Still A Series To Savor: Memories of the epic 1991 Twins vs. Braves Fall Classic
- The ballparks that hosted that seven-act drama in Atlanta and Minneapolis are gone, but all who played in, watched or covered that epic showdown a quarter-century ago have never forgotten it.
Twenty-five years ago the Twins and the Braves played a World Series so loud and so memorable that it continues to ring in the ears of all who attended it. "It doesn't seem that long ago," says Kent Hrbek, who played first base for Minnesota, "until you look at the video and see all the mullets."
Back in 1991, Hrbek was telling the national press corps gathered in Minneapolis for Games 1 and 2 that his all-time best bowling score was 267. But six years ago, at his beloved West Side Lanes in St. Paul, he eclipsed that mark, rolling 11 consecutive strikes and requiring only one more for a perfect game. "When I threw that 12th ball, going for a 12th strike, I just about crapped my pants," he says. "I was shaking so hard trying to get 300." He left a single pin standing, for a 299. Or as his hunting buddy and former Twins teammate Tim Laudner calls it: "Room for improvement."
The same cannot be said of the '91 World Series. Twenty-five years ago I wrote in SI that it was "the greatest that was ever played," and that honorific still applies. Three games went into extra innings and four ended in walk-offs, including Games 6 and 7 in Minnesota. Despite that drama, and despite the fact that his wife, Jeanie, was "a wreck"—nearly sick with anxiety, as even neutral spectators were—Hrbek never felt anything like the pressure he would later succumb to at West Side Lanes. "When I stepped into the batter's box or was playing first base," he says, "I always felt at peace."
And so Hrbek was strangely relaxed as he took up his position in the eighth inning of Game 7 that Sunday night in October. The game was stillscoreless, but only because Atlanta DH Lonnie Smith, running from first base on a double by Terry Pendleton, stopped for a long interval at second after falling for a decoy by Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who pretended to throw to shortstop Greg Gagne while the baseball was rattling around in leftfield.
As a result, Smith was only on third rather than safely home in the dugout; Pendleton stood catching his breath on second; and David Justice was on first after having been walked to load the bases and bring Sid Bream to the plate with one out.
When Bream promptly hit a grounder to the right side, Hrbek charged to field it cleanly, fired home to Twins catcher Brian Harper for the force-out of Smith, then raced back to the bag to take a return throw that beat Bream, thus giving the Twins an improbable, inning-ending, 3-2-3 double play. As Hrbek pumped his fist in celebration, the Metrodome seemed ready to collapse beneath a ceiling of sound.
The guy seated next to me in the press box turned to say something, but it was too hopelessly deafening, and so he left his mouth hanging open in cartoon disbelief. "The Twins getting out of that eighth inning is still the loudest sound I've ever heard anywhere," recalls that man, my friend and then colleague on the SI baseball beat, Tim Kurkjian, who was writing a sidebar. "It was like being at a Springsteen concert, strapped to a speaker, while he's playing 'Thunder Road.'"
By that point in the Series, the participants knew they were travelers in some historic terra incognita. When Minnesota manager Tom Kelly had come to the mound in the eighth, one Twin later told Kurkjian that if the manager had tried to take the ball from starting pitcher Jack Morris, a terrible spectacle would have followed: that of the ace murdering the manager on live television. At the very least, Hrbek says, there would have been a delay while the grounds crew came out "to scrape pieces of TK off the mound."
That national television audience, not incidentally, was 50.3 million. The viewership for the last World Series Game 7, in 2014, was less than half that. The Series' greatest star—Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett, who forced Game 7 by winning Game 6 almost single-handedly—has been dead for 10 years now. The two stadiums in which the Series was played no longer exist. And the franchises involved, for most of '16, were the two worst teams in baseball. All of this was, in other words, a very long time ago. For me, newly turned 50 this fall, the 1991 World Series was exactly half a lifetime ago.
I had grown up in Hrbek's hometown of Bloomington, Minn., and graduated from John F. Kennedy High in 1984, six years after he had. Throughout my childhood I watched Twins road games on a little TV in the basement and wrote accounts of them on my mom's Royal typewriter. In '84, when I was 17, my dad altered my birth certificate so that I appeared old enough to sell beer in a concession stand at the Metrodome, to which I would drive my mom's Honda Accord every afternoon, parking it in the same lot on Portland Avenue. During games, in my orange visor and brown smock, I watched through a tunnel as rightfielder Tom Brunansky occasionally ran across the only patch of turf that I could see from my cash register.
