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Reminiscing: The folkloric season of the 1991 Atlanta Braves

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Three decades after a franchise-shifting campaign, let’s look back at the season that launched a new era of Braves fandom.

Chicago Cubs vcs Atlanta Braves Set Number: X41425

Thirty years. That’s quite a while for memories to become distorted and details to be abraded away as the happenings of 11,000 days ramble around our hippocampus.

But dang, wasn’t the ride of the 1991 Atlanta Braves team fun?

The line of demarcation for the true modern era of Braves baseball, to me, is 1991. This wasn’t a personal point of transformation in fandom, but a historical marker like one you’ve seen regularly on the side of the road.

In the South, the side of roads a littered with cigarette butts, empty cans and historical markers. There’s a certain charm in aimlessly gazing out the driver’s side window of your vehicle trying to count the number of flicked pieces of acetate littering the gore area before the traffic light turns green. Maybe you, like me, picked those cans up as a kid so you could take them to a recycling center and make a little extra money. Hopefully you didn’t litter. Don’t litter.

But how many of us have taken time to stop and read those markers? I’d wager to say, not many of us.

Individually, these markers tell a small story, but as a whole, they become part of our subconscious landscape. The ’91 Braves’ trek from the dregs of the National League seller to the oh-so-close storybook ending was made up of hundreds of these smaller stories – most of which have been all-but-forgotten – but 30 years later, that magical season has evolved from a collection of stories to cultural folklore.

Take a moment and think about your own personal history with the Braves. It’s as much about the stories as it is the action on the field, isn’t it?

For some of you it might be stories about Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Ralph Garr or Felix Milan. For others it may be recollections of Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla or maybe even Josh Anderson and Lane Adams.

If you’re old enough to have seen it firsthand – or if you have heard the stories from parents or grandparents - I’m sure you’ve had or heard some version of conversations about the worst-to-first season that went something like this:

“Can you believe the Braves actually beat L.A.? I mean, they were what, eight or nine games back around the All-Star break?

I know! It’s still unreal to me, too. Remember how hot Alejandro Pena got down the stretch to close the door in the ninth? Remember how Mark Lemke was the little engine who could?

Oh yeah, that “Lemmer” was a helluva little ballplayer. I wonder why didn’t Jeff Treadway have a longer career?”

I’m sure there’s this version of a story as well, but probably littered with more profanities that you’d care to admit.

“Kent Hrbek can go straight to … shut my mouth. My blood is boiling just thinking about that, but seriously, how could the ump call that out? Baseball ain’t pro wrestling! He basically body slammed Ron Gant!

Man alive ... Kent freaking Hrbek. Do you remember when that Twins’ player ran over Greg Olson trying to score and “Ollie” landed on his head? My gosh, I thought he broke his damn neck! I can’t believe we couldn’t win one game at the “Baggy Dome” in that series. I always liked Kirby Puckett, but to this day, I have no idea why Bobby brought in Leibrandt to pitch to him in game six. ”

Atlanta Braves Greg Olson, 1991 World Series
Atlanta Braves Greg Olson (10) in action, getting upended after home plate tag out of Minnesota Twins Dan Gladden (32). Game 1. Gladden out at home. Minneapolis, MN 10/19/1991
Set Number: X42058

The stories that make up the major events in our lives sometimes transform into folklore. Peak milestones often elicit emotions that are memorialized for the rest of our life but the golden haze of time provides personal creative license to the narrative.

What fish tale isn’t better with some slight embellishments?

Truth be told, we all know the ’91 season was a big fish. It was the fish that got mounted on the wall for all to see.

Coming into the ’91 season there was hope, yes, but hope that the Braves would be better and not finish in last place.

The prior years had been so dire for the Braves that LeRoy Powell, a folksy reporter for Atlanta’s WAGA television station, did segments before the season where he went to a tarot reader to prognosticate the outcome of the season (if memory serves, she actually predicted them winning the World Series) and took dirt from under the magnolia trees where Ponce de Leon Park once stood and sprinkled it on the field at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as a way to break the curse that was supposedly put on the field by a woman forced to move when the neighborhood where the stadium then stood was being razed.

