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Baseball Night in America

Longoria's game-winner was the finishing touch on a baseball masterpiece. (Kim Klement/US Presswire)

 

Baseball, like life, revolves around anticlimax. That, in many ways, is the beauty of it. I realize that’s a hard thing to explain to someone who doesn’t love baseball. No, more than hard, it’s an impossible thing to explain, because many people want sports to be more than life. They follow sports to jolt them out of the steady rhythms of the shriek of alarm clocks, the monotony of morning meetings, the rush to get the kids to soccer practice by 4 p.m. They want sports to be bigger than life. What’s the point, otherwise? There is nothing in baseball as jarring as a blind-side hit, as jaw-dropping as a perfect alley-oop, as tense and heart-pounding as a breakaway.

And the hard thing to explain, the impossible thing, is that many of us love baseball not in spite of these failings, but because of them.

 
* * *

There was a moment on this crazy night — the craziest, most absurd, most wonderful (and horrible) baseball night I can remember — when Boston pitcher Alfredo Aceves refused to throw a pitch. He just refused, time and again. He kept shaking off his rookie catcher, Ryan Lavarnway, once, twice, three times, four. This little player strike must have lasted two minutes, three minutes; it was exactly the sort of moment that people who don’t get baseball point out. Nothing was happening. The Baltimore Orioles had two runners on base — both had been plunked by Aceves. The fans wailing in Baltimore were mostly from Boston — Orioles fans were in bed, and had been since July. The baseball world was collapsing and detonating all around. And Alfredo Aceves, a 28-year-old pitcher from a small city in Mexico more famous for fighters than baseball players, just kept staring at his catcher with disdain, as if he were a child being told to take out the garbage or practice piano when he would rather be playing with his friends somewhere far away.

* * *

The Yankees were crushing the Rays. That was the only remotely interesting or surprising thing happening when I first settled in. We had spent the early part of Wednesday evening playing tennis in the rain because that seemed like something just stupid and dangerous enough to make 40-something men feel like boys. We joked about blowing out ACLs when there was actually a reasonable chance that one of us would blow out our ACL. One of our group was a huge Red Sox fan, and the others cared about what happened, but this is the marvelous thing about baseball. It will be there when you’re finished doing whatever it is you’re doing.

The Cardinals were crushing the Astros. The Braves were leading Philadelphia. The Red Sox were beating Baltimore. It was all going exactly as any baseball fan might have predicted, except that the Yankees — who barely even cared — were destroying the Rays by seven runs. Ah, well. Baseball, like life, revolves around anticlimax. We went into this final night of the season with four teams tied for their league’s wild card, with baseball for one night having a March Madness feel. But baseball is not like March Madness. What makes college basketball wonderful is its wild unpredictability. And that, in many ways, is the opposite of what makes baseball wonderful.

I’ve written this before: I never argue with people who say that baseball is boring, because baseballis boring. And then, suddenly, it isn’t. And that’s what makes it great.

In other words: Then, suddenly, Evan Longoria steps to the plate.

* * *

Years and years ago, back when I was in high school, my best friend challenged me to a contest. He said: “Let’s see who can tread water the longest.” It was summer, and it was night, and it seemed like something just stupid and dangerous enough to make 17-year-old boys feel like men. We treaded water for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes. There was no clock, there was nobody else at the pool, and after a while we were so tired that we stopped taunting each other. I can still remember how my body ached, my legs and arms barked, and more than anything I can remember the thought that kept echoing in my mind again and again: Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this?

I thought about this in the 12th inning of the Phillies-Braves game. The Braves had blown their one-run lead in the ninth. That was probably the first sign that this night would not be predictable. The Phillies had loaded the bases against Atlanta’s rookie closer, Craig Kimbrel, on a single and two walks, and then Chase Utley hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game. The Braves had been 8 1/2 games up in the wild-card race just three weeks earlier, and baseball teams don’t often blow big leads like that. In baseball you can’t foul. You can’t stop the clock by going out of bounds. You can’t call timeout. Again: like life.

But this year the Cardinals started winning, and the Braves started fading, and more winning, more fading, more winning, more fading, until finally this crazy night, the Cardinals players sitting in their clubhouse watching the Braves play extra innings against Philadelphia. Suddenly, the math had been reduced to two possible outcomes: Braves win, a one-game playoff. Braves lose, Champagne in St. Louis.

And, 12th inning, Philadelphia’s Raul Ibanez came to the plate with a man on first and nobody out. Raul is 39 years old, though he seems older in the way of aging athletes. He did not get a real shot until he was 29 and in Kansas City, where the team was so bad that there seemed no harm in giving him a chance. He proved that he could hit, and he was the sort of man that every manager and teammate wanted to be around, and he became an every-day player, in Kansas City, in Seattle, in Philadelphia. He made an All-Star team. He piled up RBIs. He found his groove. And now, on the final day of the season, in a game that meant nothing at all to his team except that you always want to win, he started in left field. He played the whole game, inning after inning, he struck out a couple of times, he managed a hit, and in the 12th he came up with that man on first and he hit a ground ball to second, a double play grounder for sure. Atlanta’s Dan Uggla scooped it, flipped it to shortstop Jack Wilson, who threw it to Freddie Freeman at first. The ball beat Ibanez by a half step.

