What if Lonnie Smith ran the bases like a normal human?
Every Twins fan remembers the 1991 World Series. It was the second title in the franchise’s history, and one of the greatest World Series of all time. Game 7 was a classic game. Jack Morris out-dueled John Smoltz and cemented his legacy was one of the greatest big game pitchers of that era. However, there was a moment in that game that no one who watched it will forget. The game was tied at zero going into the 8th inning. Lonnie Smith led off the inning with a single. Terry Pendleton followed with a double to the left center gap. Those words in combination would lead many baseball fans to assume that the Braves took a 1-0 lead at that point. That didn’t happen.
Instead, Lonnie Smith made one of the worst base running decisions in baseball history. As he approached second base, he pulled up, stared into the left center gap while coming to a complete stop before slowly lurching toward third base. Somehow, even though he ran that poorly, he lost his helmet. Not forever. This left the Braves with 2nd and 3rd and no outs. Even with the bad base running the odds favor a team scoring a run in that situation. They didn’t. Instead, Ron Gant piddled a grounder to first for the first out, The Twins walked David Justice intentionally, and Sid Bream immediately followed by grounding into a 3-2-3 double play. Kent Hrbek pumped his fist triumphantly and the Twins went on to win in 10 innings.
Had the Braves scored, and the rest of the game had gone the same way, the Braves would have won the World Series, and the Twins would be on a 25+ year drought instead of 20+ years. Atlanta would have twice as many titles as they do and the Twins would have half. The Braves would have been considered a dynasty, even more than they already are. The Twins don’t really have the franchise history required to lose a World Series title. The four sport landscape would be in a combined 100 year championship drought, which is overly dramatic, but true. However, the impact is greater when you look at a few specific players.
Jack Morris has been nearly elected to the Hall of Fame the past two seasons. One of the biggest selling points in Morris’s favor is that Game 7 performance. Had Lonnie Smith scored, and nothing else had been different, his line score would have been just slightly different. Take a look:
REAL – 10 IP, 7 hits, 8 Ks, 2 BB, 0 ER, W
LONNIE SMITH, NORMAL BASERUNNER – 9 IP, 7 hits, 7 Ks, 2 BB, 1 ER, L
Both lines are great, but only one results in a career-defining performance. The 9 inning, 1 earned run performance would be considered great, but not remembered today. Morris pitched exactly the same (with the exception of an extra inning) but the legacy would be very different. Would Morris be considered as great as he was, with just 2 rings, and no 10 inning Game 7? I’m not so sure he would be.
Another player who could have a slightly less impressive legacy with some decent base running is Kirby Puckett. We all remember Puckett’s epic Game 6, with the amazing catch and 11th inning walk-off home run. What if the Twins didn’t win that World Series? Would his performance be as remembered today? I would hope so, but we tend to be a very results-oriented culture. Without the title, the Game 6 is nice, but probably not as epic as when combined with that Game 7 victory. I don’t think it would have affected Puckett’s legacy in the long run, but it would have certainly changed how fans remember the significance of that amazing home run/catch combo.
But the player affected the most is Lonnie Smith. I am a huge Twins fan, and eternally grateful that the series ended the way it did. However, I would be just as happy had Smith scored that run and the Twins rallied for 2 runs in the 8th or 9th to win. Sports are rough, as there are often goats. Lonnie Smith is the goat of the 1991 World Series. You can read this article from nearly 10 years later that explains that Smith still regrets not looking in on the delayed steal. Had he even picked up his third base coach, he would have scored, likely standing up. It is a shame that we will remember this mistake and that smarmy bloggers write mean introductions when discussing the event. He could have scored a World Series winning run, and instead, this.
Lonnie Smith was a fine player who had some really nice seasons. Odds are, many remember him as the guy who didn’t score the World Series winning run because he lost sight of the ball. The 1991 World Series ended just the way 10-year-old Brad wanted it to. I got to jump up and down and cheer for my favorite team. I haven’t gotten to cheer like that since, and likely wouldn’t get that excited ever again (at least about sports). In a way, I am grateful to Lonnie Smith, even though I wish for him that it didn’t have to happen that way. The cliché states that sports mirrors life, and in this case, life isn’t fair.
Totally unrelated, but I went down the BaseballReference.com rabbit hole last night. If you want to see where it took me, click here.