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SO NOW WE KNOW: The world series, like the number 88, doesn't change just because it is turned on its head. This year's World Series, the 88th in history, not only has been turned on its head, but also has been shaken by the ankles. What falls out of an upside-down Fall Classic? For the last-to-first Minnesota Twins, there was a 2-0 series lead, seized in their home park last weekend by the last three men in their batting order. For the last-to-first Atlanta Braves, there was comfort in the knowledge that their two best pitchers had yet to throw—they are the last two men in their four-man Series rotation. And lastly, for baseball fans, there was evidence that a World Series between such recent bottom-dwellers can still be, in a word, tops.
"I think both teams are winners this year, regardless of what happens now," said Minnesota centerfielder Kirby Puckett, who is right. It is Scripture that is wrong. True, the last shall be first; but one of the last shall be second when this season is done, and after Games 1 and 2 in the Metrodome in Minneapolis, it was the young Braves, once seemingly the children of destiny, who now appeared destined only to become the new kids on the chopping block.
So comfortable were the Twins after their scintillating 3-2 win on Sunday night, before the loudest, most hanky-intensive audience in sports, that Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek could laugh off the now-controversial tomahawk-chop performed by the fans in Atlanta, where Games 3, 4 and 5 awaited. "Oooooh," Hrbek said in mock horror. "That scares me."
The 253-pound Hrbek wears shower thongs inscribed REX, which is short for T-Rex, which is the ring name he has chosen for the professional wrestling career to which he aspires after baseball. On Sunday night, Hrbek appeared to pull Atlanta centerfielder Ron Gant's leg from first base as he tagged him. Umpire Drew Coble called Gant out, killing a third-inning Braves rally in the process. And while Hrbek denied afterward that he had started his wrestling career prematurely with that play—"Rex has a few more baseball games to play first," he insisted—the TV replays and Gant's postgame testimony tended to indicate otherwise. "I felt the whole force of him pulling me off the bag," said Gant. "He's twice my size."
With that, the Twins might have become the black-masked bullies to root against in this Series, except that these guys seem instead a lot more like men of the people. Hrbek doesn't watch baseball on television because it's "boring" and instead prefers to bowl—his high game is 267. Puckett is pumped about the first annual postseason pool tournament, which he will host at his Twin Cities home. And come December, pitcher Kevin Tapani, Sunday's starter and winner, just might slip back into the Federal Express uniform he was wearing less than two years ago, when he was both a pitcher for the Twins and made deliveries of another kind "for something to do" over the Christmas season in the Twin Cities. "Our stars don't seem like stars," says Tapani. "They're more like...average guys, I guess."
Of course, like Hrbek-Rex, the Braves, too, can display a dual personality—alternately captivating (see their come-from-behind divisional and National League Championship Series victories) and irritating (see ubiquitous follower Jane Fonda). This team is somehow, at once, the worst-to-first Cinderella and the wicked stepmother Barbarella.
In the chill outside the Metrodome before the World Series opener on Saturday, picketing Native Americans warned Ted Turner, the Braves' owner and cable magnate, against reducing their people to mere mascots. Turner, his fiancée, Fonda, and most other Braves fans stand accused of doing precisely that to Native Americans by tomahawk-chopping all season on nationwide television. To paraphrase the song Indian Reservation: "He took the whole Indian nation/Put them on a superstation."
The Native American message was heard worldwide, conveyed by the baseball cognoscenti who came to Minnesota from around the globe, all of them, it seemed, in search of the "key" to this World Series. To a TV reporter from Des Moines, righthander Tapani—who, not coincidentally, was born in Iowa—would be the Series key. "Tapani doesn't remember much of our city," the correspondent earnestly conceded into a camera last weekend. "His family moved away when he was one year old."
To a phenomenally prescient journalist from Montreal, however, the key would be the bottom of the Minnesota batting order. The French-Canadian reporter asked Game 1 starter Charlie Leibrandt of the Braves, during a press conference, just how the lefthander proposed to pitch to such Twin hitters as "Kent Erbeck and Dave Gagner." Leibrandt's scouting report was sketchy at best, given that Erbeck doesn't exist and Gagner plays center for the Minnesota North Stars.
The journaliste was trying, of course, to invoke the names of Hrbek, who sometimes bats in the seventh slot against lefthanders, and shortstop Greg Gagne, who bats ninth. Yet, why either of these players should have posed a threat to Leibrandt was unclear. Hrbek hit .143 in the playoffs against Toronto and was, at one point earlier this season, so troubled by lefties that manager Tom Kelly twice pinch-hit for him against southpaws—inserting antistuds Carmelo Castillo and Albert D. Newman in his place. And Gagne, for his part, is a runt so unobtrusive that he confessed during the American League Championship Series to frequently feeling unappreciated.