Kurkjian’s October tales — A monster on the mound and the biggest Reds fan in the nursery ward

The birth of the walk-off home run. A playoff ace afraid of being poisoned. Mr. October going unrecognized. Mr. November’s advice to the Commander-in-Chief. A home run still orbiting the Earth.

Each week during the playoffs, Tim Kurkjian will open up his notebook to share behind-the-scenes stories of some of the wildest games, moments and characters in MLB postseason history.

We’ll reveal a new decade of vignettes right here all month. This week: the 1990s.

Jump to: The 1970s/1980s | The 1990s

The 1990s

1998: Are the Yankees really that good?

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Padres great Tony Gwynn, then age 38, returned to the World Series in 1998 after a 14-year absence.

He was so excited to be there, yet always being such a perfectionist, he stormed out of the cage after a seemingly great batting practice before Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, screaming to no one in particular, “Damn it, I can’t see at all like I used to!”

“So Tony,” I asked, “are you 20-20 now?”

“No,” he said, “I’m 20-15, and I can’t see at all like to used to.”

The Yankees won Game 1 that night on a grand slam by Tino Martinez off Mark Langston, who had given up just two grand slams in his 15-year career prior to that. The Yankees rolled through the Padres in the first two games at Yankee Stadium, then took both games in San Diego en route to one of the most dominating seasons in major league history — it was maybe the greatest American League team since the Yankees of 1927 and 1939.

Before Game 4 in San Diego, as I walked down the tunnel to the field, Gwynn was right behind me. There was interleague play at that time, but San Diego and New York hadn’t played yet, so he had never seen the ’98 Yankees until the World Series.

He turned to me, of all people, for an opinion.

“Are they really that good?” he said.

“Yes, Tony,” I said. “They are that good.”


1997: ‘The Chicken Runs at Midnight’

Rich Donnelly has been a major league coach, mostly a third base coach, for most of the past 40 years. He held that job for the 1997 Marlins when they beat the Indians in seven games in the World Series.

Donnelly’s daughter, Amy, had died from brain cancer five years earlier at age 18. She used to delight in watching her dad relay signs to his runners on base by bending over, cupping his hands and yelling. It was a strange, awkward approach, so she asked her dad, “What are you yelling at the runners, ‘The Chicken Runs At Midnight,’ or what?”

In 1992, a few months before Amy died, it became the rallying cry of Donnelly’s Pirates. Second baseman Chico Lind would routinely walk through the dugout during a rally and yell to his teammates, “Let’s go, The Chicken Runs At Midnight!”

And five years after Amy died, it was the rallying cry of the 1997 Marlins.

By that time, Donnelly’s sons, Tim and Mike, had become huge fans of Marlins second baseman Craig Counsell, who had an unusual batting stance. Counsell would raise his hands high in the air, then flick his left elbow, like a chicken might. So Tim and Mike lovingly called Counsell “The Chicken.”

By 1997, the story of the Donnelly family was well known within baseball circles, but nothing could have prepared anyone for what happened the night of Oct. 26, 1997, Game 7 of the World Series, Marlins against the Indians.

The Marlins tied the game in the bottom of the ninth inning. In the 11th inning, the Marlins’ Edgar Renteria lined a walk-off single to center field, scoring … Craig Counsell. Tim Donnelly looked at the clock on the scoreboard seconds after Counsell’s foot hit home plate, and the Marlins had won the World Series.

“Dad!” Tim Donnelly yelled. “Look at the clock! It’s midnight! The Chicken ran at midnight!”

Rich Donnelly’s eyes filled with tears, as did those of Tim and Mike.

Donnelly, with author Tom Friend, has written a book called “The Chicken Runs At Midnight.” There’s a chance it will be made into a motion picture.

“There’s no way Hollywood could have even dreamed this up,” Donnelly said. “But it’s true, All of it is true.”


1997: The coldest October

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The coldest World Series games in recent history had to be the three middle games in Cleveland in 1997.

I sat in the right field auxiliary box, uncovered, in the stands, for all three games. It snowed, I recalled, all three games. I have never been so cold in my life. But, I didn’t have to hit a 90-mph fastball, run as hard as I could or field a ground ball.

Craig Counsell, the second baseman for the Florida Marlins in that World Series, did. But he was ready.

Counsell grew up in Milwaukee, where it was cold all the time. So cold, in fact, former Brewers reliever Curtis Leskanic once described the seasons in Milwaukee as “spring, then July 27, then the fall.” Counsell, said, “I will never forget scraping snow off our fields so we could play high school games.”

In 2014, when Counsell worked in the front office for the Brewers, the great Hank Aaron asked him to come to the stage and join a roundtable discussion about baseball in Milwaukee, and Aaron asked him, “How in the world did you get to the big leagues growing up here?”

