The truth is inelastic when it comes to the 88th World Series.
It is impossible to stretch. It isn't necessary to appraise
those nine days from some distant horizon of historical
perspective. Let us call this Series what it is: the greatest
that was ever played.
Both the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves enlarged the
game of baseball while reducing individual members of both teams
to humble participants in a Series with drama too huge to be
hyperbolized. There were five one-run duels, four of them won on
the game's final play, three extended to extra innings--all
categories that apply to the ultimate, unfathomable game played
in Minneapolis, in which a 36-year-old man threw 10 innings of
shutout baseball in the seventh game of the World Series. Grown
men were reduced to tears and professional athletes to ill
health in the aftermath of the Twins' winning their second world
championship in five seasons. And that was in the victors'
In Atlanta's, catcher Greg Olson looked down at the floor in
search of consolation. "The National League Championship ring
will be nice," he said. "We know we gave it our best shot. But
the thing is, not too many people remember the team that came in
second in the World Series."
This time they would. Said the Braves' seventh-game starter,
John Smoltz, "This has got to go down in World Series history
along with Bobby Thomson's homer in Game 7." That was Smoltz's
only real mistake of the night--Thomson, of course, hit his shot
in the third National League playoff game of 1951. In a duel
with Jack Morris, Smoltz pitched 7 1/3 shutout innings. "All I
needed was one run," he said. "If we had gotten one run, I knew
I was going to stop them."
Alas, the Braves left eight men on base, five of them in scoring
position. In the ninth, when Olson came to bat, his catching
counterpart, Brian Harper, told him, "We both deserve to win."
But as Olson said later, "There can only be one team of destiny."
That team was finally crowned shortly after 11 p.m., when
Minnesota pinch hitter Gene Larkin slapped the first pitch he
got from Alejandro Pena to left center, over the head of Brian
Hunter, who, like the rest of the Atlanta outfield, was playing
only 30 yards in back of the infield in an effort to prevent
Minnesota's Dan Gladden from doing precisely what he did: bound
home from third base in the bottom of the 10th, through a
crosscurrent of crazed, dazed teammates, who were leaping from
the third base dugout and onto the field.
Even Atlanta second baseman Mark Lemke was moved, in defeat, by
the momentous nature of the game. "The only thing better," he
said, "would have been if we had stopped after nine innings and
cut the trophy in half."
Impossibly, both the Braves and the Twins had loaded the bases
with fewer than two outs in the eighth inning and failed to
score. Improbably, both threats had been snuffed with
mind-boggling suddenness by double plays. So by the bottom of
the 10th, when Harper, seeing Larkin make contact, threw his
batting helmet high into the air in the on-deck circle and
Gladden jumped onto home plate with both feet to give the Twins
a 1-0 win, the switch was thrown on a 30-minute burst of emotion
in the Metrodome, an energy that, if harnessed, would have lit
the Twin Cities through a second consecutive sleepless night.
For it was only 24 hours earlier that Minnesota centerfielder
Kirby Puckett had virtually single-handedly forced a seventh
game by assembling what must rank among the most outrageous
all-around performances the World Series has ever seen. In
addition to hitting the game-winning home run in the bottom of
the 11th inning off Atlanta's Charlie Leibrandt, Puckett had
singled, tripled, driven in a run on a sacrifice fly, stolen a
base and scored a run. In the third inning he had leaped high
against a Plexiglas panel in centerfield, hanging there
momentarily like one of those suction-cup Garfield dolls in a
car window, to rob Ron Gant of extra bases and the Braves of an
almost certain run.
Yes, this Series was baseball's most epic tale, one that engaged
two teams that, preposterously, had finished last in their
divisions the year before. It had to be epic to eclipse what the
Braves had survived the week before to win their first National
League pennant in 33 years, the first since they moved to
Atlanta. In a nerve-fraying Championship Series against the
Pittsburgh Pirates, the Braves had overcome a three-games-to-two
deficit and then won it all in Game 7 at Three Rivers Stadium.
Before that deceptively easy 4-0 rout, the series had been
another emotionally grinding affair, featuring three 1-0
games--two of them won by Atlanta's 21-year-old series MVP Steve
Avery, who pitched a National League-record 16 1/3 scoreless
innings--and a torturous Brave scoring drought. Between the first
inning of Game 4 and the ninth of Game 6, when Olson's two-out
double scored Gant from second base to win, Atlanta went 26
scoreless innings, a stretch made all the more agonizing by the
nullification of a David Justice run--after he failed to touch
third base--in the fourth inning of Game 5. The whole series was
so draining that afterward Olson, who caught every enervating
inning, said, "I don't want to catch another pitch."
Given the strain of that series, it was not surprising that the
Braves fell behind in the next, which opened in Minneapolis.
After the Twins put a stranglehold on the first two games by
producing game-winning dingers from two bottom feeders in their
batting order--Greg Gagne and Scott Leius--the Series went south
in geography only. A crowd of 50,878 Brave fans showed up at
Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for Game 3, the first World Series
game to be played within 500 miles of Atlanta. When it finally
came time to play ball, y'all, and the first pitch was thrown by
Avery, flashbulbs popped throughout the park like bursts of
white lightning. "I feel sorry for Dan Gladden," Brave first
baseman Sid Bream said later of the Twins' leadoff hitter. "He
was probably seeing 5,000 baseballs thrown at him."
