Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October 26, 1991: Do or Die

It was a Saturday evening at about 4:00 and I had just arrived home from my part time job in downtown St. Paul. I was a senior at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and midterm exams loomed, beginning on Monday. I had planned to sequester myself in my bedroom for a couple of hours in an effort to get some studying done. Alas, this proved to be an impossible task, as my mind continued to wander to a certain monumental event to take place in Minneapolis that evening - Game Six of the 1991 World Series, featuring my Minnesota Twins taking on the Atlanta Braves.

After winning the first two World Series games at home, the Twins proceeded to lose all three games in Atlanta and now were on the brink of elimination. My stomach was in knots, as the Twins were going trot out Scott Erickson to start game six. Despite being nearly unhittable the first half of the regular season and finishing the '91 campaign with 20 victories, Erickson struggled down the stretch. In his game three start against Atlanta, Erickson was knocked out of the game without getting through five innings. But I knew that if somehow, some way, the Twins could pull out the game six victory, it would be winner-take-all in game seven with their staff ace rarin' to go.

I was going to watch the game in Brooklyn Park with some friends at somebody's home. As I drove from St. Paul to Brooklyn Park, I passed by the Metrodome. To think, in about an hour, a World Series game would be played there.

The Twins got off to a 2-0 first inning lead against Braves lefty Steve Avery. Kirby Puckett drove in Chuck Knoblauch with a triple and then Puckett scored on a broken bat single by Shane Mack. Since Avery had given up only two runs through three postseason starts, the Twins getting to him early was a big deal.

In the third inning, with a runner on first, Braves slugger Ron Gant hit a towering fly ball to deep left center field, which looked as though it was going to be a run-scoring extra base hit if it didn't get over the wall for a game tying homer. Somehow, Puckett got back to the wall, leaped three feet in the air and snared the ball against the plexiglass atop the fence. Given the circumstances, it was perhaps the greatest catch in postseason history and it kept the Twins in the lead for the moment.

It was still 2-0 in the top of the fifth inning when Braves shortstop Rafael Belliard led off with a single. The next hitter, Lonnie Smith, then hit a one-hopper to third baseman Scott Leius. What should have been a routine 5-4-3 double play resulted in only a force out at second base as Knoblauch could not get the ball out of his glove for the throw to first. I had this awful feeling that play would haunt the Twins, and sure enough it did. NL batting champ Terry Pendleton swatted Erickson's next offering over the center field fence for a game-tying two-run home run. But Puckett knocked in his second run of the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the inning, putting the Twins back on top, 3-2.

Amazingly, the Twins were still leading by that same 3-2 score into the seventh inning, and Erickson was still on the mound. But after giving up a leadoff single to Mark Lemke, Erickson's evening was done. He had given the Twins all he had, so now it was up to the bullpen. The Braves loaded the bases in the seventh with one out and Gant at the plate. The Twins had the right pitcher on the mound in sinker baller Carl Willis, as they needed a ground ball double play to get out of the inning. Sure enough, Gant hit a slow roller to shortstop Greg Gagne. Gagne threw to second for one and Knoblauch turned and fired to first as quickly as he could, but the speedy Gant barely beat the throw. Lemke scored from third to tie the game.

Both bullpens put up zeros into extra innings. Then in the bottom of the eleventh, Braves manager Bobby Cox inexplicably summoned lefty Charlie Leibrandt to pitch to the first batter of the inning, Kirby Puckett. It didn't seem to make sense on the surface, as Puckett was nearly a .400 hitter versus lefties. On the other hand, Puck had struggled throughout his career against Leibrandt, so Cox used that as his guide. Despite being a free swinger, Puckett watched the first three pitches go by (strike, ball, ball). Then with a 2-1 count, Leibrandt left a changeup up over the outer half of the plate. Puck reached across the plate and hit the ball deep to left field. My friends and I all stood breathless as we watched the ball sail towards deep left field. As soon as announcer Jack Buck uttered the words "and we'll see you TOMORROW NIGHT," we all erupted in the basement. In fact, I took advantage of everyone's elation by giving a big hug to a certain girl I liked, and then proceeded to hoist her in the air. She was quite taken aback by that display, but there was definitely no hard feelings. Our Twins had forced a seventh game of the World Series!!!!

As I drove home to St. Paul, I listened to the postgame show on the radio. In hearing the myriad of player reactions, one stood out. Kirby Puckett, the game's hero and perhaps the most beloved player in Twins franchise history, talked of how he entered a somber clubhouse prior to the start of game six. He essentially told his teammates to loosen up a little. After all, it was the World Series. When that didn't seem to work, Puck simply told his fellow Twins to hop on his back because he was going to carry the club to victory. Puck's night - Three hits (including the game-winning homer), three RBIs and a remarkable catch to save at least one run (if not two). I'd say he made good on his pledge.

Meanwhile, the Twins' game seven starting pitcher (and aforementioned staff ace) Jack Morris, who was born for these kind of situations, was asked about perhaps the biggest start of his MLB career, which would take place in less than 24 hours. Jack's reply? "In the words of the great, late Marvin Gaye - 'Let's Get It On.'"


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