, was the reason Smith stopped dead in his tracks. Indeed, the Minnesota duo may have pulled off the best-looking double play ever without a ball.
At the crack of Pendleton’s bat Gagne began to run toward the outfield. After all, he knew where the ball was going and he needed to be ready as the relay man for a throw from Gladden or Puckett. That’s when Knoblauch barked at him, and the Twins’ shortstop turned back toward second base. Instead, Gagne was ready to play along, as the second baseman pantomimed fielding the ball. Gagne fielded the fake throw and came toward the bag as though he were going to throw on to Kent Hrbek at first base.
“To this day I have no real clue about everything that happened on that play,” Gagne said. “In fact, I’ve never studied a replay of it. I don’t want to. That play exists in some sweet spot in my memory. I don’t want to overanalyze it too much.
“What I do remember is that when the ball was hit, my first reaction was to get out to the outfield. I was the relay man on that side. But then Knoblauch yelled, ‘Gags,’ and I knew immediately what he was up to.
“We had been talking about deking their base runners—see if we could slow them down a bit. We practiced it too. It was just something we messed around with during infield practice. That’s something I don’t believe teams do enough about today—take infield. That gets you ready for the game, and it allows you to go over stuff together like this.
“So Knob yells, ‘Gags,’ and I peeled around toward second base, like we were going to do a double play. He made the fake throw, and I even made a kind of a fake throw on to Hrbek at first. Knoblauch sold it so well that I felt I had to do the same. Lonnie Smith froze for a few steps, but I didn’t know if our fake play had much to do with it, honestly. As soon as it was over, I was on my horse, running back into short left field for the throw. That was the first and foremost thing in my mind—the relay throw I knew I had to make, not necessarily fooling Lonnie Smith.”
The fake double play soon became part of baseball folklore. A perfect combination of chutzpa and guile that left poor Lonnie Smith stopped in his tracks. Admittedly, Smith had his share of misadventures on the basepaths. “Nobody ever realized I was naturally clumsy,” said the player nicknamed “Skates.” “You can ask my mother… . I was always knocking over things—falling. Earlier in my career I was known more for falling and tumbling than anything else.”
Base runners are told to ignore the infielders—trust only where the ball is hit. Find it and then proceed accordingly. Years later Smith maintained that was exactly what he was trying to do. He insisted that he wasn’t fooled by any fake double play from Knoblauch and Gagne. “No way I was faked out,” he said dismissively.
Smith maintained that if he thought it had been the makings of a double play, he would have slid into second base, and many on the field that evening ultimately agree with him.
“If I’d taken the time to take one look, that could have been the difference,” Smith added. “If I saw the ball off the bat, there’s a good chance I could have scored. But I didn’t see it. I didn’t take that look in. That’s my mistake.”
Except for a glance in Knoblauch’s direction, Smith’s attention remained on the outfield. He had lost sight of the ball off Pendleton’s bat, another victim of the sightlines and the Teflon-colored roof at the Metrodome. In that moment he briefly became concerned that Gladden or Puckett could perhaps snare Pendleton’s line drive.
“I just didn’t pick up the ball and didn’t pick up Jimy,” he later told the Sporting News, referring to Braves third base coach Jimy Williams. “People want to blame me, that’s okay. The media’s version that Knoblauch fooled me is not true. I just didn’t see the ball. The only part the media got right was that I didn’t score on the play.”
Tom Kelly agreed that Smith didn’t go for any fake, no matter how well planned or elaborate. “He just didn’t know where the ball was,” the Twins’ manager said.
From his vantage point behind home plate, Minnesota catcher Brian Harper saw it all play out in front of him. Years later he believed Smith has gotten a bum rap. “Sure, it’s easy to say he should have scored,” Harper said. “But people forget that Gladden faked like he was going to catch it too. You actually had two fakes on that play.
