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1991

By Tim Wendel, May 11, 2016
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Kirby Puckett rounds the bases after a walk-off homer in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series.
Source: Tim Wendel

Can you be nostalgic for a season that happened only than a quarter-century ago? Has enough time gone by to smooth the edges to sweet memory? Perhaps. Yet the impact of the 1991 season, especially the World Series that year, continues to echo through the game.

First, let’s take a look at what we didn’t have to deal with 20-plus years ago. That can be enough to make things warm and fuzzy in a hurry. Team payrolls back then were a shadow of what they are now. Believe it or not, the biggest spenders were just $33 million annually.

The top team payrolls in 1991 belonged to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, and the Oakland Athletics. Yes, the poster child for Moneyball could still compete financially, as could the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves, the two teams that would go from worst to first to meet in the World Series. We’ll be back to them shortly.

The ’91 season was also the calm before two approaching storms. One was the turmoil over steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Today, debate continues over who should be in the Hall of Fame and how tainted many of the game’s hallowed marks have become. Not that long ago, one could put Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Aaron in the same sentence and everyone would know we were discussing the greatest sluggers ever. But in 1991 Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were about to crash the party, and we’re still crawling from the wreckage.

Initially, ownership embraced the assault on the record books, warts and all, due to the fallout of a divisive labor war with the players’ union. A debacle of the first order, it would force the 1994 World Series to be canceled. Teams became so desperate to win back the fans that they looked the other way when it became apparent that the game was juiced but good.

Not everything on the horizon in ’91 was bad news, though. As the season raced to a conclusion, with the Twins and the Braves coming out of nowhere to win their respective divisions, the Orioles were putting the finishing touches on Camden Yards, which would open the following season.

In building the new ballpark in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the Orioles realized that a lot was set in stone when it came to ballpark design. Major League Baseball’s guidelines called for 330 feet down either line, a symmetrical outfield of equal proportions. Certainly that made it easier for baseball and football to share the same venue—perfect for multipurpose facilities, of which there were plenty a quarter-century ago.

Yet the beloved Baltimore Colts had fled to Indianapolis in the middle of the night in 1984, leaving the O’s as the only professional team in town at the time. That meant “the stars were aligned” to try something new and distinct, Janet Marie Smith once told me. She was the team’s vice president for planning and development in 1991, and the Orioles had given her the clout to make real change.

It’s one thing to have the stars in alignment. It’s quite another to act on the courage of your convictions. But that’s precisely what the Orioles did, notably Smith and team president Larry Lucchino. When the initial designs called for several city blocks to be leveled for parking, the B&O Warehouse to face the wrecking ball, Smith & Co. said enough. Let’s go back to the drawing board, they said.

Instead, the Orioles insisted that the iconic warehouse remain, that the seats be angled toward home plate for better viewing, and that the ballpark fit into the cityscape instead of plowing so much of the surrounding neighborhood under. As a result, the Orioles found a way to combine the best of the past and the present in stadium design.

“We wanted our ballpark to be old-shoe comfortable,” Smith said, “even if it was brand new.”

Every ballpark that has followed, from AT&T in San Francisco to Nationals Park in Washington to PNC in Pittsburgh, owes a tip of the cap to Camden.

On May 1, 1991, Oakland’s Rickey Henderson stole his 939th base to break Lou Brock’s all-time steal record.
Source: Tim Wendel

On the field in 1991, two teams—the Twins and Braves—went from “worst to first” for the first time in Major League history. Ironically, both ball clubs played in stadiums that would soon become obsolete, thanks to the new wave of retro ballparks.

In the Twin Cities, Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, and crew turned back the clock to when they won the Fall Classic four years earlier. Thanks to deft moves by General Manager Andy MacPhail, the pitching staff became one of the best in the American League, with veteran Jack Morris, Scott Erickson, Kevin Tapani, and Rick Aguilera.

Young pitchers coming into their own helped the Braves become “America’s Team,” overtaking the favored Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League West. Under owner and media mogul Ted Turner, the Braves were on most cable networks and gained a national following.

Rarely does a staff come into its own all at once. But lightning struck in the New South as Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and John Smoltz became the most feared starting staff in the National League. Oh, what the Braves could have been if they ever found a true closer.

“That was the missing ingredient for the Braves in the 1990s,” former pitcher and analyst Jim Kaat said. “They didn’t need anybody as dominant as Dennis Eckersley. Give them somebody like Aguilera and they win two or three championships instead of one during their great run.”

The Twins and the Braves upset the Toronto Blue Jays and Pittsburgh Pirates, respectively, to reach the Fall Classic. The Jays regrouped to repeat as World Series winners. The Bucs would experience heartbreak again in the playoffs and soon see Bonds and Bobby Bonilla leave for greener pastures. After that the Pirates would go 20 long years without a .500 record.

“The Braves had the resources to keep people and we didn’t,” Andy Van Slyke said. “Ted Turner wasn’t afraid to spend money. That certainly wasn’t the case in Pittsburgh.”

     

Veteran Jack Morris and young gun John Smoltz squared off in both Games 4 and 7.
Source: Tim Wendel

If that wasn’t enough excitement and change for one season, the Twins and the Braves proceeded to put on a World Series for the ages. Four of the games ended in walk-off fashion and three went to extra innings, including the decisive Game 7, which featured Morris going against Smoltz.

Every night brought another twist in the plot, the rise of another hero. In fact, things became so tense that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution warned its readers of sleep deprivation, how it could cause car wrecks and workplace accidents.

The ’91 World Series ranks among the all-time classics. Right there with the 1975 Reds–Red Sox, the 1988 Mets–Red Sox, and the 2001 Diamondbacks-Yankees. I believe it was the best ever, and many agree with me.

This great season and World Series also leaves us with a riddle, a choice any fan can contemplate: Is it better to win now or bear the sting of defeat, knowing it sets you up for a long, long run?

After the dust settled, with the Twins winning 1–0 in 10 innings in Game 7, the ball clubs went in opposite directions. Minnesota would struggle to return to the postseason, let alone win a game in October. Meanwhile, the Braves were determined to return to the Fall Classic, and they would go on to win 14 consecutive titles.

“Losing, like we did, stuck with us,” said Mark Lemke, who would have been the World Series MVP if the Braves had won it all in 1991. “So it made us more determined. We didn’t win it all until 1995, but nobody on either team will ever forget that Series in ’91. What a season.”

 Atlanta second baseman Mark Lemke came through for the Braves in the ‘91 Series— batting .417, with three triples and a game-winning single in Game 3.
Source: Tim Wendel

 

Tim Wendel is the author of 11 books, including the award-winning baseball trilogy—High Heat, Summer of ’68 and Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time.

 

 

 

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