This is part five in a series examining every Twins team that has made the playoffs. Whether the current version of the Twins is 20 games over .500 or stuck in last place, fans can always hold onto memories of successful teams past.
Every Twins can recall the image. It is a picture of a short, stocky slugger, his mouth agape and his right fist raised in triumph as he rounds second base. The Metrodome crowd is not visible in the background, but one can almost hear their frenzied screaming anyway.
Kirby Puckett and the Twins gave those fans plenty of reasons the cheer in 1991. While Puckett’s Game 6 home run was one of the emotional highlights, it was neither the beginning nor the end of the excitement in the Twins second World Series title year.
1991 was a good year for lovers of rock music, who had their first opportunity to listen to Nirvana’s Nevermind, R.E.M’s Out of Time, and Metallica’s self-titled album. It was a great year for anyone who disliked communism and/or Sadaam Hussein. The former received its death blow when the Soviet Union dissolved following a coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev. The latter saw his army defeated and beaten back from Kuwait, thanks to Operation Desert Storm. It was an even better year for video gamers, who flocked to buy the Super Nintendo game console. But if you were, like the author of this article, an 11-year-old Twins fan – old enough to understand the game of baseball but young enough not to care about much else in life – you had a better year in 1991 than everyone else put together.
After bringing up the rear in the American League west with a 74-88 finish in 1990, the Twins executives did something that we’ve almost never seen them do before or since: they hit the free agent market hard. The team signed veteran 3B Mike Pagliarulo, power-hitting DH Chili Davis, and a true ace pitcher, Minnesota native Jack Morris. Combined with Kevin Tapani and Rick Aguilera, who were obtained in the 1989 Frank Viola trade, these new additions transformed the Twins from a laughingstock to the most successful squad in franchise history.
|1991 Twins at a Glance|
|Record||95-67, first in American League West|
|Heavy Hitter||Chili Davis, .277/.385/.507, 29 HR, 93 RBI|
|Ace Pitcher||Jack Morris, 18-12, 3.43 ERA, 246.2 IP|
|All Stars||P Rick Aguilera, P Scott Erickson, P Morris, OF Kirby Puckett|
|Clinched Pennant||September 29, with White Sox loss to Seattle|
|Postseason Results||Defeated Blue Jays in ALCS, 4-1 Defeated Braves in World Series, 4-3|
The aggressive personnel moves did not pay off immediately. The Twins stumbled out of the gate, losing nine of their first 11 games. They were still under .500 (23-25) by the end of May, and seemed to be on their way to another mediocre finish. But on June 1 in Kansas City, two Davis home runs led the Twins to an 8-4 victory. The next day, Scott Erickson held the Royals to one run in eight plus innings for another win. Then the Twins won the next game, and the next, and the next. By June 16th, the Twins had a 15 game winning streak, the longest in franchise history, and a half game lead in the West. They never relinquished that lead.
Unlike the 1987 World Champions, who relied on a few stars to compensate for a roster full of weak hitters and mediocre pitchers, the 1991 Twins had talent up and down the roster. AL Rookie of the Year Chuck Knoblauch provided spark at the top of the Twins lineup, something the team had been missing for years, with a .351 OBP and 25 steals. Puckett had his typical great season, hitting .319/.352/.460 with 15 homers and winning his fifth Gold Glove award. Kent Hrbek hit .284/.373/.461 with 20 homers. Switch-hitter Davis was the greatest power threat, with 29 home runs. Outfielder Shane Mack hit .310 and catcher Brian Harper did him one better at .311. The entire lineup was formidable, leading the AL with a .280 batting average and a .344 OBP.
On the mound, Morris won 18 games and provided veteran leadership to a young rotation. Erickson reeled off 12 straight wins in the first half of the season, and looked ready to establish himself as a perennial Cy Young candidate. He stumbled a bit in the second half, but still finished with 20 wins and a 3.18 ERA. Kevin Tapani’s performance was lost amidst the headlines created by Erickson and Morris, but he was arguably the best starter on the team that year, with a 2.99 ERA and 16 wins. Aguilera anchored a strong bullpen, posting 42 saves and striking out 61 enemies in 69 innings.
The Twins faced the AL East Champion Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS. Though the Twins were considered the favorites, the Jays had actually played the Twins very well, winning eight of the 12 regular season matchups. But the Twins jumped to a 5-0 lead in Game 1 and held on to win 5-4. Twins nemesis Juan Guzman wreaked havoc on the lineup in Game 2, a 5-2 Twins loss. But the Twins rallied to win three in a row on the road, clinching the Pennant in Game 5 with a 9-5 triumph.
And then there was the 1991 World Series.
The 1991 World Series would have been memorable even if it wasn’t a close competition, simply because of its compelling storyline. Like the Twins, the Atlanta Braves had finished at the bottom of the standings in 1990. Prior to 1991, no baseball team had ever gone from last place to first place in one year, but in 1991 there were two “Worst-to-First” clubs. For the Braves, 1991 was the beginning of an era. Stars like Tom Glavine, David Justice, Ron Gant, and John Smoltz formed the core of a team that would reach the postseason in 14 consecutive seasons.
Game 1 at the Metrodome was a misleading start, one of only two games not decided by a single run. Morris held the Braves to five hits in seven innings, and the Twins won 5-2. Game 2 was more controversial. The Twins won 3-2, but not without some help from the umpires. In the third inning, Gant hit a single, seemingly prolonging a Braves rally. But the Twins caught Gant taking a wide turn and threw the ball to Hrbek at first base. Gant appeared to get back safely, but Hrbek helped him overrun the base with a somewhat unorthodox wrestling move. To the absolute horror of Braves fans, Gant was called out. The play not only killed the Braves rally, it set the stage for a clever Bobblehead doll 20 years later.
The Series shifted to Atlanta for Games 3-5, and Atlanta won all three. Obscure infielder Mark Lemke seemed to be in the middle of every Braves rally during that time. He drove in the winning run in the 12th inning of Game 3, then scored on a sac fly to end Game 4. In Game 5, he contributed two run-producing triples in a 14-5 Atlanta blowout, the only lopsided score in the entire series.
Back at home with the Twins facing elimination, Puckett took control. He almost single-handedly won Game 6 for the Twins, finishing a double short of the cycle, driving in three of the team’s four runs, scoring the other, and robbing Gant of a game-changing extra base hit. But it is his 11th inning home run that made him a team legend. Leading off the inning against lefty Charlie Liebrandt, Kirby launched a 2-1 changeup over the left field wall, thus ensuring that broadcaster Jack Buck would “see you tomorrow night,” and that Puckett would one day have a bronze statue at Target Field, his own plaque in Cooperstown, and a Twins website bearing his name.
In Game 7 it was Morris who carried the team. The 36 year old faced off against 24 year old future star Smoltz, who coincidentally had been a big Morris fan as a teenager. The two men produced the greatest pitchers’ duel in the history of Major League Baseball, a game that was recently chosen by the MLB Network as the second greatest game of the last five decades. Both teams squandered scoring opportunities, most incredibly in the 8th inning, when each team loaded the bases with one out or less and still failed to score. Smoltz left the game in the 8th, but Morris stayed on the mound into extra innings. Finally, in the bottom of the 10th, the Twins broke through. Dan Gladden led off with a double and scampered to third on a sacrifice bunt. After two intentional walks, pinch hitter Gene Larkin blooped a single over the drawn-in outfield to win it.
If you are a Twins fan over the age of 25, you probably have memories of the 1991 World Series. Please use the comments field below to share them. We’d love to read them, and so would your fellow fans.