If it’s possible for the best parts of a World Series to come after it has ended, 1991 offered a glimpse of what it might look like.
Not that the 1991 World Series was short on good parts. Not by a longshot: five one-run games, four walk-offs, an iconic game-winning homer from a future Hall of Famer, and a scoreless duel in Game 7 between two guys also bound for Cooperstown.
Many observers call that battle between the Braves and Twins, two worst-to-first clubs in ’91, the greatest World Series of all time, and it’s hard to argue against it.
Still, despite the high drama and excruciating roller coaster ride that defined the series, it can also be argued that the best parts of the whole thing came after the final play.
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Moments after Gene Larkin singled home Dan Gladden to give the Twins a 1-0 victory in Game 7, a series of unusual events began to unfold largely outside the spotlight — events that surprised observers at the time and remain outliers today because they’re so far removed from the postseason norms that have defined baseball history.
Before that story is told, however, consider the prologue.
As the 1991 World Series approached, the Braves and Twins already felt a unique connection. The teams had each defied the longest of odds to reach the Fall Classic after finishing in last place in 1990. The Braves finished 1990 with a record of 65-97. The Twins finished 74-88.
Coming into the season, the odds against the Braves to win the World Series were 250 to 1. The odds against the Twins were 100 to 1. The odds of those teams playing each other in the World Series seemed astronomical.
Though Atlanta and Minnesota came into 1991 with upgraded rosters, both also returned a lot of players who had experienced those cellar-dwelling seasons.
That meant the improbable nature of the matchup certainly wasn’t lost on the players, who, after playing all season as underdogs and constantly bucking expectations, could relate to one another in a way that most World Series competitors couldn’t.
“I think everybody on the field understood why we were there and understood the magnitude of what was going on there,” said Terry Pendleton, who joined the Braves in the 1990-91 offseason after playing on two pennant-winning Cardinals teams.
Every team goes into the World Series wanting to win, perhaps even expecting to win, but these two teams, having experienced those worst-to-first turnarounds, both came with a particular chip on their shoulders. After all, they were both one step away from a true baseball Cinderella story.
So while the mutual respect was high, “You really wanted to knock them out,” Pendleton said. “And I’m quite sure they felt the same way.”
And so it went for six games. Back and forth, taking turns owning the elusive October momentum.
Which brings us to Oct. 27, 1991, that classic Game 7 and those unusual events that transpired afterward.
The events, acts performed off to the side or completely in private, were small and brief, but meaningful — moments of humanity, of respect and of appreciation for what had just happened.
This is the inside story.
‘I honestly can’t even explain why it happened’
“And now we’re seeing something that we rarely see in a World Series: Terry Pendleton, leading a group of Atlanta Braves out to congratulate the Minnesota Twins.” — Braves radio announcer Pete Van Wieren, moments after Game 7 ended
Terry Pendleton had been close before, having played in two previous seven-game World Series as a member of the Cardinals. Both times, in 1985 and 1987, his St. Louis teams came up frustratingly short in seven games. The second of those losses came at the hands of the Twins, the final defeat happening inside the deafening Metrodome.
The 1991 Series gave him his third chance at a title. His Braves came back to Minnesota for Game 6 up 3-2 in the series. But Kirby Puckett’s heroics ruined Game 6. Then Jack Morris’ pitching stifled the Braves in Game 7.
So as Pendleton watched Larkin’s walk-off single bounce off the Metrodome turf in deep left center to plate the only run of Game 7, Atlanta’s third baseman again found himself in an achingly familiar position.
“I honestly could not believe we lost, to be honest with you,” Pendleton, the eventual 1991 NL MVP, told Sporting News, the loss still able to evoke emotion three decades later. “I sat there trying to gather my emotions on how I would react, how I would go up and face my teammates. Because it was tough. I honestly did not expect to lose the series.”
MORE: Mark Lemke’s 1991 World Series is best example of October’s unpredictability
But, it turned out, this loss wasn’t exactly like those others.
