Amidst the chaos of March Madness, the stretch runs of the NBA and NHL seasons, and Augusta National gearing up for another memorable four days of golf’s biggest game, one impending date looms large on the sporting landscape.
Opening Day is right around the corner.
Hope springs eternal this time of year. Every team is 0-0, and there’s no telling just how those two zeros will eventually add up to 162. As Annie Savoy said, “it’s a long season, and you gotta trust it.” As we approach the 2011 MLB season, however, I find myself looking not to the future, but the past. This is an anniversary of sorts. Oh, it’s nothing you’ll read about in the papers, and you won’t see any ESPN or SI documentaries to commemorate it either. Nonetheless, for myself and everyone else who hails from the 404 and 770 area codes, this is the 20th Anniversary of a very special moment in time and the salvation of a city’s sports soul: The 1991 Atlanta Braves’ incredible season. In honor of this fake anniversary, please allow me a bit of self-indulgent reminiscence.
“It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play …”
Being an Atlanta sports fan in the late 80’s was a woeful business. In the Land of College Football, of course we had the eternal Georgia/GA Tech rivalry, and our collective hatred of Florida, FSU, ‘Bama, et al. But that was a divisive passion. You’re either a Dawg or a Ramblin’ Wreck, and there’s no room for bipartisan loyalty. But as for our teams, the Atlanta teams, we were in bad straits. The Falcons were still two decades from even posting back-to-back winning seasons. The Hawks, led by the great Dominique Wilkins and diminutive, plucky Spud Webb, were actually pretty good, but there was no way we were knocking Bird’s Celtics or Jordan’s ascending Bulls out in a playoff series. We didn’t have an NHL team, the Flames having moved to Calgary, and the Thrashers still being years away. And then there were the Braves. The pitiful, pitiful Braves.
Aside from Dale Murphy, whose continued absence from Cooperstown still baffles and infuriates me, there wasn’t much to cheer for. And it showed every time you tuned in on TV or went to a game. Remember the games right after New Yankee Stadium opened, when you could see the emptiness in those obscenely priced seats behind home plate during every at bat? That was every Braves home game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, except the dismal attendance wasn’t financially related. It was just that we stank. Badly. And unlike Boston, New York, or Chicago, we didn’t have several generations’ worth of devout fervor to bolster us. (The Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966, and the incredible exploits of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron aside, we had no venerable old traditions to hang our red-and-blue, “A”-embossed hats on.) AFCS wasn’t Fenway or Wrigley or Camden Yards or The House That Ruth Built. Really, it wasn’t the house that anybody built, unless you count Ted Turner. I loved them unconditionally anyway, but those years gave me a small taste of what every pre-2004 Red Sox fan must have gone through, and what every Cubs fan is still going through. It’s not an experience I’d care to repeat. Suffice it to say, it was a tough go loving baseball in Atlanta at the time. We finished the 1990 season with a mortifying 65-97 record, last in the division, and no one imagined that 1991 was going to be any better. How wrong we all were.
We were wrong because we didn’t understand the implications of the off-season yet. What happened, you ask? John Schuerholz happened. As the newly appointed GM of our beleaguered franchise, Schuerholz quickly decided that a massive overhaul was in order. He signed an avalanche of free agents, among whom three would become essential cogs in the coming season’s machine: Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, and Deion Sanders. At the time, however, none of these signings sparked any buzz with the fans. (This was understandable, since not a one hit above .270 the previous season, and only Bream hit more than 10 homeruns.) In fact, looking back at that year’s roster, it’s still mildly amazing that the season turned out like it did. Aside from our starting rotation, which went on to become legend but at the time was just a bunch of promising kids, only two names would jump off the page to a casual fan: David Justice, who’s probably just as famous for having once been married to Halle Berry as he is for baseball; and Deion Sanders, who you probably forgot even played baseball because his NFL association is so much more prominent nowadays. Everyone else? Unless you’re a Braves fan or an obsessive baseball junkie, you barely remember them being in the league. (Though our left fielder, Ron Gant, did manage to put himself in a bizarrely select group by becoming only the third player in MLB history to post back-to-back 30HR/30SB seasons. The other two? Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. I loved Ronnie, but his name looks wrong in such vaunted company. I mean, he hit .256 for his career, hardly Cooperstown material.) Anyway, here’s our ’91 Opening Day starters:
Sid Bream 1B
Jeff Treadway 2B
Rafael Belliard SS
Terry Pendleton 3B
David Justice RF
Deion Sanders CF
Ron Gant LF
Mike Heath C
John Smoltz SP
Not exactly Murderer’s Row, right? They didn’t look it that day, either, losing 6-4 to NL West rivals the LA Dodgers, coached by the hated Tommy Lasorda. (I’d forgotten until I looked this game up that we used to be in the NL West. The NL West? Atlanta is a six-hour drive from the Atlantic Ocean. MLB divisions back then had no relation whatsoever to actual geography.) For a while there, it looked like that first game would be a pretty accurate barometer for the season. In what would become a theme with the Braves for the ensuing decade or so, our starting pitching was good, the bullpen shaky, the offense swinging erratically between anemic and explosive, and too often we lived or died by how closer Alejandro Pena pitched that day. Pena was basically his generation’s Brad Lidge; on any given night, he was capable of turning into Mo’ Rivera and destroying batters, but you just never knew when he’d fall apart. We entered the All Star Break a game below .500 on another loss to the Dodgers, and only one player, ace Tom Glavine, participated in the Mid-summer Classic. In a truly bizarre occurrence, Third baseman Terry Pendleton failed to make the All-Star Game, but was voted NL MVP at the end of the year. Go figure.
