From Bottom to Tops

In a World Series of flip-flopped fortunes, the worst-to-first Twins took on the worst-to-first Braves
October 28, 1991

SO NOW WE KNOW: The world series, like the number 88, doesn't change just because it is turned on its head. This year's World Series, the 88th in history, not only has been turned on its head, but also has been shaken by the ankles. What falls out of an upside-down Fall Classic? For the last-to-first Minnesota Twins, there was a 2-0 series lead, seized in their home park last weekend by the last three men in their batting order. For the last-to-first Atlanta Braves, there was comfort in the knowledge that their two best pitchers had yet to throw—they are the last two men in their four-man Series rotation. And lastly, for baseball fans, there was evidence that a World Series between such recent bottom-dwellers can still be, in a word, tops.

"I think both teams are winners this year, regardless of what happens now," said Minnesota centerfielder Kirby Puckett, who is right. It is Scripture that is wrong. True, the last shall be first; but one of the last shall be second when this season is done, and after Games 1 and 2 in the Metrodome in Minneapolis, it was the young Braves, once seemingly the children of destiny, who now appeared destined only to become the new kids on the chopping block.

So comfortable were the Twins after their scintillating 3-2 win on Sunday night, before the loudest, most hanky-intensive audience in sports, that Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek could laugh off the now-controversial tomahawk-chop performed by the fans in Atlanta, where Games 3, 4 and 5 awaited. "Oooooh," Hrbek said in mock horror. "That scares me."

The 253-pound Hrbek wears shower thongs inscribed REX, which is short for T-Rex, which is the ring name he has chosen for the professional wrestling career to which he aspires after baseball. On Sunday night, Hrbek appeared to pull Atlanta centerfielder Ron Gant's leg from first base as he tagged him. Umpire Drew Coble called Gant out, killing a third-inning Braves rally in the process. And while Hrbek denied afterward that he had started his wrestling career prematurely with that play—"Rex has a few more baseball games to play first," he insisted—the TV replays and Gant's postgame testimony tended to indicate otherwise. "I felt the whole force of him pulling me off the bag," said Gant. "He's twice my size."

With that, the Twins might have become the black-masked bullies to root against in this Series, except that these guys seem instead a lot more like men of the people. Hrbek doesn't watch baseball on television because it's "boring" and instead prefers to bowl—his high game is 267. Puckett is pumped about the first annual postseason pool tournament, which he will host at his Twin Cities home. And come December, pitcher Kevin Tapani, Sunday's starter and winner, just might slip back into the Federal Express uniform he was wearing less than two years ago, when he was both a pitcher for the Twins and made deliveries of another kind "for something to do" over the Christmas season in the Twin Cities. "Our stars don't seem like stars," says Tapani. "They're more like...average guys, I guess."

Of course, like Hrbek-Rex, the Braves, too, can display a dual personality—alternately captivating (see their come-from-behind divisional and National League Championship Series victories) and irritating (see ubiquitous follower Jane Fonda). This team is somehow, at once, the worst-to-first Cinderella and the wicked stepmother Barbarella.

In the chill outside the Metrodome before the World Series opener on Saturday, picketing Native Americans warned Ted Turner, the Braves' owner and cable magnate, against reducing their people to mere mascots. Turner, his fiancèe, Fonda, and most other Braves fans stand accused of doing precisely that to Native Americans by tomahawk-chopping all season on nationwide television. To paraphrase the song Indian Reservation: "He took the whole Indian nation/Put them on a superstation."

The Native American message was heard worldwide, conveyed by the baseball cognoscenti who came to Minnesota from around the globe, all of them, it seemed, in search of the "key" to this World Series. To a TV reporter from Des Moines, righthander Tapani—who, not coincidentally, was born in Iowa—would be the Series key. "Tapani doesn't remember much of our city," the correspondent earnestly conceded into a camera last weekend. "His family moved away when he was one year old."

To a phenomenally prescient journalist from Montreal, however, the key would be the bottom of the Minnesota batting order. The French-Canadian reporter asked Game 1 starter Charlie Leibrandt of the Braves, during a press conference, just how the lefthander proposed to pitch to such Twin hitters as "Kent Erbeck and Dave Gagner." Leibrandt's scouting report was sketchy at best, given that Erbeck doesn't exist and Gagner plays center for the Minnesota North Stars.

The journaliste was trying, of course, to invoke the names of Hrbek, who sometimes bats in the seventh slot against lefthanders, and shortstop Greg Gagne, who bats ninth. Yet, why either of these players should have posed a threat to Leibrandt was unclear. Hrbek hit .143 in the playoffs against Toronto and was, at one point earlier this season, so troubled by lefties that manager Tom Kelly twice pinch-hit for him against southpaws—inserting antistuds Carmelo Castillo and Albert D. Newman in his place. And Gagne, for his part, is a runt so unobtrusive that he confessed during the American League Championship Series to frequently feeling unappreciated.

So when Gladys Knight flawlessly—and Piplessly—sang the national anthem on Saturday night, and Jack Morris took the mound for the Twins, and the World Series opened in 68° nonweather beneath Teflon skies, Hrbek and Gagne were not foremost in Atlanta minds. What the Braves didn't know was that Hrbek had told his teammates before they took the field, "Get on my back, boys—I'll carry you." (Then again, "I said that before every game of the playoffs, too," Rex acknowledged later.)

