Kirby Puckett's 1991 World Series walk-off home run deserves a deep rewind
It’s October 26th, 1991. Game 6 of the 91 World Series at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
It’s an unlikely matchup between the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins. The Twins won the World Series just four years ago, but like the Braves, they weren’t supposed to be here.
Kirby Puckett is at the plate. And you might know what happens next on this 2-1 pitch. And for that, I’ll give you a virtual high-five due to your ability to use the Internet.
But for those who don’t want to cheat via Wikipedia or Baseball-Reference.com, let’s get in that Delorean and crank it to 88 Miles Per Hour. It’s time to travel back in time, or as SB Nation would say, let’s rewind.
The 1991 Fall Classic was far from straight chalk when it comes to the gambling mindsets of sports bettors.
According to TampaBay.com, the Braves were once 250-to-1 odds-on favorites to win the World Series. If you bet $100 on the Twins in spring training, that was a great bet as they were 100-to-1 odds to win it all.
In fact, both teams finished in last place in their respective divisions the year prior. The Braves were actually in the National League West back then, and although they’d be dominant in the later part of the decade, the beginning of the 1990s wasn’t friendly to Bobby Cox’s team.
The first year of the 90s saw the Braves finish the regular season at just 65-97. But general manager John Schuerholtz saw something in Cox, and the fiery skipper became the head honcho on June 23, 1990, replacing Russ Nixon. It didn’t lead to an improvement when it came to wins: The Braves were 25-and-41 when Nixon received the pink slip, and they finished the year 26 games out of first with Cox as the manager.
Still, the players seemed to respond to the 50-year-old skipper the next season. The Braves were notably better, but a World Series appearance still seemed very unlikely on July 11th. A .500 record at just 40-and-40, the Braves were on the cusp of being sellers at the trade deadline.
But then something happened: The Braves just refused to lose.
An incredible 54-and-28 finish to the season saw the Braves 4 wins away from a National League pennant. They clinched the division on the second-to-last of the season, with the Braves remaining in first place from September 20th until the clincher on October 5th.
The stunned Los Angeles Dodgers couldn’t believe it. How could a Braves team, who were at .500 practically halfway through the season, keep them from an NL pennant?
As for the Braves themselves, next came the Pittsburgh Pirates, led by Silver Slugger Barry Bonds.
If the regular season was crazy enough for Atlanta sports fans to start believing, the 1991 National League Championship Series was something we probably won’t ever see again. Four shutouts took place in the series, including three 1-0 shutouts.
The Pirates were the heavy favorites to advance to the World Series. A 98-win team, the Pirates won the division by an easy 14 games. John Smiley won 20 games for the Buccos, the last time a Pirates pitcher won 20 games during the 20th century.
Doug Drabek was the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, and with Bonds and Bobby Bonilla still in the primes of their careers, there’s no way that Bobby Cox’s Cinderella story could still wear their gold slipper going into the championship round, right?
Wrong. Tom Glavine, the 1991 NL Cy Young winner, was on this Braves team. But he actually underperformed in the series.
Game 1 went to the better-seeded Pirates. A well-deserved 5-to-1 win for the higher seed as the Pirates scored the game’s first five runs. Glavine was the loser in this one by walking three batters and giving up four earned runs. Atlanta’s David Justice hit a leadoff homer in the top of the 9th inning, but it was just too little, too late as the Pirates took a 1-zero series lead.
The Braves found a way to split the first two games at Three Rivers Stadium, with Steve Avery leading the way to a 1-nothing shutout. Game 3 was all Braves: A 10-to-3 win as John Smoltz was the much better pitcher in the Braves’ first home playoff game in nearly a decade.
But Games 4 and 5 were won by the Pirates, including a seemingly back-breaking 1-0 shutout victory in Atlanta. Zane Smith led the way for Pittsburgh in Game 5, and with their backs against the wall, Atlanta had to somehow win both games on the road to make their first World Series since arriving in the capital of Georgia.
The Braves just wouldn’t let their dream season die. Not only that, but they held the Pirates scoreless for the last 22 innings of the series. From the Top of the 6th in Game 5 until the final out in Game 7, the Pittsburgh Pirates couldn’t muster a single run. A 1-0 crushing defeat in Game 6 saw the Pirates one win away from elimination, and after the Braves scored 3 runs in the top of the first inning during Game 7, the Buccos offense went ice cold down the stretch.
Steve Avery stole the show: He didn’t give up a single run in his two starts. 16 and ⅔ innings pitched for the young stud on the mound, and he of course won NLCS MVP.
But the Braves weren’t the only weird newcomer to the postseason party.
Just four years earlier, the Minnesota Twins were World Series champions. Gone were the days of Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew, but these new Twinkies were still fan favorites.
Kirby Puckett, a former junior college player, led the charge in center field. But interestingly enough, not a single player on the Twins had 100 Runs Batted In during the ‘91 regular season.
The Twins weren’t a team known for power. Puckett only drilled 15 homers in 1991, a huge contrast to the 1987 squad when he hit 28 homers.
The 1991 Twins were scrappy, annoying, and hard to beat. Designated hitter Chili Davis was the only Twin with over 25 home runs, and the lone 20-game winner on the pitching staff wasn’t future Hall of Famer Jack Morris. That distinction went to Scott Erickson.
Still, the Twins cruised to an AL West division title by a commanding 8 games. And after dismantling the Toronto Blue Jays in just five games during the ALCS, it looked like the Twins had the upper hand for the 1991 World Series crown.
After all, the Braves barely squeezed into the World Series, while the Twins looked like the far more superior team.
But the World Series started anyway, with Cox proving to the rest of the world that he would become one of the game’s all-time great managers.
