Thursday, October 27, 2011

October 27, 1991: Bundle of nerves

For the second time in five seasons, the Minnesota Twins would be involved in a game seven of a World Series. The scenario in this particular decisive game was similar to that of four years earlier. The Twins would be in the raucous atmosphere of their home stadium, the Metrodome, for the final game and would have their undisputed staff ace to start the game (it was Frank Viola in 1987; Jack Morris in 1991).

The first six games of this series versus the Atlanta Braves was enough to drain fans emotionally, as four of the games had been decided by one run, three on the final pitch and two went into extra innings.

Because I had midterm exams starting the next day, I figured I would hole up in my University's library and just study until I was sure the game would be over. I was so incredibly nervous at the prospect of my Twins coming sooooo close to another World Series title that I wasn't sure I could handle the tension of yet another close game (Wow, how prophetic was that?!?!).

Ultimately I decided to attend the Sunday evening service at my church, where there was a guest speaker from Jamaica. At one point during the service, I looked over at one of my best friends (and fellow Twins fan). As he caught my eye, the looks on our respective faces was obvious - "This is it!!! I wonder how our team will fare tonight?"

The church service was so amazing and uplifting that for 2-3 hours, I had successfully diverted my mind from the nerve wracking ball game. As I headed out to my car, I flipped on the radio, assuming the game was close to being over. As the broadcast came back from commercial, I heard the voice of the Twins, Herb Carneal, explaining how the Twins allowed runners to reach second and third base with nobody out in the eighth inning, yet got out unscathed. But I couldn't believe my ears when I heard that the game was still scoreless!

I then listened to how the Twins got runners to first and third with one out and the previous night's hero, Kirby Puckett, coming to the plate. At that point Braves manager Bobby Cox lifted John Smoltz (who had matched zeros with his boyhood idol Morris for 7+ innings) in favor of lefty reliever Mike Stanton. Cox ordered Stanton to intentionally walk Puckett to load the bases with one out to pitch to Kent Hrbek, who struck out in all three previous at-bats in the series versus Stanton. I got home about the time this pitching change was taking place, so I ran downstairs to find my brother with his head in the palms of his hands. Turns out Hrbek had just lined a ball up the middle, which was snared by Braves second baseman Mark Lemke who in turn stepped on second base (base runner Chuck Knoblauch thought the ball was up the middle for a base hit and was already halfway to third) for an inning ending double play. This was the first live action I had seen all night yet I was instantly a bundle of nerves.

After escaping that huge jam in the top of the eighth inning, Morris was locked in. He retired the Braves 1-2-3 in both the ninth and tenth innings. In between, the Twins blew a golden opportunity to win the game in the bottom of the ninth, as they had runners at first and second with no outs but failed to score.

On to the bottom of the tenth, where Dan Gladden stepped in against Braves reliever Alejandro Pena. Gladden hit the first pitch for a blooper into left center field. The ball bounced by left fielder Brian Hunter but center fielder Ron Gant was right there to back him up. Seeing this, Gladden was hauling some serious butt out of the batter's box and never slowed down as he rounded first base. Gladden slid into second just ahead of Gant's throw, meaning the winning run was in scoring position with no outs. A sacrifice bunt and two intentional walks later, pinch hitter Gene Larkin stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out. Once again, I was sweating bullets while fending off the knots in my stomach. While the Twins were in prime position to win the game, and thus the series, I couldn't help but think how they had already hit in to three double plays this game. I no sooner exorcised that negative thought from my mind when Larkin looped a fly ball over the Braves' drawn in outfield. The ball fell harmlessly to the ground for a base hit. Gladden trotted home from third with the only run of the game. As he stepped on home plate, Gladden was engulfed by several teammates, including Morris. I couldn't help but notice that Jack still had on his warmup jacket with his glove in hand. Yes, the guy manager Tom Kelly called "The Horse" would have indeed gone out to pitch the 11th inning had his team failed to score in the 10th.

For the second time in five seasons, my Minnesota Twins were World Series champions! I was so wired by what I had witnessed that there was no way I was going to get to sleep that night. Turns out my temporary insomnia that evening was a good thing as I was woefully behind on studying for midterms.

In looking back at the '91 World Series, it's amazing to think how tight knit it was. Of the seven games, five were decided by one run, four were decided on the game's final pitch and three went in to extra innings.

In the end, I felt the most poignant sentiment was conveyed by a member of the losing team. After his Braves lost game seven, second baseman Mark Lemke (who hit .417 in the series and would have likely been MVP had Atlanta won) said "The only thing better would have been if we stopped after nine innings and cut the trophy in half." I would've been inclined to agree.......if only I weren't a Twins fan that is.


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