Sunday, 27 Oct. 1991
The seventh game of the 1991 World Series was magnificent tonight. Jack Morris pitched 10 innings, gave up eight hits, and beat John Smoltz, Mike Stanton, and Alejandro Pena in Minneapolis. It was an incredible finish to an unforgettable World Series.
This series had it all. The infielding was superb. Terry Pendelton's bare-handed catch of a bunt, and split-second throw to first to get the second out in the ninth inning of the seventh game was picture perfect. Mark Lemke was instrumental in many double plays, including two which went from first to second to first; the most difficult double play routine in baseball. Rafael Belliard was the sort of shortstop that inspires anyone who would dream of playing that position. His speed and grace coupled with a sharp eye for the ball were perfection itself. Just as impressive was his courageous defense of second base in the teeth of numerous spikes-up slides by Twins runners attempting to take it from him. Scott Leius was a machine at shortstop for Minnesota. Every step was perfectly calculated for and timed to meet the ball in stride for the throw to first. He gunned them down with relentless regularity. His exquisitely timed leaping catch robbed Terry Pendelton of a crucial base-hit in the eighth inning of the sixth game. Kent Hrbek crystallized his eminence as the best first baseman in the game. Kirby Puckett turned in a fine performance in center field for the Twins. His throwing arm was a power to be reckoned with.
There were many exciting moments at the plate for both teams. Perhaps the most captivating story among many was the hitting of Mark Lemke during the three games in Atlanta. While Lonnie Smith, Terry Pendelton, Ron Gant, David Justice, and the rest of the lineup were napping, Lemke was carrying the load. He ended up hitting well over .400 for the series, including three triples. The last game in Atlanta was very much one-sided, but the excitement we felt while watching on the Headhunters crew bus in Corpus Christi was exactly why World Series games are worthing watching. The Braves rose to the occasion that night, cranking up 14 runs on 17 hits. Brian Hunter, Lonnie Smith, and Greg Olsen homered. Smith's homer was recognizable at the instant the bat hit the ball. He dropped his bat and stood there watching it go, looking for all the world like Reggie Jackson. Kirby Puckett's homer, ended the sixth game in Minneapolis, was a classic of clutch hitting. Atlanta manager Bobboy Cox had taken out Alejandro Pena, who was pitching in relief of Steve Avery. Charlie Leibrandt came in and threw four pitches. Puckett took the last one over the left-field wall to end the tooth and nail struggle at 4-3 in the bottom of the eleventh. Tension at the plate was palpable all through the series. Every batter knew he was up against the best pitching that the major leagues had to offer in the year 1991. The looks on the faces of batters on both sides reflected the drama of so many moments; Sid Bream, taking a deep breath, shaking his head and flexing his grip on the bat as 55,000 fans rhythmically chant his name, "SID...SID...SID"; Mark Lemke's furrowed brow and intent focus on a moving point in space 66 feet away (the pitcher's grip on the ball); Dan Gladden's fierce determination to get a hit in the bottom of the tenth, followed by his "damn the torpedoes" approach rounding first, on his way to second not matter what. Every new batter who stepped up to the plate brought his own brand of heroism. Kent Hrbek, hitting .000 in his last eight at-bats, still managed to pose a threatening aspect.
Without a doubt, however, the story of this series was its pitching. All you have to do is recall the names. For Atlanta; starters Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, John Smoltz; relievers Alejandro Pena, Mike Stanton, and Charlie Leibrandt. For Minnesota; Scott Erikson & Jack Morris;relievers Rick Aguilera, Carl Willis, and Steve Bedrosian. Each, with his own style and intensity, managed to shine brilliantly in a firmament of authentic stars. Steve Avery lived a moment which will never be known except in the dreams of most people who ever gripped a baseball across the seams, icing 14 batters in a row in the fifth game of the World Series. Jack Morris's performance in the seventh game was simply heroic. It was goose-bump thrilling to realize that he would take the mound in the top of the tenth against a desperate Atlanta lineup. Pena and Bedrosian were testbook examples of the cold, gunslinger panache characteristic of ace relievers.
Both of these teams came from last place in their divisions last year to the ultimate challenge this year. This has never happened before. However, in-depth comparisons to history only began to appear as the series progressed. There were 4 one run games, 3 extra inning games. Three games were decided in the final at-bat. This year saw the first seventh game to go to extra innings since 1924. Walter Johnson won that one. Now, Jack Morris stands in the same light as a man who the game has never forgotten. Mark Lemke's extra-mile hitting wil be impossible to forget.
Where did these people come from? How do they do it? What is it that enables a gang of fat-chance losers to claw their way to the top of their world? One of the many things which makes baseball so charming and intriguing among all team sports is the personal, individual responsibility of taking up the challenge...the challenge of chasing a slicing line-drive into a deep corner of the outfield...of making a split-second diving stab at a rifle-shot grounder down the third base line and making the off-balance throw all the way over to first to get the runner...the awesome difficulty of standing at the plate in full view of 50,000 fans, facing a fresh killing machine of a relief pitcher in the bottom of the ninth. These are moments of personal challenge. It's just one man testing his ability against a 4 1/2 inch sphere of horsehide in front of all the world. Of course, baseball is a team sport. However, each moment of each play involves solitary individuals responsible to the team for very lonely acts. Outfielders tense in suspense watching the second baseman scoop the hot grounder. There is nothing they can do; the guy with the ball acts alone. There is no one there to block, screen, or check for him. When he makes the short, delicate toss to the shortstop for the front half of the double play, the team aspect of the game becomes important. However, responsibility passes from individual to single individual precisely with the flight of the ball. Now, the second baseman can only watch, hope, and believe in the skill and focus of his team mate; he can in no way help as the other man executes the pivot to first in microscopic singularity.
We are somewhat rather unsure of the origins of the game. However, it is wonderfully fitting that baseball was born in America, for it is a crystal clear analog to the political-economic mandate of a free nation; each individual performing to the best of his ability for his own satisfaction and, incidentally, benefitting the entire culture in the process. Even if America isn't that way anymore, the analog remains, gently reminding us of what can be when people have the opportunity to excel on their own merit. Kirby Puckett's centerfield error in the third game reminds us that there is no guarantee of success. However, inspiration can be found where failure exposes courage; how many of us have what it takes to stand in front of a stadium of laughing, jeering fans, compose one's determination to overcome the goof, and rise again to the imperative of performance? There he stood, all alone. One could see in his face that he would not allow it to grind him down. In the end, that error was lost in the gleam of exemplary performance. Everyone else on his team was able to maintain the same level of intensity against an equally determined and integrated opposition. It was only the resolution not to yield until every effort had been expended that secured the victory.
Only one team could win the World Championship. Both teams managed to win our hearts with their courage and dazzling skill. Even if we never get to stand on the field in front of the home fans, we have seen an unforgettable example of what is possible to individual effort over time, even under the most extreme challenge.
Baseball offers this inspiration in a way that no other team sport can match.
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