As Pendleton walked slowly toward the first-base visitors dugout and the Twins began their raucous celebration, he caught a glimpse of Puckett, who he had played against not just in two World Series, but in their minor league days. He also saw former Cardinals teammate Brian Harper and Gladden, a fellow Fresno State alum, all celebrating and all feeling the opposite of what he felt.
Pendleton made eye contact. Then a strong but unusual desire seized him: He wanted to congratulate the Twins.
It wasn’t planned. It hadn’t been a thought five seconds earlier. The feeling came from nowhere. But the crazy and intense nature of the series they’d just concluded seemed to demand it.
“Just something that happened,” Pendleton said.
So the de facto Atlanta captain led a small group of teammates, including outfielder Keith Mitchell and catcher Mike Heath, into the edges of the celebration to offer congratulations. A handshake. A nod. A few pleasantries. Mutual respect.
Hey, great series.
You guys earned it.
What a battle.
And that was it. Small, but huge.
“It was kind of sad because everyone played really good. Nobody lost that series. It was just won,” Harper said, citing a theme that would soon dominate the postgame atmosphere.
Pendleton had never congratulated an opponent before and he never did it again. But then, there was never a series like 1991.
“I’ve been on five losers where we didn’t win the World Series,” he said. “That was the only time I did that. I honestly can’t even explain why it happened.”
‘You felt a little bad that this had to end’
“Why don’t we play all winter and make it a best of 90?” — MLB commissioner Fay Vincent to Braves owner Ted Turner during the 1991 World Series, as reported by The Sporting News, Nov. 4, 1991
The compulsion to connect with the opponent wasn’t limited to Pendleton and the Braves. Twins manager Tom Kelly felt the pull too. The emotions are hard to describe, he said, but knowing what both teams had gone through, how much everyone gave toward the same goal, it was unfortunate that one side had to come up short.
“At the end of Game 7, I’m not saying the Braves were devastated or anything like that, but you felt a little bad that this had to end — but you’re glad it was over,” Kelly said. “You felt a little disheartened for the players, that they played so hard and competed at such a high level for about 10-12 days.”
The series had unfolded like a good book, Kelly said. There was intrigue in every chapter, and it kept building, building and building until that glorious climax of Game 7 turned everyone’s emotions up to 11.
“The drama that built up during the course of that game, to come to that ending — if you’re reading a book, you would have been on the edge of your seat,” he said.
Game 7 concluded with Kelly’s preferred ending. But, of course, one man’s euphoria is another man’s misery, so the Braves trickled off the field without the ending they wanted.
So, like a father, or perhaps like any good coach or manager might do, Kelly took a few moments away from his team’s celebration and intercepted some Braves before they left the field. He needed to deliver some encouragement.
Like Pendleton, Kelly’s decision came in the moment. And like Pendleton, he felt led.
The manager walked to Atlanta slugger Ron Gant, pulled Gant close and said something in his ear.
Gant told Sporting News that he remembers the message as, “You’re a great player. Keep going.” Kelly doesn’t recall the specific wording, but the intent and meaning are all that mattered, then and now.
“It was something from my heart that I felt like I needed to say,” Kelly said. “And I guess that’s a sign of respect for the effort that his team gave throughout the series.”
‘Come on and sit down, have a drink’
“If this Game 7 is not the greatest finale in Series history, it is close. If this Series is not the greatest in history, then it is close. At the least, it can be remembered in a single word: excruciating. Joy for Minnesota. Pain for Atlanta. Tension for us all.” — John Rawlings, The Sporting News, Nov. 4, 1991
After pitching a 10-inning shutout inside a deafening stadium, and after the on-field celebration, and after being named series MVP, and after the clubhouse champagne shower, and after what felt like countless interviews, Morris wanted a few minutes of quiet.
The media horde, the smell of champagne and just the general sense of chaos was an assault on the senses. So he retreated into a laundry room that connected the home and visitor clubhouses in the bowels of the Metrodome.