Anyway, during those three games in Cleveland, Counsell played next to shortstop Edgar Renteria, who is from Barranquilla, Colombia.

“Edgar was always cold, Edgar really hated playing in the cold,” Counsell said. “So, for the games in Cleveland, I was freezing also, but I had to pretend I wasn’t cold, because I am from Milwaukee, and if Edgar looked at me and thought I was cold, he couldn’t take it. I made it look like I was warm.”

As it turned out, Renteria hit the walk-off single in Game 7 … in Florida.


1994: MLB in “Jeopardy”

There was no postseason in 1994. The strike canceled the World Series for the first time since 1904. Still, I was sent by Sports Illustrated to cover the World Series — the International League World Series.

This was Triple-A baseball, the closest thing we had to the big leagues. In the West Division finals, it was the Charlotte Knights against the Richmond Braves.

Before Game 1, David Bell, the Charlotte third baseman, told me that his grandfather (Gus) and father (Buddy), would both be at the game that night, but, he said, “you’ll never find them, they’ll be the two white-haired guys sitting as far from home plate as possible.” I found them, two former major leaguers, all alone, up in the corner of the right-field seats, watching David play. They secluded themselves to watch the game in peace.

But baseball players are the same everywhere, even in October, even during a devastating strike. So I wandered into the Knights’ clubhouse before Game 3 of that series. All the players were in the miniature lounge for the players, and they were watching “Jeopardy!” which I found odd. Usually, players are watching a game, or some stupid movie, or some blooper reel, not a show that tests you intellectually.

A minute later, a Knights player came running out of the room, screaming euphorically. I glanced at the TV screen and saw that the final “Jeopardy!” answer was in poetry. Did a Knights player get the final “Jeopardy!” answer in poetry?

“No, no, that’s not how we play,” Charlotte infielder Tim Jones said. “We are baseball players. The way we play is if you guess the final “Jeopardy!” category, you win.”


1993: ‘Sorry I cost you your book deal’

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Mitch Williams was, in every way, The Wild Thing.

Teammates with the Cubs said he pitched “like his hair was on fire,” one reason why he is the only pitcher in major league history to throw as many innings as he did (691 1/3) and allow more walks than hits in his career (and it’s not even close). Williams, as a member of the Phillies, also gave up one of the most famous home runs in postseason history, the walk-off blast to Toronto’s Joe Carter, ending the 1993 World Series — the only World Series to end on a home run that brought a team from behind to ahead.

I was sitting in the first row of the auxiliary press box beyond the left-field fence at the SkyDome when the ball left Carter’s bat.

Immediately, two thoughts came to mind: One, the World Series is over, and two, this ball is going to hit me right in the middle of my chest. Fortunately, it landed just short of where I was sitting. Unfortunately, I had to go into the Phillies’ clubhouse after the game to do the story on Williams.

Mitch was a nut, but in a good way, and he stood there for 15 minutes, answering every question from every writer. But after 15 minutes, after the same question had been asked many times, teammate Danny Jackson screamed at the writers, “Get the hell out of here! Leave him alone!”

Yet Mitch stayed and answered questions, patiently and politely, for another 15 minutes.

When the grilling was finally over, Williams walked by a Phillies beat writer who was writing a book on that season, but it was only to be published if the Phillies had won the World Series. Williams looked the writer, laughed and said, “Sorry I cost you your book deal.”


1992: Abra Cabrera

Francisco Cabrera was the Braves’ third catcher that magical night at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Oct. 14, 1992, four days after he turned 26.

It was Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Pirates, and Cabrera’s only job was to catch the ceremonial first pitch from Rubye Lucas, a member of the Braves’ board of directors.

There was no chance Cabrera would play that night. He had batted 10 times that season, with three hits and three RBIs. But when the Braves were down to their final out, behind 2-1, and had already used all their pinch hitters, Cabrera was the only position player left.

With the bases loaded, he rifled a single between third base and shortstop, scoring two. Sid Bream famously outran left fielder Barry Bonds’ throw to the plate, beating catcher Mike LaValliere’s tag by a matter of inches. The Braves became, and remain, the only team in postseason history to win a winner-take-all game in which they went from behind to ahead on the very last play and down to their final out.

Pirates center fielder Andy Van Slyke crumpled to the ground, then sat on the outfield grass with his head between his legs, the position passengers are told to assume when a plane is crashing.

Cabrera would play only one more season. He would finish his career with 62 RBIs, but those were two of the most dramatic ones in the history of the postseason.

And as the crowd of almost 52,000 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium exploded around us, the brilliant writer Steve Rushin, who was covering the game with me for Sports Illustrated, looked at me 10 seconds after that winning run had scored and said, “Abra Cabrera.”


