Wednesday, December 5, 2012

1991 World Series: Drama too Huge to be Hyperbolized

The Teams
American League: Minnesota Twins (95-67) - Second World Series (Won in 1987)
National League: Atlanta Braves (94-68) - First World Series

What Happened
There's an underlying sentiment among Twins fans that not many baseball fans outside of Minnesota are likely to know about. Hell, there are a lot of Minnesotans who might not know about it, at least not consciously. But there are many Minnesotans who will say, when asked, that the greatest Twins game ever was Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. It's a perfectly good game to pick, mind you, one of the true greats in World Series history. But it pales in comparison to Game 7, which is on almost everybody's short list of greatest games ever played. Remind those Game 6 apologists about Game 7, and they'll likely either reluctantly backtrack - "Oh, well, yah, that one was pretty good, too" - or stubbornly refuse to budge - "I don't care, I still think Game 6 was better."

Again, there's nothing wrong with picking Game 6, and there's an obvious reason that longtime Twins fans often lean toward that one: Kirby Puckett. For years, Twins fans had been defending Puckett's prowess to other baseball fans. Telling a Twins fan that Puckett was "one of" the best players in the game wasn't good enough; if you weren't willing to concede that he was the absolute best player in the game, you were making an enemy. In 1991, Puckett could do no wrong. So imagine, then, seeing the Twins facing elimination in the World Series, needing someone to come up big, and seeing Puckett step up and deliver. The hero to scores of Minnesotans delivered on the biggest stage, in a sport where the hero is so often an anonymous afterthought, a person chosen at random for their moment in history.

What Puckett did in Game 6 is legendary, revered to the point where it approaches a religious experience. After telling his teammates he would carry them to a win that night, he tripled in the first inning, leaped against the left field wall to rob an extra-base hit in the third, and hit a sacrifice fly in the fifth. And then, of course, was his game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th. In one game, Puckett had convinced the rest of baseball what Twins fans already knew: that this guy had no peer.

So yah, it makes sense that Game 6 is the game many Twins fans point to. Their hero became a legend. It's OK.

It's OK for another reason, too. Twins fans don't need to claim Game 7, because Game 7 belongs to the ages. It was a game with drama too huge to be hyperbolized, a game too magnificent and improbable to be  described as merely a Twins game or a Braves game. It was a game that belonged to baseball alone, a game that elevated baseball.

It wasn't just that it took 10 innings for anybody to score, for there have been many 1-0 baseball games that were snoozers. It wasn't just that Minnesota native Jack Morris threw 10 shutout innings, because while he was brilliant, he was also often lucky. It was because both teams put runners on base in nearly every inning, only to have their rallies fizzle out by a great defensive play or a single clutch pitch. The drama, the nail biting, didn't let up for nine innings. Description failed those watching; Jack Buck, who called more great games than anybody really had a right to, stopped trying to contextualize Game 7 about halfway through, instead saying, repeatedly, "This has been a great game."

So what was Buck so awed by? The details. The Braves put two runners on with one out in both the third and fifth; Morris got 2-3 hitters Terry Pendleton and Ron Gant consecutively to end both innings, punctuating the fifth with an impossible-to-hit forkball that froze Gane and led to an exaggerated fist pump from Morris. John Smoltz pitched out of jams in five straight innings, including getting Puckett to strike out to end a threat in the third and getting cleanup hitter Chili Davis to ground into a 3-6-3 double play in the sixth.

And then came the 8th inning. Lonnie Smith led off Atlanta's half with a single, followed by Pendleton ripping one to left-center that even Puckett couldn't catch. But instead of scoring easily, Smith hesitated and stopped at second base - possibly fooled by a fake double play by Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Gagne - and only made it to third. After a walk and an out, Morris got Sid Bream to ground into a 3-2-3 double play, with Kent Hrbek catching the return throw while pumping his fist.

In the bottom of the 8th, it was the Twins who put two runners on with one out. After an intentional walk to Puckett - he walked three times after the sixth, Atlanta openly telling any other Twin to beat them - Hrbek came up with the bases loaded. Hrbek had famously hit a grand slam for his hometown team in the 1987 World Series, and he seemed poised to be a hero again. But his soft line drive went right to Mark Lemke at second base, and Lemke stepped on second for the double play, and the tension grew.