If things looked bleak heading into the All Star hiatus, the Braves were exceedingly quick to change the tenor of the season coming out of it. We simply started to roll. We took 9 of our first 13 games after the break, winning series against the Cardinals, Cubs, and Cards again, finally dropping a three-game set to the Pirates two games to one. (You may find this difficult to believe if you’re under the age of 30, but once upon a time taking a series from Pittsburg was really hard. Those early-90s Pirates teams, with crotchety old Jim Leyland at the helm, were no joke.) Things were coming together. Our (mostly) youthful rotation of Glavine, Smoltz, baby-faced Steve Avery, and wily veteran Charlie Leibrandt, went from pretty good to certifiably dangerous, and the bats started to find leather more consistently. Our line-up from opening day was significantly altered; for the better, I might add. We now had Mark Lemke at second, Jeff Blauser platooning with Belliard at short, Greg Olson supplanting the aging Mike Heath behind the plate, Brian Hunter sharing time at first, and Lonnie Smith and Otis Nixon sharing time in the outfield. By August 12th, we were ten games above .500, and the city was absolutely over the moon about our boys. Gone were those empty seats, gone was the malaise. In their place were the completely foreign feelings of optimism and hope. The Braves were developing the kind of chip-on-the-shoulder, underdog swagger usually reserved for 16 seeds busting into the NCAA Final Four, and in turn, the fans got a little more pep in our collective step. We started to strut. With our ragged cast of middling veterans and young guns on the rise, we were, against all logic, serious contenders, and it felt goooooood!
As the regular season wound down, we were in a heated battle for the division title. We notched six straight wins going into a season-finale home stand against the Houston Astros, which left us with an identical record to the Dodgers: 92-67, with three games apiece left to play. We won the first game 5-2, and LA lost their game against the Giants. A post-season birth was so close we could practically taste it, but we still needed one more win and one more Dodgers loss to clinch it. I actually went to that second-to-last game, and it was easily the most tension-filled I’ve ever felt a ballpark in a non-playoff setting. Actually, given the circumstances, it was a playoff game. If we lost and LA won their last two, they would snatch the division away by virtue of a better head-to-head record.
We had ace John Smoltz on the mound that day, facing Houston’s Mark Portugal. If Portugal was pedestrian that day. Smoltz was anything but. He tossed a gem of a complete game, allowing only two runs. The Braves racked up five runs for the win, propelled by a stellar offensive day by Ron Gant: two hits, two runs, and two RBIs. Lemke, Belliard, and TP chipped in the rest, and suddenly we were just inches from the playoffs. The atmosphere at AFCS was extra heady. As we made to leave, an announcement came over the public address system: If we cared to hang around, the last few innings of the Dodgers/Giants game, on which our fate now hung, would be broadcast on the stadium’s huge TV monitor. Needless to say, nobody left. If LA lost, tomorrow wouldn’t matter. And lose they did, 4-0 to San Francisco. When the final out was recorded, we erupted into a raucous cascade of cheers, high fives, hugs, and general hysteria. If fans have ever loved a team not their own as much as we loved the Giants that day, I’ll eat a catcher’s mitt. The next day, LA won while Houston crushed us 8-3, and absolutely nobody cared. We were going to the playoffs. “From Worst To First!” the headlines proclaimed. Tom Glavine earned NL Cy Young honors on the strength of his 20 wins and 2.55 ERA. One leg of a miraculous journey was complete, but the real theatrics, the stomach-churning drama, the heroics and heartbreak, hadn’t yet begun. As the team boarded a plane to Pittsburg for an NLCS showdown against the Pirates, no one could have known that our season was about to make the massive leap from “improbable” to “unbelievable.”
Game one at Three Rivers Stadium didn’t exactly give an impression of prolonging the magic. The Pirates routed us five to one, and in the irrational manner of fans accustomed to losing, we immediately started to wonder if the whole season hadn’t been some sort of elaborate sham, if the playoffs were a cruel joke. Then Steve Avery came out and put on a pitching clinic in game two: 8 1/3 scoreless frames, with Alejandro Pena coming in to slam the door in the ninth. Our offense was terrible, but our lone run, courtesy of a Mark Lemke double to left in the top of the sixth that brought Dave Justice across the plate, was enough. As the series shifted back to Atlanta, we were by turns excited and terrified, hopeful and nervous as hell. But the Pirates had to come to our turf now, and anything could happen. “Anything” turned out to be a 10-3 blowout victory in game three, as the Braves’ thus-far ineffectual bats came to life with a vengeance. Delirious with our offensive resurgence, the city shared a collective thought: “Surely we can get at least one more victory at home. We’ve got this, right?” Our mistake.
