The ’91 Series: McCarver, Kirby and Herbie

Posted: October 28, 2011 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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Tim McCarver the player screams after listening to Tim McCarver the announcer.

Exciting World Series, huh? Close games, big bombs, good pitching performances, awful fielding, bizarre managerial decisions, a well-received national anthem, presidential sightings, series-saving triples, series-extending home runs, borrowed home run calls. And one game to go.

Plus, we’ve had Tim McCarver, saying…Tim McCarver type things.

The Fox analyst is taking some heat this postseason for his often bizarre, occasionally incorrect blatherings, which have led millions – or at least thousands – of Americans to violently hit the mute button. And that doesn’t even completely solve the problem because the closed-captioning text forces you to read McCarver, which is somehow even more depressing than listening to him. Already during this series, McCarver announced that strike is a five-letter word and then spelled it correctly with all six letters. My favorite line remains his pronouncement that Game 3 would resemble a rodeo more than a baseball game. He said it with no further explanation.

A rodeo? Was Nolan Ryan going to ride in on a bull? Would clowns sprint onto the field and make children laugh and adults squirm? Would ESPN Classic broadcast the game at 2 a.m., following an AWA wrestling card from 1986 featuring Nick Bockwinkel and Jerry Blackwell? Would Tony La Russa end up hog-tied in the Cardinals’ dugout? Those exasperated with La Russa’s obsession with pitching changes could only dream.

McCarver can still make outstanding points. He can still anticipate action as well as anyone. And, as his critics always point out, back in the day he was one of the best analysts ever.

But I can say with certainty that McCarver has been saying odd things for at least 20 years.

A few years back MLB Network replayed Games 6 and 7 from the 1991 World Series, better known as the Greatest World Series Ever. I taped the games and broke out the cassette a few days ago, partly to wash away the lingering memories from the Twins’ nightmare season of 2011, but mostly to remember the heroics of Kirby, Hrbek, Jack and Gene. CBS broadcast the World Series that year, but it was still Buck and McCarver. Jack Buck, that is, the legendary play-by-play man and Joe’s old man.

Thursday was the 20th anniversary of Game 7 of the series. To commemorate – and for some insight into the McCarver of old, who’s actually a lot like the old McCarver – let’s go back to the videotape.

At one point in Game 6, Buck talks about Atlanta third baseman Terry Pendleton, who hit .367 in the series. Buck said, “TP. That’s what his teammates call him.” A few seconds later, McCarver added, “TP. An appropriate name for someone who plays on the Braves.”

Well, yes. The Indian mascot controversy was not quite as heated in 1991 as it would eventually become, but even then there were protests and people looked at mascots like the Braves – and saw tens of thousands of Southerners doing tomahawk chops in the stands – and thought, “Is this really the best representation for an entire people?” It’s unclear if McCarver meant the line as a joke, though he delivered it straight. And while I suppose it is appropriate – because, you know, Native Americans lived in teepees – I doubt his teammates put that much thought into the nickname. More likely, his teammates realized Pendleton’s initials were T and P and because it sort of rhymes started calling him “TP.” Or maybe they did mean it as an homage to teepees, braves and Braves. Or maybe it was a joke about toilet paper. We’ll never know, but like always, McCarver gave us something to think about.

Game 6 ended with one of the most famous homers in baseball history, Kirby’s 11th inning blast off the soft-tossing lefty Charlie Liebrandt, a pitching matchup that you just know La Russa would have never allowed – provided his call to the bullpen wasn’t misinterpreted.

Such a memorable sight, and so strange – a Twins player hitting a home run.

Anyway, one of my favorite moments after Puckett’s homer is his hug with manager Tom Kelly. Puckett buries his head in T.K’s chest while the normally stoic manager pats his star’s back and talks into his ear. The homer’s also famous for the call – Buck’s memorable and pitch-perfect, “And we’ll see you tomorrow night,” which fans born after 1991 will now think was first said by Joe Buck, who broke it out in a nice tribute – but said “we will” instead of “we’ll” – in Game 6 of the 2011 Series.