“The ball hit off the wall. In the Metrodome, especially when you’re the visiting player, it was really hard to pick up the ball… . Lonnie looked for the ball and he couldn’t see it. And then he saw Gladden raise his glove for an instant, like he was going to catch it. And so he stopped, which is probably what he should have done. With no outs, you can’t just keep running if you don’t know where the ball is. The ball hit the wall, and Gladden played it perfectly and got it in quickly.
“I don’t believe the criticism was justified. It was a tough play, it’s tough to pick up the ball, and you had three guys in Gladden, Gagne, and Knoblauch trying to fool him.”
Gagne added, “We caused enough confusion for him not to score on the play. That’s all I know.”
Pendleton, who had hit the double that should have scored the game’s first run and perhaps the only one needed this evening, remembered pulling into second base and looking over at third base coach Williams. “I was ready to give him a pump of the fist or something. I mean we finally were on the board, and that’s when I realized that Lonnie was standing there right next to him,” Pendleton said. “I couldn’t believe it, but it wasn’t any panic or anything like that. We had second and third with nobody out. It was no big deal. We’ve been here before. Frankly, I still expected us to score a couple of runs that inning. Break it open against Jack Morris.”
Even without Smith crossing the plate on the play, the Twins were in a heap of trouble.
“Some want to say that the shortstop and second baseman faked Lonnie,” Pendleton continued. “Well, I beg to differ. On the play he’s looking all over the place, and that’s because he couldn’t find the ball off the bat. So Jimy Williams finally waves him over to third. I mean this isn’t the end of the world for us.
“We have second and third with nobody out. To this day everybody wants to blame Lonnie Smith for not scoring, but it isn’t like that at all. We had second and third with nobody out. You listening to what I’m saying? Second and third with nobody out.”
Years later Harper agreed with Pendleton. “If [Smith] was in the eighth hole and it’s the pitcher coming up next, maybe you’re a little more aggressive on the basepaths. Maybe you try to score even if you’re not sure where the ball is. But it was three-four-five—Ron Gant, David Justice, and Sid Bream—coming up for Atlanta after that. Maybe the blame should be more on those guys.”
All Gant needed was a fly ball, deep enough to score a run. Three innings before, Morris froze Gant with a fastball, and home plate umpire Don Denkinger had called the Braves’ slugger out. This time Gant wanted to be ready for anything near the plate. In doing so, Gant perhaps swung at a ball he should have let pass, grounding it up the first-base line. Hrbek easily caught it, held the runners, and tagged Gant for the unassisted out. That made Gant 0-for-4 in the ballgame.
Moments after Hrbek got the first out of the inning Kelly came out of the dugout for a conference with Morris. The manager’s strategy was to walk David Justice and pitch to Sid Bream, with the bases loaded. Years later Morris said he agreed with Kelly’s decision. Harper, the Twins’ catcher who was there, remembered things differently.
“Kelly comes out to the mound, and we’re meeting there, and he tells Jack to walk Justice,” Harper said. “And Jack keeps saying, ‘No, I can get him out. I can get him out. I don’t want to walk him.’
“Finally Kelly says, ‘Jack, we’re going to walk him.’
“Jack replied, ‘All right. I don’t like it, but I’ll walk him.’ So we walked Justice to load the bases.”
Walking back behind the plate, Harper suddenly thought about the worst-scenario for him as the catcher. Why this of all things flashed through his mind at this particular moment he will never know, even years later when he thinks about Game Seven. But it came at him in a rush—a personal nightmare that momentarily rocked his world.
“That’s when I envisioned a come-backer to Jack, he throws it to me at home plate, and I then airmail one past Hrbek and down into right field. We lose the World Series, and I’m the goat of all time. I would be the next Bill Buckner. I literally thought this right after we walked David Justice.
“So then I’m thinking, Okay, get that thought out of your head. Lord, please help me to relax here and let me do my job. I had to really push that negative thought out of my mind. I had to do it right then and there. Pro athletes have negative thoughts all the time, and sometimes it’s all you can do to rid your mind of such things.”