Games 6 and 7 weren't the only great games of the series. Games 2, 3, and 4 were one-run games, with Games 3 and 4 in Atlanta absolute classics that would be remembered among the all-time greats if it weren't for the final two games. Even Game 5, the one that ended with Atlanta winning 14-5, was tight, with the Braves only leading 5-3 entering the 7th inning. But after those first six games, and after the first seventh inning of Game 7, the drama was done. There was no more worrying about whether someone would win or lose, because there was no longer going to be a winner and a loser. These two teams had essentially tied; the winner was now going to be determined by mere chance.

It was the Twins, of course, who finally broke the tie in the 10th: Dan Gladden's broken-bat bloop double followed by Knoblauch's sacrifice and a pair of intentional walks to Puckett to Hrbek, all of which led to Gene Larkins' series-winning hit. The Twins fans who still had a pulse cheered loudly deep into the night, but not quite as loud as they had the night before after Game 6. We couldn't. We were too exhausted. And whether Game 6 or Game 7 was the greatest game in Twins history, it doesn't really matter, because they happened on back-to-back nights, capping off the greatest World Series of all time.

Jack Morris came home to Minnesota after more than a decade in Detroit to teach the young Twins pitchers how to win. He did more than was expected. He started opening day. He started the All Star Game. He started Game 1 of the ALCS. He started and won Game 1 of the World Series. And then, he took the ball for Game 7 and never gave it up.

(Home team shaded; winners in Bold)

Atlanta225 (12)31430
Minnesota534254 (11)1 (10)

The List
I'm ranking all the World Series, from worst to best. Here are the ones I've done so far:

1. 1991 - Minnesota (A) def. Atlanta (N) 4-3
2. 1975 - Cincinnati (N) def. Boston (A) 4-3
3. 1924 - Washington (A) def. New York (N) 4-3
4. 2001 - Arizona (N) def. New York (A) 4-3
5. 2011 - St. Louis (N) def. Texas (A) 4-3
6. 1912 - Boston (A) def. New York (N) 4-3 (1 tie)
7. 1992 - Toronto (A) def. Atlanta (N) 4-2
8. 1947 - New York (A) def. Brooklyn (N) 4-3
9. 1972 - Oakland (A) def. Cincinnati (N) 4-3
Numbers 10-19
Numbers 20-29
Numbers 30-39
Numbers 40-49
Numbers 50-59
Numbers 60-69
Numbers 70-79
Numbers 80-89
Numbers 90-99
Numbers 100-107

Game 7s
Simultaneously, I'll rank all the Game 7s. The ones that have appeared in my countdown so far:

1. 1991: Minnesota 1, Atlanta 0
2. 2001: Arizona 3, New York (A) 2
3. 1960: Pittsburgh 10, New York (A) 9
4. 1924: Washington 4, New York (N) 3
5. 1997: Florida 3, Cleveland 2
6. 1912: Boston (A) 3, New York (N) 2 (game 8)
7. 1946: St. Louis (N) 4, Boston (A) 3
8. 1975: Cincinnati 4, Boston (A) 3
9. 1925: Pittsburgh 9, Washington 7
10. 1926: St. Louis (N) 3, New York (A) 2
11. 1962: New York (A) 1, San Francisco 0
12. 1979: Pittsburgh 4, Baltimore 1
13. 1955: Brooklyn 2, New York (A) 0
14. 1952: New York (A) 4, Brooklyn 2
15. 1971: Pittsburgh 2, Baltimore 1
16. 1940: Cincinnati 2, Detroit 1
17. 1972: Oakland 3, Cincinnati 2
18. 1987: Minnesota 4, St. Louis 2
19. 1958: New York 6, Milwaukee 2
20. 1986: New York (N) 8, Boston 5
21. 1968: Detroit 4, St. Louis 1
22. 1931: St. Louis (N) 4, Philadelphia (A) 2
23. 1973: Oakland 5, New York (N) 2
24. 2002: Anaheim 4, San Francisco 1
25. 1982: St. Louis 6, Milwaukee 3
26. 1947: New York (A) 5, Brooklyn 2
27. 2011: St. Louis 6, Texas 2
28. 1965: Los Angeles (A) 2, Minnesota 0
29. 1964: St. Louis 7, New York (A) 5
30. 1957: Milwaukee 5, New York (A) 0
31. 1967: St. Louis 7, Boston 2
32. 1945: Detroit 9, Chicago (N) 3
33. 1909: Pittsburgh 8, Detroit 0
34. 1934: St. Louis (N) 11, Detroit 0
35. 1985: Kansas City 11, St. Louis 0
36. 1956: New York (A) 9, Brooklyn 0

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