For each flashbulb, there was photographic evidence for a fan
that he or she was present the night the largest cast ever to
appear in a World Series game put on the longest-running night
show in Series history. When the curtain dropped four hours and
four minutes later, at 12:42 a.m., after a record 42 players had
traversed the stage, Atlanta reserve catcher Jerry Willard would
pronounce himself "exhausted." And he was one of two position
players on either roster who didn't play.
When Chili Davis, pinch-hitting against Pena, squeezed off a
two-run tracer bullet to leftfield in the eighth inning, the
game was tied at four. It would go to extra frames and send
scorekeepers into a hopelessly dizzying spiral of pinch hitters,
double switches and defensive replacements, thus birthing the
biggest box score the World Series had known. Before the bottom
of the 12th Olson told Lemke, a career .225 hitter with a
dwarflike presence at the plate, that Lemke--a.k.a. Lumpy, a.k.a.
the Lemmer--would get the game-winning hit that inning. Lemke
pretended not to hear the prediction. "But I said to myself,
'Ehhhh, I don't think so,'" said the Lemmer later. This
recollection came, of course, shortly after Lemke had singled to
drive in Justice, who scored inches ahead of Gladden's throw and
With Lemke's late game-winner, bedlam and then bedtime ensued in
Atlanta. The Braves were 5-4 victors, and Lemke, at his locker,
looked longingly at a bottle of Rolaids the size of a
sweepstakes drum. "I get big-time heartburn," he said as just
one of several cardiologically concerned members of the Braves.
As Justice put it, "If we win the World Series now, I think
you're going to see some guys have heart attacks in here. I
Eighteen hours later, as baseball commissioner Fay Vincent
settled into his special overstuffed, faux-leather easy chair
along the first base line and prepared to take in Game 4, he
needed only a reading lamp and a pedestal globe to look
completely at home. And that was all an observer needed to do on
this night: look at home, to the thick and transfixing traffic
at the plate. It was there, in the fifth inning, that Harper
tagged out Lonnie Smith in a bone-rattling collision and,
moments later, put the touch on Terry Pendleton as Pendleton
tried to score on a not-wild-enough pitch that bounced in front
of home plate.
In the top of the seventh, Minnesota's Mike Pagliarulo hit a
solo homer to break a 1-1 tie. In the bottom of the seventh,
Smith did the same to retie things. Stomach linings could be
heard eroding throughout the stadium before Lemke slugged a
one-out triple in the bottom of the ninth. One batter later,
Willard pinch-hit and flied to shallow rightfield, just deep
enough to allow Lemke to tag up from third and slide past
Harper, who appeared to tag him out as the two made contact. In
fact, Harper never laid leather on the Lemmer, and another page
in the epic was turned. "Same two teams here tomorrow," Skip
Caray dryly told his radio audience as he signed off following
Atlanta's 3-2 win.
Game 5 was a godsend for both teams, though Minnesota wouldn't
acknowledge that at the time. The Braves' 14-5 tom-tom drumming
of the Twins at last broke the skein of hypertense games that
had endangered the central nervous systems of all those who had
been watching them. Back in Minneapolis, Puckett's heroics in
Game 6 produced a 4-3 win, leaving Morris, the Twins starter for
Game 7, to say on the eve of that game, "In the immortal words
of the late, great Marvin Gaye, 'Let's get it on.'" And that
they did, the Braves and the Twins, with the 36-year-old Morris
outlasting the 24-year-old Smoltz. On this night it appeared
Morris would have outlasted Methuselah.
When the seventh game and the Series had finally been bled from
the bodies on both sides, when the two teams had stopped their
cartoon brawl, raising ridiculous lumps by alternately slugging
each other over the head with a sledgehammer, Olson stood in the
Atlanta clubhouse and tried to come to grips with the loss.
"When I'm hunting this winter and I think back, I'll remember a
lot of fun things. The tons of emotion. The great talents I saw.
But there will always be a piece of me that hurts. Who's to say
you'll ever get invited to the dance again?"
A year later, the Braves would find another invitation waiting.
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA In Game 3 of the World Series, Justice barely beat Harper's tag to score the winning run for the Braves in the 12th inning. [Brian Harper and David Justice]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON (2) Olson's world turned upside down after Gladden scored in Game 1 and the Twins went up 2-0 a night later. [Dan Gladden and Greg Olson, who is standing on his head]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON (2) For Rafael Belliard, the close calls began in the NLCS. [Rafael Belliard attempting to tag Barry Bonds]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Smith took his best shot at Harper and was out in Game 4, while the Turners and the Carters gave the Braves their best chop. [Brian Harper falling backwards under Lonnie Smith]
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER (2)[See caption above--Jane Fonda, Ted Turner, Jimmy Carter, and Rosalynn Carter doing "tomahawk chop" in stands]
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER (2)With their rally caps turned backward and inside out, the Braves still couldn't punch across a run in Game 7. [Atlanta Braves players in dugout watching game]