In a stunning turn of events Bream swung at the fourth offering, a Morris split that didn’t have much bite, and Harper’s nightmare began to play out for real. The only difference was that the grounder went to Hrbek at first base rather than back to Morris on the mound. Hrbek fielded it and threw home to Harper at the plate. The ball arrived well ahead of Smith, who came down the line from third base, and all the Twins’ catcher had to do was throw the ball back to Hrbek, who moved over to first base. That’s all he had to do and Minnesota would somehow get out of the inning without Atlanta scoring.
“You’re never really looking for a 3-2-3 double play because that is so rare,” Harper remembered. “But here it comes, rolling out for real. Herbie threw it to me, and all I have to do is throw it back to him, nice and easy. Bream was the slowest guy on the Braves, so I have plenty of time. Maybe too much time. So now I get to thinking about it, remembering what flashed through my head seconds before.
“But somehow I did it. Just nice and easy back to Herbie, and we’ve survived this jam. In that game there was so much pressure—a passed ball, a wild pitch—one thing like that could lose you the game, and everybody knew it.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, believed that we are never more alive than when we are doing something we love. At such times we do appear to be put on this earth for a purpose. For a moment or two we can move to the dance of mindfulness that the Buddha talked about, and time can stop for a beat or two as the rest of world gathers around. It’s as though the gods themselves cannot believe what they are bearing witness to.
Fitzgerald hinted that such moments can fortify us for a short time against the tides of fate and even buffer us against death itself. Unfortunately, that notion didn’t play out as well as he would have liked, as the novelist died from a heart attack while writing The Last Tycoon, a story that could have been even better than The Great Gatsby. The unfinished novel ends with a hodgepodge of scenes and notes—where Fitzgerald happened to be in the writing when he died. So perhaps it’s somehow appropriate that the last line in The Last Tycoon reads simply, in all caps, ACTION IS CHARACTER.
For that can be the final determination of so much. People can talk about what they plan to do or even what they have done, but it’s how they act to the day-to-day beat of another morning that ultimately determines how they will be remembered.
After catching Harper’s careful throw for the third out, Hrbek pumped his fist and then celebrated by spiking the baseball into the Astroturf. Morris waited for Hrbek outside the dugout to slap gloves with him. Somewhat shaken, Harper walked slowly to the home dugout. Thanks to a base-running miscue for all time and some real bad luck, the game remained scoreless heading into the bottom of the eighth.
“Jack Morris was never afraid about pitching in big games,” Pendleton said, “and that’s not good if you’re on the team that’s facing him in one of them. When we didn’t score in that situation, you knew it was going to be tough. Because this was Jack Morris. Somehow we hadn’t dented him.”
In the bottom of the frame Twins pinch-hitter Randy Bush singled to center. Al Newman replaced him as a pinch-runner. Then Dan Gladden popped out to center after he failed to bunt the runner over. When Knoblauch singled to right, on a beautiful inside-out swing, Smoltz’s night came to an end. Game Six hero Kirby Puckett was due up next, and Smoltz wouldn’t best his boyhood hero on this night. After going seven and a third innings, allowing only six hits and striking out four, the Braves’ starter was lifted for reliever Mike Stanton.
When Cox came out to the mound Smoltz was adamant that he could get Puckett. What he didn’t realize was that the Braves’ manager was a step or two ahead of him strategy-wise. “Bobby was going to intentionally walk Puckett and have Stanton pitch to Hrbek,” Smoltz said.
Years later, in 2002, when the Braves returned to Minnesota for an interleague series, Smoltz and Morris would meet again. The first words out of Smoltz’s mouth? “I’m still mad about that game,” he told Morris.
Back in 1991 Smoltz could only watch as Stanton did walk Puckett intentionally to load the bases with one out. Ironically, the Braves now found themselves in the same jam that the Twins had somehow escaped in the top of the same inning. And, perhaps, the baseball gods do have a sense of humor. For next up was Hrbek, who had started the stunning double play only minutes before.
