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A Salute to Baseball's First 'Worst-to-First' Winners

04/01/2014 10:16 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2014
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Almost a quarter-century ago, the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves met in one of the best World Series of all time.

The two ballclubs sported several individuals who would end up in the Hall of Fame -- Kirby Puckett for the Twins in 2001, and Tom Glavine and manager Bobby Cox among those being inducted later this summer. The '91 World Series remains a classic, with four games ending on the last pitch and three games going into extra innings, including the winner-take-all Game 7.

Yet this time of year, at the start of a brand-new season, both teams are best remembered for going from last place to winning the pennant in their respective leagues -- the first time it had ever been done in major league baseball.

This has been a long winter in many parts of country and now with baseball again on the horizon, fans are ready to cheer again. They want to believe that their hometown team, regardless of how many games they finished out of first place last season, maybe, just maybe has a chance to contend. Deep down many of them know that such feelings are unrealistic. Their team's lineup may really have too many question marks in the pitching staff or everyday lineup to contend over the course of six-month-long schedule. Some teams could be too far behind as early as by Memorial Day.

That said the first week of the season should always be a time to believe, no matter how long the odds. After all, that's what the Twins and Braves did.

Puckett once told me:

Sometimes it can turn out better than you ever imagined. Sure, you've got to put in the work, some breaks have to fall your way, but perhaps it all starts with imagining that it can happen in the first place. You have to put it out there, you know?

If anything, the Twins and the Braves underscored how important team camaraderie, confidence and belief were in this season for the ages. While the Boston Red Sox duplicated the feat a year ago, a tip of the cap still belongs to the original two to pull off this impossible dream.

In 1991, the Braves somehow caught and passed the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West standing. Their front office was as amazed as anybody. "It was a glamour team against a Cinderella team," said Braves president Stan Kasten.

The Twins did their part by surpassing the favored Oakland Athletics and then both teams upset arguably better ballclubs in the respective league championship series. The Braves upended the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose roster was studded with such stars as Bobby Bonnilla and Barry Bonds. The Twins downed the Toronto Blue Jays, with Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar.

After the 1991 World Series both cities held downtown parades for their respective ballclubs. Nearly 750,000 attended the event in Atlanta, and fans there had to remind themselves that their beloved Braves had actually lost the Fall Classic. Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz declared that the Twins were the champions of the games played indoors in 1991, as Minnesota won all four games at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, while his Braves were the champs of the games held outdoors in Atlanta.

For the season of "worst to first" was ultimately decided by the best home-field advantage in recent memory. While professional athletes aren't supposed to be influenced by such things, in this World Series they were. The Metrodome, which was recently demolished in Minneapolis, had a profound impact on the visiting team.

"It had to be the toughest home-field edge I've ever encountered," Braves infielder Mark Lemke recalled. "It wasn't just the noise and those (Homer) hankies, but that roof sure could wreck havoc with the best of ballplayers and teams."

Jim Kaat, who played in two World Series, 1965 and 1982, and covered another half-dozen more, including the 1991 World Series for CBS, said he never saw a more "significant home-field advantage" than the Metrodome.

Still, this World Series for ages occurred in the fall, after these two upstarts had established themselves, after they had actually won something. When the Braves eliminated the Pirates to take the NL pennant, Braves slugger David Justice said, "No one picked us to be in this position that we're in, and that's what makes it so sweet. Because coming out of spring training, everyone picked us to basically be just ahead of Houston."

That's where we find ourselves right now. Which teams this year are ready to rise from the ashes and shock the world? Which ones dare follow in the footsteps of the Twins and Braves?

Tim Wendel is the author of 11 books, including Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time. He is a writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University.