MINNEAPOLIS — First inning, no score, second inning, no score . . .
You can’t smoke at your seat inside the Metrodome, only out in the concrete corridors, and I swear halfway through the last game of maybe the best World Series ever, those corridors were already stuffed with people too nervous to go without a drag, thousands of fans puffing 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 been the difference in so many of the six games that preceded this finale. The Braves knew the Twins. The Twins knew the Braves. They were mirror images of each other. Now, on the last night of their 1991 lives, like two grizzly bears protecting their cubs, they held their ground and clawed away.
Inning after inning, hour after hour, they tried to draw first blood. And inning after inning, hour after hour, they held each other in check. There was a beautiful diving catch by David 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 foolish baserunning mistake and wound up at third instead of home. 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 how about this: another double play — this time off the crying bat of Kent Hrbek
— end of inning. On we go.
One run would win it.
But who would get it?
Out in the hallway, a million puffs of smoke. . . .
Third inning, fourth inning, fifth inning, no score . . .
“This series,” Dan Gladden would gush when it was finally over, “was so unbelievable.”
Well, if nothing else, it proved you don’t need New York or LA or even Jose Canseco to make magic in 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, right into the final innings of the last game of the year.
The cliche of course, is to call this a series that had it all, and I suppose it did, although some of what it had — the artificial environment of the Metrodome, the homer hankies, the foam rubber tomahawks, the insensitivity towards Indian groups, — 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 homer 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 to win Game 4, then coming back to score the winning run the next night to pocket Game 5.
There was Smith slamming into Brian Harper in a home-plate collision seen eight million times on replay. There was 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 out 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. 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.
Sixth inning, no score, seventh inning, no score, eighth inning, no score
. . .
By rights we would have played this thing forever, just kept on going until the end of time. But you can’t do that. Someone has to win. And these affairs, when the goose bumps die and the heart simply can’t beat any faster, usually come down to a battle of will. Someone simply demands that his team win it.
In the end, it was Morris, the war horse, the guy the Twins went out and purchased last winter for exactly this reason: he simply would not quit until this game, and the championship ring, were his. He was out there in the eighth inning, the ninth inning, even the 10th, leaving his Atlanta rival, John Smoltz — a kid 12 years younger who had idolized Morris growing up in Michigan — leaving him behind like a Porsche leaves behind a Volkswagen.
“Tom (Kelly) said I was out of the game after nine innings,” Morris said afterward. “I told him I’ve got a lot left, and we don’t play tomorrow.”
That’s what wins you a World Series folks. On the next to the last batter he would face this year — Smith — Morris buzzed a fastball past him and got a strikeout. In the 10th, the final game, of a season that started eight months ago. And he struck him out? That’s MVP stuff, folks. No question about it.
And so, finally, the Twins had no choice but to win this thing. A double by Gladden to start the 10th, a bunt to move him to third, and then two intentional walks to Puckett and Hrbek. That left this most brilliant of games in the pitching arm of Alejandro Pena, and the twirling bat of pinch-hitter Gene Larkin, a reserve outfielder. All Larkin had to do was put the ball into the outfield, just a sacrifice fly, and all those smokers could catch a breath. . . .
CRACK! And there it was. A fly ball that soared over the head of leftfielder Brian Hunter, who first raced after it, then slowed, then just watched it bounce and roll up against the wall. Gladden threw his arms up and trotted home. Larkin leapt into the air at first base. Said Larkin afterwards: “The guys told me ‘why don’t you just go out there and end it for us?’ “
So he did. Long after the Twins had charged onto the field, jumped all over each other, a deafening roar of the Metrodome crowd providing the background music, long after all that, after the Braves had disappeared into their clubhouse, their miracle season one run short, that ball, the one that decided the Series, still lay against the centerfield wall, fittingly, perhaps, between the retired numbers of Rod Carew and Tony Oliva.
“I don’t think there’s a classier bunch of people than the Braves,” Kelly said. And the emotion seemed real. It was a shame that someone had to lose.
“You can only dodge so many bullets,” Smoltz would say, having pitched a brilliant game himself. And yet, there will be other chances for Atlanta. With that pitching staff, they are not as much of an accident as people think. They could be back.
And if not them, well, someone else. That’s the true beauty of this year’s Series, that anyone can get there, come on back next year folks, you never can tell. If this is what you get when last-place teams turn to first-place teams, then I am eagerly looking forward to that big Houston-Cleveland World Series next year.
“WE LOVE YOU!” “THANK YOU!” “LET’S PARTY” screamed the Twins to their fans in a postgame celebration on the field. And slowly, one by one, they left the scene of perhaps the best World Series ever, a stadium now full of wonderful smoky memories.