And Twins manager Tom Kelly fairly shed his skin in the aftermath of that game, wriggling from the hard exterior he has worn throughout his career and revealing himself to be, like the rest of us, both awed and addled by all he had witnessed. "This is storybook," Kelly said. "Who's got the script? Who is writing this? Can you imagine this?"
Understand what Kelly and 55,155 paying customers had just seen Puckett do beneath the dome. In addition to his game-winning home run, he had singled, tripled, driven in a run on a sacrifice fly, stolen a base and scored a run of his own. In the third inning he had leapt high against a Plexiglas panel in centerfield, hanging there momentarily like one of those suction-cup Garfield dolls in a car window, to rob Ron Gant of extra bases and Atlanta of an almost certain run.
After the game had remained tied at three through the eighth, ninth and 10th innings, Cox brought in lefthander Leibrandt to face the righthanded-hitting Puckett, who was leading off in the bottom of the 11th. Why Leibrandt? He had won 15 games in the regular season, Cox pointed out later. But Cox may as well have said what was on everybody's mind—that it didn't matter whom he put on the mound to face Puckett. The man was going to hit a home run no matter what. That was the only logical conclusion to his Saturday in the park. Puckett did just that, and the tortured Leibrandt walked off the field, his face buried in the crook of his right arm.
Afterward, teammates filed almost sheepishly past Puckett's locker, some shaking his hand, others embracing him, most of them without any words to say. This 5'8" escapee of one of North America's worst slums—Who is writing this, anyway? Who did imagine this?—acknowledged he was having difficulty grasping the enormity of the evening. "Ten, 30, 50 years from now, when I look at it, it might be different," he said. "Right now? Unbelievable, man. Unbelievable."
Yes, this Series was baseball's most epic tale. It included twin props—the Minnesota fans' fluttering hankie and the Atlanta fans' chopping tomahawk—that grew equally tiresome as the Series grew increasingly enervating. And it was a tale that engaged two teams that, preposterously, had finished last in their divisions a year ago. Yet, similar as they were, the teams had two distinct followings for the Series: The nationally cabled Braves were America's Team, while the Twins became Native America's Team.
After the Twins put a stranglehold on the first two games of the Series, which had opened on Oct. 19 in Minneapolis, by producing game-winning dingers from two bottom-feeders in their batting order—Greg Gagne and Scott Leius? Who is writing this?—the Series went south in geography only. Before Game 3, Native Americans picketed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, protesting from behind police lines that the Braves' nickname and the team's tomahawk-chopping fans were disrespectful to their people. Ticket holders approaching turnstiles were implored by placard-bearers to, among other things, "Repatriate remains to ancestral burial grounds!"—which is a difficult thing to do between pitches. "No one," said Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz, "is going to stop this city from having fun right now."
Likewise, no gun-toting yahoo was going to stop Hrbek from having his usual hellacious good time in the ballyard. His mother, Tina, was telephoned at 3:30 a.m. on the eve of Game 3 by an anonymous moron, who told her that her son would "get one between the eyes" in Atlanta. Yet Hrbek, who in Game 2 had leg-wrestled Gant from first base to tag him out and kill a rally, came to Georgia wary of nothing more than...gingivitis. He tipped his cap to the bloodlusting crowd that booed him during introductions, tomahawk-chopped the fans from the top step of the Minnesota dugout and blithely flossed his teeth during live TV interviews. All the while he went one-for-Dixie and found the time to reconcile the joy of playing in the Series with the anguish of a death threat. "This game sucks," he said, "but it's a lot of fun."
Their villain already cast, 50,878 Braves fans showed up for Game 3, the first World Series game ever played within 500 miles of Atlanta. When it finally came time to play ball, y'all, and the first pitch was thrown by 21-year-old Braves starter Steve Avery at 8:38 p.m., flashbulbs popped throughout the park like bursts of white lightning. "I feel sorry for Dan Gladden," said Braves first baseman Sid Bream later of the Twins' leadoff hitter. "He was probably seeing 5,000 baseballs thrown at him."
For each flashbulb, there was photographic evidence for a fan that he or she was present the night the largest cast ever to appear in a World Series game put on the longest-running night show in Series history. When the curtain dropped four hours and four minutes later at 12:42 a.m. after a record 42 players had traversed the stage, Atlanta reserve catcher Jerry Willard would pronounce himself "exhausted." And he was one of two position players on either roster who didn't play.
When Chili Davis, pinch-hitting against Pena, squeezed off a two-run tracer bullet to leftfield in the eighth inning, the game was tied at four. It would go to extra frames and send scorekeepers into a hopelessly dizzying spiral of pinch hitters, double switches and defensive replacements, thus birthing the biggest box score the World Series has ever known.