Tuesday, April 7, 2009

In the Spirit of Opening Day: the 1991 World Series

With Opening Day yesterday, we were once again reminded of the joy and optimism that a new season brings to all major league cities, even those that most would agree have little or no reason for such. This year, those cities that seem to have been written off by the majority of pundits and fans are the Pirates, Nationals, and Padres (among others). In the spirit of Opening Day, I thought it might be nice to take a look back at the not-as-close-as-it-seems past for a reminder of why predictions are just predictions and why we play 162 games.

It seems that these days the 1991 World Series is remembered for one thing above all else: Jack Morris' 10-inning shutout of the Atlanta Braves in the deciding Game 7. Sure, there's plenty of esteem to be found for that Fall Classic, even outside of Minnesota. I've seen a couple of different lists that rank that Series as one of best of all time, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone willing to argue that. With that said, it still seems like the only time we ever really talk about the '91 Series anymore is when we're discussing the merits of Jack Morris' Hall of Fame candidacy.

And, no matter how deserving of legend that game is, it's a shame that the conversation today seems to ignore the other aspects of such a great Series. First among these is the fact that the 1991 World Series was the first time that both participating teams had finished in last place the year before. In 1990, the Twins finished 29 games behind the A's in the AL West, with a 74-88 record. Meanwhile, the Braves finished 26 games behind the Reds, with a 65-97 record. Somehow, both teams were able to shake off those poor seasons and win their division crowns en route to the 1991 World Series.

Neither team was expected to do much in '91. In fact, of the four preview guides I can find from 1991 - The Sporting News, Street & Smith's, Sports Illustrated, and Baseball Digest - the Twins were predicted to finish in last place in each of them, and the Braves were only predicted to finish higher than 5th in one. If there were ever two teams to have been written off before the season started, they were these two.

Here is what the preview mags were saying about the Twins before the season started:

Street & Smith's

"The Minnesota Twins appear to be a team in disarray, having deteriorated from their World Series championship in 1987 to last place a year ago. They may have been fooled into thinking they were on the right track in May when they had a 21-7 record, but it was a mirage. They were 7-21 in June and finished with only one double-digit pitching winner and one .300 hitter, and had more errors (101) than home runs (100). Thus, the basement for the first time since 1981.

'I've been in the majors nine full years and we've gone full circle, from worst to first to worst again,' Kent Hrbek said. "
Baseball Digest
"The World Series champions of 1987 continued to decline, and improvement this year is largely dependent on the young pitchers acquired in recent years.

Some of their veteran Metrodome sluggers are begining to show a little wear and tear, home runs falling off last year.
Still, there is little to suggest the Twins, with their power waning, will rise again in 1991. Last place is likely."
Sports Illustrated
"The poor Twins. They will play their tails off and finish last. But in the process, they will continue a well-planned rebuilding program. "We're going to surprise people," Kelly says. "We've got some starting pitching. I've never had that. I've had three starters before, but one would always be Freddy Toliver."
The Twins can climb out of the toilet, but they won't get out of the cellar."
And about the Braves:

Street & Smith's

"If the Atlanta Braves are ever to escape last place in the National League West, this should be the year. All those young players the Braves have been bragging about the last three or four seasons now have a year or two of big-league meal money, should know the Braves' secret handshake, and can throw hard, especially the pitchers.
Bobby Cox has a long, tough job ahead of him. The Braves have been down so long the team is beginning to believe its own bad clippings. Cox's main job is to restore this team's confidence and pride and give the ability of his players, especially his young pitchers, a chance to take hold.

The Braves won't win anything in 1990 [sic], but they may start causing some other clubs to use their best players to beat them. That will be the surest sign of progress."
Baseball Digest
"The lean years have piled up for the Braves, but new general manager John Schuerholz is making ever effort to repair the situation.

In free-agent signings last winter, he added first baseman Sid Bream and third baseman Terry Pendleton to shore up what had been a disastrous infield defense for a number of years.

"We've got a lot of building to do," Schuerholz said, "and we have to be aggressive. We got two of the top defensive players at their positions and by getting them we dealt with a couple of priorities."
Essentially, this is a team trying to get respectable while rebuilding. It's not an easy task."
Sports Illustrated
"The day camp opened, instructor Willie Stargell emerged from the Braves' clubhouse, lowered his highway-patrol shades, surveyed the field and announced, "This is one ugly group."

U-G-L-Y, the Braves ain't got no alibis. After signing free-agents Rafael Belliard, Juan Berenguer, Sid Bream, Mike Heath, Terry Pendleton and Deion Sanders, management cannot be blamed should the team again finish last. Or finish no higher than fifth, as Atlanta has done for the past six years. Or continue its astonishing streak of 22 consecutive months of losing baseball.
The Braves, at last, are above the poverty line. And—stop us if you've heard this one before—their rotation of Charlie Leibrandt, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and Paul Marak is downright upwardly mobile. "Atlanta can't be overlooked," says Giants G.M. Al Rosen. "I've always thought Bobby Cox was an excellent manager, and he's got impact players in Gant and Justice." Of course, this year in this division, that isn't nearly enough."
Both teams were able to move past these weaknesses in only one year of play. Of course, each team seemed to have every break fall their way, from young, talented players like Smoltz and Glavine pulling it all together to older players reaching back to find something more, like Pendleton's MVP year or Morris' terrific performances. It also helped to be competing in relatively weak divisions.

The point of the story, though, isn't to nitpick about what had to go right for each team and what had to go wrong for each competitor in order for these two worst-to-first teams to square off in the World Series. The point is that, every April, as the optimism in every city grows in anticipation of Opening Day, there is legitimate hope to be had for all 30 franchises, no matter how depressing or gloomy their situation logically seems to be. If a 65-win NL team can come back the next year to defy expectations and play an equally surprising 74-win AL team in the World Series, then there's not much that can't be hoped for.

So, good luck, fans of San Diego, Washington and Pittsburgh. I hope you get your chance to be talking about the miracle World Series run of '09 sometime in the near future. After all, what is the spring good for if not hope and optimisim?


BillP said...

Thanks for pulling those up. I remember an awful lot of the season itself, but I don't think 12 year old me was all that into reading season previews yet (and good thing, too--I would've been one depressed Twins fan).

Josh said...

Wow, I didn't realize how down people were on the Twins back then. Those season previews can be quite misleading....go San Diego!

Louise said...
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