The 1991 Braves led a charmed life. They surged from 9-1/2 games behind to win the National League West on the regular season’s penultimate day. They rallied from down 3-2 to take Games 6 and 7 of the NLCS in Pittsburgh, their pitchers holding the Pirates scoreless over 18 innings. They entered the World Series as a cuddly team of destiny.
They lost Game 1 in Minnesota’s Metrodome. No big deal. They had proved they could overcome anything. The team that spent most of its Atlanta tenure being terrible had gone from worst in 1990 to first in ‘91.
As it happened, so had the ‘91 Twins, though their trek was less memorable. The Braves hadn’t had a winning season since 1983. The Twins won the 1987 World Series, beating St. Louis in seven games. That World Series was an odd one, the home team winning every game.
Not that we Atlantans cared about history at that moment. We were too busy clutching our new foam tomahawks and hanging on every move the suddenly beloved Braves made. In the history of Atlanta sports, nothing has or will top the heady days of October 1991.
Game 2 began with Tom Glavine, who would be voted the National League Young Cy Young winner, yielding two first-inning runs, one unearned. David Justice and second baseman Mark Lemke made a hash of Dan Gladden’s leadoff pop to right. It was, the Braves were learning, hard to hear under the Metrodome roof.
With two out in the third inning, Ron Gant singled to left. Lonnie Smith – whose base-running in Minnesota would, seven days later, become a turning point – went from first to third. Gladden’s throw skipped past third baseman Scott Leius. Pitcher Kevin Tapani retrieved the ball and threw to first, where Gant had taken a slight turn toward second. Gant beat the throw back to the bag, though his momentum left him struggling to hold the base.
Kent Hrbek – the first baseman who had visions of a second career as a wrestler under the ring name T-Rex – reached around Gant to glove Tapani’s throw. His left arm was positioned to serve as a lever. The would-be grappler dead-lifted Gant off first base. Umpire Drew Coble called him out. End of inning.
Coble brooked no inquiries from the incredulous Gant and first base coach Pat Corrales. The ump insisted Gant’s momentum caused him to exit the bag. The CBS crew of Jack Buck and Tim McCarver viewed the replay and disagreed: Hrbek’s pull – in the Twin Cities, it was dubbed the T-Rex Tug – was an illegal move. Gant should have been safe. But he wasn’t.
The Braves drew even but lost Game 2 on Leius’ eighth-inning homer off Glavine, the Braves having just left the bases loaded. The next day’s Atlanta Constitution bore the headline: “Down two but coming home.” The Braves swept the three games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and flew back north with, as general manager John Schuerholz said, “one day of work to go.”
Good work led only to great frustration. The Braves lost Game 6 on Kirby Puckett’s 10th-inning homer off Charlie Leibrandt. They lost Game 7 in 10 innings after Smith dallied at second base on Terry Pendleton’s double; after Gladden’s bloop in the 10th bounced so high off the fake turf it became a leadoff double; after Gene Larkin lined Alejandro Pena’s pitch over Brian Hunter in left to drive home the game’s only run.
Hrbek, booed with gusto in Atlanta, did little else in that series. He went 3-for-26, two of his hits and his only homer coming in Game 1. What he did was give us Atlantans the feeling that Atlanta’s team mightn’t be fortune’s team. Hrbek got away with pulling Gant. The Braves lost a World Series in which they outhit and outscored their opponent. The Twins won a second title in five seasons despite going 0-6 away from the howling Metrodome.
Six years later, the Braves ran afoul of Eric Gregg’s strike zone in Miami. Fifteen years after that, Sam Holbrook expanded the infield-fly rule at a key moment in a wild-card game. Our civic sense of fatalism – why do our teams never get a playoff break? – was born with the T-Rex Tug.