MINNEAPOLIS -- What the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves proved over the last nine days, through seven gut-wrenching, emotion-draining games, is that there is a lot to be said for parity.
If this is what "worst to first" is all about, then bring it on -- it deserves to be an annual event.
There have been some great World Series, though not many recently. But if there has ever been one more exciting, from first pitch to last, than the one concluded here last night, it is lost in the archives.
When Gene Larkin's pinch-hit single drove in Dan Gladden in the 10th inning to give the Twins a 1-0 win, it concluded the most improbable of all World Series. That these two teams, who finished last in their respective divisions a year ago, were still playing at this time of the year defied all baseball odds.
Never before had two last-place teams from the year before surfaced in the glare of the October spotlight. Never before had a championship series featured such a matchup of underdogs.
When it was over, the Twins and Braves had played five one-run games; had the decision rendered on the last pitch four times; and went into extra innings on three occasions -- all World Series records.
Is it any wonder that the difference between these teams turned out to be a broken bat and a misjudged fly ball by a baserunner?
"It was a storybook finish," said Minnesota manager Tom Kelly, as drained as any of his players. "Each game was a chapter in itself. We just had to play out Chapter Seven."
Jack Morris, the heroic winning pitcher who had to talk Kelly into letting him finish the game, was almost speechless at the finish. "It was a classic," said the veteran righthander, who paid the final dividend on his free-agent contract with one of the best performances of his career. "It was just, flat-out, a beautiful ballgame."
In the 10th inning, when Terry Pendleton came to the plate with two outs, Minnesota catcher Brian Harper said to the Braves' third baseman: "Why don't we just quit, go home and call it even?"
The final game was a fitting windup to a series that produced only one lopsided win, Atlanta's 14-5 romp in Game 5 -- which wasn't decided until the seventh inning. Powerful pitching overcame all but the last scoring opportunity, which was ignited by Gladden's looping, broken-bat double to centerfield and culminated by Larkin's long fly ball over the head of Atlanta's drawn-up outfield.
The inning before the Twins had runners on first and second with nobody out, and first and third with two out. In the eighth inning they had runners at first and third with one out. Both times double plays rescued the Braves, who had only two serious threats against Morris.
Pendleton popped up and Ron Gant struck out with runners on first and third in the fifth, but it was an eighth-inning malfunction that proved to be decisive. Lonnie Smith led off with a single, then Pendleton hung out his MVP hopes on a long liner into the left-centerfield gap.
Inexplicably, although he appeared to be running on the pitch, Smith failed to score on the play. He stopped at second base, either because he was unable to follow the flight of the ball or because he wasdecoyed by Minnesota infielders Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Gagne.
The decoy theory was defused by both managers but there seemed little else in the way of explaining the hesitation of Smith, who did not respond to questions after the game.
"There was no decoy," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said adamantly after the game. "I don't know wherethat came from -- he wasn't running, so he shouldn't have been decoyed."
Pendleton said his understanding was that Smith stopped at second base because he couldn't pick up the flight of the ball. "He just couldn't see it," Pendleton said in defense of his teammate. "He didn't know whether either of them [Gladden, the
leftfielder, or centerfielder Kirby Puckett] had a chance to catch the ball."
For whatever reason, Smith had to stop at third base as Pendleton glided into second. With nobody out, it appeared the lapse would only be momentary and the Braves, with the middle of their lineup coming to the plate, would eventually cash a chip against Morris.
"He was a little mad at that point," said Harper. "But then he just made some more great pitches."
Throughout the game Morris challenged the Braves' hitters with an assortment of fastballs, sliders and forkballs, with an occasional changeup. He got Gant on a weak roller to first baseman Kent Hrbek then, after conversing with Kelly, issued an intentional walk to David Justice. Sid Bream then hit into a first-to-home-to first double play that effectively ended the Braves' chances of the storybook ending having an Atlanta flavor.
"We missed several opportunities to put it away," said Cox. "We had great opportunities -- but it just shows what a great pitcher Jack Morris is."
In the eyes of many, there wasn't a loser in this Series, but while the Braves generally subscribed to that theory, they also emphasized there was little consolation.