There was a lot of promising young talent at the Major League-level – David Justice, Tom Glavine, Ron Gant, Steve Avery, John Smoltz – but there were also several questionable free agents that were brought in during the offseason. I would not want to see of the state of Braves Twitter, if it were around then, as panic and distain would have been bandied about as the Braves acquired the likes of Rafael Belliard, Sid Bream, Terry Pendleton, Charlie Leibrandt and Juan Berenguer.

John Schuerholz had a plan to supplement the talent Bobby Cox had been building from within the system during Cox’s tenure as General Manager, but through early July, it looked as if not finishing last was the goal the team was most likely to achieve.

Atlanta Braves...
Fifteen years after purchasing the team, Ted Turner watched the Atlanta Braves make an improbable run to the 1991 World Series.
Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

This is how, three decades after it happened, the story of another forgettable season metamorphized into folklore. The chase to the NL West lead featured big moments by guys you’ll always remember but it also included guys you at best, long-since forgot about.

There was Danny Heap, who had some big pinch-hits before his odd, mid-season release despite hitting north of .400 (small sample size alert). It was the last hoorah for the 13-year veteran. Reserve catcher Jerry Willard was the last Braves to wear No. 31 before Greg Maddux came to town, which might be the only reason you remember his name, but he had the game-winning sacrifice fly in game four of the World Series.

There was Rick Mahler’s final win in the majors coming as a spot starter in the second game of a double-header against the Pirates in late July. After being a stalwart of the Braves rotation in the 1980’s, Mahler won a World Series championship with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990 but was at the end of his career when the Braves signed him in June after he was released by the Montreal Expos. He was waived by the Braves a couple of weeks after that start, but for one last time, he was peak Mahler.

No-doubt you remember Deion Sanders and the excitement and controversy that made kids love him and older folks mutter a lot under their breath as he played two professional sports simultaneously. Maybe you remember the home run he hit against the Pirates the day before he reported to Atlanta Falcons training camp; but do you remember the club house piggy-back rides with Avery?

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets
Deion Sanders, Steve Avery, Ron Gant and Terry Pendleton. 1991.
Photo via Getty Images

And obviously, without Sanders, there’d be no “Chop” - which depending on your perspective could be a good or a bad thing.

I wasn’t the only one that was on mullet watch with Mike Stanton and Kent Mercker, was I? It seemed like every time they cut their hair, they struggled. But when their mullets re-sprouted, so did their effectiveness.

There was the juggling of the middle infield, with Jeff Blauser and “Raffy” splitting time, with a little of rookie Vinny Castilla mixed in down the stretch. Do you recall Keith Mitchell, cousin of Kevin, whose rookie season as a platoon outfielder ended up being the best of a shorter-than-expected career?

Probably lost in your memory is outfield/first baseman Brian Hunter’s two-run home run in the top of the first inning in Game 7 of the NLCS that expanded the Braves to 3-0 and gave Smoltz the extra insurance he ended up not needing in the 4-0 shutout. Hunter finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 1991 before a productive career as a reserve for several teams throughout the rest of the decade.

Not every moment is so epic it stands the test of time; there are plenty of regular season memories that might stand out to you because you were at the game, or you were at your Granny’s house watching it on TV or you and your dad were listening to a Sunday day-game while working on a car under the big shade tree at your uncle’s house.

Those are the kinds of personal roadside markers that get driven by but rarely read. The significance of the moment is still there, but years have seen them all-but-vanish from our collective memories. That is, unless we have an artifact to trigger a memory or a story to tell.

Your story might be that you remember staying up late on a school night because the Braves were playing San Diego in mid-September but fell asleep on the couch before the Braves scored two in the top of the 10th to beat the Padres, 4-2.

Or maybe, you’d wait for the afternoon Atlanta paper, the Atlanta Journal, to come out so you could read the game recap of prior night’s West Coast affair and the latest editorial by Terrence Moore, Thomas Stinson or Furman Bisher.

For as much as watching TBS or listening to the Braves Radio Network was a real-time narrative of the Braves legendary season, the region’s newspapers were encapsulating the memories.

As the pennant chase turned for home in late September, the front page of papers across the South were epitomes of the prior day’s games. Into the post-season, he bigger the win, or the more important the next day’s game became, the larger the font of the headline.

“Justice Prevails”

“Bravissimo!”

“No place like home!”

