For most, baseball is an acquired taste. Slow moving, long on tactics and at times short on action, with byzantine and at times inscrutable rules and traditions, the game struggles to hold the attention of the casual fan. When the long summer days turn to fall, however, the air grows crisp and the nights cool, something transforms this stodgy game into an epic shared human experience. That something special is occurring becomes clear to both spectators and participants alike, and the antiquated structure of the game becomes structural perfection, the emotional tie between the participant and spectator simultaneous. Baseball, a sport played by millionaires for teams owned by billionaires, is transformed into the Fall Classic, and becomes the most unique shared experience in sport.
This past week the Fall Classic began to evolve a story that promises to be spectacular. The season ended in a desperate final day where four teams struggled to get into the mix. The two survivors, Tampa Bay Rays and the St Louis Cardinals, were considered also rans just ten days earlier, but strained and pushed and succeeded driving out two teams, the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, who experienced freefall collapse and devastating failure. In classic baseball fashion and by the device by which the baseball game weaves its special beauty, there is no time limitation, there is no over ’til its over – and down to the last batter it went. The difficult physics of trying to strike a moving round object traveling at 90 miles an hour with another moving round object moving just as fast are magnified a thousand fold when a six month journey of a season comes down to the intense struggle of individual failure or triumph between pitcher and batter in front of millions.
The season’s spectacular end led to a ratcheting up of the tension in divisional playoffs, and improbably, the pressure and the performance went up immeasurably. Millions were treated to Detroit’s Justin Verlander grinding out a critical win, Arizona’s Ryan Roberts smacking a authoritative grand slam to keep Arizona in the conversation, the Texas Rangers declaring last year was not a fluke, and the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies laboring to produce at the impossible level of their economic commitment to their megastar filled teams.
But last night was yet on another level. The upstart Cardinals faced Cy Young award winner Ray Halliday, the definition of a big name pitcher, and Halliday did what he had to do, producing a dominating performance holding the Cardinals to one run, and stifling the Cardinal power trio of Pujols, Berkman, and Holliday 0 for 10 at bats. His opponent, Chris Carpenter, however, proved to be the greater warrior. Carpenter, who has had to will his fragile body through twelve major league seasons, determined to be one run better, and was helped by a stifling defence led by Rafael Furcal. The team of the decade, the Philadelphia Phillies, were forced to learn what many great teams have learned painfully. In baseball, a season’s greatness can crumble in a moment’s weakness.
The other national league game was even more epic. Arizona and Milwaukee produced almost mirror image seasons, and the playoff between them proved no different. A final game was played on the home field of the Brewers, the team that earned that right by being one game better out of 162. The last five innings were the stuff of legends. Matt Kennedy, the stalwart pitching ace of Arizona faced the hostile crowd and engaged Yovanni Gallardo of the Brewers in a gritty battle, 1-1 after five innings. The wheels of fortune began to turn in the sixth. The Brewers took the lead in the sixth on a single by the classic baseball immigrant, a Cuban player who speaks Spanish with a Russian first name and a French surname, Yuniesky Betancourt, but the game drama was saved by an impossible over the shoulder leaping catch on the dead run by Chris Young of the Diamondbacks of a screaming drive by Jerry Hairston, preventing the game from breaking wide open. And so it built from there. A perfect inning by forty one year old Takashi Saito of the Brewers, who learned his game growing up in Miyagi City, Japan, worshipping the baseball legend of Sadaharu Oh rather than Ted Williams. A turbulent eighth inning by Francisco Rodriguez of the Brewers, creating his own peril by loading the bases with Diamondbacks, causing 45,000 anxious Milwaukee fans on site to become nauseated, only to pull them back from the brink by calmly eliminating the next two batting threats without giving another inch. The Diamondbacks finding a way in the desparate ninth inning to scratch out a tying run against the Brewer’s John Axford, who had closed the door in 45 prior consecutive games and five consecutive months of play, with a perfectly executed suicide squeeze bunt. Then Axford, having to deal with his closer nightmare of not only giving up the win but placing the opponents winning run ninety feet from home, calming stopped the bleeding in time in the ninth and then produced a dominating close down tenth inning. Finally a bottom of the tenth , in which a five tool player who has foundered for three teams trying to untap his enormous talent, Carlos Gomez, got himself on base, and an even bigger journeyman , a player with with more personalities then Eve and the ability to irritate everyone, Nyjer Morgan, came to the plate against the stellar reliever JJ Putz and determined not to be denied triumph. Two strikes, then a bounding seeing-eye single up the middle that Putz desperately tried to knock down to no avail with his foot, and the speedy Gomez made sure no throw, no matter how great, would catch him. Great stories, great triumphs, great plays – baseball experience perfection.
And so it goes like it has since 1903 – baseball will provide a magnificinet storybook of memories, and in the end , there can be only one. The year 2011 is looking to become one of the all time greats and we all get to go along for the ride.