As a nine-year-old Red Sox fan back in 1991, I was a bit of a stranger to truly iconic baseball games.

I did see Kirk Gibson take Dennis Eckersley deep to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, which was an iconic moment in a pretty good game.

The most memorable game I had watched to that point was the final game of the 1990 Boston Red Sox regular season. The last play of that game is undoubtedly an iconic moment in Red Sox history, but the game as a whole doesn’t register on anybody’s top ten list.

Game 7 of the 1991 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins was something so much more.

Expertise, athleticism, strategy, mental toughness, gamesmanship, grit, balls, luck … it was all here, jam-packed into three hours and 23 minutes of genuine perfection. It was history’s greatest representation of everything that makes baseball the greatest game ever conceived.

This was the first ever all worst-to-first World Series. The Braves and Twins had both finished dead last in their divisions in 1990. One short year later, each team had regrouped and found a way to reach the top of the mountain.

The Twins had defeated the Cardinals in the 1987 series (also in seven games) just four years prior to this, but the Braves had pretty much sucked ever since relocating from Milwaukee to Ted Turner-ville. With only one championship in franchise history (1957), 1991 began a run of National League dominance that would last the majority of the 90s. It began in style too, with the Braves outlasting the Pittsburgh Pirates in a seven-game NLCS tug-of-war that culminated with a monumental nine-inning shutout hurled by a 24-year-old up-and-comer named John Smoltz.

I could tell from the first note of that classic CBS Baseball theme song that I would remember this game for the rest of my life. This was the first World Series Game 7 I had ever seen live, and the drama and intensity oozed off the 35-inch Panasonic tube TV in the basement bedroom of my father’s house.

I was rooting hard for Atlanta. Featuring National League MVP Terry Pendleton alongside blue-chippers Ron Gant and David Justice in the heart of their lineup, the Braves had won me over all season long, largely because I got to see so many of their games on national TV (at 6:05 on the Superstation). I had also hated the Twins ever since they turned two triple plays in a single game against the Red Sox the year before. While I admired the talent of Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek was a thug in cleats and I always hated Chuck Knoblauch and his stupid chin with a passion (don’t ask me why).

That’s why I took such an interest in the outcome of the game, and that’s why I covertly switched the Panasonic back on (at a barely audible volume) five minutes after my dad turned out my light and ordered me to bed. I had already missed the historic ending to Game 6 the night before thanks to his 9:30 bedtime nonsense. He was outside his damn mind if he really thought I was going to miss the finale.

I re-watch most of these epic games on YouTube, and I was thrilled to see that the version I found this week captured the entire CBS broadcast, complete with player introductions and a recap of Games 1 through 6.

This series was an old-school baseball war.

Grizzled bulldog Jack Morris, in his first and only year with Minnesota, shut down Atlanta in Game 1.

Kent Hrbek, the dirtiest player in the game, hip-tossed Ron Gant off first base to kill an Atlanta rally in Game 2.

Mark Lemke emerged as an October beast with a walk-off single in Game 3.

Lonnie Smith trucked Twins catcher Brian Harper into oblivion in Game 4.

David Justice ran wild for five RBI in Game 5, the only blowout of the series.

And Kirby Puckett boosted this Fall Classic into immortality with his web gem/walk-off combo platter in Game 6.

The final scores for the first six games were 5-2, 3-2, 5-4, 3-2, 14-5, and 4-3. For Twins and Braves fans, it was a heart attack series. For the rest of us, it was perfection.

The greatest World Series ever played deserved to be closed out by the greatest game ever played.

And that’s exactly what we got.

Braves leadoff hitter Lonnie Smith and Twins catcher Brian Harper, who had collided in Game 4 like Hogan and the Warrior in the Skydome, actually shook hands as Smith stepped into the batter’s box before the first pitch. Maybe it was two ex-teammates making amends after knocking each other’s lights out a few days prior. Or maybe it was two ballplayers just taking a second to appreciate what a phenomenal moment in time they were a part of right then. Whatever it was, it was special.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hitter shake hands with a catcher before the first pitch in any game,” said color commentator Tim McCarver, who I believe had participated in 65,000 games during his 83 years as a player and broadcaster. “Like a heavyweight fight,” responded play-by-play man Jack Buck.

Morris, the legendary Detroit Tiger with one ring already in his back pocket, took the mound in Game 7 against  Smoltz, whose Hall of Fame career was just now ascending to prominence. I dare anybody to watch this pitcher’s duel from 33 years ago and try to argue that low-scoring baseball games are inherently boring. Neither pitcher dominated, but they both controlled the game and fought out of trouble with the grace of battle-hardened generals at the heads of opposing infantry columns.