“Miracle at midnight”

“BELIEVE IT!”

Like the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution headlines above, newspaper boxes sitting outside of gas stations and grocery stores served as daily must-stop destinations to deposit a quarter or two to grab a copy of euphoria or destitution, depending on outcome of the prior night’s scuffle.

Atlanta Braves Fans, 1991 NL Playoffs
Atlanta Braves fans wave foam tomahawks in stands during the NLCS against the Pittsburgh Pirates on October 12, 1991.
Photo by Richard Mackson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Before the ’91 post-season run that truly turned Braves fans across the country on their collective ear, the hope, the anticipation, and the anxiety that maybe “America’s Team” could actually do what seemed unthinkable only 60 days prior and “Beat L.A.” was resonating throughout the daily life of fans and laypeople alike.

The Braves made history in September as they threw a combined no-hitter behind Mercker, although it was mired in controversy as Darrin Jackson hit a high chopper that Pendleton misplayed with two outs in the ninth. The Padres thought it should have been ruled a hit; the official scorer charged an error to Pendleton to keep the no-hitter intact.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, a few days later outfielder Otis Nixon was suspended by the league for 60 days after a failed drug test. The loss was so profound, Atlanta Journal columnist Mark Bradley said, “A case can be made that Nixon was the Braves MVP, above Terry Pendleton and Ron Gant and Tom Glavine.” It was a huge blow to the team’s baserunning which became an unfortunate precursor to arguably the most pivotal play of the 1991 World Series.

As the calendar changed from September to October, the Braves rode a six-game winning streak into the season’s final series against the Houston Astros. In the first game of the series, Steve Avery threw eight innings as the Braves picked up the 5-2 win.

In game two of the series, with the Braves Magic Number at 2, Smoltz pitched a masterful complete game to clinch a tie for the NL West Division championship. The post-game leap catcher Olson made into Smoltz’s arms after the final out became one of the most iconic images of the season.

While the Braves were beating the Astros in Atlanta, the Dodgers were playing the Giants in San Francisco. A Giants win, and the NL West title would be Atlanta’s, outright. As the Braves victory celebration wound down, the Dodgers and Giants game, which was nearing conclusion, was put onto the Jumbotron at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

The final out in San Francisco’s victory gave the Division crown to Atlanta. The Braves team – who had remained on the field – became jubilant and celebrated on the field for a second time in less than an hour.

The seven-game National League Championship Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates was a phenomenal, drama-filled, anxiety-inducing series whose heart-stopping moments were only to be out-done in the World Series; as hard as that would have been to believe at the time.

From the regular season chase for the Division crown to an NLCS that went seven games ending with the heartbreaking World Series against the Minnesota Twins that wasn’t decided until the 10th inning of game seven, the 1991 season was epic, to say the least.

The ’91 campaign led to an NL MVP award for Pendleton, the NL Cy Young for Glavine, and NL Manager of the Year for Cox and was the start of the 14-straight division titles – with apologies to the 1994 Expos. It was the season that changed the course of the franchise for decades to come.

The 1989 movie Major League starred Cleveland as the hapless, late-‘80’s franchise suffering through a barren wasteland of failure. The movie could just as easily been written about Atlanta, because professional baseball was as bad in the Deep South as it was in Northern Ohio.

The 100 days-and-nights from mid-July to late-October set in motion a change so significant that this new generation of fans of Los Bravos de Atlanta, see a few bad seasons as organizational outliners and not the status quo. They don’t have to wonder, most years, about who the team’s lone representative for the All-Star game might be as they did after Dale Murphy’s career began to wane.

For those of us lucky enough to have lived through it, the 1991 Braves season still renders emotion that’s as important to us the memories of Thanksgiving dinner as our grandparent’s house or drinking an adult beverage on the beach when a vacation was still a vacation and not “working remote”.

We’ve come to the end of the 2021 regular season campaign with the Braves’ claiming their fourth-straight NL East Division title. It’s the 21st season since 1991 that post-season play has included the Atlanta Braves, most in the National League during that timeframe. If you’re too young to have gone through the stretch-run with the Braves in ’91, it is impossible to understand the exhilaration it created. Imagine the 2018 Braves team with a lot more cowbell.

