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In terms of baseball, the 1991 World Series was the best ever played.  Critics can turn to others and make a case based on TV viewership, large-market teams or national security, but when it comes down to the best possible baseball being played, 1991 runs away from the pack.

The main story behind that World Series was both teams, the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves, were in last place in 1990.  No team had ever come from last place to the World Series in one season and in 1991 two teams did it.  Most people love an underdog and 1991 had two of them.

Many point to 2001 as the greatest ever with 9/11 less than two months old and the New York Yankees at center stage.  It’s true, it was a great World Series and one of the best.  There were four games decided by one run, three in the final at bat and two that needed extra innings.  Most of the nation, for once, was rooting for New York.

In 1975 the Boston Red Sox looked as though they might end their championship drought against the Big Red Machine, Cincinnati Reds.  This series contained five one-run games and two decided in the final at bat.  Games 1, 3 and 7 contained comeback wins for the Reds while Game 6 remains one of the greatest World Series games ever with Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk carrying Boston to victory and keeping hope alive.  The vastly talented Reds, however, won an exciting seventh game to win it all. 

In 1955 the Brooklyn Dodgers final beat the Yankees for their first and only title.  The underdog Cardinals and Pete Alexander defeated the Yankees in 1926.  The “bad guys” New York Mets won a thrilling sixth game at Shea Stadium to propel them to the 1986 championship.  The Red Sox and New York Giants needed eight games (one ended in a tie) in 1912 to decide it all with the Red Sox winning one of the greatest final World Series games of all time (it’s certainly the best Game 8 of all time).

Any World Series involving the Yankees or Red Sox tend to be over publicized.  This isn’t to say 2001 and 1975 didn’t have great World Series, but they don’t match up to 1991 – here’s why.

There is nothing more exciting than a walk-off win.  The suspense is held and the game is decided in the final at bat and the home team and fans go home happy.  This happened four times in 1991.   Over half of the final seven games weren’t decided until the last batter of the game.  All four of those games were decided by one run along with one other: five games decided by a single run.  There was little room for error in the 1991 World Series.

For the first time in World Series history, three games needed extra innings.  The Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves were the most evenly matched teams in World Series history.

The series started slow enough in Game 1.  The Twins won 5-2 thanks to home runs from Chili Davis and Kent Hrbek.  Jack Morris earned the win.  Although it was a well played game, this would be the Twins’ most boring victory.

The pitchers took over for the second game.  The Twins’ Kevin Tapani and Cy Young winner Tom Glavine battled.  With the game tied at two in the eighth inning, the Twins third baseman Scott Leius went deep off Glavine.  Rick Aguilera struck out the side in the ninth for the save to preserve the 3-2 win.

Gregg Olson took Dan Gladden's spiking at home plate with good sportsmanship.

It was the third game were things started to get really exciting.  Down two games to none, the Braves needed to win.  The franchise hadn’t been in the World Series since the Milwaukee Braves in 1958 and had never been in the Series since its move to Atlanta in 1966.  Down 4-1 in the seventh inning, the Twins stormed back to tie the game at four with a run in the seventh and two in the eighth.  In the bottom of the 12th, with two out and David Justice on second, Mark Lemke stepped to the plate.  Lemke was a .234 hitter that year, but had 10 hits in the Series and batted .417.  His single scored Justice to give the Atlanta Braves their first World Series win ever. 

Jack Morris returned to the mound for the Twins in the fourth game.  A 24-year old John Smoltz pitched for Atlanta.  A 2-2 tie followed the Braves into the bottom of the ninth.  The night before a .234 hitter was the hero.  In Game Four, a .214 hitter with 16 plate appearances was the hero: Jerry Willard.  With Lemke on third, Willard drove a shallow fly ball to Shane Mack in right field.  The throw was on time, but Twins catcher Brian Harper could only get an elbow, not his glove, on the sliding Lemke.  The Braves won 3-2 and evened the series at two games apiece. 

The fifth game was the anomaly for the 1991 World Series with Atlanta crushing Minnesota 14-5.  This only set up the notion that the Braves might run away with the title in Minnesota.