Game four merits its own paragraph, on account of its capacity to make me cringe even now. We jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first on a Ron Gant grounder and Greg Olson’s single into left. Pittsburg promptly cut the lead in half in the top of the 2nd, with Don Slaught singling home Bobby Bonilla. They tied the game in the fifth, and we were knotted at two all the way into the top of an extra frame. (The Braves actually had a chance to end it in the ninth, but Mike Stanton popped up to first to end the inning, stranding Mark Lemke on second. I distinctly remember sitting between my parents on the comfy tan couch in our den, declaring with all the authority my nine years could muster that despite the lateness of the hour, there was no way I was going to bed until the game was over. They didn’t argue.) We brought in Kent Mercker to pitch the top of the tenth, and after a leadoff walk to Andy Van Slyke, it looked like he was going to save the day, retiring the dangerous Barry Bonds/Bobby Bonilla combo on consecutive fly outs. People forget this now, but at the time, those two were the equivalent of facing David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez back-to-back on the ’04 Red Sox; they were just plain scary. Then Van Slyke stole second, and Mercker walked Steve Buechele. Bobby Cox decided to bring in Mark Wohlers to finish off the inning, one of those signature not-quite-necessary Cox pitching moves that were alternately brilliant or disastrous. This one turned out to be the latter. Wohlers gave up a single to pinch hitter Mike LaValliere, and Van Slyke scored, but Buechele got thrown out at the plate, giving us a reasonable chance to stage a rally in the bottom of the inning. Didn’t happen. Three straight outs and it was over. With the series tied at two games apiece, we had one more shot to do some damage at home before heading back to the hostile confines of Three Rivers.
Tom Glavine was back on the mound for game five, and we had abundant faith in our all star. To Tommy’s credit, he pitched a fantastic game, allowing only one run through eight innings’ work. Unfortunately, our bats went dead silent again. Or silent when it mattered, at least. We stranded a whole gaggle of runners in scoring position, and lost 1-0, forcing us to head back to Pittsburg down three games to two. Thankfully, as in game two, Steve Avery was there to save us. His game six line was eerily similar to his previous appearance: eight innings, no runs allowed. And, as before, the Braves’ only run was enough for a win. Still, the bottom of the ninth was more harrowing than I care to recall. Pena came out of the bullpen and allowed a leadoff single to pinch hitter Gary Varsho. Then an Orlando Merced sacrifice bunt moved him to second. Jay Bell lined out, and with two down, we looked to be free and clear, but Varsho advanced to third on a wild pitch. We held our breath as Andy Van Slyke, who had burned us so many times before in crucial situations, came to the plate. Finally, we were able to exhale when good ol’ Alejandro caught Van Slyke looking on a nasty slider to end the game. (By the way, one of my favorite things about that year was the way the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium public address guy announced Pena, almost musically, all in one swooping breath: “ALEJANDROOOOOOOOOPEEEEEEEEEENNNNAAAAA!!!!” Fantastic.)
Anyway, onward to game seven we went.
Mercifully, This turned out to be as anticlimactic as a deciding playoff game can be. We jumped out to a three-run lead in the top of the first, and it was all we needed. John Smoltz simply never took his foot off the gas. Allowing a total of six hits, Smoltzy clocked a complete game shutout and just destroyed the Pirates’ hitters. It was a stellar performance, and after the near-death experience the previous evening, we were grateful to sit through a completely non-threatening game for once. Of course, that didn’t stop me from going bonkers when Jose Lind grounded out to end the game. I was jumping around like a lunatic, screaming, “We won! We’re going to the World Series!” over and over. And over. Steve Avery took home the NLCS MVP on the strength of his combined 16 1/3 scoreless innings. And then the team was packing to fly to the cold of the north, to face the AL Champion Minnesota Twins. By this point, Atlanta was in such a euphoria it bordered on outright rapture. If you were spacing out at school, doodling Braves logos all over your notebook instead of paying attention in class, which I may or may not have been, the teachers cut you some slack. No Atlanta team had ever done anything like this before, and we were all prepared to lose a week or two of normal life to revel in it. Just when we thought the chaos and passion, the rush of it all, couldn’t possibly ratchet up one more notch, it went ahead and jumped several dozen notches instead.
I only need to refer to the box scores sparingly to remember what transpired over the next ten days. By all accounts, the 1991 World Series is one of the greatest in the history of the Fall Classic, and I watched every moment. Moreover, my family purchased the commemorative video afterwards, and I watched and re-watched it repeatedly, obsessively in fact, throughout the entire winter, until every play was ingrained permanently on my memory. My mother’s entire family being from Minnesota, I made a $1.00 bet with Grandpa that “my” Braves would beat “his” Twins and win the series. It would take us all seven games, three going to extra innings, to find out who was getting that dollar bill.