Down in an early 0-and-2 hole, the Braves looked like a completely different ball club when they flew back to Atlanta. Three straight victories at the old Fulton County Stadium, including a 14-5 convincing victory over the seemingly unbeatable Twins, put the Twins in major trouble.
Just like that, Tom Kelly’s squad looked all but done. The problem was….they weren’t. Plus, they still got to go back home for Games 6 and 7, assuming that they could force a Game 7.
The 1991 World Series became one of the all-time greats, and Game 6 was no exception to the rule.
The Twins struck first with 2 ballplayers crossing home plate in the bottom of the first inning. The Braves seemed to have the momentum back after Terry Pendleton hit a two-run bomb in the Top of the 5th.
Determined to play Game 7 at the old Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the Twins got the lead back in the bottom of the frame. After battling to a leadoff walk, Dan Gladden stole second base. A couple of flyouts later, including the sacrifice fly by Puckett, gave the Twins the lead back.
But don’t count these Braves out. Up by a run in the top of the 7th, Kelly allowed starting pitcher Scott Erickson to run back out there. But after a leadoff single to Mark Lemke, Kelly had no choice but to turn to Mark Guthrie.
Guthrie started off okay with a strikeout to Jeff Blauser. But then location and accuracy came to bite him in the butt. A walk to Lonnie Smith, including a can’t-have-it wild pitch, put Kelly in a tough spot.
Guthrie was able to jam Terry Pendleton, but with Chuck Knoblauch playing at double play depth, Pendleton’s little nubber got enough of the astroturf to give him ample time to claim the infield single. Just like that, we have bases loaded, and Kelly was forced to go to the bullpen yet again.
In came Carl Willis. It was also decision time for Kelly. Should he bring the infield in, bring the corners in and play double play depth, or play double play depth around the infield? The Twins decided to play back with the middle infield, and it cost them.
Ron Gant’s ground ball in between the third base and shortstop hole allowed him to beat out the fielder’s choice, and the Braves were once again in business. A 3-3 tie with runners on the corners. Willis was in a huge pickle, but he threw a devastating 2-and-2 offspeed pitch to David Justice to get him to swing and miss. The lead was gone, but the tie still remained.
The Twins had a golden opportunity to retake the lead in the bottom of the 8th. Puckett stole second base with 2 outs, but Shane Mack couldn’t drive him in.
Nobody got close to tying it in the 9th, so Braves fans had to wait until extra innings to see if their team would be sipping the champagne in the locker room. Remember: This was a big deal for Braves fans. Atlanta hadn’t won a World Series since relocating from Milwaukee. And the city of Atlanta had never seen a professional sports team win a championship up to this point.
Atlanta nearly obtained their first lead of Game 6 in the top of the 10th. A leadoff single by Pendleton looked to be great for the Braves. But a stolen base attempt (or perhaps a hit-and-run) led to a slow-moving line drive and an easy double play for the Twins. So much for that potential rally.
The Twins went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 10th, so we went to the 11th. The Braves somehow got another leadoff single, this time by Sid Bream. However, Bream probably should’ve been at second base, if not for his oft-injured right knee. He crushed the first pitch down the first base line but couldn’t advance into scoring position.
Keith Mitchell had to pinch-run for him, and in this era of old school baseball, stolen bases were more commonplace. Mitchell got caught stealing on the first pitch of Brian Hunter’s at-bat, and that pretty much did in the rally. No more baserunners for the Braves.
Should Cox allow Alejandro Pena to pitch into the 11th? Pena might be needed for Game 7, so Cox was pretty much forced into allowing Charlie Leibrandt to man the rubber in the bottom of the 11th.
Leibrandt wasn’t the ideal choice. He had an ERA over 4 coming into this pitching appearance, and with Puckett leading off the inning, Cox was just praying Leibrandt could force a 12th frame.
And now Puckett can make history with a walk-off blast. But to understand how memorable this home run could be for Puckett and baseball itself, you have to know his life history.
Puckett grew up on the southside of Chicago. He was so small for centerfield (just 5-foot-8) that he didn’t receive a single scholarship once he graduated from Calumet High School. He actually entered the workforce right out of prep school at the Ford Motor Company. Luckily for him, Bradley University, an NCAA Division I school in the Missouri Valley Conference, gave him a shot. He then had to transfer to Triton College due to becoming academically ineligible at Bradley.
However, he had what it took to play at the next level, and the Twins took a huge risk by drafting a junior college ballplayer with the third overall pick in 1982. They obviously didn’t regret taking the shrimpy-but-full-of-energy ballplayer.
He ended up making it to the Big Show in 1984 and helped lead the Twins to a World Series championship three years later, their first one since relocating from Washington, D.C. He never missed the All-Star Game since 1986, and he won the 1991 ALCS MVP Award.
He was absolutely brilliant coming into this at-bat. He tripled in Knoblauch, made an unbelieve catch in the third inning, and has 2 of the 3 Twins RBIs tonight. According to multiple reports, he told players in the clubhouse they could “jump on his back tonight” and he would “carry them to victory.”
Well, here we stand. A 2-1 count on Puckett. It’s a tie game in the bottom of the 11th. Can Puckett get on base or even crush a legendary walk-off homer to preserve Minnesota’s incredible season?
Or can Leibrandt jam Puckett and face off against Chili Davis, who is already 0-for-4 on the night?
Here comes the fourth pitch of the at-bat. Welcome to a moment in history (Insert Puckett’s walk-of home run)
The Twins went on to win a memorable Game 7 by a final score of 1-0. Jack Morris pitched an unbelievable 10-inning shutout.