Across the concourse from that concession stand was the Metrodome press box, and I spent games wondering how I could possibly get from here to there, a distance of 75 feet that may as well have been a million miles.
As a college student I was in a crowd shot on the front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press's preview of the 1987 World Series (which Minnesota would win in seven games over St. Louis), waving a Homer Hanky in the Dome's leftfield bleachers. Four years later, in 1991, the Twins were in the World Series again, but this time, through a series of events too improbable to recount, I was covering the series for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
"This is the time of your life," Kelly said at the start of the Series, speaking for himself, but also, I felt, directly to me. "You should have fun."
It should have been easy, given the thrilling spectacle that unfolded. But it was often agonizing to watch. As Game 7 built to its almost unbearable climax on that Sunday night, I was charged with typing 3,000 reasonably coherent words about the game and the Series overnight for the magazine I grew up reading, about the team I grew up following, in the stadium where I worked and daydreamed as a kid.
When the Twins survived that eighth inning, and the Metrodome was swallowed by that tsunami of sound and Kurkjian let his mouth fall open, I inclined my ear to him. When the sound finally ebbed sufficiently, he said, "I can't write tonight. I'm not worthy. The noise, the pressure, Jack Morris, Game 7? I'm just not worthy."
Again, it was a long time ago. Kurkjian, who served as my unofficial mentor, proudly carried The Baseball Encyclopedia with him on the road in a handled suitcase. The book alone, he told me—after dropping it like an anvil on his bathroom scale—weighed 8.8 pounds. At the Atlanta airport, as we schlepped our bags to the taxi stand before Games 3, 4 and 5, Tim surveyed with disdain the pilots and flight attendants wheeling the roll-aboard overnight bags that were suddenly in vogue.
"If you ever see me pulling my suitcase through the airport like a toy choo-choo train, please kill me," he said. I promised that I would.
"I had a horrible three days in Atlanta," Hrbek says, "with the death threats from the Gant play." In Game 2 at the Dome, Braves centerfielder Ron Gant had rounded first when pitcher Kevin Tapani fielded an overthrown relay and fired it to Hrbek. Gant scrambled back and stepped on the base with his left foot, but his momentum carried that foot off the base, and he had to quickly put his right foot down on the bag instead. As he did so, Hrbek applied the tag to Gant's right leg while appearing to lift that leg off the base. It was this frozen tableau that umpire Drew Coble surveyed when calling Gant out. In Georgia, Hrbek didn't leave his hotel, except to play three ballgames at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, all of which the Braves won.
And so the Twins returned home for Game 6 trailing 3--2. Puckett told his teammates he would carry them to victory and then did exactly that. He tripled in the first inning, scaled the wall to rob Gant in the third inning, gave the Twins a short-lived lead with a sac fly in the fifth and in the 11th inning hit a walk-off home run for a 4--3 win. The ensuing animal noise of the crowd in the Metrodome was, to that point, the loudest I had ever endured.
In those days there were push-button landlines at the press tables. As Puckett made his screaming lap of the bases, the gentleman seated in front of me—a veteran beat writer from a major newspaper—banged his fist on the phone in front of him: The handset jumped, and the bell made a single Pavlovian ding, like the one on the carriage return of my mom's Royal typewriter. That writer had a flight home on Sunday morning, until his plans (and his game story) were suddenly ruined by greatness.
In my own handwriting, in a notebook I've kept all these years, are the words Puckett said afterward, when asked if he had the energy to play a Game 7: "I'll get my rest when I'm dead."
And now he is, of a stroke in 2006, though outside Gate 34 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Puckett is forever rounding second base after that walk-off, throwing a roundhouse right fist into the air. If you press your ear to the bronze, you can hear the echo of its origin, the way you hear the ocean in a seashell, so that Jack Buck (also departed) is forever saying what he said on CBS when the ball landed in the leftfield stands: "We'll see you tomorrow night!"