Skullet Hall-of-Famer Dan Gladden notched the first extra-base hit of the game by doubling to left off Smoltz, then advanced to third when Chuck Knoblauch lined out to right field. Smoltz escaped the jam by fanning Puckett on a 2-2 pitch.

I had forgotten all about Morris’ eephus pitch until he threw back-to-back lollipops to Justice to open the fourth inning. Both were called for strikes, and D.J. whiffed a couple pitches later. Brian Hunter then doubled to left-center for the 40th extra-base hit of the series, an all-time World Series record to that point. Hunter was stranded at second when Greg Olson lined out to end the inning.

The story of the series was Braves second baseman Mark Lemke, who hit .246 with a total of 32 home runs during his nine-year Major League career. The light-hitting Lemke played the best baseball of his life during this series, batting .417 with a record-tying three triples and four RBI.

His single to leadoff the fifth was his tenth hit of the series, and he advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by shortstop Rafael Belliard. Lonnie Smith, who had three homers and a flying shoulder tackle to this point in the series, shocked everyone by dropping a bunt single down the third base line to put runners at the corners with batting champion Terry Pendleton and MVP candidate Ron Gant coming up. Morris, as always, rose to the occasion. Pendleton popped out to shortstop and Gant struck out looking to retire the side.

The 36-year-old Morris got stronger as the game went on, whiffing Olson and Belliard in a 1-2-3 seventh. Smoltz was just as sharp, inducing three straight groundouts in the bottom half to officially make this game the longest ever scoreless start of a World Series Game 7.

Jack Morris emerged from the dugout for the eighth inning like John Wayne strolling down Main Street at dawn. The Metrodome was always loud, and loud had grown to hysterical as this game progressed. But the sequence of events that took place in the top of the eighth cranked the atmosphere in this dingy, carpeted dump to a crescendo of rowdiness it had never seen before.

Lonnie Smith started it off with a check-swing bloop single to right. Pendleton then drove a deep fly ball into the left-center field gap. As Smith approached the second base bag, second baseman Chuck Knoblauch crouched and pantomimed a toss to shortstop Greg Gagne, who stepped toward second base as if to receive Knoblauch’s phantom throw. A confused Smith, who had been running with the pitch and never picked up sight of the ball off Pendleton’s bat, bit on the middle infielders’ decoy and stopped just as he rounded second base. By the time Smith finally spotted the baseball and took off for third, left fielder Gladden was already firing it to the cutoff man. Those few moments of hesitation around second base prevented Smith from scoring what should have been the first run of the game.

Instead of having Pendleton at second with a 1-0 lead, the Braves now had runners on second and third in a game that was still scoreless thanks to the perfectly orchestrated gamesmanship of Knoblauch and Gagne.

The building shook as Ron Gant stepped in to face Morris with two men in scoring position and nobody out, and it rattled when Gant grounded out harmlessly to the drawn-in Hrbek for the first out of the inning. Twins manager Tom Kelly, looking like a stern Irish mob boss in a baseball uniform, then elected to intentionally walk David Justice to load the bases and set up a double play as the slower, less dangerous Sid Bream came up to bat.

The strategy worked flawlessly. Bream hit a hard two-hopper right at Hrbek, who fired the ball to catcher Brian Harper and then received Harper’s return throw to first, completing an inning-ending 3-2-3 double play. The Metrodome exploded, as did Atlanta’s chance to put a stranglehold on Game 7.

But the Twins were in for their own heartbreak in the bottom of the eighth. Randy Bush, pinch hitting for Gagne, led off the inning with a single. Knoblauch then singled one out later, prompting Braves manager Bobby Cox to summon hard-throwing lefty Mike Stanton to relieve the tiring Smoltz. An intentional walk to Puckett loaded the bases for the lefthanded Hrbek, a guy who could beat you with his bat just as well as he could beat you with his glove. The crowd popped for a brief second when Hrbek stroked a line drive up the middle, but the house deadened a second later when the ball settled into the glove of Lemke, who stepped on the second base bag as Knoblauch lingered in no man’s land for an unassisted double play to retire the side.

Morris, now in full God mode, set the Braves down 1-2-3 in the ninth, fanning Lemke to end the frame.