I’m retelling the World Series in the present tense because it’s more fun and more effective that way …
October 19, 1991. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, MN.
The Braves elect to pit veteran against veteran in game one, sending Charlie Leibrandt to the hill to face Twins ace Jack Morris. The first 2 innings are relatively quiet. Both teams put runners on base, but are unable to take advantage. The Twins strike first in the bottom of the third. With two outs, left fielder Dan Gladden draws a walk, then steals second. Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch shoots a seeing-eye grounder through the gap into right to score Gladden, but is thrown out at second to end the inning. “It’s just one run,” says Dad. Another 2 ½ inning lull ensues. Then, in the bottom of the fifth, things start to fall apart. A Kent Hrbek double and a Scott Leius single put runners on the corners with nobody out. A few pitches later, Greg Gagne blasts a homerun. Twins lead 4-0. We pull Leibrandt and replace him with Jim Clancy. As any baseball fan could tell you, pulling your starter with no outs in the 5th is a bad sign.
Once again wedged between my parents on the couch, I feel my stomach churning as Clancy warms up. Amazingly, he gets us out of the inning without further damage. In the top of the sixth, the Braves show moderate signs of life. Ron Gant’s two-out single to left scores Jeff Treadway from second, and Dave Justice advances to third on a throwing error. I’m on the edge of the couch now, irrationally hopeful despite the score. Unfortunately, Sid Bream strikes out to end the brief rally. In the bottom of the inning, Hrbek lofts a solo shot over the Metrodome’s hideous plexiglass outfield wall, making it 5-1, Twins. We go 1-2-3 in the top of the seventh, but Minnesota can’t do anything in the bottom half, despite a leadoff walk for Dan Gladden, who is caught stealing second. In the eighth, Morris walks Lonnie Smith and Treadway consecutively, and is promptly relieved by Mark Guthrie. Terry Pendleton grounds into a double play, but Smith advances to third. Guthrie walks Dave Justice, and is replaced by Rick Aguilera, who immediately allows a Ron Gant RBI single. 5-2. Maybe we’ve got a shot here … Nope. Once again, Bream ends the inning. The remainder of the game is a blur, 3 consecutive outs by both sides, and a numbness as Jeff Blauser flys out to end it. “Don’t worry, honey,” says Mom. “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow,” says Dad.
October 20, 1991. Again in the Baggie Dome, Minneapolis.
(Most people I know still refer to this as the “Kent ****** Hrbek Game”, but we’ll get to that later.)
Twins pitcher Kevin Tapani retires the side in the first, and then, the madness sets in. Tom Glavine gets leadoff hitter Dan Gladden to send what looks like a perfectly routine fly ball to shallow right-center. The TV cameras show Mark Lemke calmly drifting back from second base, his glove raised to make the catch. It’s unclear if he doesn’t call the ball, or if no one hears him in the noisy, echoing cavern that is the Metrodome, but here’s what happens next: Dave Justice comes flying in from right to field the ball, oblivious to the fact that Lemke has already positioned himself under it. The two collide in the outfield grass, er, Astroturf, and the ball drops out of Lemke’s Glove. Gladden hustles his way to second while Dave and Mark are picking their embarrassed behinds up off the deck. Our living room lets out a collective “aaauuugghh!!!” This is not a good way to start a ballgame. Glavine walks Chuck Knoblauch, but induces slugger Kirby Puckett into a rare (for him) groundball double play. With Knoblauch on second and two outs, Chili Davis homers to put the Twins up 2-0. Uh-oh. A Brian Hunter sac fly scores Justice in the top of the second, and we cut the lead in half. I’m feeling a little bit better about things, and Tommy looks like he’s settling in and starting to find a groove.
And then … top of the third: Kent ****** Hrbek. Twenty years later, and I’m still mad about this. After a leadoff groundout by Belliard, Lonnie Smith gets on base on an error. A Terry Pendleton fly out makes it 2 outs with Ron Gant at the plate. Gant rips a single to left, and a wild relay throw by Dan Gladden allows Smith to reach third base. Meanwhile, Gant rounds first, looking to stretch it into a double, but Tapani fields the errant throw, catching him too far from second to make it. As Gant sprints back towards first base, Tapani guns the throw to Kent Hrbek, and Gant is called out on the tag by first base umpire Drew Coble to end the inning. This, folks, is why we need more replay reviews in baseball: despite adamant arguments from both Gant and Braves’ first base coach Pat Corrales, Coble maintains that Gant’s own momentum carried him off the base. TV announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, watching the same slow-motion replay being beamed to millions of households, are incredulous at the call, as it’s abundantly clear that Hrbek played dirty pool, yanking Gant’s foot off the bag with his glove to force the out. I have watched that replay approximately 437,915 times, and it never gets any less sickening. (This was a series-altering call. If Gant had been ruled safe, and every at bat had unfolded exactly as it did for the rest of the game, I’m convinced we would have won, and the whole tenor of the series would have changed. Both ESPN and Sports Illustrated later ranked the play in their “Top Ten Worst Baseball Calls of All Time.”)