And on this wonderful baseball night, this wonderful thought struck me: Raul Ibanez at age 39, in the 12th inning of what was for him and his team a game without consequence, had run his heart out to first base, though the double play was almost certain.

Why are you doing this? Maybe it’s because sometimes, when it seems least likely, we might find the best in ourselves.

* * *

Longoria homered, of course. The night had already begun to get that sort of vibe. The Braves had blown their lead. The Red Sox were parked in a Baltimore rain delay. The Rays had cut the Yankees’ lead to 7-3, eighth inning, and Longoria came up with two men on, and the Yankees had their ninth pitcher on the mound, Luis Ayala, a 33-year-old reliever on his fifth big league team. At some point, the television cameras showed the great Yankees closer, Mariano Rivera, sitting with his famous placid look in the bullpen, though it was more likely that Mariano Melgar, the 19th century Peruvian poet, would enter this game. Ayala had come in with the bases loaded and nobody out, and he proceeded to walk one batter, hit another and give up a sacrifice fly, but these were superfluous runs. Teams don’t blow seven-run leads in the eighth inning.

Then Longoria stepped to the plate with two outs and two on, and before he even swung the bat, baseball fans across America knew exactly what was going to follow. Of course, this feeling — hey this guy’s going to hit a home run — often hits baseball fans, and it’s often followed by harmless pop-ups into foul ground or ground balls to second and batting helmets flung to the dirt in disgust. Baseball, like life, revolves around anticlimax. Most comebacks fall short. Most leads are safe. Most check swings are called strikes.

Longoria homered. That made it 7-6 Yankees.

* * *

Many of my best friends are Red Sox fans. I’m not exactly sure how that happened. Some are Red Sox fans because they grew up in New England or they lived there for at least a short while. Others were drawn into that world. They fell in love with the team when it seemed cursed, they went to Fenway Park and felt their lives altered somehow, they felt like their own life story was somehow entwined with the Red Sox’s story. Whatever the reason, they’ve all been miserable for a month.

The Red Sox actually led the American League East when September began. They dropped out of first the day that they lost to Texas 10-0. And they kept losing. On Sept. 9, I asked Red Sox fans on Twitter if they were panicking. The Sox had just lost their seventh of nine games, but they still had the second-best record in the league, and their lead in the wild-card race was still 5 1/2 games. Some Red Sox fans said, yes, they were panicking, but their panic was mostly built around the growing realization that the Red Sox might not be good enough or healthy enough to win the World Series. The idea of missing the playoffs was still too remote to consider.

But Boston kept losing. They were swept at Tampa Bay. They lost three of four to the Rays at Fenway. Baltimore beat them three out of four at Fenway. Josh Beckett stopped getting people out. Jon Lester stopped getting people out. Their scattered wins felt epic and life-saving — an 18-9 thumping of Baltimore, a 14-inning victory over the Yankees — but losses followed the very next day. I would suggest that no group of fans in sports can do angst quite like Boston Red Sox fans.

When the Red Sox took the field again on Wednesday night with a 3-2 lead and the Rays coming back against the Yankees, I got an email from one of those friends who love the Red Sox. It was a one-word email.

“Doom,” it said.

* * *

The rest of the night was a blur, a wonderful blur, too much happening all at once — the Rays’ Dan Johnson lines the two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth, home run to tie the Yankees…. Hunter Pence hits the single that gives Philadelphia the lead in the 13th…. Boston’s Marco Scutaro stumbles around the bases and is thrown out at the plate in the eighth, when the Red Sox desperately need an insurance run…. The Yankees put runners on first and third with nobody out in the 12th but don’t score…. Who can even remember the order of it all?

I feel sure that my strongest memory of the night will be from the ninth inning of the Red Sox-Orioles game, Boston leading 3-2. The Orioles had nobody on base. And Rick Sutcliffe shouted something on ESPN about how you could see it in Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon’s eyes — there was no way he was blowing this game.

In the eyes. As soon as Sutcliffe said it, I knew what was going to happen. I knew that Papelbon was going to blow the game. I knew that the Red Sox were going to lose the wild-card race. This was not a night for nonsense about eyes. I was so sure that it was going to happen that I typed into my Twitter the following: “Don’t see how Papelbon could have blown the game when the look in his eyes told the announcer he wouldn’t.” And then, I waited for it to happen.

Baseball, like life, revolves around anticlimax. That’s what you get most of the time. You stand in driver’s license lines, and watch Alfredo Aceves shake off signals, and sit through your children’s swim meets, and see bases-loaded rallies die, and fill up your car’s tires with air, and endure an inning with three pitching changes, a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk.

But then, every now and again, something happens. Something memorable. Something magnificent. Something staggering. Your child wins the race. Your team rallies in the ninth. You get pulled over for speeding. And in that moment — awesome or lousy — you are living something that you will never forget, something that jumps out of the toneless roar of day-to-day life.

The Braves failed to score. Papelbon blew the lead. Longoria homered in the 12th. Elation. Sadness. Mayhem. Champagne. Sleepless fury. Never been a night like it. Funny, if I was trying to explain baseball to someone who had never heard of it, I wouldn’t tell them about Wednesday night. No, it seems to me that Wednesday night isn’t what makes baseball great. It’s all the years you spend waiting for Wednesday night that makes baseball great.

 

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