“One of our little cubby holes,” is how Morris described it.
Just as Morris and a few others walked into the laundry room, the door opened on the other side, and there stood some Braves, who apparently had the same idea. Coincidental timing that led to a few moments of camaraderie.
“We were glad to see the other guys come in,” Morris said. “It’s like, ‘Come on and sit down, have a drink.’”
Morris can’t recall a complete list of names, but some faces stick: David Justice, the Braves slugger who hit two homers in the series; Mark Lemke, who led both teams with a .417 average and a 1.170 OPS; and Mike Heath, Morris’ former catcher in Detroit who had to watch from the bench because of an injury.
There were handshakes and chit-chat and the opening of cold drinks. The conversation wasn’t deep, but the words were genuine and truthful.
You gave us all we could handle.
It could’ve been yours as much as ours.
This was epic.
So there they sat, players from two teams that had just battled it out in an all-time-classic game that concluded an all-time-classic series, sipping drinks and bonding over a shared sense of history in what was perhaps the first moment of pure relaxation any of them had experienced in more than a week.
“Everybody there was just kind of — we’re all spent because it was such a dramatic ending, you know, and a long game,” Morris said, going back to a familiar refrain. “It was a battle. It was quite a competition. I know there was a lot of conversation for both sides: Man, we’ve got to cut that one down the middle because both teams won.
“Nobody really lost, and I still feel that way to this day.”
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That “let’s call it a tie” mentality might’ve been most prominent after Game 7, but the idea had already crept onto the field a couple of hours before that.
“We were beat, physically and mentally. We were just definitely playing on adrenaline,” said Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek. “I even remember mentioning to Lemke during the game, ’You know, let’s just cut this thing in half and make everybody happy.’”
It was another example of the series producing unexpected responses in its participants, who all played in an era in which buddy-buddy relationships between teams essentially didn’t exist.
“We didn’t hug them and ask them where dinner was after the game. They were the enemy,” Morris said. “They were taking our money, so we wanted to beat them.”
In other words, players were selfish with wins — which is why Morris in particular telling the Braves that they could’ve just as easily won the series carried its own message of significance.
“Jack was never one that would go to the opposite team after just beating them and say something like that,” former teammate Heath said.
Despite being on the losing end of Morris’ masterpiece, and despite the general unwritten rule against fraternizing with opponents, Heath had no reservations about letting his former battery mate know that he was proud of him.
“I just remember talking to him and telling him how awesome he was,” Heath said.
Like Pendleton and Kelly’s gestures on the field about a half-hour earlier, this impromptu laundry room meeting was a breaking of baseball norms that was more the result of timing than premeditation. But it had meaning, almost like it was ordained.
“When it was all over, (there was) a sense of relief, because we’re exhausted, not just physically but mentally — we’re exhausted,” Morris said. “And that’s why I think it was easier for us to acknowledge what the other team had done.
“When both teams feel that way, that you gave every ounce of energy to try to win … we we can both hold our heads up high, because we gave it the best shot we had.”
Like the series itself, the open flow of respect and admiration was unique — for that era, or perhaps any other.
“I played in four World Series,“ Lemke said. “There was never anything close to that.”
‘What’s gonna happen tonight?’
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hitter shake hands with a catcher before the first pitch — in any game,” CBS analyst Tim McCarver before the first pitch of Game 7
It might be reasonable to assume that all the talk of respect and cutting trophies in half after Game 7 was fueled mostly by the game itself, just nice things professional athletes say after a great championship game to give the losing team credit. Perhaps a blowout in Game 7, or maybe some other type of boring finale, would’ve removed nearly all of it from the postgame conversations.
Before Game 7 even got underway, perhaps the greatest summation of the series and its effects was on full display to a national television audience.
As Braves leadoff hitter Lonnie Smith stepped into the box in the top of the first inning, he extended his hand to Harper, the Twins catcher and a former teammate in St. Louis. Harper responded in kind, and the two shared a gentlemanly handshake before the final battle commenced.