Atlanta had their two walk-off wins.  Now it was Minnesota’s turn.  In the first five games, Kirby Puckett was batting .167 (three-for-18).  Puckett foreshadowed how his night would go in his first at bat with Chuck Knoblauch on first base.  The centerfielder tripled down the left-field line to score Knoblauch and put the Twins on top.  Both starters (Steve Avery and Scott Erickson) were taken out after six innings.  Both bullpens proceeded to go into Operation Shutdown.  It was Mike Stanton and Alejando Pena for the Braves and Carl Willis and Rick Aguilera for the Twins.  Manager Bobby Cox decided to put left-handed junkballer Charlie Leibrandt on the mound to start the 11th inning with the score still tied 3-3.  Puckett took three pitches and then launched a hanging changeup into the left-center field seats sending Minnesota into dome-controlled chaos. 

“It’s a storybook World Series,” Tom Kelly told reporters after the sixth game.  “What’s going to happen in Game 7, Chapter 7?  Oh my, God, I can’t wait,” the Twins manager said as he turned his cap backwards to a throng of giggling reporters.  How could you not giggle?  Not only were you about to watch the seventh game of the World Series, but you were about to see the final game of a World Series that had already been spectacular.  How could the final act not be spectacular?  But at the same time, many must have wondered, how could it top the last game?  Or the third game?  Or the fourth game?  Thanks to a grizzled veteran and a young, unestablished pitcher, the seventh game of the 1991 World Series was the greatest in history.  In the words of the highlight film released in time for Christmas that year, “It was a beautiful dream and a tension-filled nightmare all wrapped into one.”

Another great aspect of the 1991 World Series worth noting was the sportsmanship shown by both teams to begin the final game.  As Lonnie Smith stepped into the batter’s box for the first at bat, he stuck his hand out to Twins catcher Brian Harper and they shook hands.  I still have never seen a gesture like than in professional baseball. 

Jack Morris and John Smoltz traded one scoreless inning after another.  Neither team posed much of a threat until the eighth.  In the eighth inning of the 1991 World Series, every real fan of the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins lost five years of their life.  The Braves had runners on second and third with no out in the top half.  No one really knows why Lonnie Smith didn’t score from first on Terry Pendleton’s double, but there are theories.  One is that Smith simply lost the ball as Dan Gladden and Puckett chased it against the left-center field wall.  Another is Smith fell for shortstop Greg Gagne and second baseman Knoblauch’s decoy which made it appear they were fielding a double-play ball.  My theory is a combination of the last two along with God and/or the baseball Gods wanted the Twins to win the World Series.

Morris managed to get Ron Gant to ground out weakly to first base.  Then, after walking David Justice, Sid Bream hit into a 3-2-3 double play to end the inning.

The Twins had the bases loaded with one out in the bottom half before Kent Hrbek lined into an unassisted double play to the shortstop.  Even in the ninth Minnesota started the inning with two singles before Mack hit into a double play and later Paul Sorrento struck out to strand a runner on third. 

And still, Jack Morris kept pitching.  He pitched a scoreless ninth and 10th inning.  In the bottom of the 10th inning, the Twins showed the world how baseball was played in Minnesota.  Dan Gladden broke his bat on a bloop single to left-center field.  His hustle stretched it to a double and the Twins thought they might see a light at the end of the tunnel.  Knoblauch put down a sacrifice bunt and Gladden was on third with one out.  The Braves walked Puckett and Hrbek to face … Jarvis Brown?  No, but he was due up.  Manager Tom Kelly put in of his best pinch hitters through the years: Gene Larkin.  With the infield and outfield playing in, Larkin poked a single over the leftfielder’s head to send Gladden home to a waiting Morris.  The starting pitcher had just thrown 10 shutout World Series innings and faces don’t get happier than Morris’s when Gladden touched home plate.

There may be bigger names names in other World Series and others may be more historical.  Names like Ruth, Mantle, Jackson, Jeter and Clemente come to mind when many fans think of the World Series.  There was one hall of famer in the 1991 World Series (Puckett) and two or three others who hope to make it (Glavine, Smoltz and Morris).  But the Series wasn’t defined by them.  It was defined by great baseball games.  If every World Series was compared to each other with a blindfold to the fan – not knowing what the teams, players, cities, fans or ballparks are – there was never a more evenly matched and enjoyable World Series than 1991.

This celebration was part happiness and part tension release.

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This is usually where fans and players say their team had more heart than their opponents.  I do not jump on the bandwagon that says the championship team had more heart than the others.  However, I will do my best to convey how and why the Twins won the AL West, flew by the better-on-paper Detroit Tigers and took down the speedy St. Louis Cardinals in an exciting seven-game World Series. 

