By Greg Bates
“The Twins are gonna win the World Series. The Twins have won it. It’s a base hit. It’s a 1-0, 10th-inning victory.”
That was the famous call uttered by legendary television play-by-play announcer Jack Buck on Oct. 27, 1991.
As Minnesota Twins pinch-hitter Gene Larkin stroked a hit over the Atlanta Braves’ draw-in outfield, Twins left fielder Dan Gladden trotted from third base, both arms raised, as workhorse pitcher Jack Morris stood at home plate vigorously waving in his teammate.
The Twins had captured the 1991 World Series with a dramatic, Game 7 walk-off. The Fall Classic was indeed a fall classic.
Morris and Braves pitcher John Smoltz went toe-to-toe deep into the night. Morris threw a complete game, while Smoltz was lifted after 7 1/3 innings.
“I’m a big pitching guy and you had two pitchers that pitched that well, basically almost pitched near perfect games,” said IJ Rosenberg, who covered the series as the Braves beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think that along with the fact that the Braves had a wonderful opportunity to win that game, but didn’t end up doing it. There was a lot of drama. It was the perfect ending to a really good season for baseball, because here were two teams that were not very familiar with postseason, but each of those teams had big stars on them. If you look at the Braves and what those guys turned into and same with the Twins, they were really good, too.”
There have been 111 World Series and many memorable moments over the years for baseball followers. The 1991 World Series has widely been claimed as one of the best series if not the best series by historians, players and fans alike.
It’s been 25 years since that iconic series in which both the Twins and Braves were last-place teams in their respective divisions in 1990 to come back and win their championship series the next year.
The two teams squared off in inter-league home-and-home series during the 2016 season with the Atlanta taking both games at Target Field in July, and the Twins claiming a two-game victory in Atlanta, in August. There has been a lot of chatter surrounding the teams this season since both are currently in last place in their divisions, just like in 1990.
There will also be a lot of discussion, debate and trying to answer the rhetorical question: Is the 1991 World Series the best of all time?
“I think it has to be,” said Twins curator Clyde Doepner, who lived just four blocks from Morris when the future series MVP was growing up in St. Paul. “When you think of Kirby Puckett’s home run, you think of his great catch earlier in the game, you think of Buck’s comments, ‘See you tomorrow night’ – that’s as pure and classic as you get.
“That day when TK (manager Tom Kelly) walked out to the mound to talk to Jack Morris and every account seems to say, Morris said, what the heck are you doing out here? And TK says, what the hell, it’s just a ballgame, and he walked off. I’m paraphrasing a little bit, but basically TK wanted to know if he was OK. And Morris saying, what the hell are you doing out here? – he answered the question before it was even asked.”
Rosenberg covered seven World Series and recalled what a rollercoaster Game 7 was watching from the Metrodome press box.
“Myself as the beat writer for the Braves and considering it was late at night, I had two screens going and I was toggling – even back then we had computers that could toggle – between screens because I had on one screen them winning and one screen them losing,” Rosenberg said. “I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about my surroundings or atmosphere. … I remember it was just so flipping loud. I’ve covered about every major event there is to cover; I can’t remember an event any place being as loud as the Metrodome.”
Tim Wendel, who covered the series as a writer for USA TODAY’s Sports Weekly, wrote a book, “Down to the Last Pitch,” chronicling the 1991 World Series and stating the claim as the best World Series of all time.
“I think it’s going to be on anybody’s short list,” Wendel said. “There’s a couple criteria that I like to put in play. No. 1, we’ve had a lot of great Game 6s over the years, but that in my mind has got to be one of the best Game 7s. You think back to ’75 with the Red Sox and the Reds for example and (Boston catcher Carlton) Fisk waves the ball fair and everything in Game 6. The Reds win the next night, and it wasn’t like an epic battle. That’s certainly in some ways what Game 7 was in 1991.”
The 1991 World Series was close throughout. Games 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 were all one-run outcomes with four of those games decided on walk-off hits. Three of those games went into extra innings. The only contest of the series that was a blowout was a 14-5 Braves victory in Game 5 to go up three games to two heading back to Minneapolis.
In Game 6, Puckett was the hero for the Twins, robbing the Braves’ Ron Gant of an extra-base hit with a leaping catch in center field. Later in the 11th inning, Puckett ended the game with a solo home run to left-center field to give the Twins a 4-3 victory. That prompted Buck, who was announcing his final World Series, to proclaim, “And we’ll see you tomorrow night.”
That next night, both teams had golden opportunities late to break a scoreless game. The Braves had runners on second and third and with nobody out in the eighth inning and failed to score. The Twins loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning with one out, but Kent Hrbek lined into an unassisted double play.
That set the stage for the bottom of the 10th. Gladden led off the inning with a double and was moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Chuck Knoblauch. Puckett and Hrbek were both intentionally walked, and Kelly, the Twins manager, opted for Larkin to pinch hit. With the outfield draw in, Larkin found the open turf in left field to drive home Gladden.
“I think that Game 7 is the greatest World Series game in history to me,” said Rosenberg, who was one three official scorers for a couple games of the series. “I think the series itself should rank very high – there’s been some great World Series – maybe a top five series. I think Game 7 was just unbelievable.”
MLB official historian John Thorn seemingly knows every World Series inside and out. He can recite most any moment that happened in a Fall Classic over the years. Thorn certainly has an opinion on the 1991 Fall Classic.
“If you wish to proclaim the 1991 World Series the greatest ever, I think that’s nonsense,” Thorn said. “You can say the games were close, well, that’s not usual. You can say that you had two last-place clubs meeting in the World Series and I believe each team won all of its games at home, but that doesn’t make for the greatest World Series of all time.”
Thorn said Game 7 was certainly memorable with the standout performance by Morris, but the game isn’t the only series ever to conclude in the final at-bat or in extra innings.
“There’s 1960 – which you can’t call the greatest World Series ever because each of the Yankees’ wins was a lopsided victory, each of the Pirates’ wins was a narrow one,” Thorn said. “But certainly the conclusion of the 1960 World Series may have provided the most thrilling Game 7.”
Thorn also calls the 1912, 1924 and 1975 World Series more epic than 1991.
The 1912 World Series was fairly rare in the fact it went eight games – the 1903, 1919 and 1921 were all best-of-nine series that were decided in eight games. The Boston Red Sox beat the New York Giants four games to three, which included a tie. Game 2 went into 11 innings with a 6-6 score when it was called due to darkness. The game wasn’t resumed later, instead a new game was played. In Game 8, the Red Sox won 3-2 in 10 innings on a walk-off at Fenway Park, which was in its inaugural season.
In 1924, the Washington Senators beat the New York Giants four games to three. Besides the 1912 and ’91 World Series, it’s the only other series to be decided in extra innings in Game 7. Earl McNeely hit a walk-off single – the ball was said to have hit a pebble or some kind of object, according to Thorn, and bounced into left field – in the 12th inning to give the Senators its first and only World Series title. Future Hall of Famer Walter Johnson pitched four scoreless innings of relief to pick up the win.
“You’ve got to go a long ways to beat 1912 or 1924,” Thorn said.
In 1991, the Twins and the Braves didn’t have the name recognition of renowned organizations such as the Red Sox, Giants, Yankees or Dodgers; it was a claim for the little guy. That could also give it some legs to be classified as one of the best World Series ever.
“If people can kind of remove a little bit of rooting interest from it and just look at the very brass tacks, the people involved, how tight the games were, how many go to extra innings, these classic showdowns that you don’t realize that they’re quite classic at the time – Morris vs. Smoltz,” Wendel said. “If you take the team names away from them, I think it’s still the best.”