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

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

Epilogue

After the 1991 World Series both cities held downtown parades for their respective ballclubs. Nearly 750,000 attended the event in Atlanta, and fans there had to remind themselves that their beloved Braves had actually lost. In reality the two teams were at the crossroads, with one destined to fade to the ranks of also-rans to the point of almost ceasing operation, whereas the other would soon be regarded as a perennial contender.

The Twins finished second to the Oakland Athletics in 1992, and Tom Kelly would manage through the 2001 season. As baseball began to divide into two distinct categories of teams—the haves and have-nots—the Twins finished about .500 only twice during the new era in baseball.

A decade after the Twins won the World Series the baseball owners voted twenty-eight to two to downsize the number of teams at the big-league level. Two teams—the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos—were slated to cease operations before the 2002 season. The decision reversed nearly a half-century of expansion and would have been the first time since 1899 that teams had been disbanded at the major-league level.

But the Major League Baseball Players Association pushed back, calling the decision “most imprudent and unfortunate” in a statement.

Dan Gladden, who had scored the winning run in the 1991 World Series, predicted the Twins would still be playing in Minneapolis for years to come. He remained convinced even though Twins ownership wanted Commissioner Bud Selig to eliminate the ballclub in exchange for a contraction payment.

In the end the Expos moved from Montreal, where they were averaging fewer than eight thousand fans a game in the deteriorating Stade Olympique, to Washington, DC, and became the Washington Nationals. The Twins stayed in Minnesota, where the construction of a new outdoor ballpark, Target Field, bolstered their attendance.

In the meantime the Braves made it to the World Series again in 1992, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates in another classic postseason championship series. This time the Braves lost the championship to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games. Before the 1993 season free-agent pitcher Greg Maddux, the defending Cy Young winner, joined the Atlanta staff. The five-year, $28 million deal was the kind of signing that was now beyond the Twins’ reach. Even with Maddux on board, the Braves would lose to the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series.

After realignment shifted Atlanta to the NL East, the Braves finished second to the Montreal Expos in 1994, as the long-simmering labor acrimony between the owners and players boiled over, canceling the World Series. The following season the Braves again reached the World Series and downed the Cleveland Indians to capture Atlanta’s first title. With Bobby Cox at the helm the Braves reached the playoffs in fourteen consecutive seasons.

“I always wondered what would have happened had we won [in 1991],” Mark Lemke said. “Would we have gotten fat and happy, soft? It left the hunger there. You think about it. I don’t believe Minnesota did anything after that. It kept going on for us.

“I know we’d like to have won more World Series, but boy, that certainly started one heck of a run that I don’t think will ever be duplicated.”

In 1997 the Braves moved into a new stadium, which was originally built for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The facility was named after owner Ted Turner. (By late 2013 plans were afoot for the Braves to move into a new stadium in neighboring Cobb County.) Meanwhile the Twins relocated to Target Field in 2010. The outdoor facility was constructed in downtown Minneapolis, within blocks of a light-rail network, and was hailed as perhaps the best of the new retro ballparks, which began with the opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore.

Decades later Pendleton, Lemke, and other members of the 1991 Braves couldn’t help but think that the better team had somehow lost. While Smith’s base-running blunder became the play many remembered, others pointed to Cox’s loyalty to Charlie Leibrandt, in which the Atlanta manager started him in Game One and brought him out of the bullpen to try to close out the Series in Game Six. The Braves also had starter Scott Erickson on the ropes in Game Six but roughed him up for only three runs. Then there were the improbable home runs by the Twins’ Greg Gagne in Game One and Scott Leius in Game Two. Big flies hit by individuals who were afterthoughts on most scouting reports were reminders that pretty much everyone in the Braves’ batting order struggled except for Lemke at .417, Rafael Belliard at .375, and Pendleton at .367. In comparison, Ron Gant and David Justice, the two players on the front of the 1991 Braves media guide, combined to hit .263 and only two home runs, both by Justice.

To this day Pendleton, who in any other Series could have driven the deciding run, won’t admit that the Twins were the better team that season. “There was no better team than us in baseball in 1991,” he said.

Lemke won’t go that far. “It’s hard to say if we should have won, but we sure had our chances,” he said. “We needed to take a road game, and we just couldn’t do it. Time after time it looked like we were about to break through against them.”

