1991: Rickey, Ripken and the unlikeliest WS ever

April 29th, 2020

Throughout our hopefully short time without real live games, we’ll be taking a weekly look back at a specific year in baseball history. What happened, why it mattered, what we’ll remember most. Send us the years you’d most like us to talk about at [email protected].

• Years in Review: 1983 | 1987 | 1995 | 2003

Year: 1991

NLCS: Braves over Pirates in 7
ALCS: Twins over Blue Jays in 5
World Series: Twins over Braves in 7

AL MVP: Cal Ripken Jr., Orioles
AL Cy Young: Roger Clemens, Red Sox
AL Rookie of the Year: Chuck Knoblauch, Twins

NL MVP: Terry Pendleton, Braves
NL Cy Young: Tom Glavine, Braves
NL AL Rookie of the Year: Jeff Bagwell, Astros

All-MLB Team (chosen by me, in 2020)

1B: Cecil Fielder, Tigers
2B: Julio Franco, Rangers
SS: Cal Ripken Jr., Orioles
3B: Wade Boggs, Red Sox
OF: Barry Bonds, Pirates
OF: Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners
OF: Jose Canseco, A’s
C: Mickey Tettleton, Tigers
DH: Frank Thomas, White Sox

SP: Tom Glavine, Braves
SP: Roger Clemens, Red Sox
SP: Jim Abbott, Angels
SP: Dennis Martinez, Expos
RP: Lee Smith, Cardinals
RP: Bryan Harvey, Angels

The 1991 season is one that continues to give hope to fans of even the most downtrodden teams, nearly 30 years later. You might think that your team is down for the count for years to come. But 1991 is always around to give you hope.

Here are five facts about the 1990 Atlanta Braves:

  1. They lost 97 games and finished in last place in the National League West, 26 games behind the Reds.
  2. They fired their manager, Russ Nixon, 65 games into the season. His replacement, Bobby Cox, had been fired by the Braves nine years earlier, and by the Blue Jays five years earlier.
  3. They had the first overall pick in the 1990 MLB Draft, choosing a Florida shortstop named Chipper Jones.
  4. They had just one All-Star representative, catcher Greg Olson.
  5. They traded two-time MVP and seven-time All-Star Dale Murphy.

Here are five facts about the 1990 Minnesota Twins:

  1. They lost 88 games, finished in last place in the American League West, 29 games behind the A’s.
  2. Their best player (per Baseball Reference WAR) was shortstop Greg Gagne, who had an OBP of .280.
  3. They gave 228 at-bats to Fred Manrique, who had an OBP of .254.
  4. They had a starter lose 18 games (Allan Anderson).
  5. They watched outfielder Dan Gladden, on Fan Appreciation Day, the last game of the season, tell fans that even though they finished in last place, they would win the World Series the next season, a statement that was widely ridiculed.

Then, in 1991 … the two teams made the World Series. They certainly took different routes there. The Twins were an older team that had one last push left in them; after that World Series, they wouldn’t make the playoffs again until 2002. The Braves were just getting started, with Cox, with Leo Mazzone, with Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and the gang.

And what a World Series it turned out to be. An intense battle that featured three extra-inning games, five one-run games, “See you tomorrow night” and Jack Morris’ eternal Game 7 performance, which didn’t just win the Twins the World Series … it might have gotten him in the Hall of Fame all on its own.

There are six teams that finished last in 2019: The Pirates, Marlins, Padres, Orioles, Tigers and Mariners. None of them are likely to win the next World Series. But as 1991 proved: You never know. It can all come out of nowhere.

Here are 10 other fun facts from the 1991 baseball season.

  1. Cal Ripken Jr. had the best year of his career and won the MVP for a mediocre Orioles team, but in many ways, this was the year of Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder, the man who finished a close second in voting for the second straight year. Fielder followed up his incredible 51-homer 1990 season -- his first since playing Japan for a year -- with another monster campaign, hitting 44 homers and leading the Majors with 133 RBIs for the second of what would be three consecutive seasons. His best moment might have been when he hit a home run at Milwaukee’s County Stadium off Dan Plesac that became the first (and ultimately only) ball to leave the park entirely.
  1. Future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield -- then playing for the Angels -- became the oldest player in baseball history to hit for a cycle at the age of 40. He did it against the Royals on June 24.
  1. Let’s not let Jack Morris' Game 7 start glide past us. It was the ultimate gutsy start, with eight strikeouts, seven hits, two walks and of course 10 full innings pitched. Why did he come out for the 10th? Here’s what teammate Randy Bush told Sports Illustrated: “I want to know one thing: Who was going to take him out of this game? Who would have had the courage to say, ‘Jack, you’re done,’” Bush said. “I don’t think anyone would have done it. If it was [manager Tom Kelly], Jack would have punched him, kicked him -- he might have killed him.”
  1. This was another season with an unusually high number of no-hitters -- seven. Three noteworthy ones. First, Wilson Alvarez threw one for the White Sox in … the first start of his career. (He didn’t throw any more in 262 future starts.) Also, Dennis Martinez threw a perfect game, to catcher Ron Hassey, who became the first catcher to catch two perfect games (the first was Len Barker's in 1981). Also, Nolan Ryan threw another one, his seventh.
  1. Ripken’s MVP marked a trifecta never before accomplished in baseball history: He was named the AL MVP, the All-Star Game MVP and won the Home Run Derby. That is a lot harder to do than one might think. It’s hard enough to get one of those, or even to have the opportunity.
  1. The Toronto Blue Jays became the first team in baseball history to draw 4 million fans. They would fall in the ALCS to the Twins, but they’d draw even more fans when they won the World Series in both 1992 and '93. The all-time record would be set in '93, by the expansion Colorado Rockies, who drew 4.483 million fans to Mile High Stadium.
  1. Speaking of the Rockies: This was the year they were conceived. In June, MLB announced that Denver and Miami had been awarded expansion franchises. The other finalists? Orlando, Washington, St. Petersburg and … Buffalo.
  1. One new ballpark opened in 1991: Chicago’s New Comiskey Park (now Guaranteed Rate Field), which set up shop right next door to the old Comiskey. They tore down the old place throughout the year using wrecking balls. The first game at the new stadium kicked off in the worst possible way: The White Sox lost 16-0 to the Tigers. The aforementioned Cecil Fielder homered and drove in four runs.
  1. The Braves, inspired perhaps by Bo Jackson’s success a few years before, signed Atlanta Falcons cornerback Deion Sanders to a Minor League contract. Sanders had struggled in what many considered a public-relations run with the Yankees two years earlier, but he thrived with the Braves. Well, not in 1991 (he hit .191), but in 1992, he’d lead the league in triples and become the first player to play in a Super Bowl and a World Series.
  1. The biggest milestone of 1991 was undoubtedly Rickey Henderson breaking Lou Brock’s all-time stolen-base record, a remarkable achievement considering Henderson was only 31 years old. Amusingly, Henderson proudly declared himself the greatest with Brock standing right next to him. Henderson would steal 467 more bases -- leading the league twice more, including in 1991 -- and play for 13 more seasons in the Majors. One can laugh all they want about Henderson saying he’s the best in front of the guy whose record he broke … but Henderson’s record, of course, still stands.

Send me the year you’d love to have me write about at [email protected].