The Twins’ first baseman had struck out three times in the series against Stanton. Bearing down, Hrbek put good wood on the ball this time, only to line it sharply toward second baseman Mark Lemke. Now it was Knoblauch’s turn to make a base-running mistake. Taking off with the pitch, he was easily doubled off when Lemke, his counterpart on the Braves, snared Hrbek’s liner and scampered to second base for the unassisted double play. If the Braves had gone ahead, would Knoblauch’s gaffe be remembered as much as Smith’s today? Who knows, but the Braves had somehow one-upped the Twins when it came to getting out of bases-loaded jams.
Through nine innings Morris had thrown 118 pitches. Thankfully for the Twins and their fans, his manager didn’t put much credence in pitch counts. Instead, Tom Kelly kept tabs on how much time his starting pitcher actually spent on the mound. In a game without a clock, Kelly grew increasingly concerned when his starting pitcher went past the two-hour mark. For him, that’s when performance could go downhill in a hurry, and Morris was pushing up against that time barrier now in Game Seven.
After Morris set Atlanta down in order in the top of the ninth inning closer Rick Aguilera began to warm up, ready to come in for the tenth inning. In the Twins’ dugout Kelly told Morris, “That’s all. Can’t ask you to do any more than that.”
Some of what followed has suffered from revisionist history too. Predictably, Morris didn’t want to come out of the game. He claimed he had plenty left, and years later Kelly said that he was simply testing his staff ace. A quick one-two-three inning had convinced the skipper that Morris had more in the tank.
Looking back on things, Morris said that Kelly was giving him a chance to come out of the game. An invitation that the player and manager, both of whom could be among the most hard-headed guys in the game, knew wouldn’t be accepted.
“Jack was such a competitor that when he pitched, you never really talked to him. For lack of a better term, he was grouchy,” Harper recalled. “He’s a great guy, but he was so focused when he pitched. Now obviously he was locked in that night. In the ninth inning we had Aguilera warming up. Kelly goes to Jack and says, ‘Awesome job. Now we’ll bring Aggie in.’
“Jack looked at him and said, ‘I’m not coming out of this game.’”
Harper remembered Kelly reminding Morris that he had already thrown more than one hundred pitches and that he was pitching on three days’ rest.
Morris told him Kelly again, “I’m not coming out of the game. There’s no way I’m coming out of this game.”
Harper sat back, watching all this unfold, and thought to himself, ‘This is going to be interesting.’ Kelly briefly huddled with pitching coach Dick Such and then walked back Morris.
Those eavesdropping recalled their skipper saying, “Okay, big guy, go get ’em.”
Then Kelly turned and muttered, “Oh hell. It’s only a game.”
In essence, Kelly went totally against the book. The strategy then—and now—would be to go to the bullpen. Managers want the odds in their favor. They love to study the matchups—better to have a right-handed pitcher throw to a right-handed batter, for example. And, of course, pitch counts have become paramount. More so today than at any time in baseball’s history, a manager cannot be faulted if he lifts his starting pitcher late in a game. After all, a quality start has been defined as six innings and allowing no more than three earned runs, and as a result, many pitchers aren’t expected to finish what they started.
“That may be one of the biggest changes, probably not for the better, since the day when I pitched,” Nolan Ryan said. “Back then a starting pitcher took responsibility. He wanted to and was expected to begin and end a game, no matter what it took. That’s something we’ve lost over the years.”
Former big-league pitcher Jim Kaat, who was a sideline reporter for CBS Sports in the 1991 Series, said Morris “just talked or even bullied his way into staying in that game. He simply declared, ‘This is my game,’ and nobody could take it from him.
“In looking back on it that’s something that’s often misunderstood when it comes to today’s game. Some pitchers have this surge of adrenaline—they can really smell the finish line, and it doesn’t matter how many pitches they’ve thrown. In times like that pitch counts don’t mean anything. You’ve got to let them try and finish things off. That said, I’m pretty sure Jack Morris was the only one Tom Kelly would have broken the rules for. He wouldn’t have let Kevin Tapani or Scott Erickson talk him into something like that.”
