He remembers the nerves, the anxiety, even 25 years later. Tension had been building in the Metrodome through inning after scoreless inning, and when Gene Larkin was summoned to pinch hit with the bases loaded in the 10th inning of the seventh game of the 1991 World Series, he reacted the same way you or I would: like he was dragging the weight of the baseball world up with him.
"I walked up there trying to focus, but I don't know if I could. I was very, very nervous walking up to the plate," Larkin says now, the strain still familiar even though he knows the outcome. "Watching clips of it, I was smiling, smirking, and I don't know why, because I was as nervous as an athlete could be."
What happened next, though, produced the greatest sigh of relief in baseball history for the Twins. The 1991 Series will forever be remembered for Kirby Puckett's sensational play, for Jack Morris' bulldog determination, for Kent Hrbek's … um, nudge of Ron Gant. But it was Larkin, the little-known, barely used backup outfielder and first baseman who triggered a wild celebration — the most recent one for a Minnesota professional team until the Lynx began collecting WNBA banners — by fighting through the jitters and lofting a high fastball toward the left field fence.
It's a moment that has been replayed countless times, including regularly on the scoreboard at Target Field. Larkin swings, Braves outfielder Brian Hunter jogs backward in a futile chase, and Dan Gladden jumps on home plate, ending one of the most suspenseful World Series in history, a seven-game set between two "worst-to-first" surprise participants that featured four walk-off victories, three of them in extra innings.
"It doesn't seem that long ago, until you look at yourself on a baseball card and then look in the mirror, and go, 'Wow,' " Larkin said. "Twenty-five years. It was about as picture-perfect a memory as you could have, and I'm just glad to have been a small part of it."
"I was happy for Geno. He worked as hard as anybody on that team," manager Tom Kelly said. "He was the guy on 'Good Morning, America' the next morning, and he deserved it."
Call to the bench
Funny thing, though. If Kelly had it to do over, it wouldn't have been Larkin in the spotlight the night of Oct. 27, 1991.
Though Kelly had confidence in the five-year veteran, Larkin — a rookie on the Twins' 1987 championship team — was batting in the fifth spot, which had been vacated by Chili Davis, the 1991 Twins' home run and RBI leader. After Davis led off the bottom of the ninth with a single to right-center, Kelly removed him for pinch runner Jarvis Brown.
That ploy failed when Brown was left stranded on third base by Paul Sorrento's inning-ending strikeout, and "sure, you regret those moves when they don't work out, sure you do," Kelly said. "But you take your chances and try to give yourself a chance to win. And having Geno sitting there, I knew we still had options."
Not many, actually. Larkin and catcher Junior Ortiz were the only remaining position players who hadn't gotten into the game. Larkin, just three days past his 29th birthday and with seven career World Series pinch-hit appearances (but only one hit until then), was Kelly's last real batting-order maneuver. It couldn't have come at a more perfect moment.
Game 7, forced when Puckett blasted a homer in the 11th inning the night before, was scoreless through nine innings, a legendary pitcher's duel between the veteran Morris and the youngster John Smoltz. Both teams had prime scoring chances. The Braves put runners on first and third in the fifth inning, and loaded the bases in the eighth, each time with one out. The Twins had a runner on third in the eighth and ninth innings. None of those opportunities amounted to a run.
But when Gladden led off the 10th with a broken-bat blooper off Alejandro Pena that he hustled into a double, Larkin knew his chance likely was coming.
"As a pinch hitter, you envision how the various scenarios might play out. When Danny got to second, I got up revved up and started swinging a bat," Larkin said.
On a 1-1 pitch, Chuck Knoblauch then laid down a sacrifice bunt toward third base, what Larkin calls "the most underrated play of that inning. … So much pressure on him, but it was a terrific bunt."
Kelly isn't sure today's managers would be as confident about ordering that bunt. "Guys were expected to be able to bunt the ball, but I don't know that it's that way anymore," he said.
"It's much more of a chore for players to bunt today. But Chuck's bunt, you couldn't have rolled it any better."
With Puckett and Hrbek up next, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox chose to load the bases, bypassing the two stars and taking his chances against a pinch hitter. The nerves grew as Larkin waited, and grew even more intense as the Braves huddled on the mound. Third baseman Terry Pendleton called time twice to instruct Hunter where to stand in the outfield, as Larkin fidgeted.
Finally, with the Metrodome crowd roaring, Pena prepared to throw a pitch. And the nerves abruptly disappeared.
"When I got into the box, I suddenly felt very calm. I think looking back, I didn't feel Pena could strike me out. I knew I was going to put the ball into play," Larkin said. "There's not much anxiety when you feel sure you can succeed."
Larkin, a switch hitter batting lefthanded, swung his bat seven times as Pena looked for a sign and then delivered a first-pitch fastball that crossed the plate high but over the outside part of the plate.
"It happened very quick. I can still remember it," Larkin said. "It was a great pitch for me, up and away. I hit it OK, not great, but when I squared it up, I knew the game was over. And I felt such a sense of relief."
After that, it's a jumble of memories, of hugging first base coach Wayne Terwilliger, of being mobbed by the scrum of players, of a victory parade. And of a quarter-century now gone, with the night's lesser-known hero still reminded of that at-bat a couple of times a week. The bat hangs above the fireplace of his Edina home, the uniform is framed, and he occasionally wears his 1991 championship ring.
Larkin, a native New Yorker, remained in the Twin Cities after his career ended two seasons later, raised two kids with his wife, Kathleen, and created a second career as a financial planner for New Era Financial Group. He takes part in Twins fantasy camps, in order to reconnect with his old teammates. With baseball still in his system, he has coached Edina's junior varsity American Legion team for three seasons, and founded Players Only, a company that conducts offseason skills camps for young baseball players.
And every once in a while, he enjoys being reminded about a moment that will live forever in Minnesota sports lore.
"Guys like me, role players, we're just trying to do the best we can. We don't get those moments that the big stars do very often, and it's humbling that I got that chance," Larkin said. "It's funny, I always feel more for the guys who don't come through, I guess because I know how long that stays with you. I'm glad I came through. It's better than having nightmares for 25 years."