Afterward, Morris calmly signaled that he would not shrink from the challenge that lay 20 hours ahead. "In the words of the late, great, Marvin Gaye," he said, 'Let's get it on.'" Someone asked Hrbek later what he had done before Game 7 that Sunday. He squinted at the questioner as if the guy was nuts. "I watched football," he said, "like any normal American."
Kelly told his team not to get too jacked. This would not be a problem for Hrbek. On the morning of Game 7 in the 1987 Series, also in Minnesota, a friend had called him at 4:30 a.m. to say the ducks were in flight, so Hrbek joined him to hunt waterfowl. "But not this time," Hrbek says now. "Nobody called me."
You know what happened next. Morris pitched 10 innings of shutout baseball against the future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who was his equal for 71/3 innings. Dan Gladden led off the bottom of the 10th with a double, Knoblauch bunted him to third and Puckett and Hrbek were intentionally walked. That brought up pinch hitter Gene Larkin, whose deep drive to left-centerfield over the drawn-in outfield brought home Gladden, his glorious mullet flapping behind him the whole way.
Gladden and Larkin stayed in Minnesota after their careers ended. I once mentioned Larkin's hit, both timely and timeless, to students at a Catholic K-through-eight school in suburban Minneapolis. In the audience everyone pointed to a girl who confessed, with some embarrassment, "He's my dad."
Minnesota native Morris does Twins radio, as does Gladden. Hrbek has remained in Bloomington. "They can't kick me out of here," he says of our hometown, an idyllic place to grow up that every resident will happily acknowledge is and will always be the People's Republic of Hrbekistan.
To the gratitude of baseball fans everywhere, I never did kill Tim Kurkjian, and he has become a much-loved broadcaster on ESPN's Baseball Tonight and Sunday Night Baseball, for which he travels the nation, pulling a wheeled suitcase behind him like a choo-choo on a string, a practice he began in 1992, a mere year after vowing never to do so.
As for Hrbek, 56, he is likewise not immune to age. Three years ago he wrecked his left knee while bowling. It had to be replaced, ending his career, so that 299 will remain his best score, preserved for posterity like the statue of himself outside Gate 14 at Target Field. There are other monuments to the slugger. Hrbek's Pub, behind home plate at Target Field, is home to the man in food form: a Bloody Mary garnished with a chicken wing and a bacon burger. And five years ago, for the 20th anniversary of the 1991 World Series, the Twins gave out bobbleheads of Hrbek holding Gant by one leg.
So 1991 is at once omnipresent and long gone. West Side Lanes is closed, the Metrodome deflated. In its place is U.S. Bank Stadium, new home of the ascendant Vikings. Hrbek attended their first game there this season and found no trace that baseball was ever played on that spot, which is a pity. "I still hear about '87 or '91 every day that I'm out and about," he says. Watching fans on TV celebrate outside the Metrodome in '87, Hrbek told Gladden in the clubhouse, "Let's go out there and celebrate with the people."
"Are you kidding?" Gladden replied. "They'll tear us apart." So they stayed indoors.
Four years later the 1991 celebration was still raging when I left the Metrodome after Game 7, and walked to the parking lot on Portland Avenue where I used to park my mom's Honda. Reeking of secondhand champagne, I drove my rental car to Bloomington, to the house I grew up in, to the basement where I used to write Twins stories. There I wrote another Twins game story, this one for SI. My mom had died a month earlier, after a short illness, and at 3 a.m., staring at a keyboard, I wondered what she'd have thought of this scene, 20 years after she first pressed a library card into my hand and urged me to treat it as a spendthrift would treat a charge card.
The story I filed a few hours later was fine—though I failed to mention Smith's baserunning error—and Kurkjian's companion piece was (despite his fears) more than worthy of the occasion.
Having arrived at the World Series from the same place, but by different means, Hrbek and I both wound up in the Kennedy High Athletics Hall of Fame: one of us for hitting home runs, the other for typing. But I'll take it. "I think it's pretty awesome to see someone type," he says sincerely. "I can't do it. I didn't take that class in 10th grade."
Instead, he fishes, hunts and accepts the daily goodwill of strangers. He also travels, within reason. "It's safe to say I don't go to Atlanta a lot," he says. "My face is still on wanted posters there."