Thankfully, we get another run when Greg Olson doubles to start the fifth, and a Lemke grounder moves him over to third with only one out. Rafael Belliard lofts a sac fly to right to bring him home. Tie ballgame! I’m bouncing up and down like a yo-yo. The next two-and-a-half innings are a mini-pitcher’s duel. Glavine and Tapani are masterful, pinpointing their spots and generally making the hitters look foolish. It looks like we’re going down to the wire, here. Then, in the 8th, Glavine makes one last mistake, hanging a pitch to Scott Leius, who crushes it to left-center to give the Twins a one-run advantage. Glavine finishes out the inning beautifully and without incident, and we move to a last-ditch top of the ninth, with Bream, Hunter, and Olson due up, and the Twins bringing in Rick Aguilera to close. Aguilera fans Bream to open the inning, but Hunter bloops a fly ball single into shallow center. Olson strikes out looking, and really, he gets a few pitches to hit, but I think the pressure just short circuits his brain. We’re down to our final out. Cox sends in Tommy Gregg to pinch hit for Lemke, and Tommy …. strikes out looking. Ouch. Not a dignified end to the game at all. With the Braves down 2-0 in the series, Grandpa calls the next day and jokingly asks if I’m ready to go ahead and concede the dollar. I’m so depressed I can’t even muster a response. At least we’re coming home for the next three games.
October 22, 1991. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
This wasn’t a baseball game, it was a bloody marathon.
Twenty-game winner Scott Erickson takes the mound for the Twins, facing the Braves’ young prodigy and NCLS MVP Steve Avery. Game three starts off in an eerily similar manner to game two. Again, Dan Gladden leads off with what should be a routine fly ball, and again, disaster strikes. Justice and Gant fail to properly communicate on the catch, the ball drops to the turf, and Gladden winds up at third with no outs. Here we go again. Chuck Knoblauch’s sac fly plates Gladden, giving the Twins the early lead. Nonetheless, Avery looks sharp, and retires the remainder of the side. In the bottom of the second, we tie the game with a two-out rally. Erickson walks Greg Olson, and Lemke singles to move him to second. Belliard rips a single to left to bring Olson across, and we wind up with runners on second and third when the Twins throw to home in an effort to prevent further scoring. Unfortunately, Avery is due up, and grounds out to end the inning. After consecutive 3-up, 3-down exchanges, Justice bangs a solo shot to right to lead off the fourth, and we’re up 2-1. Side Bream doubles in the next at bat, and we look to be putting something together, but Erickson forces three consecutive groundouts to end the threat. Avery is pitching brilliantly; he’s retired nine straight batters as we head into the bottom of the fifth. With one out, Lonnie Smith cranks a solo shot to left, 3-1, Braves. Erickson is clearly flustered, and he walks Terry Pendleton on the next at bat. Gant pops up to second to make it two outs, but Erickson’s wild pitch to Dave Justice moves TP over to second. Justices reaches base on an error, and we’ve got runners at the corners. Twins’ manager Tom Kelly yanks Erickson and sends reliever David West to the rubber, where he quickly walks to Sid Bream to load the bases, then walks Greg Olson to bring Pendleton home. The Twins pull West and put in Terry Leach, who strikes out Lemke to end the inning, but the damage is done. Up 4-1, with Avery in lights-out mode, this one feels like it’s in the bag.
Of course, Steve immediately starts to look mortal in the 6th. No runs score, but he gives up a few hits and the Twins batters are making solid contact, as evidenced by a scary deep fly out by Dan Gladden that almost starts a serious rally. Because of pinch-hitting Gene Larkin to try and generate some offense, the Twins are forced to bring in yet another reliever in Steve Bedrosian to pitch the sixth. He gets the job done and retires the side, but they’re burning through their bullpen at a furious pace. Avery finally lets one get away, giving up a solo shot to Kirby Puckett to open the seventh, but he retires the rest of the side, leaving us with a still-comfortable 4-2 lead. Bedrosian puts us down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning. The Twins use yet another pinch hitter, Brian Harper, to start the eighth, and he reaches on an infield error. Avery is clearly gassed after a brilliant outing, and we send in Pena, hoping he can close it out. No dice. He gives up a homerun to Chili Davis (yet another pinch hitter), and all of a sudden it’s a tie game. The Twins string a few more hits together, and my confidence of just an inning ago evaporates. I don’t have any fingernails left to bite, which is too bad, since I really could use them for the rest of the night. Pena finally gets back-to-back strikeouts to end the inning. The Twins make two more switches in the field heading into the bottom of the 8th (Carl Willis to the mound and Jarvis Brown to right, with Harper moving to catcher); their bench is starting to look paper-thin. Once again, we go down in order. They expend two more pinch hitters in the ninth, but aside from giving up a single to Harper, Pena gets us out scott free. Belliard draws a leadoff walk to start the bottom 9th, and the Twins intentionally walk TP with one out, but nothing comes of it. We’re headed to extra frames, and three of the craziest innings in postseason history.