McCarver then adds his own call, one that has yet to find a place in the broadcasting history books. During the at-bat, McCarver kept talking about Liebrandt’s circle change. The circle change. Circle. Circle. After Puckett’s blast  – and following the appropriate moment of silence as both announcers let viewers enjoy the moment in peace – McCarver says, “As far as the Braves are concerned, Puckett parked it in another circle – the winner’s circle.” No, not quite as memorable as “we’ll see you tomorrow night.” Since he said “As far as the Braves are concerned” perhaps he should have gone with another tortured analogy, but one that might have made more sense from Atlanta’s perspective. Circle. Eleventh inning home run. How about, “As far as the Braves are concerned, Puckett put it in another circle – the 11th Circle of Hell.” Still makes no sense, but somehow seems more fitting.

A night later the teams met for Game 7. Just before the first pitch in a game that turned into one of the great pitching duels of all-time, McCarver said, “It feels like we’ve died and gone to seven.”

How long did McCarver spend in the hotel that day thinking up that line? An hour? Two? I picture him sketching out other lines to break out at key moments. Maybe he tests them out on his waiter at breakfast before heading to the game.

* After a wild pitch leads to a game-winning run: “Life’s a pitch.”
* Perhaps if at some point in time a game-ending double-play had prevented the Yankees from winning a 25th World Series, McCarver could have said, “It’s 25 or 6-4-3.” If it had been Chicago defeating the Yankees in that mythical World Series, so much the better.
* If the San Francisco Giants hit a lot of home runs in their new park and he wanted to compare it to the old: “It’s like a Candlestick in the wind.”
* Instead of “Died and gone to seven,” CBS should have shown Jack Morris and his mustache sprinting out of the dugout while McCarver said, “It’s a Stairway to Seven.”
* If Twins third baseman Mike Pagliarulo blasted a game-winning homer: “Pagliarulo. It’s a mouthful. And he gets a bat-full of baseball.”

I’ll stop now. McCarver did not.

At one point Braves reliever Mike Stanton injured his groin after a bunt by Twins catcher Brian Harper. McCarver noted, “Harper found a seam. A seam between Bream.” What, nothing about a dream?

And people think McCarver’s only gone batty the last few years. CBS had Jim Kaat working the Series as a sort-of sideline analyst. Jim Kaat, a guy who was one of the best analysts in the game, incisive and understated, stuck in a sea of Homer Hankies, allowed to say about a dozen words every two innings while McCarver mastered his puns and rhymes.

Don Denkinger worked behind the plate for Game 7. Denkinger will always be remembered for his blown call at first base in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, which led to a Kansas City rally and a St. Louis meltdown in Game 7.

Sidebar: St. Louis led that infamous Game 6 1-0 entering the 9th inning. Who drove in the only run, which would have been a Series-clinching run? Brian Harper. Pinch-hitter, same great stroke he used to routinely bang out .300 seasons with the Twins. And Kansas City’s Game 6 starter? Charlie Liebrandt. Yes, McCarver was there, too.

Back to 1991, and Game 7. Atlanta’s best chance to seize control came in the 8th inning. Lonnie Smith started off with a single, followed by a double from Pendleton – TP. That double remains a nightmare for Braves fans because Smith paused at second and didn’t score, the legend being Twins middle infielders Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Gagne faked him out. I don’t know if I buy that. Smith was past Knoblauch and didn’t even look at Gagne. Maybe he heard something from them. But I think he just got confused with the ball in the outfield and hesitated.