In looking back at this moment in Game Seven Morris said, “[Kelly] put his ass on the line by leaving me in there, and you don’t realize it at the time. You start reflecting back on the reality of the situation, and even me, if I was managing I’d say to myself, ‘Man, I’ve got Rick Aguilera, who’s done a pretty damn good job. What do you do here?’ And he did something 99 percent of the baseball world wouldn’t do.”
For the first time in World Series history three games had gone into extra innings, and Morris was still very much a part of this one. If anything, the veteran right-hander appeared to be getting stronger as the game went into extra innings, as he became the first starting pitcher since Tom Seaver in 1969 to continue past the ninth inning in the World Series. Morris set the Braves down in order in the top of the tenth on only eight pitches, and Kelly had already decided his staff ace would go out for the eleventh—if things went that far.
“A lot of times you attend a sporting event … and not realize at the time how sensational it is,” Jack Buck told his national television audience. “You look back and say, ‘I’m glad I was there. That was something.’ Tonight, it’s so apparent that this is one of the most remarkable baseball games ever played.”
The longtime voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, Buck had called just about everything in baseball and also was the radio voice for Monday Night Football. This would be his last World Series for television.
Soon Buck’s voice rose in excitement as Dan Gladden led off the bottom of the tenth inning with a broken-bat drive to the outfield. When the ball hit high in front of Brian Hunter, Gladden kept going, sliding into second base with a double.
“The bat broke on the handle, about six inches above my hands,” Gladden remembered. “It was a little flare in front of Hunter and Gant, and I was digging right out of the batter’s box.
“I was going for second as soon as I realized that the bat had broken. I know I surprised some people, even some in my own dugout, but I had played in that ballpark long enough to know where the ball was going and what would probably happen next on that turf. I knew I was good unless it was somehow caught, and I really didn’t see that happening. By that point, frankly, I was tired of playing too. I had to get to second base somehow—just try to end things.”
Puckett later said, “That was Dan Gladden—all or nothing.”
Chuck Knoblauch, who was next up, was told to bunt Gladden over. When the rookie let the first pitch, a fastball from Atlanta reliever Alejandro Peña that split the heart of the plate, go by for strike one, Kelly muttered, “Bunt the damn ball.”
On the third pitch Knoblauch did his job, laying down a bunt to the third base side that Pendleton had no choice but to throw on to first for the inning’s first out. With the winning run standing on third base, Braves manager Bobby Cox decided to intentionally walk Puckett and then Hrbek, making for a force play at every base. Once again a team found itself with the bases loaded and praying for some kind of miracle to keep the game going.
“I knew they would walk Puckett, and I wasn’t surprised when they walked Hrbek too,” said Gladden, who now stood at third base, only ninety feet away from ending the series for good. “There was no other way to play it really. So here we were again. Bases loaded, and we’d see if one of these teams could finally score a run.”
Jarvis Brown, who had come into the game as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning, was the next Twins hitter due up. Brown had appeared in only thirty-eight games that season, hitting .216. Kelly decided he could do better and once again went for a more experienced hand.
Gene Larkin had been swinging a bat, warming up for what seemed to be hours in the runway leading back to the hometown clubhouse. The only problem was that Larkin’s left knee was so swollen that he could barely run. If he hit one on the ground, he could have been slower than the Braves’ Sid Bream heading down to first—setting up a sure double play.
“The tendinitis was really bad,” Larkin recalled. “By that point of that season I couldn’t play defense or run the bases hardly at all. If anything, I felt fortunate to be in uniform frankly. I could have easily been left off the [World Series] roster.”
The knee flared up during the American League Championship Series with Toronto, and the Twins’ brass seriously considered leaving Larkin on the sidelines. Yet manager Tom Kelly liked Larkin’s grit, how he methodically approached each and every at-bat, even if his knee was killing him. At first glance Kelly and Larkin appeared to have little in common. The Twins’ manager was a baseball lifer, and his pinch-hitter had once been a big man on campus. Before breaking in with the Twins in 1987, Larkin played at Columbia University. A diehard Yankee fan, he reminded some Gotham fans of Lou Gehrig, who had also once played on the Upper West Side. The son of a retired New York City police officer, Larkin broke through his senior year, breaking or tying thirteen school batting records, including Gehrig’s for most home runs. The major leagues, as is often the case, proved to be a more difficult scenario for a collegiate star. Larkin became a role player, and even though he hit a career-best .286 in 1991, he appeared in only ninety-eight games that season. And now, after all that, he had a chance to win it all for Minnesota.
