For high drama, Wednesday-into-Thursday’s historic World Series Game 7 between the long-suffering Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians franchises made for worthwhile baseball viewing and listening. In my case, it was some of both. Thank goodness for car radios.
A cleanly played game? Not really. You could question some of the unorthodox managerial decisions, too. Still, the contest featured enough some clutch hitting and gutsy pitching from both teams, and enough fascinating strategy to keep millions of baseball fans’ bed pillows untouched into extra innings. Besides, after waits of 108 and 68 years for a World Series championship, what’s a few more late-night innings, commercials included….?
In many ways, the Chicago-Cleveland game (minus the rain delay between innings nine and 10) reminded me — for different reasons — of two climate-controlled Minnesota Twins contests that I actually attended.
One was the 2009 division championship-clinching game that Twins fans sometimes refer to simply as “Game 163.”
For you casual MLB fans, a 163rd regular-season game follows a 162-game season if two teams in a division finished tied for first. The winner of Game 163 moves on to the playoffs. The loser slinks into the off-season.
Twins followers tend to forget that, in 2008, the team narrowly lost the division title, 1-0, to Chicago’s White Sox in a Game 163. Forgetting may be by design, since Minnesota’s bats went balsa after Game 162.
So, when a Minnesota fan mentions Game 163 and grins, bet your autographed Tony Oliva bat that it’s the 2009 game.
Memorable? Definitely. An ultra-tense, do-or-die, back-and-forth, 12-inning sweat producer, the walk-off winner climax of a historic Twins season. It capped a franchise-loving comeback that began the previous week with Minnesota two games behind in their division’s standings with just three games to play. The Detroit Tigers stumbled out of that lead and then lost a hard-fought Game 163, too.
It was a dramatic, deafening, celebratory Metrodome win for Manager Ron Gardenhire’s Twins — an atmosphere in some ways reminiscent of Minnesota’s Homer Hanky crazed World Series home games under skipper Tom Kelly in 1987 and 1991.
It also was the Twins’ last win under the dome roof. In the 2009 division series that followed Minnesota’s celebratory partying, ambition quickly deflated vs. the team’s post-season Achilles’ heel of the 2000s, the New York Yankees. The best-of-five series became a three-game sweep. Minnesota’s last loss, in the Metrodome, also put its dome years in the rearview mirror and Target Field in its headlights.
Anyway, MLB bigwigs decided they liked Game 163s so much that they artificially created a make-or-break single-game in both the American and National Leagues. Two teams in each league with the best won-loss records but no division title get one game to determine which one advances to a playoff round with one of its league’s three division winners.
Meanwhile, many Twins fans groused that all but one of their recent multiple division-winning teams weren’t good enough to get beyond the first playoff round.
That was six losing seasons ago. But I digress.
I thought a lot about Game 163 during Wednesday’s final Cubs-Indians duel.
The other Twins game that came to mind that night was a Game 7, too: 1991’s 10-inning, 1-0 pitching tug-of-war with another “worst-to-first” combatant, Atlanta. Both teams had gone from dredging their respective divisions’ cellars the previous year to MLB’s pinnacle showcase.
What a game. Twins warhorse Jack Morris pitched an extra-inning shutout for the ages. The Braves’ future Hall-of-Fame pitcher John Smoltz and several relievers proved just as unyielding, until inning 10. Both teams had bases loaded with one out in their halves of the eighth inning — and neither was able to score.
Really, not many similarities at all to the Cubs-Indian Game 7.
I will never forget row upon Metrodome roll of stressed spectators gripping knotted and tightly twisted Homer Hankies. I can still see thousands of thoroughly shredded food wrappers, napkins and paper cups at their feet.
Perhaps the Metrodome’s air-lofted lid would have ruptured had the tension gone unvented another few extra innings. We’ll never know. In the bottom of the 10th, pinch-hitter Gene Larkin’s bases-loaded, game-winning fly ball single over a drawn-in Atlanta left fielder sent an elated Dan Gladden home from his momentary perch on third base. That game-ending pin-prick spared the roof but burst Atlanta’s title-seeking balloon.
Like ’91’s Game 7 masterpiece, 2009’s Game 163 elimination game ended with a walk-off hit — infielder Alexi Cassila’s grounder to right field, scoring outfielder-a- “Go Go” Carlos Gomez from second base — that produced an explosion of Metrodome celebration unrivaled since the Twins’ World Series wins.
Even without walk-off heroics in the Cub’s 10th-inning win at Cleveland in the wee hours Thursday, the game no doubt created plenty of anxiety for fans. Lots of food wrappers, napkins and paper cups shredded there, too, I suspect.
Best World Series ever?
I still think the Twins-Braves Series 25 years ago was better start to finish, with four of the final five games — two for Atlanta, two for Minnesota — decided in the final at-bat, and then in front of the game-winners’ home crowds. In all, five 1991 Series games were decided by a single run, and three games — including elimination games 6 and 7, went into extra innings. Did I mention Kirby Puckett’s “We’ll see you tomorrow night” Game 6 winning home run…?
Even with multiple great storylines, Cleveland and Chicago had only three games decided by a single run and only one that went past nine innings and no walk-off hits.
Sure, yours truly is a unabashed Twins fan boasting about a Series that Minnesota won. But I already know plenty of non-Twins or non-Braves fans would agree with me about the marvel that was the ’91 Series.
Still, was the best Game 7 ever played just completed by the Cubs and Indians? The internet and airwaves already have had plenty of takers on that claim.
I think back to what veteran TV play-by-play announcer Buck said around the last inning of Game 7. I’m not talking about FOX’s Joe Buck, but his late father Jack, who headed CBS’ Series coverage of the Twins and Braves.
“You know,” Jack Buck told viewers back then, “a lot of times, you attend a sporting event, or watch a World Series, or some other athletic competition, and not realize at the time how sensational it is. . . .But tonight, it’s so apparent that this is one of the most remarkable baseball games ever played.”
That’s when former catcher and CBS analyst Tim McCarver added, “You’re trying to look for some historical perspective to look back on, but you can’t find any. It’s a one of a kind.”
Valid comments, still, these 25 years later. More than anything, the Twins-Braves Game 7 was one of a kind — and the best World Series game I’ve ever witnessed, in person or on TV.
Disagree, if you must. Maybe you liked 1960’s Game 7 better, or 1997’s. Maybe 2001’s. Disagreement is a welcomed part of the joy of following baseball. The same cannot be said for the U.S. presidential campaign. And I mean 2016’s.
The Cubs-Indians Game 7 still belongs among the most memorable World Series elimination games in MLB history, and not merely because it was TV’s most viewed Game 7 since — drum roll, please — 1991’s Twins-Braves Series battle.
Wow. Better yet, holy cow!