1991 From Worst to First

The Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins achieve success in a way no team had done before—meeting in a highly charged World Series a year after both had finished in last place.

An extra-inning, walk-off home run by Kirby Puckett in Game Six of the World Series kept the Minnesota Twins’ championship hopes alive; pitcher Jack Morris would take it from there in the decisive seventh game.

In the long histories of the National and American Leagues, there had been 245 last-place teams through 1990. Not once had any of them come back to place first the following year. It didn’t matter if such cellar dwellers represented the bottom of an eight-, ten- or 12-team league, or a six- or seven-team division; the historical odds of a quick rebound were zilch and growing worse with every year.

Making up for lost time, the 1991 season would mark a turnaround for the tail-enders. It wasn’t merely revenge, but a flat-out assault—with two teams, not one, roaring upwards from the basement to clinch league pennants in unprecedented fashion, ultimately engaging in one of the most thrilling World Series of this or any other age.

The Minnesota Twins were not exactly known as perennial laughingstocks; they fielded solid talent and were only three years removed from a world championship. Yet their 1990 record of 74-88, while not one to stink up the joint, was the worst among seven teams in the AL West, so the stigma was there as the official defending chumps. There was plenty of blame to go around, from an inexperienced pitching rotation to an awful defense to statistical regression from reliable All-Stars Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and third baseman Gary GaettiGaetti would be gone in 1991, signed as a free agent by the California Angels.—whose recent conversion to Christianity seemed to take the fight out of his once-fiery leadership and increased tensions in a not-so-spiritual clubhouse.

Two major free agent signings for 1991 were met with guarded optimism from Twins fans. Chili Davis was brought in as the team’s designated hitter, but he’d never been known as a power hitter and had smacked only 12 home runs the year before with the California Angels. Also signed was Jack Morris, the revered Detroit Tigers pitching ace who had become well known as the winningest pitcher of the 1980s. But this was the 1990s, and Morris spent the first year of the new decade at Detroit among the game’s losingest, with 18.

After a 2-9 start that suggested nothing had changed, the Twins scratched their way back to the .500 mark by Memorial Day, and then startlingly began June with a 15-game win streakThe streak fell short of the franchise record of 17, set by the 1912 Washington Senators.—the longest since the team moved from Washington in 1961. Catapulted into first place, the Twins stayed there for all but a day the rest of the season against an AL West so competitive, the Angels—dropped to AL West Hell as Minnesota’s replacement at the bottom—finished at 81-81, 14 games back of the Twins’ AL-best 95-67 mark.

The performances of Davis and Morris helped unwind and relax the tightly-crossed fingers of the Twins’ front office. Davis quickly proved he could slug it out amongst the best of them and finished the year with 29 homers, adding 93 runs batted in and a respectable .277 average punctuated with 95 walks. Morris, a Twin Cities native, felt at home on the mound for the first time in years with an 18-12 mark, a 3.43 earned run average and ten complete games.

There was a bonus element to the Twins’ sudden success with the rise of several youngsters. Two dramatically improved young pitchers—Scott Erickson (20-8, 3.18 ERA) and Kevin Tapani (16-9, 2.99) accompanied Morris in the starting rotation, while on offense, the veteran hitters were given something to drive in with the emergence of rookie second baseman Chuck Knoblauch (.281 average, 25 stolen bases).

The Twins’ express elevator ride lifted them from the bottom floor to a penthouse abandoned by the Oakland Athletics, whose almighty three-year AL reign abruptly ended from age, collapsed starting pitching, spotty hitting at best and some internal turmoil. It was hard to imagine that in spite of it all, the A’s still salvaged a winning season at 84-78, fourth in the West.

Like the Twins, the AL East-winning Toronto Blue Jays had regrouped behind a roster makeoverAlomar and Carter were traded from San Diego for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez; White was signed as a free agent to replace the departed, mercurial George Bell. that yielded improved results from new arrivals: Second baseman Roberto Alomar, and outfielders Joe Carter and Devon White. The trio would provide the nucleus of a mini-dynasty in the coming campaigns, but for now they were, along with the rest of the Blue Jays, fodder for the energized Twins at the ALCS.