1991: A near-murder on the mound

The Twins’ Jack Morris threw a 1-0 shutout in 10 innings in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Since that day, only two pitchers have thrown a 10-inning, 1-0 shutout — but not in the playoffs and not in Game 7 of the World Series.

After nine innings of that remarkable game at the spectacularly loud Metrodome in Minneapolis, I turned to Steve Rushin, my writing colleague at Sports Illustrated. I bowed to him and told him, “This is too big for me. I am not worthy of this. I can’t write this. It is too much.”

And then it got even bigger.

At one point, Morris found trouble, requiring a visit from Twins manager Tom Kelly. He went to the mound to take Morris out of the game. Morris looked at him as if to make perfectly clear, “I’m not coming out of this game!”

Kelly left him in. Morris escaped the inning. Gene Larkin’s single won it in the last of the 10th.

I had recovered by then to write the sidebar on Morris. After the game, I spoke to Twins outfielder Randy Bush, a smart guy who always understood what was going on around him.

“I am so glad that TK (Kelly) didn’t take Jack out of the game,” Bush told me, “because if he had, it would have been the first time that a manager ever had been killed on the pitching mound by his own pitcher. There was no way Jack was coming out.”


1991: ‘Get on my back tonight boys, I’m going to take us home’

Twins outfielder Randy Bush used to say, “The best 30 minutes of every day for a Twins player was the 30 minutes, after the media left the clubhouse, when it was just the players in the room. And Kirby was getting all of us ready to play that night. There was nobody better.”

Kirby, of course, is Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, whose enthusiasm and energy was unmatched in baseball for 12 years from the mid-1980s and to the mid-1990s.

Famously, before Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, Puckett looked at his teammates, down 3-2 to the Braves, and said, “Get on my back tonight boys, I’m going to take us home.”

And on that amazing night, Puckett went 3-for-4. Early in the game, his leaping catch against the Plexiglas in left center field took an extra-base hit away from Ron Gant.

Then, in the bottom of the 11th inning, Puckett hit a walk-off home run off Charlie Leibrandt, completing one of the greatest single-game performances in World Series history.

Kirby took them home, as he had so many times. Only this was Game 6 of the World Series.


1990: Glenn Braggs’ broken-bat whiff

The most muscled, chiseled major league player I’ve ever seen was Reds outfielder Glenn Braggs.

In 1990, while he was playing in the World Series, he swung at a pitch and broke his bat without making contact with the ball. I had heard stories about Lee May, a very strong man for the Astros, Reds and Orioles, breaking his bat on a checked swing. I had seen all sorts of players break a bat over their knee in anger. I saw Bo Jackson, after yet another strikeout, break a bat over his helmet. Baseball players are so strong.

But in Game 4 in Oakland-Alameda County Stadium against A’s ace Dave Stewart, Braggs broke a bat without hitting the ball.

TV technology back then wasn’t like it is today, so even the replays didn’t clearly show what had happened: Braggs had broken his bat when he swung and missed so hard the bat whipped against his shoulder blade on his violent follow-through, and broke in half.

“I have never seen that before,” I told him.

“Well, you haven’t been watching me,” Braggs said. “That’s the 15th time I’ve done that this year.”


1990: The biggest Reds fan in the nursery ward

Reds pitcher Tom Browning’s wife, Debbie, was due in a week with the couple’s third child.

But during Game 2 of the 1990 World Series against the A’s in Cincinnati, word came from a clubhouse kid that Browning’s wife was looking for him — she needed to get to the hospital to deliver the baby.

So Browning, in full uniform, went to the hospital without telling anyone on his team.

Normally, that would not be a problem given Browning was scheduled to start Game 3. But in the eighth inning, the score was tied, 4-4, the Reds were running out of pitchers, and manager Lou Piniella told pitching coach Stan Williams to get Browning ready, just in case.

But Browning was already at the hospital when he heard, via the TV broadcast, that he might be needed to pitch that night. There was no time for him to get back to the ballpark, so, as any good husband would, Browning stayed put, the Reds won without him, and ultimately went on to win the World Series.

Piniella and Williams understood that their Game 3 pitcher had done the right thing. Tucker Thomas Browning was born the following day at 12:27 p.m.

I saw Browning later that day and asked about the whole experience. I asked if anyone in the hospital even asked why a full-grown man was wearing a Reds uniform in the hospital.

“I think,” he said, “they just thought I was a big Reds fan.”

The 1970s/1980s

1988: Gibson, Eck and the birth of the walk-off homer

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On Oct. 15, 1988, Kirk Gibson hit a pinch-hit, walk-off home run for the Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series despite being injured.

Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 World Series came in Game 1, but it was one of the biggest home runs in baseball history.

