Worst to First

The start of a dynasty in 1991 helped Atlanta Braves shed label as National League laughingstock.

They were the team that made the phrase “worst-to-first” part of the Southern lexicon. The team that made a city and a fan base believe the impossible dream could come true. The team few saw coming and even fewer can forget.

The 1991 Atlanta Braves. That’s all you have to say to send tomahawk-choppin’ fans everywhere on a wonderful trip down memory lane.

The 1991 Atlanta Braves. The team that came from nowhere to win a National League championship and play the Minnesota Twins in Major League Baseball’s first-ever all worst-to-first World Series.

The 1991 Atlanta Braves. The team that started a dynasty not likely to be seen again anytime soon, if ever.

In 1991, Glavine went 20-11 with a 2.55 ERA. He threw 9 complete games. Photo courtesy the Atlanta Braves

On the foundation laid by the 1991 squad, with its 94-68 regular season record, the franchise went on to claim 14 consecutive National League division titles, play in five World Series in the 1990s and win the 1995 World Series title.

“The most exciting year ever for me in baseball was 1991,” Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox said on the MLB Network documentary Atlanta Rules: The Story of the 90s Braves.

For many seasons prior to their incredible 1991 turnaround, the Braves hadn’t just been bad, they were awful. They hadn’t had a winning season since 1983. From 1986 through 1990, they averaged 96 losses a year. The franchise that had become known as “America’s Team” in the early 1980s thanks to Superstation WTBS was, at that point, only Atlanta’s laughingstock.

Then a funny thing happened. Before the 1990 season, Cox and showman owner Ted Turner executed a series of moves, all of which proved to be strokes of genius.

First Cox, who posted a 2,504-2,001 record in 30 seasons as a manager, decided to move out of the Braves’ front office, where he had served as general manager since 1985, and back into the dugout. To replace him, Turner hired John Schuerholz, who had previously built a World Series champion in Kansas City. In turn, Schuerholz signed a series of veteran free agents, including Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream and Rafael Belliard to add to a mix of young position players that included 1990 NL Rookie of the Year David Justice and Ron Gant and young pitchers John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery.

 

Like a chemist mixing all the right compounds in his beaker, Scherholz’s moves produced a flash that quickly grabbed the attention of many close observers of the 1991 squad.

“About midway through training camp, I am standing on the back field and Terry Pendleton walks up to me and says, ‘John, we’re going to have a lot of fun around here. This is going to be a talented team. We’re going to surprise a lot of people,’” Scherholz remembered.

Pendleton also recalled the conversation. “I said, ‘I believe we are a team that can do something positive and win this division,’” Pendleton said.

Pendleton joined the Braves in ’91 after 7 mildly productive years with the Cardinals. Pendleton hit .319 that year and won NL MVP honors. Photo courtesy the Atlanta Braves.

Pendleton’s prophecy proved true. With Pendleton turning in a Most Valuable Player season, four starters posting double-digit wins, and a batting order that could bang with anybody, the Braves surprised a lot of folks, especially NL West Division rivals Cincinnati and the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning early and often and building confidence along the way.

“We’re looking around the clubhouse going ‘bring on the Dodgers, bring on the Reds, bring on the San Francisco Giants, bring them all on. We’re going to knock them all down,’” Justice said. “It was some of the most exciting baseball of my life.”

Still, when the Braves fell 9 ½ games behind the Dodgers in early July, it appeared their run would come up short. But the Braves did not fold, and when they beat the Houston Astros 5-2 in the 161st game of the season, they had done the unthinkable: clinched the West title.

Then came a classic seven-game NL Championship Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which the Braves won 4-3 and was best remembered for Game 6 and a game-winning, ninth-inning single by Francisco Cabrera, a slide at home by Bream and a classic “Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!” by legendary play-by-play man Skip Caray.

Then came an even more exciting World Series with the Twins, who in 1990 had also finished last in their respective division—the American League West. For seven games, the two has-beens proved they belonged on baseball’s biggest stage, with the Braves winning all three games played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and the Twins three of the first four at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

Smoltz was in his fourth year with the Atlanta Braves in 1991 when he faced Jack Morris, whom Smoltz had once idolized while growing up in Michigan. Photo courtesy the Atlanta Braves

 

The deciding game was one for the ages, and a big reason Twins starter Jack Morris entered the MLB Hall of Fame last Sunday. Morris and Smoltz matched zeros until Smoltz left after 7 ⅓ innings. Morris then kept putting up zeros through the eighth inning, the ninth inning and the 10th until finally pinch hitter Gene Larkin lifted a deep fly over a drawn-in Atlanta outfield to score Dan Gladden and win it 1-0.

It wasn’t how the Braves wanted it to end, but it was certainly memorable. “When Jack Morris and John Smoltz hooked up in that classic duel, I have never seen a better World Series game to this day in my life,” Schuerholz said.

It was a breakout season for many of the Braves, individually as well as the team. Glavine won 20 games and the first of his two NL Cy Young Awards, Avery won 18, lefty Charlie Leibrandt 15, and Smoltz 14. Pendleton posted a .319 average, 187 hits, 22 homers, 86 runs batted in, and 94 runs scored. Ron Gant, who emerged as a force with 32 homers, 105 RBIs, 101 runs scored and 34 stolen bases, won a Silver Slugger Award. Otis Nixon led the league with 72 steals. In addition to all the hardware awarded to Glavine, Pendleton and Gant, Cox was named Sporting News Manager of the Year.

It was the stuff dynasties are made of, no doubt.

“When it was all said and done and…we looked back, it was unreal what we had accomplished,” Smoltz said. “And we knew it was only the beginning.”

The beginning of the sweetest 14 years in franchise history, no matter how you look at it. H&A

All photos courtesy the Atlanta Braves. 

 

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