Proving that they would not collapse on the road as they did throughout their championship season of 1987, the Twins followed up a two-game split at home to start the ALCS by hammering the Blue Jays in all three games played at Toronto's SkydomeThe Blue Jays, 57-27 with the Skydome roof closed since its 1989 debut, were only 1-5 with it shut in the postseason. to take the AL pennant. Jack Morris won both of his series’ starts, Kirby Puckett followed up another lightweight season of slugging (15 home runs) with a pair of blasts in the final two games among seven other hits, and the Twins’ bullpen—heretofore a weak presence—didn’t allow a single run in 18.1 innings of work.

That the Twins arose from last place to American League champions was surprising. That their World Series opponents, the Atlanta Braves, were able to do the same in the National League was positively shocking.

While Minnesota had skimmed off the bottom in 1990, the Braves were there as they always had—as a truly bad team. They hadn’t enjoyed a winning year since 1983 and over the previous three seasons had finished last in the NL West with an average of 100 losses and attendance under a million. Misguided marketing added to the team’s misery when, in 1990, it decided to use actor Jim Varney’s hayseed caricature Ernest P. Worrell (“Hey, Vern!”) as the team’s pitchman. The stereotype offended Braves fans.

In earlier days, Atlanta owner Ted Turner would have macro-managed from far and near to fix things, but he had more important items on his current agenda such as building world peace and colorizing MGM movie classics, leaving his Braves as a black-and-white retread.

Bobby Cox held the minority opinion that there was a good thing going in Atlanta with the Braves. He had to think that way; the once-and-current Braves manager had returned to AtlantaCox’s first tour of duty with the Braves, from 1978-81, produced only one winning year—a 81-80 mark in 1980—before turning the Blue Jays around. in 1985 as its general manager, following a frustrating tenure at Toronto in which he awoke the Blue Jays to prominence, but not a World Series. Cox patiently rebuilt the Braves from the bottom, producing a sack full of prospects—and making sure they wouldn’t get rashly traded away for now-or-never veterans. The untouchables included outfielders David Justice and Ron Gant, infielders Mark Lemke and Jeff Blauser, and pitchers Tom Glavine and Steve Avery.

The Braves languished badly through six years of misery that made their victorious 1991 about-face all the more remarkable.

Along with the current Atlanta GM—the highly-revered John Schuerholz, plucked away from Kansas City—Cox rounded out the edges to a team on the brink of a stunning turnaround in 1991 with a series of astute roster moves, adding two veterans who excelled into uncharted personal excellence.

Stolen from Montreal was Otis Nixon, a part-time performer who in eight previous years was all run, no hit. In Atlanta, Nixon suddenly developed into a top-flight, everyday leadoff artist, batting .295 with 72 steals. But Nixon’s value was dwarfed by what Terry Pendleton would give to the Braves. A respectable ballplayer who endured rocky times of late—bottoming out in 1990 with a career-low .230 average—the more relaxed and patient Pendleton turned his $1.7 million Atlanta salary from an extravagance to a bargain, leading the NL with 187 hits and a .319 batting average. He added personal highs in all power categories, including home runs (22), and become the spiritual anchor of a baseball revival in the Deep South.

Atlanta started well but entered the All-Star break at 39-40, 9.5 games behind the front-running Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. Skeptics sensed that Atlanta had played over its head and was coming back down to hard earth, but instead the Braves were ready to go full throttle with a second wind—building up confidence while narrowing the Dodgers’ lead. From mid-August, the Braves would engage the Dodgers in a seesaw dogfight to the wire, where Atlanta would take the WestWhile the Braves were going worst-to-first, the Cincinnati Reds headed in the opposite direction; at 74-88, the Reds produced the worst record by a defending World Series champion to date. by a game thanks to an eight-game win streak in late September.

The Braves’ second-half thrust to the postseason was not without obstacle. Injuries befell the team and, three weeks before the playoffs, Otis Nixon’s breakthrough year was busted up when he tested positive for cocaine, resulting in a season-ending suspension. But youthful pitching picked up the Braves. Left-hander Tom Glavine notched 20 wins against 11 losses; fellow southpaw Steve Avery—all 21 years of him—was no less impressive at 18-8; and 24-year-old right-hander John SmoltzSmoltz, traded from Detroit in 1987, had a 5.16 ERA at the All-Star break; he was 12-2 with a 2.62 ERA afterward. overcame a miserable 2-11 first half with the help of hypnosis to finish at 14-13.