Through the scoreless 10th and 11th, both Cox and Kelly make so many substitutions and double switches that the box score starts to resemble the teams’ complete roster listings. We get two solid innings’ work from Mark Stanton, while the Twins utilize Mark Guthrie. By the time we get to the top of the twelfth, the game has become downright loony. With Wohlers now on the hill, we get a quick first out. Dan Gladden smacks a line drive single into right, and a fielding error on an easy Knoblauch grounder puts runners at first and third. Kent Mercker replaces Wohlers and strikes out Hrbek, but Knoblauch steals second. Jim Clancy comes relieves Mercker, and we intentionally walk the dangerous Kirby Puckett to load the bases. At this point, Tom Kelly has completely depleted his bench, and is forced to use reliever Rick Aguilera as a pinch hitter, since Guthrie, whom he’s replacing, has never had a major-league at bat. Aguilera lines out to center to end the inning, and will be pitching in the bottom half. (He is the Twins’ very last pitcher left.) After a Ron Gant fly out, Dave Justice singles to right. Brian Hunter pops out to second, and it looks like we might be headed for a 13th inning. I am literally sweating bullets at this point. If we lose this one and go down 3-0, our proverbial goose is almost assuredly cooked. Then Justice steals second, and Greg Olson draws a walk to bring up Lemke. Finally, finally, we get a win. Lemke singles to left and Justice races home, ending one of the most intense and bizarre games of all time. The game clocks in at 4 hours, 4 minutes, then a World Series record. The Twins and Braves used a combined thirteen pitchers in the game, and Tom Kelly later told the media, only half-joking, that if the game had lasted another inning he would have put left fielder Dan Gladden on the mound. What a night. Exhausted, I shuffle off to bed. We’re down two games to one, but at least we know we can beat them, even if it does take our whole team to do it.
October 23, AFCS, Atlanta, GA.
After the insanity of game three, we barely have the emotional reserves to deal with another close game, but the baseball gods drop one on us anyway. Game four pits our young hurler John Smoltz against his boyhood idol (and game 1 winner) Jack Morris. After a quiet first inning, the Twins strike first on a Mike Pagliarulo single that scores Brian Harper from second. Smoltzy strikes out the next two batters to end the inning, but we’re trailing early. Again. My apple juice tastes like ashes in y mouth. After Morris fans Lonnie Smith to start the bottom of the third, TP rocks him for a solo shot to tie the game. The bottom of the fifth is a heady stretch of time, starting with Lonnie Smith’s leadoff single and subsequent steal of second. Pendleton shoots a line drive to center, and Smith rounds third as Kirby Puckett guns a throw to the plate. His collision with catcher Brian Harper reverberates violently through the TV, but Harper holds on to the ball. Ronnie Gant draws a walk, putting runners at the corners with only one out and Dave Justice coming up. Morris throws a rare wild pitch that caroms away from Harper, who rips off his mask and darts after the ball while TP sprints towards the plate. Harper recovers the ball, and dives back to home just in time to tag Terry out. I slump back into the couch, barely coherent as Morris gets Justice to pop out to get out of the inning. Smoltz and Morris are vicious in the sixth, retiring both sides. Pagliarulo burns us again in the 7th with a solo homerun, but Lonnie Smith answers with one of his own in the bottom half. A flurry of pitching changes and no offense to speak of take us to the bottom of the ninth still knotted at two all, with Olson, Lemke, and Blauser due up against Mark Guthrie. After Olson grounds out, Lemke rifles a triple to the warning tack in left-center, and the Twins intentionally walk Jeff Blauser. For what feels like the umpteenth time in the series, we have runners on first and third with one out. Steve Bedrosian relives Guthrie for the Twins, and Bobby Cox elects to send seldom-used bench player Jerry Willard to the plate as a pinch hitter. At home, we’re downright baffled by this, but it turns out to be the right move. Willard skies a sac fly to right that brings Lemke home. Vicotry!!! We’re tied at two games apiece, with one more to play at home. (Since game three ended after midnight, Mark Lemke just technically won us two World Series games in the same day. Outstanding!) On a related note, I totally bombed a math quiz the next day. Oh well.
October 24, AFCS, Atlanta, GA.