So what helped tipped the balance? As Pendleton feared, the last guy Atlanta wanted to face in a winner-take-all Game Seven was Jack Morris. And then there was the setting. Professional athletes aren’t supposed to be influenced by any home-field advantage. Yet in 1991 where the games were played had a profound impact. Not only did both teams rise to the occasion in front of their hometown fans, but the difference in the stadiums—one indoor, the other outside—also became the background noise and major concern for whoever was the visiting team.

“[The Metrodome] had to be the toughest home-field edge I’ve ever encountered,” Lemke added. “It wasn’t just the noise and those hankies, but that roof sure could wreck havoc with the best of ballplayers and teams.”

Jim Kaat, who played in two World Series, 1965 and 1982, and covered another half-dozen more, including the 1991 World Series for CBS, said he never witnessed a more “significant home-field advantage” than the Metrodome.

“I don’t know if the Twins win … without playing four games there,” he said. “Being there reminded me of when we’d used to go into the Astrodome. The place was so different that by the time you adjusted, you were leaving after losing a few.

“I don’t know if the Braves were the better team, but I could see how they felt they were. That Atlanta team had everything except a quality closer. If you put somebody like Mariano Rivera on that club, they would have been unbeatable. That’s not to be critical of the guys they had. A pitcher like Charlie Leibrandt was a real veteran, but he wasn’t your prototypical closer.

“When you look back on those great Braves teams, that’s what they were lacking. An automatic, lockdown guy coming out of the bullpen.”

When the dust settled, Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz declared that the Twins were the champions of the games played indoors in 1991, and his Braves were the champs of the games held outdoors.

———

The summer after the Twins-Braves Series I went to Cuba for the first time, and even fans there were asking whether this was the best World Series ever. My assignment was an exhibition series between the United States and Cuban Olympic baseball teams before the 1992 Summer Games. Back then I thought I knew everything there was to know about baseball—after all, I had just covered my first World Series, and an epic one at that. But nothing could really prepare me for that first game in Cuba.

The exhibition series was held in Holguin, on the eastern end of the island, and by noon the Soviet-style stadium was filled to overflowing for a 7:30 p.m. first pitch. The US roster was young but loaded with players who would soon reach the major leagues—Nomar Garciaparra, Phil Nevin, Darren Dreifort, Charles Johnson, and Jeffrey Hammonds.

As dusk settled over the land, the foul poles glowed neon pink in the tropical twilight—the better to determine fair from foul—and the crowd grew more rambunctious thanks to the salsa band and the incessant ringing of cowbells. I walked into the stadium alongside Hammonds. As we gazed out upon the site, he nodded at the outfield fence. “What does that mean?” he asked about the Socialism o Muerte slogan, which was splashed in red lettering. I told him that I believed it meant “socialism or death.”

There was no real press box, so members of the US press—all six of us—sat in the stands. During the early innings I gazed out at Hammonds, who was playing in center field, only a few feet away from the Socialism o Muerteproclamation. That’s when an old man, a Cuban, sat down next to me. I was at the end of the row, and he sat in the aisle to my right.

“You’re an American?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Please tell me about the Minnesota Twins,” he said in broken English.

I began to tell him how the Twins had just won one of the best World Series ever played. That said, it would be difficult for them to repeat, as they didn’t have the deep pockets to hold on to all their stars and their best players were only getting older.

“I know all that,” the Cuban gentleman interrupted.

“Then what do you want to know?” I answered.

“What do they look like?”

What do they look like? That remains one of the most curious questions I’ve ever been asked. With that single query, the old Cuban made me realize how star-crossed his nation is and how memorable the Twins-Braves Series remains.

In my tourist Spanish, with help of my good friend Milton Jamail, I went about the diamond, describing the 1991 world champions. Of course, I put Kent Hrbek at first base (grande pero con elegante), Brian Harper behind the plate (hombre resuelto) and Jack Morris (lanzador bigote) on the mound. I finished with Kirby Puckett in center field, a guy who is difficult to describe in English, let alone a second language. How do you tell somebody about a bowling ball of a man who always seemed to smile and had such a flair for the dramatic?

As I spoke I turned to Milton to my left and also gazed out toward the field, trying to come up with the best words. When I finished I turned back to the old man. His eyes had swelled with tears and he stood up, clasping me on the shoulder.

“Thank you,” he said. “Now I know.”

Then he disappeared down the row toward home plate and into the crowd. Even today, when I think about that memorable Series and the Twins and the Braves, two teams that always seemed ready to rise to the occasion, I see the old man’s face. That odd mix of happiness and sadness, determination and relief, still sums up those times the best for me.