The Pittsburgh Pirates reached the NLCS for the second straight year, this time with considerable ease—topping second-place St. LouisThe Pirates kept the Cardinals, the NL East doormats of 1990, from becoming baseball’s third worst-to-first ballclub in 1991. with the majors’ best record at 98-64. Harmony had little to do with it. Star slugger Bobby Bonilla (.302, 18 home runs, 100 RBIs) was certain to leave the financially-challenged Pirates at the end of the year, and all-world Barry Bonds (.292, 25 homers, 116 RBIs) was sure to follow—especially after a spring training meltdown with manager Jim Leyland that was caught on camera.

Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz reacts after getting out of a first-inning jam in NLCS Game Seven at Pittsburgh; he would settle in and toss a six-hit shutout to send the Braves to the World Series for the first time in 33 years.

Against the Braves, the Pirates’ stars played as if they had already fled. Bonds hit an empty .148, Bonilla an innocuous .304 (seven hits, one RBI). Pitcher John Smiley, a pleasant surprise who tied Glavine for the NL lead with 20 wins—and a man also rumored to be salivating at the idea of free agency—bombed horribly, lasting a total of 2.2 innings over two starts, allowing seven earned runs.

All this, and the Pirates still nearly slipped past Atlanta. They took a three-games-to-two lead home to Pittsburgh and needed just that one win. They couldn’t even get one run. Steve Avery, who pitched 16.1 scoreless innings over two sensational starts for the Braves, kept the Bucs locked down in a 1-0 Game Six win and, in Game Seven, John Smoltz fired a six-hit, 4-0 shutout to send the Braves, one year removed as baseball’s worst team, to the Fall Classic.

Given the similar paths that the Braves and Minnesota Twins had taken throughout the 1991 season—initial little prospects, slow starts, strong finishes, rekindled play by their veterans, accelerated development by their youngsters—there was little wonder that the World Series they were about to embark on would be one of the tightest ever. The series would go the distance, with five of the seven games decided by a run, three in extra innings, and four in the last at-bat. Heroes were made of common players such as back-up Minnesota infielder Scott Leius (a game-winning homer in Game Two) and Atlanta second baseman Mark Lemke (ten hits, including three triples), while villains were made of stars like Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, who in Game Two killed an Atlanta rally when he appeared to muscle the Braves’ Ron Gant off the first base bag, tagging him for the out. Somehow, umpire Drew Coble let the play stand, infuriating the Braves and their fansHrbek received several death threats when the series moved to Atlanta; one Braves fan put up a sign that said, “Hrbek is a Jrk.”.

After the Braves exploded for a 14-5 rout in Game Five to take a 3-2 series lead back to Minnesota, the best dramatics still lay ahead. Game Six completely belonged to Kirby Puckett; the dynamic Twins center fielder robbed Gant of a possible homer with a leaping catch, and at the plate he tripled and knocked in three runs—the last of which came on a dramatic leadoff homer in the 11th inning to force Game Seven, 4-3.

Jack Morris eyed making his second straight start on three days’ rest for the winner-take-all finale, but he had to talk Minnesota manager Tom Kelly into it—reminding him that his next start would be on 150 days’ rest. Kelly obliged, and Morris proceeded to deliver one of baseball’s greatest pitching performances. But John Smoltz wasn’t going to make it easy for him.

Smoltz, the Michigan native who grew up idolizing Morris, matched him zero for zero over seven innings, and looked ready to be the benefactor of the game’s first run in the eighth when Terry Pendleton launched a drive to the wall in right-center. But Lonnie Smith, running from first, got suckered into a force-out decoy at second base by Twins infielders; his brief hesitation cost him a chance to score on the double, and he settled for third base. And that’s where Smith remained when Sid Bream grounded into a double play to end the Braves’ threat.

The Twins finally knocked out Smoltz in the bottom of the inning, but double plays knocked the Twins out of their own rallies in the eighth and ninth innings. Morris, determined to go whatever the distance called for, pitched a perfect tenth—and then the Twins finally delivered. Dan Gladden led off the bottom of the tenth with a classic bloop double on the Metrodome’s artificial turf, was bunted over to third—and with every Braves fielder playing in by necessity, utility benchwarmer Gene Larkin added his name to the list of unlikely Series heroes when he punched a grounder through to bring home Gladden with Game Seven’s first, only and winning run(Between two World Series triumphs in 1987 and 1991, the Twins would never lose at the Metrodome (8-0)—and never win on the road (0-6)..