The momentum was entirely with Minnesota going into the bottom of the ninth, and it swung even further in that direction when DH Chili Davis led off with a single. Harper then pushed a bunt past Stanton, who strained his knee lunging after the ball, for another single. With Stanton hobbled, Braves closer Alejandro Peña then entered the game in the highest leverage situation imaginable: two on and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth of a scoreless World Series Game 7.

After right fielder Shane Mack fouled off a bunt attempt, Kelly gave the sign to swing away. Mack then hit a hard bouncing ball to Lemke’s left. The smart move would have been to allow the lead runners to advance and take the sure out at first base. But this was the Mark Lemke World Series.

Lemke snared the ball moving to his left, turned to his arm side 180°, and fired the ball to second, where Rafael Belliard caught his perfect throw and heaved an absolute missile to first, miraculously converting yet another double play. If you’re going to watch any individual play from this game, watch this one. The degree of difficulty of the operation Lemke and Belliard executed is astronomical, especially when you consider the stakes.

Peña then punched out pinch-hitter Paul Sorrento to end the ninth and take us to the first ever tenth inning of a World Series Game 7.

By coming out to the mound to pitch his tenth inning of a World Series game, Jack Morris did something nobody had done since Tom Seaver in 1969 and nobody will ever do again. Even more amazingly, he set the Braves down in order once more.

Dan Gladden broke his bat on the first pitch of the bottom of the tenth, which is normally a good sign for the pitcher. Unfortunately for Alejandro Peña and the Braves, the ball floated into shallow left-center field and took a high bounce off the rock-hard Metrodome turf. By the time Brian Hunter came down with the ball and threw it to second base, the speedy Gladden had slid in with a leadoff double. A Knoblauch sacrifice bunt quickly put Gladden at third base with one out and the heart of Minnesota’s order due up.

With first and second base open in this superb chess match, it’s only fitting that Bobby Cox opted to intentionally walk both Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek to load the bases with one out. The questionable move took the bat out of the hands of Minnesota’s two heaviest hitters, but also put Cox’s closer in a straightjacket. With the bases juiced, there was zero room for error. One walk, or even a simple wild pitch, would give the title to the Twins.

With professional pinch runner Jarvis Brown due up, Kelly called for the only man left on his bench to pinch hit: a very banged-up Gene Larkin. With a bad knee on one leg and a bad ankle on the other, Larkin was essentially good for nothing at this point except swinging the bat. Luckily for Minnesota, that’s all they needed him to do.

With only one out in the bottom of the tenth, a sacrifice fly would have been just as deadly as a hit. Thus, Cox pulled the Braves outfielders as far in as any Major League outfield has ever played. The infield positioned themselves in a desperation half-in/half-double-play depth. The Braves had already converted double plays in the sixth, eighth, and ninth innings, and the limping Larkin was a prime candidate to hit into a fourth. Every Braves fan on the planet crossed their fingers and prayed for just one more Twin killing.

They didn’t get it.

Larkin lofted Peña’s first pitch high and deep to left field. Hunter took a handful of cursory strides back, then slowed to a stop as reality sank in. The Metrodome roared long before the ball fell, it’s landing spot now irrelevant. Larkin and Gladden each raised a fist into the air. The Twins bench emptied as the ball hit its apex before plunging onto the carpet in front of the warning track. Morris was the first man to mob Gladden, who became the first and only man to cross home plate in the ten innings of this winner-take-all masterpiece.

Morris threw 135 pitches in ten scoreless innings on this night, retiring the last nine batters he faced after Pendleton’s fateful eighth-inning double. It was, in my estimation, the ballsiest pitching performance of all time. MLB should be embarrassed that it took until 2018 to elect Morris to the Hall of Fame.

I can still recall plunging my head down onto my pillow when Larkin made contact. Looking back now, I don’t think that was an act of disappointment due to the Braves losing. They were still a newly adopted secondary team to me, so I hadn’t yet reached the point of visceral reactions to the outcomes of their games.

No, I think I collapsed onto my bed out of sheer mental exhaustion at what I had witnessed over the past week. The first seven-game World Series I had ever watched (minus most of the innings that took place after my bedtime) is still the best World Series I’ve ever seen. The Red Sox weren’t even a part of it, yet I felt like I had endured a psychological marathon that tore my insides to pieces night after night. What I had seen was just too much for a nine-year-old brain to withstand.

4 walk-off wins.

3 extra-inning games.

2 physical confrontations.

1 perfect World Series.

For the first time in my life, I looked forward to a break from baseball.

By Luke

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