With runners on second and third and nobody out, Ron Gant – who left six runners on base in Game 7 – dribbled meekly to first. Kelly emerged from the dugout to talk to Jack Morris. On the tape I have of the MLB Network replay, they played a new interview with Morris, who said there was no way he was letting Kelly take him out.I don’t think that was ever a worry, considering Steve Bedrosian and Mark Guthrie were the guys warming up in the bullpen. (If Guthrie had been used and the Twins got out of the jam, McCarver could have said, “It’s a night at the Guthrie for the Twins – and what a play it was.”) Kelly just wanted to talk strategy. The Twins intentionally walked David Justice, loading the bases.

That brought Bream to the plate, who was unable to find a seam. Instead he hit the ball to Kent Hrbek at first, who fired to Harper at the plate for the force, starting an inning-ending, game-saving 3-2-3 double play. This is my second-favorite Hrbek moment. At the end of the play, Hrbek – who had a pretty terrible series and hit .115 while looking like a 300-pound slow-pitch softball player trying to hit Major League pitching – gives a fist-pump, followed by several more arm thrusts. You can practically hear him over the screaming Metrodome crowd, saying something like, “Yeaah, baby.”

My favorite Hrbek moment? The grand slam in Game 6 of the 1987 World Series, forever immortalized by my cousin Matt as simply “TCF” because TCF bank used the homer in commercials for years after the series.

A Twins victory almost seemed inevitable at that point, even though it took two more innings and a few lost opportunities by the home team. Gene Larkin’s fly ball – harmless in any other situation, earth-shaking in this instance – finally ended it. But Larkin’s hit is practically a footnote in that game, even though it brought home the only run. Morris’s performance lives on, as astounding today as it was then.

Many people – even folks outside of Minnesota – still consider that to be the best World Series in history. Five of the games were decided by a single run. It had its heroes, but also its goats – Twins pitcher David West appeared in two games, gave up two walks, four hits and four runs…and never recorded an out.

You had unknown guys excelling – Mark Lemke hit .417. And you had superstars doing their thing: Puckett’s overall effort in Game 6 – the three hits, the winning homer, the leaping catch in the outfield – solidified his legend. John Smoltz remains one of the most famous losing pitchers in baseball history, his Game 7 effort bested only by Morris’s.

Seems like the 1991 World Series would make a great book. A few years ago I put together a lot of research and worked up a little proposal. Several people told me there just wouldn’t be much interest. The reason? The location of the teams involved. Nationally, no matter how memorable the series, people wouldn’t want to read about Minnesota and Atlanta.

I accepted this, understanding that 97 percent of baseball books focus on the Yankees or Red Sox, two percent are about the Brooklyn Dodgers and everyone else gets that last one percent. I still think someone will write a book on the series. Former SI writer Steve Rushin remains the most likely candidate, a brilliant writer and Minnesota native who made his mark in 1991 by covering the series for SI. His name can probably draw in those unimpressed by the words Twins and Braves.

A few weeks after I gave up on the 1991 book idea, I wandered into the bookstore and came across a new book in the sports section: Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History. I think I just shook my head when I saw it. I don’t think I spilled the entire display onto the floor. Can’t be sure. It’s probably a good book. The author, Chris Donnelly, likely did an outstanding job. And it was a good series, the Mariners winning in 5, Griffey sprinting home with the winning run. Nice.

But…it was a Division Series matchup. The Mariners lost in the ALCS. That’s it, that’s the series. But because it involved a team in pinstripes, it became a book and somehow earned the title “greatest series.” As McCarver might say: “Publishers are in a New York State of Mind.”

The 1991 World Series hasn’t been immortalized in a book. But it doesn’t really matter. McCarver’s lines live on forever. Joe Buck obviously never forgot Jack Buck’s call. And the images of Kirby, Herbie and Jack remain as unforgettable today as they were 20 years ago.

  1. Neil R says:

    Great article. Now go write that 91 Series book.

  2. shawnfury says:

    Thanks. And I’d love to do the book, but I think most people are as interested in that as they would be in a book on the 1999 NBA champions or the 2005 NBA Finals.

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