Rising above the roll call of unlikely heroes in Leius, Lemke and Larkin was the unlikely performance of Morris, whose beyond-the-call, ten-inning shutout instantly became the stuff of legends, making him a hometown hero in his first—and only—year in a Minnesota uniform.

Turning baseball upside down with their turnabouts and shaking it all around with their roller coaster World Series, the Twins and Braves set the tone for a decade full of sudden winners and losers whose stock fell and rose with all the elasticity of a yo-yo. Curse all you want at baseball’s heartless economics that created such fluctuations, but the fun it gave the game’s fans in 1991 can never be dismissed.

1992 baseball historyForward to 1992: Truly, A World Series After years of strong play, the Toronto Blue Jays finally reach the top and become baseball's first international champions.

1990 baseball historyBack to 1990: The Dynasty Dies Nasty Armed with a tough, rough and rowdy trio of relievers, the Cincinnati Reds knock off the almighty Oakland A's.

1990s baseball historyThe 1990s Page: To Hell and Back Relations between players and owners continue to deteriorate, bottoming out with a devastating mid-decade strike—souring relations with fans who, in some cases, turn their backs on the game for good. Recovery is made possible thanks to a series of popular record-breaking achievements by "class act" stars.

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1991 Standings

National League East
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals
Philadelphia Phillies
Chicago Cubs
New York Mets
Montreal Expos
National League West
Atlanta Braves
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astros
American League East
Toronto Blue Jays
Detroit Tigers
Boston Red Sox
Milwaukee Brewers
New York Yankees
Baltimore Orioles
Cleveland Indians
American League West
Minnesota Twins
Chicago White Sox
Texas Rangers
Oakland A's
Seattle Mariners
Kansas City Royals
California Angels

1991 Postseason Results
NLCS Atlanta defeated Pittsburgh, 4-3.
ALCS Minnesota defeated Toronto, 4-1.
World Series Minnesota (AL) defeated Atlanta (NL), 4-3.

It Happened in 1991

The New King of Thieves
Rickey Henderson, his career barely halfway over, surpasses Lou Brock to become the all-time stolen base king on May 1 at Oakland against the New York Yankees. His 939th lifetime steal comes in the fourth inning of the A’s 7-4 win.

The Magnificent Seventh
The Texas Rangers’ Nolan Ryan hogs Henderson’s spotlight when, on the very same night, he throws his seventh career no-hitter in a 3-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays at Arlington. At 44, he’s the oldest player to throw a no-hitter, and records 16 strikeouts thanks in part to a fastball that is still reaching speeds up to 96 miles per hour.

Exposive Pitching
Montreal pitchers Mark Gardner and Dennis Martinez confound Dodgers hitters during a weekend series at Los Angeles—but with mixed results. Gardner no-hits the Dodgers through nine innings on July 26—but loses the game when he has to pitch the tenth inning of a scoreless game and allows singles to the first two batters, sparking a game-winning Dodgers rally. There is nothing bittersweet about what Martinez does two days later; he sets down all 27 Dodgers he faces—and just as importantly, the Expos are able to squeeze two late, unearned runs to help clinch Martinez’s perfect game. It’s a signature moment for the 36-year-old Martinez, who’s long since rediscovered his sharpness on the mound after alcoholism threatened his career in the mid-1980s.

The Big O-No, Look-Out!
Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, badly mired in red ink since the day it opened, now has physical problems as well. On July 27, the Kevlar fabric roof tears during a violent storm, forcing the Expos to play with the facility’s troubled retractable roof opened; then, after a 55-ton concrete beam collapses onto a walkway, the team can’t play home at all. The latter incident, on September 13 with the stadium empty, forces the Expos to play their final 13 home games on the road while repairs are made.

The Skydome’s the Limit
Canada’s other domed facility, Toronto’s Skydome, is faring much better. With the Blue Jays continuing to win and the facility still a chic city beacon a few short years after its opening, 4,001,527 fans file through the turnstiles to set a major league record. The Blue Jays will again top four million in 1992-93—years in which the team wins back-to-back World Series.

Back to the Underwear Ads
Seven years after throwing his last major league pitch and a year after being enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Jim Palmer wants to make a comeback. The 45-year old is given the chance by his old team, the Baltimore Orioles, but he gets hammered by opposing hitters in spring training and tears a hamstring before finally giving it up.

