Home of the Braves: Part One
A series on how "America's Team" became the team to forget.
Now picture this; top of the 9th, a one run ball game. A fly ball caught out in left field hands one team a trophy and sends the other team back home. Sound familiar? For baseball fans, it sounds like a fairytale ending and for the Atlanta Braves in 1995, this fairytale became their reality. After two previous stints in the World Series earlier in the decade that ended trophyless, the team had finally won its first ever World Series. The “team of the 90s”, as legendary sportscaster Bob Costas dubbed them, had finally gotten their ring. But in five World Series berths between 1991 and 1999, ’95 was the only year they walked away on top. So, what happened? How did a team that won five pennants in nine years only win one ring?
1991: The Year of Primetime
In 1991, the Atlanta Braves were on the heels of a 1990 season that saw them end the year with a 65–97 record, only two games better than the 63–97–1 record the team had accumulated the previous year. 1990 would mark the third consecutive year the Braves ended the season last in the NL West division. With the firing of manager Russ Nixon in June 1990, the rest of the 1990 season had served as a rebuilding phase for new but not so new manager Bobby Cox, who returned in his second stint as manager of the Braves following a short stint as the general manager of the team. Cox had been responsible for acquiring players such as Tom Glavine, David Justice and future National League MVP Chipper Jones, who Cox helped Atlanta select first in the 1990 MLB Draft. Come the 1990 post season, the Braves felt they had all but one very important piece to help their problems.
Enter Deion “Primetime” Sanders
When Deion signed on to play for the Yankees organization in 1988, he joined an exclusive group of superstar players who have made the jump across multiple sports. The signing of Oakland Raiders running back Bo Jackson to the Kansas City Royals in 1986 set the bar for athletes, notably football players, to try their hand at other professional sports. Throughout Deion’s first year with the Braves, he never played too pivotal of a role in the team’s success, only accounting for 4 home runs and 13 RBIs in 31 games. Despite how content Sanders was with pulling double duty, a clause in his contract with the Atlanta Falcons, the team Sanders was drafted by in the 1989 NFL draft, required him to return to the Falcons after July 31st, just in time for training camp for the 1991–92 season. Oddly enough however, one of his most memorable acts with the Braves came on July 31, 1991 when he sent a three-run home run to stands en route to a remarkable comeback against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
This play alone embodies the spirit of the ’91 Atlanta Braves. After entering the All-Star break down nine and a half games away from first place in the division, the Braves rallied back and on the final day of the regular season, overtook the Los Angeles Dodgers by one game to win the NL West and end their regular season with a 94–68 record. For the first time in nine years, the divisional postseason series would run through Atlanta, Georgia and on top of that, the Braves had done the impossible. In the span of one year, Atlanta went from last place to first place in their division, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since the Louisville Colonels of 1890. Another team made the same historical accomplishment in 1991 but we’ll get to them in a moment.
On their way to their first World Series in 33 years, the Braves would have to fend off the Pittsburgh Pirates, the only team with a better record than them in the National League. The Braves took a 2–1 lead in the series before the Pirates fought back to take a 3–2 lead heading into Game 6 of the National League Championship Series (NLCS). A one-run Game 6 tied the series and in the following Game 7, a three-run first inning would help launch the Braves to their first World Series since 1958. Meeting them there? Who else but the only other team to go from worst-to-first; the Minnesota Twins. Much like the NLCS, the World Series proved to be a fairly competitive matchup. Games 1 and 2 went to Minnesota before Atlanta bounced back to take the next three straight games, including a 14–5 thrasher in Game 5. Game 6 took the teams back to Minnesota where an 11th inning walk-off from Minnesota’s Kirby Puckett gave the game to Minnesota before another walk-off in Game 7 sealed the deal and closed the chapter on Atlanta’s hopes for a trophy in 1991.
The question that looms from 1991 is…what happened? How did this juggernaut of a team still fall in the end? There are several factors you could blame the World Series loss on; the early departure of Deion Sanders to return to football only halfway through the season, the suspension of Otis Nixon through the rest of the ’91 season and early weeks of the ’92 season, or even something as simple as Rick Mahler’s release only a few months after he was signed. Any and all of these are possible, but it simply boils down to the Braves having to play the only team that was arguably better than them that season. As crazy as it may sound, in all 162 games that the Braves played in the 1991 regular season, none of them were against the Twins. Minnesota was an explosive team, which was something they proved numerous times through the regular and postseason. Following the Game 5 demolition of the Twins by the Braves, Atlanta was tired and Minnesota knew exactly how to capitalize on that going into Games 6 and 7.
The 1991 Atlanta Braves left many fans wondering if it could get any better than what they had seen that year. What many didn’t expect is that not only would it get better, the Braves were only just around the corner from history.
PART TWO COMING SOON.