What made those moments in ’91 so special is that Atlanta – the team, the city, the region – hadn’t tasted sustained professional sports success, ever. TBS’s marketing ploy of calling the Braves “America’s Team” as the Superstation cast their game across the country created a legion of fans of the lovable losers for a decade.

Then 1991 happened and those lovable losers became winners.

In the years since, players and coaches have passed. Fulco has long-sense been leveled. Unlike those roadside markers, the physical reminders of the ’91 season are few-and-far between outside of some alumni events and relics in the Braves’ museum.

Maybe you hung on to a paper or one of those “BEAT LA!” game-day insert cards. Maybe you have some baseball cards or a Braves program from the season. If you’re lucky, your beloved last red foam tomahawk from ‘91 hasn’t completely disintegrated into dust.

Soon, 30 years will be 50 years and the personal memories we have of ’91 will be more worn and tattered; if we’re lucky enough to still be here at all.

Despite time passing by, one thing is certain: The folklore of the 1991 Atlanta Braves season will remain.

- 30-

Except, this isn’t the end. We need to talk about someone. Someone we haven’t talked about yet. We need to talk about Lonnie Smith.

If you made it to this point in the article, and thought to yourself, how could this guy write a piece on the 1991 Atlanta Braves and not once bring up Lonnie Smith?

Well, you’re about to find out why.

Like I said, we need to talk about Lonnie Smith.

Sports Contributor Archive 2019
Lonnie Smith #27 of the Atlanta Braves collides with catcher Brian Harper #12 of the Minnesota Twins at home plate during the 1991 World Series at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on October 22, 1991.
Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I hope by now – 30 years later - no one holds any ill-will toward Smith due to his baserunning gaff in game seven of the World Series.

Smith came to the Braves in 1988, after the fall-out from drug issues that ran rampant through the sport in the late-1970’s and early -1980’s almost ended his career. After Nixon’s suspension in September 1991, Smith told the Atlanta Journal, of his own struggles, “I’m still chemical dependent ... every day is a battle. You are never over it. Let me tell you, the day I’m cured is the day I’m going to my grave.”

Thankfully for Smith and the Braves, he was able to reclaim his baseball career.

His Comeback Player of the Year Award-winning 1989 season is one of the greatest seasons in Braves history. It is a shame that it is largely forgotten about by fans whose memory of him was tainted by one play. In his five seasons for Atlanta, Smith put up 17.3 bWAR, even with half of that coming from the 1989 campaign.

The then 35 year-old, had been part of the outfield rotation throughout the 1991 regular season, but his roll expanded after Nixon’s suspension, culminating in 14 post-season starts. Having won three World Series with three different teams before ending up in Atlanta in the late-‘80’s, the ’91 World Series offered him the opportunity to win a fourth World Series championship.

I, probably like you, spent years unable to fathom how he wasn’t able to score from first on Pendleton’s double in the top of the eighth inning, despite the chicanery of Twins’ rookie second baseman Chuck Knoblauch.

While it’s possible, or even likely Smith would have scored, the fact that Braves were not able to drive him in from third despite having no outs in the inning and the heart of the line-up coming to bat should be the most infuriating part of the story. A ground-out by Gant and a double-play ball hit by Bream after Justice was intentionally walked, ended the inning and with it the Braves best opportunity to bring a championship to Atlanta.

There were – and I imagine are still - some segments of Braves fans who blame Smith for the World Series loss. That was an obvious emotional overreaction in 1991, but that was not the case then nor is it the case now. As a matter of fact, you probably forgot that he played well in that World Series, including hitting three home runs and a stolen base.

And if we’re being honest, the extra-inning loss in the 11th inning of game six shouldn’t have happened, either.

Smith spent the 1992 season in Atlanta, before ending his career with the Baltimore Orioles in strike-shortened 1994 season.

The man nicknamed “Skates” turns 66 this December.

Time has come to embrace him while we still can. He might not want the attention; but I’d hope if he were to come to Truist Park as part of an on-field celebration, that the ovation he would receive would be as loud and joyous for him as it would be for any other alumnus.

If you hold any negative feels toward Smith and are reading this. Please, I implore you, let it go.

Let Lonnie Smith’s historical marker say what it says. Without him, the folklore of the ’91 isn’t the same, if it’s there at all.

Selah.