“When they did walk Hrbek, I knew I was getting the call,” Larkin remembered. “It was nothing extraordinary in how it happened. TK just called my name, and I went up there. But I’ll tell ya in the on-deck circle my knees were shaking, and when I’m walking to the batter’s box I’m still shaking. You cannot tell when you see it on replay, but I was as nervous as an athlete can be right then.
“But the funny thing was, once I stepped into the batter’s box, a sense of calm came over me. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been in a situation like that before. Certainly not as big as that—seventh game of the World Series. But I took a deep breath, and mentally I was telling myself that I had to hit the first pitch fastball that Peña gave me. I didn’t want to get into a situation where it was two strikes and the umpire could come into it. I didn’t want to leave it to the umpire to make a tough call on an outside or inside pitch.”
For his part home-plate umpire Don Denkinger did try to encourage Larkin, at least a little bit, by telling him that the Braves were moving their outfielders in and the Twins’ pinch-hitter had a good chance to drive one over their heads. Larkin was too nervous, too dry in the mouth, to reply.
“Peña’s history was that he liked to get ahead of the hitter,” Larkin said decades later. “With the bases loaded, he doesn’t want to walk me. His best pitch was a fastball. And fortunately for me he threw a fastball up and out over the plate, which is the perfect pitch to put a fly ball into play. It would have been a routine fly ball if the outfield was at normal depth.”
Of course, the Braves’ outfield had to play in, ready to throw to the plate and cut off the lead runner and the winning run.
“Once I put the bat on the ball, I knew it would be far enough out into left field to drive Danny from third base,” Larkin remembered. “It was going to carry over Hunter’s head, and I didn’t have to worry any more about running. Right then and there I knew we were going to win the game and be World Series champions. There’s no greater feeling than when you know that’s about to happen to you, to your team.”
As soon as Gladden saw the ball leave Larkin’s bat, he raised a fist in the air, and when the ball bounced off the Astroturf, past Hunter in left field, he headed for home. There he stomped on the plate with both feet and the first one to greet him was Morris, the Twins’ starting pitcher, who still held his glove and hat in his hand.
“Somebody had to go home a loser,” Morris said years later, “but nobody was a loser in my mind.”
John Smoltz said that the “bottom line was who was going to run out of nine lives first.”
Gladden added, “What was great about Game Seven when you look back on it is that pretty much everybody in both lineups had a chance to be the hero and drive in a run on a night when only one run was needed. Everybody who stepped into the batter’s box had the opportunity—top to bottom in both batting orders for both teams. We played and played and finally somebody did it, somebody finally came through.”
In finally deciding this series for the ages, the hero ended up being Gene Larkin, a guy who many in the Metrodome and those watching on television least expected. A guy who could barely run down the line to first base drove in the winning run in the perhaps best World Series ever played.
“When I look back on it, I think I was swinging the bat for every average or even below-average player who ever played this game,” Larkin said. “I just got the chance to come through.”
The players themselves were reluctant to clear the field after Gladden crossed home plate as the Braves’ Terry Pendleton hugged Shane Mack and Kirby Puckett while Tom Kelly talked with Ron Gant. A scene that was as close to hockey’s shaking of hands before the Stanley Cup is awarded briefly unfolded. In the Twins’ clubhouse Commissioner Fay Vincent declared this “was probably the greatest World Series ever played,” and the Twins soon afterward broke into an impromptu rendition of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Players on both teams talked about how the World Series trophy could have been, perhaps should have been split in half—that’s how close and well played these handful of games, almost each one with its own particular hero or two, had been. In the end, of course, the hardware stayed in the Twin Cities, and with winter coming on hard, everyone involved was left with memories of the last fine time in baseball.