No, foremost in the minds behind the furrowed Braves foreheads was the Metrodome itself. Gant, upon first seeing the Dome's camouflaging, baseball-colored ceiling, voiced this inquiry about the park's creator-perpetrator: "What was he thinking?" The place was of enough concern to Braves manager Bobby Cox that he made his usual leftfielder, the fielding-impaired Lonnie (Skates) Smith, his designated hitter. Cox replaced Smith on defense with rookie Brian Hunter, who had all of six games' experience in the outfield this season.

As it turned out, however, the only ball that was lost in the roof on Saturday night was one fouled into the VIP seats along the third base line. "I lost it," baseball commissioner Fay Vincent confessed of the ball that dropped painfully but harmlessly onto his daughter Anne's head. "Everyone seated around us lost it." And American League president Bobby Brown, wearing a fielder's glove to protect his wife, was in no position to make the play.

Nor was Atlanta rightfielder David Justice in the third inning, when Minnesota second baseman Chuck Knoblauch's single to right was enough to send leftfielder Dan Gladden safely home from second base, his trademark mud flap of hair fluttering behind him all the way. When Hrbek doubled in the fifth and Scott Leius singled him to third, Gagne came to the plate with nobody out.

Now devoutly religious, Gagne was a troubled kid while growing up with nine siblings in a hardscrabble neighborhood of Fall River, Mass. Against almost impossible odds, young Greg was kicked off of his baseball, football and basketball teams—for three different disciplinary reasons—in the 10th grade. "I call it," he has since said, "the sophomore jinx."

How inspiring, then, to see Gagne drive Leibrandt's second pitch to him over the plexiglass panels above the leftfield wall for his fourth career postseason home run. As he circled the bases, Gags waved to his parents and pointed to his wife out there in the blizzard of rayon rags. But what with the jet-engine roar of the crowd and all, Gagne was unable to hear a voice high up in the press box whispering, "C'est Gagnifique!" When Hrbek smashed a solo shot to the upper tank in rightfield an inning later, our French-Canadian friend looked a genius: Erbeck and Gagner had combined to produce four of the Twins' runs in their 5-2 win.

On Sunday night, Brown, the league prez, threw out the game's ceremonial first pitch, and Cox looked on wistfully, as though he wished he could have left the 66-year-old righthander in there. Or thrown instead his spontaneously combustible 21-year-old superstar, Steve Avery, who, alas, couldn't start until Game 3 because he had worked the sixth game of the League Championship Series. Or even his sizzling righthander, John Smoltz, whom Cox had to save for Game 4. Instead, the Braves were forced by their rotation to start Cy Young shoo-in Tom Glavine.

Glavine, who hadn't won a game in nearly three weeks, was immediately touched for a two-run homer in the first by Twins designated hitter Chili Davis. Atlanta tied the game, however, scoring once in the second on a sacrifice fly and again in the fifth, when catcher Greg Olson was sac-flied home to the only ovation for a Brave all weekend in the Dome: Olson grew up in Edina, Minn.—yes, kids, baseball can be a ticket out of your affluent suburban neighborhood—and he brought much of the town's population with him. "My parents were saying, 'We think Hazel down the street should have some tickets,' but you've got to draw the line somewhere," said Olson, who drew his at Hazel's lot line.

What Hazel missed were masterly performances by Glavine, who would allow only three more hits after the Chili Dog's dinger, and Des Moines's very own Tapani, who held the Braves to seven hits in eight innings.

The score was still 2-2 when the rookie Leius, who soberly limited his ticket allotment to his mother, father, sister and aunt, led off the bottom of the eighth inning. The No. 8 hitter against lefties, Leius usually sits on the bench versus righthanders. After hitting just .229 in Triple A last season, he seemed to have made the Twins roster this spring for no better reason than because he knows actor Matt Dillon, a boyhood buddy from the same neck of Mamaroneck, N.Y.

So naturally, in this inverted autumn, Leius hit a 20-game winner's first pitch into the leftfield seats, was pushed out of the dugout by Puckett for the first curtain call of his life, watched from third base as Twins closer Rick Aguilera scaled the 3-2 win and was whisked by glad-handers back to his locker, to which is taped his rookie baseball card. Absurdly, the World Series hero shares space on the card with two other guys. Inanely, the hero denied that even for this one moment he was as big as Matt Dillon. "No way," insisted Leius. "He's big."

The rookie believed himself, sincerely unaware that he had turned the world—or at least the World Series—on its ear.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONIn Game 1, Gladden upended Atlanta's Olson, who held the ball for the out. PHOTOJOHN IACONOGagne struck a blow for the bottom of the batting order with his three-run shot on Saturday. TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRADetached from first base after a T-Rex tag by Hrbek, Gant was incensed at Coble's call. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAfter his Game 2 homer, Leius accepted a Minny batboy's low high five. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER/CBSAguilera pulled off a Twin killing by getting saves in each of the first two Series games.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)