The real MVPs
The Blue Jays’ George Bell won the American League MVP award that season, but an argument could be made that Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola should have shared it.  Without those two starting pitchers, the Twins could have found themselves at the bottom of the AL West.  As a team, the Twins had a 4.63 ERA.  Take away Viola and Blyleven’s numbers and the Twins’ ERA jumps to 5.29.  The top two starters combined for a 3.47 ERA, 32 wins and 518 2/3 of the team’s 1,427 1/3 innings pitched.  Blyleven’s season was even more amazing as he approached the single-season record of home runs allowed that he’d set the previous season with 50 (see: https://tripleinthegap.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/blyleven-scattered-50-home-runs-throughout-1986/).  The Dutchman gave up 46 in ’87.  

Other contributors on the mound
Although I’ve pointed out the many misfires in the Twins’ pitching staff, there were a few others who could be counted on.  Les Straker had spent the previous 10 seasons in the minors for the most part.  He emerged in ’87 to win eight games and sport a 4.37 ERA with 154 1/3 innings pitched.  More importantly, Straker pitched nine innings over two starts in the World Series and held the Cards to four runs.  Many argue he was prematurely taken out of the third game in St. Louis after pitching six shutout innings and holding a 1-0 lead.  Juan Berenguer allowed three runs after pitching only 1/3 of the seventh inning and the Cardinals went on to win 3-1.  

Speaking of Berenguer, aside from his performance in the World Series, the Panama-born relief pitcher was a rare bright spot in the bullpen.  Signed as a free agent before the season, Berenguer won eight games, lost only one while sporting a 3.94 ERA.  He proved even more valuable against the Tigers in the ALCS, pitching six innings of relief and allowing only one run and one hit while striking out six.  Berenguer recorded a five-out save in the second game, racking up four strikeouts.  

Senor Smoke.

 

Keith Atherton wasn’t great, but wasn’t bad coming out of the bullpen.  The glasses and mustache-wearing Virginia native won seven games with a 4.54 ERA. 

They didn’t beat themselves
Like the Twins of 2010, the ’87 squad didn’t give its competition many free chances.  Minnesota led the league in fielding percentage in ’87 (.984) and had the least number of errors as well (98).  Kent Hrbek (1B), Gary Gaetti (3B), Dan Gladden (LF) and Tom Brunansky (RF) were all in the top five at their respected positions in fielding percentage in the American League.      

Murderer’s row
The Twins didn’t have an entirely dangerous lineup, but there were four batters in the middle of the lineup who were known to put a few balls in the gaps and seats.  Minnesota hit 196 home runs in ’87; 125 of those were hit by Kirby Puckett (28), Kent Hrbek (34), Tom Brunansky(32) and Gary Gaetti (31).  Opposing pitchers had to feel a huge relief when they got through these four in the lineup.  Gaetti wasn’t much of an on-base machine that year (.303 OBP), but he got his hits when they mattered. He knocked in 109 runs and also had 36 doubles.  Although Brunansky struck out 104 times, he also drew 74 walks, raising his OBP to .352.  Hrbek’s 34 home runs were despite playing in only 143 games.  He earned his top slugging season in ’87 with a .545 mark while drawing 84 walks and struck out only 60 times.  

And then there’s Puckett.  The center fielder tied Kansas City’s Kevin Seitzer with the most hits in the AL with 207.  Puckett played 157 games while putting up his staggering, yet consistent offensive numbers (.332 / .367 / .534) while never seeing a pitch he didn’t like and couldn’t hit hard for a single (at least).  The biggest smile in baseball also had 32 doubles, five triples, 12 stolen bases, 98 RBI and 96 runs scored.  Puckett’s regular season was best known for what he did over two days in Milwaukee, August 29 & 30.  The stout-legged Twin went 10-for-11 with two doubles, four home runs, six RBI and seven runs scored.  He also robbed another future hall of famer, Robin Yount, of a grand slam of the second game with one of his well-known leaps against the wall.  

Other contributors on the field
There was also the defense of Greg Gagne and Steve Lombardozzi up the middle, the clutch hitting of Randy Bush, Gene Larkin and Roy Smalley, the speed of Al Newman and the veteran presence of a late-season acquisition, Don Baylor.   

