When Kelly tried to take Jack Morris out in G7

In a game for the ages, Twins skipper almost did the unthinkable

March 20th, 2020

It had started out as the Worst-to-First World Series: Twins vs. Braves, 1991. But by Game 7 -- what was to become one of the most memorable title clinchers in the history of the sport -- it had simply become one of the greatest World Series ever played.

The Braves had a chance to close the Twins out in Game 6, but then hit one out in the 11th inning against Charlie Leibrandt. That meant the Series would get the ending it deserved, a Game 7 at the Metrodome -- the first Game 7 in Major League Baseball since the Twins and Cardinals had played their own deciding game, under the same dome, four years earlier.

“It was the way it was supposed to end,” Kirby told me later. “We were like kids who didn’t want to go home for dinner.”

So it would come down to against . One future Hall of Famer against another. Smoltz’s record that year was 14-13 (Tom Glavine, Leibrandt and Steve Avery all had more wins), but he had been a horse for Braves manager Bobby Cox, starting 36 games. Morris, though, had been like a handful of aces for Twins manager Tom Kelly. He had gone 19-11 seven years before, when he was helping pitch the Tigers to a World Series championship. He had come to Minnesota that year and gone 18-11, his credentials as a big-game pitcher well established by then. The next year he would be with the Blue Jays, winning 20 games and helping pitch them to their first World Series title.

And what we were reminded of that night, when baseball was as loud as it had ever been inside the Metrodome, was the beauty and drama of a 1-0 game. We didn’t need home runs. We didn’t need a lot of scoring. We had Morris and Smoltz, each trying to pitch the game of his life, putting up one shutout inning after another.

The longer it went like that, with the game scoreless, the louder it became in the Metrodome. The music would blare between innings, and then either Morris or Smoltz would be back on the mound, and the noise would build every time either team got a single baserunner.

The auxiliary press box was behind home plate that night, one of the best big-game seats I ever had. It was after the top of the sixth, with the sound system blaring out “Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells (you even remember the music from a night like that), that I saw the great baseball writer Jerome Holtzman stomping up the steps toward where I was sitting.

Mr. Holtzman would later make it to Cooperstown as the winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. After his retirement, he would become baseball’s official historian. He was wearing his signature suspenders and already shaking his head before he got to me.

“They’ve turned the freaking World Series into a musical!” he snapped, then turned and went back to his seat to see if somebody might finally score a run, just one, in Game 7.

The Braves should have scored in the top of the eighth. Lonnie Smith was on first, running on a straight steal, and Terry Pendleton hit one up the gap that finally rolled to the wall. Smith should have scored easily. But as he came around second, he suddenly stopped, as if he didn’t know where the ball was. When he realized it was rolling around near the outfield wall, he made it to third. Morris pitched out of the inning, which ended with a double play. It was still 0-0. Smith appeared to have been faked out by Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who made the motion of turning a double play, and Smith stopped long enough to prevent him from scoring. Pendleton would defend him by saying that Smith might have lost the ball in the lights after it came off the bat.

So the game stayed deadlocked, until Gene Larkin won it -- and the World Series -- for the Twins with a single in the bottom of the 10th.

That was the end of the story. But it wasn’t Kirby Puckett’s favorite part. That had to be the scene that played out in the Twins' dugout before the bottom of the 9th, before Jack Morris went out and finished off his extra-inning, 1-0 shutout in Game 7 of the World Series:

When the Twins came off the field, Morris went to sit at one end of the dugout. He put his head down and began to towel off. Tom Kelly was at the other end. Kirby took a seat in the middle, which is where he was when he saw Kelly start to walk down the dugout in Morris’ direction.

Kirby wasn’t sure if Kelly would ever have thought about taking Morris out of this game after the way he’d pitched. Kirby just assumed Tom was going down there to see how Morris was feeling after the 100-plus pitches he’d already thrown, on his way to 126 in total.

“But knowing Jack,” Kirby said, “all I could think of was that this had a chance to be great.”

In Kirby’s telling, Morris still had his head down, towel over his head, before Kelly ever got to him.

“I still don’t know how he even knew Tom was coming,” Kirby told me.

But he did. And when the Twins manager was about halfway to Morris, Black Jack picked up his head, turned toward him and said, “Don’t even freaking think about it.”

He didn’t exactly say freaking. So Kelly turned around, Morris went back out for the 10th and Larkin got his historic hit. Like another old song said: “Oh, what a night.”