Twins-Braves classic deserves more than an artificial ending

October 28, 1991|By Bob Verdi | Bob Verdi,Chicago Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS -- So, how shall the most perfect sport of all end its season? Under a blue sky, warmed by the sun? Beneath the stars, on freshly cut green grass? With two teams that came from nowhere, matching moves as they vie to claim America's most revered sports championship?

Not so fast. Here we go again. There will be a Game 7 in the 1991 World Series, because the Minnesota Twins beat the Atlanta Braves, 4-3, Saturday night on Kirby Puckett's 11th-inning home run. That's fine and dandy, because this taut tournament deserves a logical conclusion. Problem is, last night the national pastime wrapped up the super Series indoors. Plastic, a staple for this credit-card society, will leave its imprint on the Fall Classic again.

This was a snapshot of Saturday night's Game 6 at the Metrodome. Kent Hrbek of the Twins lifted a soft fly to left field, where Atlanta's Brian Hunter ambled forward for the catch and a routine out.

"I've got it!!" Hunter yelled. "I've got it!!"

Not so fast again. Hunter took his eye off the ball for just a second, couldn't pick it up when he looked for it against the synthetic roof, and he backpedaled not nearly in time to resurrect his miscalculation. Two-base error, and Hunter still hasn't gotten his glove on the ball.

So it is this World Series. The sport that has remained so solid for a century because it has stayed so much the same staged its marquee event in two venues that are worlds apart and with two sets of rules. Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium had real turf and nine-man teams, the way the game was meant to be. But at the Metrodome, the lawn is a carpet and the lineups are bloated to include the designated hitter.

Baseball, the richest sport for tradition and uniformity through all these years, found itself holding another Fall Classic rife with inconsistencies. Football is forever altering its laws, a basket that used to count for two points now can mean three, and hockey can't decide whether to fight or switch so it splits the difference and adds instant replays in a league with no television.

But baseball, which operates for six months by doing it one way in the National League and another way in the American League, waits until the World Series to do it both ways.

The designated hitter mechanism made its World Series debut in 1976, and was used in alternating years until 1985. That is, in even-numbered Series, both teams used the DH in both ballparks. In odd-numbered Series, neither team used the infernal concoction in either venue. During that span, the American League won five titles and lost five. Beginning with the 1986 Series, the format changed. A designated hitter was employed by both teams in the American League park, and dropped in the National League park.

In subsequent years, the leagues have alternated winning the Series. The Twins arose in 1987, the Dodgers in 1988, Oakland in 1989 and Cincinnati in 1990. The only pattern there is that the victorious club opened at home and therefore had four home games, if necessary. Since 1986, the American League record for games without the DH is 4-12, but half those defeats have been Minnesota's. The Twins lost all three road games at St. Louis in 1987, and all three in Atlanta this week.

Of course, it wasn't the Twins' designated hitter who excelled Saturday night. It was their best player, Puckett, who broke out of a .167 funk with his RBI triple in the first inning against Atlanta's Steve Avery, then that home run on the late shift. Also, Puckett made a terrific catch. Puckett can flat play, under any rules, under any sky.

Still, Games 3 and 4 in Atlanta will be remembered as classic chess matches, with managers really managing. Tuesday night's inning affair featured a dozen pinch hitters and 13 pitchers, numbers that indicate just the kind of delightful commotion so common to the National League. That is the essence of baseball, or it should be.

"A classic argument against the designated hitter," said commissioner Fay Vincent, who wants the American League to shed its gimmick. We wish him luck in his campaign, but first we need to warp up this Series. Two last-place teams trying to be first. A breath of fresh air, if only it were allowed.

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