The man with a plan and really big, dark glasses
Manager Tom Kelly was 36-years old when the 1987 season began.  He took over as Twins manager after Ray Miller was fired with 23 games to go in the ’86 season.  Kelly won 12 of those 23 games.  The no-nonsense manager took a team that should have won about 79 games to World Series champs the next season.  Kelly was not in the dugout for the fame, he was there to do a job.  This seemed obvious as the Twins celebrated on the field after winning the seventh game of the World Series and Kelly quietly sat on the bench and allowed his players to have this time for themselves.  His managing style has stretched to the present day where every Twins team is built on knowing the fundamentals and avoiding physical and mental mistakes; respect the game and your opponent and they will respect you back. 

 

They got hot when they needed to
Everything I’ve written up until now proves that the 1987 regular season Twins were far from the 1991 Twins or the 1965 Twins, or 1969, ’70, 2002, ’06 or ’10.  But when the postseason began and the Metrodome roof nearly popped off from so much noise, the Twins couldn’t be beaten.  I mean that literally: they were 6-0 at home in the postseason (2-4 on the road).   

My mom took my nine-year old 60-pound body to the first game of the championship series against the Tigers were I watched Gary Gaetti launch two homers and my Twins put up four runs in the eighth inning to beat Detroit 8-5.  Bert Blyleven pitched the Twins to a 6-3 victory in game two.  If it wasn’t for an eighth inning two-run home run from Detroit’s Pat Sheridan, the Twins may have swept the series.  Instead, they won games four and five at Tigers Stadium to take the AL pennant; the franchise’s first since 1965.  The Twins saved their wins against the Tigers for the playoffs: they were 4-8 against them in the regular season.    

In the World Series, it was dome, sweet, dome.  The Twins outscored St. Louis 33-12 at the Metrodome.  Minnesota managed only five runs at Busch Stadium in games three, four and five.  Late-season acquisition Don Baylor, who had last hit a home run on August 23 while he was still with the Red Sox.  Baylor’s home run was a grand slam against the Twins.  After picking him up off the waiver wire, Baylor hit well as a designated hitter, but didn’t show much power.  Down 5-3 in the fifth inning of the sixth game of the World Series, Baylor tied the game with a two-run home run.  Twins fans will show no shame in saying Baylor only hit one home run for Minnesota. 

It was Hrbek who blew the game open with his sixth-inning grand slam.  I remember hearing the rumor that when the mighty Minnesotan high-fived the Twins’ bat boy before touching home base, he broke the poor kid’s wrist.  Don’t quote me on this one as this was a rumor that was circulating through my peers at Columbus Elementary.  I realize fourth graders aren’t the most reliable source.  I think I still believed in Santa Claus, too.  

It was this man who allegedly broke the hand of the batboy after his game six grand slam.

 

After batting only .191 for the season, catcher Tim Laudner batted .318 for the series and knocked in four runs.  Second baseman Steve Lombardozzi hit a meager .238 in the regular season, but turned into Ty Cobb against St. Louis, batting .412 with four RBI.  Dan Gladden, after an average season at the plate and a great season in the field, he finally let his bat match his glove in the postseason.  Gladden batted .314 in the ALCS and World Series combined, leading all Twins starters.  Puckett batted .357 against the Cardinals and tied a World Series record in Game Six with four runs scored.  

Frank Viola’s 3.72 ERA and two wins were enough to win him the World Series MVP trophy.  Blyleven won one game with a 2.77 ERA.  Despite his shakiness during the regular season, Jeff Reardon did not allow a run over four and two-thirds innings.  

Nine years old or 32, I love the Twins
I was nine years old and I had yet to develop the attention span to watch a complete game on television.  I did, however, grab the Star Tribune sports page every morning and look at the box scores, standings and statistics.  I always went right to Kirby Puckett’s line from the previous game to see if he gained any ground on the batting title (I’d sometimes check Wade Boggs as well in hopes of an 0-for-5 game).  I wasn’t much for reading columns and features (unless they involved Kirby), but I would keep an eye on the standings as well as the statistical leaders in each league.  

I was playing baseball with my neighbor and buddy Brian when the Twins won the AL pennant in Detroit.  I remember my mom calling out to me, “Jeff, do you want to watch the Twins in the last inning?  It looks like they’re going to win!”  “No, that’s okay,” I replied, as I was too content to throw the ball around with Brian to be bothered with my favorite team winning its first pennant in 22 years.  

I can also remember my dad telling my sister and I after the Twins won the World Series that we should appreciate it while it lasts because we probably wouldn’t see it again.  We were fortunate enough four years later to see the Twins celebrating a World Series title and I’m keeping my fingers crossed again this year.

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