Gibson, who would soon be named the MVP of the National League, was clearly hurt. He couldn’t run — he could barely move — because of a leg injury. In the eighth inning, he was sitting in a room, not far from the Dodgers clubhouse, with teammate Orel Hershiser, when NBC broadcaster Bob Costas said Gibson had no chance of playing that night.

Gibson angrily said, “Oh yeah, I’ll show him! I’ll show everybody!”

Gibson told Hershiser, “Help me get ready.” Gibson had the message relayed to Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda that he was available to pinch hit that night. So Lasorda sent him to the plate with two outs in the ninth, a runner at first, and the Dodgers down 4-3. Gibson had the report from Dodgers advance scout Mel Didier, who said that A’s closer Dennis Eckersley liked to throw a backdoor breaking ball when he was ahead in the count.

Gibson got one, and hit a two-run home run to right.

“I don’t believe what I just saw,” the great Jack Buck said.

After the game, Eckersley, the ultimate stand-up guy, took every question from reporters. The Eck had his own language: He called money “iron,” a fastball “cheese” and hair “moss.” But that night, he used a phrase I had never heard. He called Gibson’s homer a “walk-off homer.”

I asked, “What does that mean?”

He said, “Well, he hit a homer, and everyone walked off the field.”

The birth of a famous phrase, that night.


1988: ‘The chef might poison me’

Orel Hershiser’s run through the 1988 postseason was spectacular.

After a regular season in which he won the NL Cy Young, and set the record for the longest scoreless streak (59 innings) in major league history, Hershiser went 3-0 with two shutouts, a save and a 1.05 ERA in 42 2/3 innings in October. He was named the MVP of the 1988 World Series, the last time the Dodgers won it.

After that season, he attended a celebratory function at the White House. When Hershiser emerged from the limousine, a U.S. Marine greeted him. Hershiser jokingly slipped a $5 bill in the Marine’s pocket as a tip.

“That will be enough, Mr. Cy Young,” the Marine said.

Many years later, I asked Hershiser about that magical postseason, and wondered if he deviated his schedule or habits from that of the regular season. He said the biggest difference was that in the postseason “I never told anyone publicly where I was going out to dinner because it might end up in the newspaper. I didn’t want anyone to know where I might eat. The chef might poison me.”

He added that there were times, on the road, where he and his wife would order dinner, but when the meals arrived, they would switch: His wife would eat what he ordered, and he would eat what she ordered. He said he did that just in case the chef had, indeed, tried to poison him.

But that meant your wife would then be poisoned?

Hershiser smiled and said, jokingly, and without malice, “Well, we’re divorced now.”


1986: Simply Amazin’

My story, the biggest one I had ever covered, was written and ready to go.

It was Oct. 26, 1986, at roughly 12:25 a.m. My editor at the Baltimore Sun had edited it, all they had to do was send it to print after the final out. The story would say that the Red Sox had won the World Series for the first time since 1918 — The Curse of the Bambino had been lifted.

The Mets had no chance to come back, it seemed, and in the 10th inning, someone in ballpark operations at Shea Stadium accidentally flashed “Congratulations” to the Red Sox on the scoreboard for winning the 1986 World Series.

Then everything changed.

At first, there was no reason for me to panic. A couple of Mets got on base, but then things quickly escalated. And in an instant, the Mets had miraculously tied the game, then the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, the Mets won and the biggest story I had ever written had gotten even bigger. And I had 10 minutes to rewrite it to make the final edition.

That was challenging enough, but the worst was yet to come. I was sitting in the auxiliary press box down the left-field line at Shea. Suddenly, it was as if someone had emptied a keg of beer in the upper deck above me, and within seconds, I was soaked. I covered up my computer so it wouldn’t short out from a tidal wave of Budweiser. Remarkably, my computer functioned despite a dousing of suds, and I got my story in the paper with a one-word lede (there was no time) for this most incredible finish:

Amazin’.

After the game, a colleague saw me, staggering, soaked in beer.

“What happened to you?” he asked.

I had no good response.

“It was a great game,” I said. “I got involved.”


1986: ‘But the Red Sox lost yesterday’

The greatest baseball game I’ve ever seen was Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Angels.

The Red Sox were down, three games to one. It looked like no World Series for them again that year — they had last won it in 1918. The Angels had never been to the World Series, nor had their legendary manager, Gene Mauch, whose 1964 Phillies team had executed a historic collapse down the stretch.

The Angels held a 5-2 lead entering the ninth. Angels reliever Gary Lucas hit a batter (Rich Gedman) for the first time in four years. The Red Sox took the lead on a two-out, two-run home run by Dave Henderson, his only hit of the series. He had been 1-for-13 in late-inning pressure situations with two out and runners on base during the season. Henderson’s homer came off Angels closer Donnie Moore, who years later killed himself. He was a deeply troubled man, but it’s thought that allowing that homer contributed in part to his later depression.

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