Gene Larkin: The Unlikely Hero of 1991 World Series
It was a moment that very well could have never happened.
With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series, a hobbled Gene Larkin came to the plate as a pinch-hitter for the Minnesota Twins against Atlanta Braves pitcher Alejandro Pena. The game was scoreless - a fantastic pitcher’s duel between the gritty Jack Morris and the young John Smoltz - and Larkin was the unlikeliest of options to be the hero.
“The tendonitis was really bad,” Larkin said in the Tim Wendel book Down to the Last Pitch about a knee injury that flared up in the American League Championship Series. He had also battled a groin injury during the season. “By that point in the season I couldn’t play defense or run the bases hardly at all. If anything, I felt fortunate to be in uniform, frankly. I could have easily been left off the (World Series) roster.”
Larkin’s gritty, competitive nature kept his roster spot open, and he justified manager Tom Kelly’s confidence in him, when he sent a fly ball over the drawn-in Atlanta outfield to bring home Dan Gladden and cement Minnesota’s second World Series championship in five years with a 4-3 victory. Larkin was inserted to replace Jarvis Brown - who entered the game as a pinch runner in the ninth inning - and was one of just two position players left on Kelly’s bench - the other being backup catcher Junior Ortiz, meaning Larkin was really the only remaining option. Paul Sorrento had been used as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning, but struck out with two outs and the winning run on third.
“Because the bases are loaded with one out, I know the outfield’s coming in, the infield’s gonna be in. It’s a very good hitter’s situation if it wasn’t the seventh game of the World Series when you’re really, really nervous,” Larkin recalled to WCCO-CBS 4 in an oral history produced 25 years after the iconic moment. “From the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, my knees were shaking. It really was. And I’ve seen films of myself smiling coming up there, but I don’t know where the smile came from. There’s no question that’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in an athletic event.”
Immediately following the game, however, Larkin was quoted by the Associated Press: “Not nervous at all. I was actually more nervous in the dugout than when I got to the plate. All I really remember is Kirby (Puckett) telling me, ‘Let’s end this thing, man.’ That’s when I relaxed and just let my talent take over.”
Though the game may be known more for the exploits of Morris - who fired all 10 innings and struck out eight in his only World Series complete game shutout - the game-winning hit is easily the defining moment for Larkin, whose career tailed off after he burst onto the scene with several strong seasons.
The game-winning moment was set up by Gladden’s leadoff double, a textbook sacrifice bunt from Chuck Knoblauch, and back-to-back intentional walks to Puckett and Kent Hrbek.
“It took me two days to go to bed. Two days. I was so on a high. And then when I did crash it was a big time crash. It was like, out, done,” Larkin said to WCCO, also adding, “Sometimes I have to exhale and say, ‘Why did that happen to me?’ If you played the game as a young kid, you always think about your back yard, playing with your brothers or your dad, and you’re throwing out Game 7 of the World Series drama with your brother in your backyard.
"Well that happened to me in real life. Which is, you know, crazy, it really is crazy. And the further it gets away from me, the older I get, the more crazier it gets.”
Even as the best player to come through Columbia University since Lou Gehrig - a big senior season landed him first-team All-America honors beside stars like Barry Larkin, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff and other veteran big leaguers - Gene Larkin was only a 20th round selection by the Twins in 1984.
Hitting better than .300 at every stop in the minors, Larkin quickly ascended to the majors, debuting on May 21, 1987, with a pair of singles in four at-bats. He’d keep his average at or above .300 through the end of June, but was up and down in the second half to finish at .266. He hit a big pinch-hit double in Game 4 of the ALCS that year, helping the Twins to a 5-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers. Larkin was hitless in the World Series, but did walk and score in Game 4. Minnesota would defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.
He showed doubles power the next three seasons, but never lifted his average above .269. He did hit .286 in 98 games in 1991.
And then, with one line in the transactions on Aug. 15, 1993, Larkin’s career came to an end: “MINNESOTA TWINS -- Placed 1B Gene Larkin on the 15-day DL with a strain of his left Achilles' tendon, retroactive to Thursday. Recalled OF Dave McCarty from Triple-A Portland.” His last at-bat - a weak, pinch-hit grounder to the pitcher.
For his career, Larkin was just a .266 hitter in seven seasons - all with Minnesota - and though he didn’t show superb power, he had 131 doubles in his career - including 81 in a three-season stretch from 1988-90. A slick fielder, Larkin retired with a .992 fielding percentage (293 games at first and 197 games in the outfield).