Every so often, a team’s entire batting order gets dialed in simultaneously. They swagger from the on deck circle, looking ten feet tall and bulletproof, seemingly seeing every pitch in slow motion. Game five turns out to be such a night for the Braves. A game two rematch of Glavine vs. Tapani, this one is never really in doubt after the 4th inning. Heading into the bottom of the 4th, both teams have only mustered two hits each, and it feels like we’re in for another tight, low-scoring affair. Then our bats come alive like they just chugged thirty pots of coffee. Gant leads off with a single, then Justice crushes a two-run blast to center. A Lemke triple scores Greg Olson, and a Belliard double brings Lemke home in turn. By the time a shell-shocked Tapani gets out of the inning, it’s 4-0, and he’s done for the night. Glavine rolls through the top of the fifth, and we tack on another run in the bottom when a Dave Justice grounder off reliever Terry Leach scores Pendleton. Glavine melts down in the sixith, issuing four walks and a hit that add up to three runs, the last one on a groundball out with Kent Mercker on the mound after Cox wisely yanks our flailing starter. At 5-3, it’s the closest Minnesota will have a chance to get. We demolish relievers David West and Bedrosian for six runs in the seventh to put things permanently out of reach, on a barrage that begins with a Lonnie Smith homer and features a complete trip through the order when Smith flies out to end it. The interim sees two consecutive walks issued, and hits by Justice, Hunter, Lemke (with a monster two-run triple to right), and Belliard. Just for good measure, we add three more runs in the bottom of the 8th. When it was all over, we’ve racked up 14 runs on 17 hits with three homers. As I run around the living room joyously screaming, the TV cameras cut to a delirious group of fans waving brooms in the center filed stands, symbolic of our three-game home sweep of the Twins. Up 3-2, we’re headed back to Minnesota for game six, and a shot at Atlanta’s first championship in any sport.
October 26, 1991. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, MPLS.
The Braves elect to put Steve Avery back on the mound with only three days’ rest for game six, facing Scott Erickson, whom our hitters abused in his previous outing. Erickson looks shaky in the first, giving up a walk and a hit, but eventually retires us without any runs scored. It quickly becomes evident that Avery is not well suited for pitching on short rest. After Dan Gladden’s leadoff groundout, he gives up a single to Knoblauch and a triple to Puckett to make it 1-0. Chili Davis pops out for out number two, but a Shane Mack single plates Puckett, and Scott Leius dings him for an additional hit before Avery finally gets Hrbek to line out to left. Rattled but resilient, Avery settles down to work and pitches three good innings. Erickson still looks a little discombobulated out there, but he holds us without any runs until the top of the fifth, when TP sends a two-run blast into the stands that brings us off the couch in a fit of excitement, during which I spill a glass of water. We hastily clean it up during the commercial break of a now-tied game. Our joy is cruelly short-lived. Avery gives up a sac fly to Puckett in the bottom half to score Dan Gladden, and we’re down a run. After a scoreless sixth, Erickson gives up a leadoff single to Lemke, and he’s done for the evening. Reliever Mark Guthrie strikes out Blauser, but the loads the bases on a wild pitch, and walk, and a Terry Pendleton single that the Twins’ infield can’t handle. Tom Kelly sends Carl Willis to the mound, and he forces a grounder that ties the game but also takes us from bases loaded and one out to first-and-third with two outs. For the 47th time in the series (approximate, but it feels like that many), we leave multiple runners stranded. After the seventh-inning stretch, Bobby Cox sends out Mike Stanton, and he and Willis trade two scoreless frames to take us to the bottom of the ninth. Pena comes in, strikes out the first two batters, and gets a groundout to end the inning in order. He looks positively nasty tonight. With things still tied at three, for the second time in the series, we’re forced into extra frames.
The Twins put Rick Aguilera back out to pitch the 10th, and after a leadoff Pendleton single, he forces a line-drive unassisted double play and a Dave Justice fly out to end the inning. Pena again retires the side in the bottom half, pitching like a man possessed. I feel like we can pull this one out. Aguilera gives up another leadoff single, this one to Sid Bream. Sadly, it’s followed by another anticlimactic inning for the Braves offense. We send in Keith Mitchell to run for Bream, but he’s thrown out stealing second, and two straight pop outs end it. As we cut to commercial, I’m feeling extremely apprehensive. When we return to the game, we see Charlie Leibrandt on the hill for Atlanta. Dad and I start screaming at the TV: “BOBBY, NOOOOOOOOO!!!! PENA’S PITCHING GREAT, LEAVE HIM IN!!!!!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?!?!!??” Unfortunately, Bobby can’t hear us, and probably wouldn’t listen to us if he could. Which is too bad, because Kirby Puckett proceeds to crush a monster homerun into deep, deep, center to win the game. I feel like I just got punched in the stomach by Mike Tyson. I don’t sleep well at all that night. The next day is Dad’s birthday. I honestly couldn’t tell you how we celebrated, but whatever we did, we made sure we wrapped it up before the first pitch of game seven.
October 27, the Baggie Dome. MPLS, MN.
We need a term other than “pitchers’ duel” to fully and accurately describe this game. What’s more intense than “duel”? Pitchers’ feud? Pitchers’ war? Pitchers’ Illiad? However you parse it, this was one for the ages. John Smoltz against Jack Morris in a game four rematch, in a fittingly dramatic conclusion to one of the most memorable World Series of all time.