It was yet another simple but profound gesture that carried an enormous message, a moment that felt out of place yet made perfect sense to anyone paying attention.
“In my 20 years of professional baseball, I had never done that ever,” Harper said.
But, he said, “We knew it was special.”
Smith had bowled Harper over at the plate during Game 4, a hard, old-school baseball play. Harper held onto the ball and Smith was out. He held no animosity toward his former teammate, though. “I would’ve done the same thing,” he said.
Some might’ve interpreted Smith’s handshake as a peace offering after the violent collision, but had that been the case it likely would’ve come before Game 5. So this particular gesture was about something else.
After four one-run affairs, three walk-off wins and a blowout in the first six games — more drama and twists than the average World Series, to be sure — it was an acknowledgement that they had reached the final chapter of the story, the ending yet to be written.
“It was just kind of a feeling of, ‘Wow, what is gonna happen tonight?’” said Harper, who played all seven games and led the Twins with a .381 average and .435 on-base percentage. “I looked at him, he looked at me and we both just stuck our hands out and said, ‘Hey, good luck.’ It was really spontaneous.”
Though Morris was annoyed that Harper shook the enemy’s hand right before battle, and likely wasn’t alone among Twins players, his manager saw the moment as a fitting prelude to that final chapter.
“That was pretty good,” Kelly said. “I thought it was wonderful.”
A special legacy
“Minnesota and Atlanta, last-place teams a season ago, had been transformed, as if by divine touch, into champions who gave us a World Series so good that it can be called the best ever.” — Dave Kindred, The Sporting News, Nov. 4, 1991
Ask the men who played in the 1991 World Series to describe their feelings 30 years later, and they’ll offer variations on the same theme: It was a classic, and they’re thankful for the opportunity to take part.
Like with Kelly’s book analogy, the players tend to describe the series using cinematic terms: drama, intensity, suspense. It was the kind of high-end entertainment that causes players to run out of baseball language and have to borrow from another sport.
“A heavyweight boxing match,” Pendleton said. “That’s basically what it was.”
He means that almost literally.
“(Games) 6 and 7 we had Evander Holyfield up in the clubhouse with us for both games,” Pendleton said. “He came in after Game 6 and he said we’d all just been through a heavyweight boxing match. It was unbelievable. He sat down in the chair next to me, he goes, ‘I can’t believe this, man. This was tough.’ And then Game 7, he comes in, he goes, ‘Man, I can’t handle this. This is way too much for me.’”
Discussions about the series tend to focus on Game 7, and for good reason. It was voted by MLB Network in 2011 as the second greatest game of the previous 50 years. It’s also what tends to be foremost on the minds of the Twins.
“I don’t think there was a better, more tense game,” Hrbek said. “You could never get a more intense game, unless you go 11 innings, I guess, and win 1-0. … That’s the ultimate ballgame right there.”
Multiple players joked afterward about having ulcers. Or maybe they weren’t joking.
“You just kind of said, ‘I just don’t want to be the guy that makes a mistake to lose.’ You almost think that way, you know, because it was such a great series you don’t want to be the guy that lost the game because of an error or a bad play or something like that,” Harper said. “So there was a lot of, I think, internal pressure for all the guys, especially in that last game.”
But make no mistake: It was much better to play than to watch.
“My teammates had mentioned that we were all glad that we’re playing and not having to watch it,” Pendleton said. “No way we could handle watching it.”
The answer to the question of whether it’s the greatest World Series of all time isn’t as unanimous among players as one might think.
Superlatives are often, by their nature, subjective. Whether “the best” or just “one of the best,” the 1991 World Series left an objectively memorable mark on baseball like few others. And, 30 years later, the players who came to be defined by it can still conjure the feelings of those seven games of high drama that nobody wanted to end.
“That one was just so—” Lemke began, as he pondered it all again.
“Ugh,” he said, words seeming to escape him.
Then, a brief laugh that was just as good as words.
“It was a great series,” he said. “That’s all I can tell you.”