GAME 7 DRAGS ON IN LINGERING CLOUD OF UNCERTAINTY

MINNEAPOLIS — You can’t smoke at your seat inside the Metrodome, only in the concrete corridors, and I swear halfway through the last game of maybe the best World Series every played, those corridors were stuffed with people too nervous to go without a drag, hundreds and hundreds of fans puffing away like expectant fathers, straining to see the TV sets, puffing some more, dying with every swing, puffing some more, waiting, waiting for the one crack in this choking drama that would give us a king of baseball for this wonderful crazy season.

One run would win it. That was obvious — and fitting. For one run had pretty much been the difference in many of the six games that preceded this finale. The Braves knew the Twins. The Twins knew the Braves. Now, on the last night of their 1991 lives, like two grizzly bears protecting their young, they held their ground and clawed away.

Inning after inning, they tried to draw first blood, and inning after inning, they held each other in check. There was a diving catch by Davis Justice to keep the Twins off the scoreboard in the fourth and a masterful strikeout by Jack Morris to kill an Atlanta rally in the fifth.

There was a breathtaking double play with the bases loaded in the top of the eighth, a double-play that stabbed through the heart of the Braves, who were sure their best chance to score had just passed, after Lonnie Smith committed a baserunning mistake and wound up at third instead of crossing the plate. End of Atlanta, right? Bye-bye tomahawk? And yet, as if the gods were having too much fun with this one to let it end, here came the bottom of the eighth, the Twins load the bases, and lookie here! A matching double-play off the crying bat of Kent Hrbek, a line drive into the glove of Mark Lemke, who stepped on second base to snuff the rally. Across the scoreboard, the yellow lights formed zero after zero after zero.

One run would win it.

But who would get it?

Third inning, no score; fourth inning, no score . . .

If nothing else, this 1991 Fall Classic proved you don’t need New York or LA or even Jose Canseco to lure people into October baseball, you can have your big drama and your big swings and your big catches and yes, even your big TV ratings, with two teams coming from nowhere. Which, come to think of it, is exactly where the Braves and Minnesota began this season, right? Nowhere? Worst records in the business last year?

And here they were, stitching a mosaic of wonderful, nerve- rattling baseball. The cliche of course, is to call it a series that had it all, and I suppose it did, although some of what it had — the grossly artificial environment of the Metrodome, the homer hankies, the foam rubber tomahawks, the insensitivity towards Indian groups, the 8:40 p.m. starting times — these were things we could have done without. But you take the whole package when you buy into a World Series, and on the whole, this one had a lot more pie than crust.

There was high drama, as shrill as an opera scream: Scott Leius introducing himself to America with a dramatic home run to win Game 2, and little Mark Lemke — a 27th round draft pick, if you can believe they draft that long — introducing himself to America with a dramatic single in bottom of the 12th inning to win Game 4, then coming back to score the winning run the next night, sliding home to pocket Game 5.

There was Smith slamming into Brian Harper in a home plate collision seen eight million times on replay. There was Kirby Puckett, the human fire hydrant, leaping into the hockey glass of centerfield Saturday night to snatch what should have been extra-bases for Ron Gant and maybe a Series-winning run for the Braves.

And there was Puckett again, two hours later, bottom of the 11th, stepping

up to face Charlie Leibrandt, the goat of this series, and whack! There goes the ball, into the stands, and there goes Puckett, racing around the bases, screaming “Yeah! Yeah!’ and shaking a fist, the Twins had brought it back into their web, one game for everything. A series that had already provided four one-run games, and more evenings decided by the last at-bat than any Fall Classic before it. More? There was more?

“ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER THE DOME” read a sign hanging above the third-base line.

They should have said abandon all fingernails.

Fifth inning, no score; sixth inning, no score; seventh inning, no score
. . .

All you needed to know about the seventh game of a World Series, you heard from the pitchers who would start it. Here was Jack Morris, 36-years-old, old enough to be cynical about nearly everything — and he usually is — and yet when asked about this game he smiled and said “When I was a kid, my brother and I used to play whiffle ball and I pretended that I was Bob Gibson and he was Mickey Mantle. . . . I’m going to enjoy this.

And down the hall, here was John Smoltz, 24-years-young, young enough to remember watching Morris pitch for his hometown Tigers when Smoltz was a teenager in Michigan — and he was saying the same thing: “This (seventh game of the World Series) is something I’ve played out in my mind a lot when I was younger. I’ll be like a little kid out there.”

How else could he be? Few moments on the sports clock reach such lofty status: Fourth and goal in the Super Bowl? Overtime in the NBA Finals? The home stretch of the Kentucky Derby? Good. Maybe even great. But seventh game of the World Series, a whole season, the longest season in sports, 162 showdowns in April, May, June, July, August, September, another dozen or so in the postseason, and now, finally, end of October, leaves already gone from the trees, and it’s one game, one frozen moment to do what Morris at 36 and Smoltz at 24 would do, what every one of us would want to do, just for a few hours in front of a the whole world audience: be a kid again, throwing the smoke of your dreams.

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