Under-est dogs are the cats in the Braves hats

JOHN EISENBERG

October 09, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

MINNEAPOLIS -- Hereby presented (in language honoring the late Dr. Seuss, a baseball fan if ever there was one) is the unofficial Rhetorical Question of the 1991 baseball playoffs: Who is the cursed-est of the worstests-to-firstests?

In other words: Were the Minnesota Twins or Atlanta Braves more sputteringly, spinelessly, spectacularly rotten before turning into a division champ this season?

Put even more simply, in the famous and splendid patois of the rTC ballpark: Whose stink stunk the stinkiest until now? (Some words edited for family consumption.)

The issue is raised not because it matters a whit, but because, as the legend goes, we're all blubbering sentimentalists who love nothing more than a squishy, huggable underdog, and now here are two on the postseason docket at the same time.

Thus, this is a public service of sorts. If you discover that you possess only enough love bubbles to adopt one underdog this October, and you want to make sure you adopt the stair-climbingest, nose-bleedingest, underest-dog of them all, whom do you take?

Easy. The Braves. Of the two teams who made baseball history by coming from last place to first in one season, the Braves have it all over the Twins in this business of showing off their underdog. It's a blowout. A nine-run first inning.

Not that the Twins are utterly without that cute, cuddly stuff that constitutes your standard-issue leviathan underdog. They finished 14 games under .500 a year ago. Anyone picking them to win this spring was automatically adjudged less competent than your average MVA employee. Which is saying something.

But then the season began, and it became apparent almost instantly that all assumptions about the Twins were as accurate as Gen. Custer's advance scouts. Jack Morris was not too old to pitch. Chili Davis was not beyond a 25-homer season. Scott Erickson, Kevin Tapani, Shane Mack and Chuck Knoblauch were not too young. The Twins were no collection of empty suits.

They won 15 games in a row in June and then just ran away with the majors' toughest division, one in which not a single team finished under .500, not even Seattle. There was no pennant race. There was no September stress. They just clobbered everyone.

As if that alone wasn't merciless and un-underdoggie enough, the Twins -- and this is the killer -- were no strangers to division-winning ball. They won their first World Series just four years ago, carrying their fans through three weeks of ear-splitting, dome-rattling impossible dreaming. That was their moment as everyone's favorite ragamuffin gone rich. The first time. The best time.

"That first time you kiss that first girl, that's special," Al Newman, the Twins' infielder and clubhouse Plato, said to the Minneapolis Star Tribune the other day. "Each kiss afterward may be better, but it's not the same as the first one."

Which brings us to the Braves, who, having never won a playoff game in Atlanta, are experiencing their first kiss and all the attendant delirium. The news from Atlanta tells of orchestra conductors waving tomahawks, CEOs wearing war bonnets into boardrooms, all the usual yowwee-zowwee nuttiness. Here, in Minnesota, the people are excited, but wearing civilian clothes.

The Braves just don't have that recent splash of success to mute the sheer astonishment of their rise from 65-97 a year ago. They last made the playoffs in 1982 and got swept out in a hurry by the Cardinals, and since have humped around the bottom of the standings with limp bats and rank arms, more a TV show than a baseball team.

They were nine games worse than the Twins a year ago, further darkening a won-lost record that was the absolute worst in baseball since they moved to Atlanta in 1966. Last year's record was nearly identical to the Orioles' in 1991, so you get the picture: yuck on top of yuck on top of yuck.

On top of that, they won their division in classic underdoggie fashion, tailing the Dodgers relentlessly with a 55-28 record after the All-Star break, and catching them on the last weekend after ** winning seven in a row. (They even got to stage a pileup celebration on their home field, as opposed to the Twins, who found out they'd won their division on a bus going to the Hamilton, Ontario, airport.)

It didn't hurt that just about everyone with a heart was rooting for Tommy Lasorda and the lordly Dodgers to get Slim-Fasted out of the playoffs -- by anyone. Maybe the David and Goliath angle didn't quite ring true, considering the Braves spent $16 million on free agents last winter, but why quibble the details? It works.

The Braves are old-pro Terry Pendleton and a bunch of kids who only recently quit watching cartoons. They're the '89 Orioles with a better ending. The Twins are craggy Jack Morris, about as sympathetic as a power tool, and the same superstar axis (Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek) that won four years ago. Which one is the heart-stealer? Why, the Braves, of course. The cursed-est worstest-to-firstests in the land.

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