Cone in the Zone
David Cone of the New York Mets ties a National League record when he strikes out 19 Philadelphia Phillies on the regular season’s final day, October 6. The Mets win, 7-0, as Cone fires a three-hit shutout.

Still Hip, Bo?
Bo Jackson, after suffering a severe hip injury partaking in his “hobby” of professional football, is released by the Kansas City Royals—and picked up by the Chicago White Sox, hoping he has something left to give to baseball. Jackson’s speed is gone, but his upper-body strength isn’t. He’ll hit three home runs in 71 at-bats in 1991 for the White Sox, be forced to sit out 1992, then returns in 1993-94 with more power, belting 29 homers in under 500 at-bats.

We’ve Come So Far, And Yet…
For the first time in their 15-year existence, the Seattle Mariners produce a winning season at 83-79—and manager Jim Lefebvre is rewarded for his efforts by being fired. Mariners management is looking less at wins and losses as they are at the AL West standings; Seattle finishes sixth, just two games ahead of the cellar-dwelling California Angels (at 81-81, the best last-place showing by a major league team ever). On top of all of this, Lefebvre was reportedly at odds with the Seattle front office and some of the team’s players.

Lenny and Darren’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure
Driving home together from teammate John Kruk’s bachelor party on May 6, Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton of the Philadelphia Phillies are seriously injured when Dykstra loses control of his Mercedes and slams into a tree. The car is totaled, and so almost is Dykstra—suffering a punctured lung and fractures to the collarbone, three ribs and a cheekbone. Daulton has a broken bone under his left eye and will struggle to regain clear vision throughout the rest of the season. Dykstra, charged with DUI, will miss two and a half months.

Beware of Temperamental Ballplayers
Rob Dibble, the Cincinnati Reds’ enfant terrible, responds to an imperfect and roughly earned save against the Chicago Cubs on April 28 when he launches the baseball all the way into the center field bleachers—where it hits an unsuspecting young schoolteacher. Dibble apologizes but is still fined $1,000 and suspended for four games.

A few weeks later at the northern end of Ohio, brooding Cleveland outfielder Albert Belle—enjoying, sort of, his breakout year in the majors—responds to a hometown heckler ripping him on his recent bout with alcoholism by firing a ball at his chest. For now the fans side with Belle—whose dark disposition is only beginning to be recognized nationwide—but the American League disapproves, suspending him for a week.

Incomplete Games
In a much earlier age, going the distance was required of a starting pitcher, but in the age of overlong games and high-priced relievers, the complete game is rapidly becoming an endangered species. For the first time in NL history, no one starter finishes ten or more games; in the AL, the Yankees set all-time marks, for the moment, with the fewest complete games (three) and most consecutive games (83) without a pitcher finishing a start.

All Swing, No Sock
The Blue Jays’ Manny Lee strikes out 107 times in 445 at-bats, and while such high strikeout totals are usually reserved for all-or-nothing sluggers like Rob Deer or Cecil Fielder, Lee contributes no power to his collection of whiffs—hitting zero home runs. No other player has struck out more while going homerless in a season. Lee hits only .234 for the year with 18 doubles and three triples.

New Ballparks

New Comiskey Park, Chicago Replacing its older namesake that had served the Chicago White Sox for 81 years next door, the new Comiskey Park is the first baseball-only facility to open in nearly 20 years. It is also described by columnist George Will as “the last stupid ballpark” because it lacks the old-fashioned appeal and asymmetrical intimacy that fans are craving for—an irony, given that the facility was designed by Kansas City’s HOK Sport, which is on the verge of sparking the retro ballpark revolution with Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

New Comiskey retains some of the architectural flourishes of its elder, including the exterior arches and exploding scoreboard, but it stacks up two generous levels of luxury boxes, topped with a steep third deck that threatens fans with acquiring vertigo—and is farther from the field than any seat in old Comiskey’s upper deck. And finally, to remove urban romanticism, new Comiskey is situated to face away from, not toward, downtown Chicago. New Comiskey was built entirely with public funds for $135 million after White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf talked of St. Petersburg as a possible new home; the Illinois State Legislature approved the funding only after literally turning the clock back—declaring it had the votes a minute before a midnight deadline when in fact it was 12:05 a.m. The Detroit Tigers spoil the Inaugural Day party on April 18 when they crush the White Sox, 16-0. Renamed U.S. Cellular Field in 2003, then Guaranteed Rate Field for 2017.

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