From the first pitch, Smoltz and Morris are virtually untouchable. Even when runners reach base, we just have the sense that neither hurler is going to allow them anywhere near the plate. The Twins threaten in the third, when Gladden knocks a one-out double into left, and advances to third on a sac fly by Knoblauch, but Smoltzy fans Kirby Puckett to get out of the jam. We get our turn in the top of the fifth. Lemke leads off the inning with a single, and Belliard bunts him over to second. Lonnie Smith reaches on a bunt to third, giving us … you guessed it …. runners at the corners with one out. Unfortunately, Morris gets TP on an infield fly out, and freezes Ronnie Gant on a brutal pitch to shut us down. The tension is so thick in our living room I’d need a chainsaw, or maybe a blowtorch, to cut it. The 6th and 7th innings are a workshop of pitching dominance; 3-up, 3-down on both sides. Buck and McCarver are falling all over each other raving about the masterpiece we’re witnessing. Really, it’s incredible to watch, the revered veteran and the young ace who idolized him going toe-to-toe like Ali and Frazier. I am breathless.
The top of the eighth goes down as one of the all-time “slap your forehead and scream at the TV” moments of my life as a sports fan. Lonnie Smith leads off the inning with a line-drive single. The next play is soul-crushingly perplexing. With the hit-and-run on, TP drills a double into the gap in left-center, but the Twins’ infielders act like they’re turning a double play, briefly flummoxing Smith, who ends up at third. Lonnie’s a freaking speed demon. He could easily have scored on that play. Easily. My head hurts. Anyway, despite the base-running gaffe, we still have runners at second and third and no outs, but Morris refuses to let us rattle him. He gets Gant to ground into an infield out, forcing the runners to hold. After intentionally walking Justice to load the bases, Morris induces Sid Bream, who has struggled at the plate all series, to ground into a double play to end the inning. In the bottom of the frame, Smoltzy gives up a pair of hits and is removed from the game with runners at the corners and one out. With Mike Stanton now on the mound, Bobby Cox orders an intentional walk to Puckett, loading the bases. I can barely watch. Then Hrbek lines a shot right into Lemke’s glove, and he quickly steps on second for an unassisted double play. Whew. We’re still alive!
We go down 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, as Morris continues his brilliant performance. Stanton gives up consecutive singles to Chili Davis and Brian Harper to open the bottom of the ninth, and comes up injured on the second pitch. Cox sends Pena to the hill with runners on first and second and no outs. Pena gets Shane Mack to ground into a double play that moves pinch runner Jarvis Brown over to third. After an intentional walk to Mike Pagliarulo, Pena destroys pinch hitter Paul Sorrento with a series of brutal pitches, and he goes down whiffing by a mile. Could we have had any other ending to this epic series than a game seven going to extra innings? I say no.
Amazingly, Morris comes back out for the tenth inning. He’s got a look in his eyes like he could go for another ten if he has to. You’d think the old man would be exhausted at this point, but he’s not giving an inch, and we still can’t touch him. He gets Jeff Blauser on a leadoff pop up, fans Smith, and forces Pendleton into a grounder to short. One, two, three. To the bottom of the tenth we go. I’m so wired you could give me a heart attack by whispering too loud. Pena gives up a leadoff double to Gladden, and a Knoblauch bunt moves him to third. If nine-year-old me knew any curse words, I’d be rattling them off in one long stream at top volume right now. Bobby Cox orders intentional walks to both Puckett and Hrbek, loading the bases. (Can we look up the record for intentional walks by a team in a single game? I think the Braves might have broken it tonight.) Tom Kelly sends Gene Larkin in to pinch hit. Come on, we have to get out of this, right? Our season can’t end at the hands of some no-name bench player, right? Apparently, it can. Larkin laces a hit into left-center, bringing Gladden home, and it’s all over. As the Twins mob each other at home plate, I start crying. (Hey, I’m nine.) Disconsolately, I head off to bed in a fog, feeling like the punch line in a country song. My woman left me. My truck broke down. My dog died. My team just lost the World Series.
As a city, what do you do when you’ve just had your collective hearts broken? If you’re us, you throw your boys a big honkin’ parade. (I’m not sure how many losing World Series teams have gotten parades, but the number can’t be large.) Most of my school, including me, got excused by our parents to attend. The streets of downtown Atlanta were jam-packed, and as the Braves rolled by amidst all the floats and fancy cars, we gave them the most heartfelt, exuberant round of cheers and applause we could. It wasn’t a victory parade, obviously. It was a thank you for a magical season, for giving us so many amazing moments and indelible memories. It was an outpouring of love, and an acknowledgement that this was the start of something bigger. This team, these players, had already taken us somewhere special, but we knew they were just getting started.
You know the rest. The unprecedented fourteen straight division titles, the eventual World Series win in ’95. For the coming decade, we had an extended run of excellence to rival any in sports history. The media called us “America’s Team”, and maybe we were. But more than that, we were the Atlanta Braves, who in the course of a single season went from worst to first, from baseball doormat to Cinderella story. For a city mired in sporting mediocrity, what the 1991 Braves really did was give us hope.