25 Years On: The Forgotten Moment of the 1991 World Series
Hard to believe that it’s been a quarter century since the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins squared off in a worst-to-first, seven-game masterpiece without rival.
In a Fall Classic replete with clutch hitting, outstanding pitching and surprise heroes, it was a singular moment which had nothing to do with extra inning plays at the plate or pitching performances which would stand the test of time.
After four games were determined in the final at-bat and less than 24 hours after Kirby Puckett delivered “tomorrow night,” the Braves and Twins were set to square off in what would prove perhaps the game of the series.
And that’s when it happened.
Before stepping into the batter’s box, Atlanta lead-off man Lonnie Smith, bat on shoulder (which he had used to blast three home runs to that point), said something to Minnesota catcher Brian Harper, whom Smith had steamrolled in a stunning collision at the plate in Game 4, then extended his hand. Harper nodded and quickly shook the hand of his former teammate.
It was more than a tip of the cap, but rather a rare moment of recognition from the players which confirmed what everyone else already knew, this “Big Dance” was one for the ages.
I had the good fortune to interview both Smith and Harper years later, and each looked back fondly on that “It’s been a hell of a series, good luck” snapshot in time.
Jack Morris’ ten-inning shutout at the age of 36, a pair of bases loaded double plays in the eighth inning of Game 7, Puckett’s catch and walk-off homer in Game 6, Mark Lemke’s game-winning run in Game 4 and RBI in Game 3 (both in extras) and Scott Leius’ shot off of Tom Glavine that secured Game 2 were all overshadowed by a moment of mutual respect and admiration.
It was the personification of what the game should be about.
With the benefit of hindsight, the ’91 World Series carries greater weight. We now know that the Most Valuable Player of the National League manned third base for the Braves (Terry Pendleton), Glavine and John Smoltz would win three Cy Young awards and reach the Hall of Fame, Chuck Knoblauch would be named American League Rookie of Year and Puckett made it three who would be enshrined at Cooperstown.
Shortly after Carlton Fisk waved the ball fair to win Game 6 of the only other Series which can hold a candle to ’91 in the television era (1975), Peter Gammons wrote “a long night’s journey into morning, a game suspended in time as Fisk’s home run was suspended beyond the skyline, a game that perhaps required the four-day buildup it got.” Sixteen years later (and a decade before the Yankees and Diamondbacks), that same scribe would note that over an excruciatingly beautiful seven games, “there really were players who still gave a damn whether they won or lost.”
Moments after the Twins had secured their second title in five years, first baseman and Minnesota native Kent Hrbek said “They should split the trophy in half.”
It was a sentiment not lost on Smith and Harper, the Hall of Famers, MVP, All-Stars(58 total appearances) or a pair of managers (Tom Kelly and Bobby Cox) who would win more than 3,600 games and three championships between them.
The unfathomable highlights will endure forever, but it would be a tragedy if the moment of the 1991 World Series was only remembered by those who actually witnessed it with their own eyes.
That handshake between Smith and Harper deserved the eight-day buildup it got.