I’ll be honest, regular season baseball isn’t my favorite pasttime as a sports fan. I know every game counts (which tonight definitively proved), but it’s hard for me to get excited about 1 game out of 162. With so many other sports to choose from, it’s difficult for me to invest in regular season baseball games. Without anything of immediate substance on the line throughout the year, having the patience to sit down and watch a baseball game for three hours (five if it’s YANKS/SAWX) doesn’t interest me. Sure, I appreciate the history of the game and some of the more romantic elements of baseball, but the slow pace of the game and all the inaction doesn’t match my sports brain that fits better with other faster moving sports.
And that’s why tonight was so amazing to me. Every reservation I have for not wanting to invest in regular season baseball was shattered. There weren’t just one, but three games on at the same time that had direct do or die playoff implications. 162 games boiled down to 1 for the Cardinals, Braves, Red Sox, and Rays. Tampa Bay and Boston were tied atop the AL Wild Card race while St. Louis and Atlanta were tied for the NL Wild Card. A month ago it seemed improbable with a combined 17 games separating the Wild Card races. Nevertheless, a wild month of September set up possibly the most awesome night in the 142 year history of Major League Baseball.
September 28th, 2011 was baseball’s night to have its own version of March Madness, and it was exhilirating. Memorable. Perhaps even unforgettable. In fact, it may go down as one of the most entertaining nights a sports fan can experience…
It’s ironic though because March Madness is the sporting antithesis of Major League Baseball. The one and done nature in the tournament couldn’t be further from the marathon MLB season. Nobody’s filling out office pools for the MLB season. Instead, people are pouring over fantasy data from April through September. And yet, tonight brought the best of both sports together in some sort of rare, hazy nirvana… or that could have been me just trying to understand Steve Berthiaume and John Kruk’s commentary.
Remember the first round of the NCAA Tournament this year when nearly every single game went down to the buzzer within minutes of each other? That was what tonight felt like. It’s that kind of instant and truly significant excitement baseball often lacks. In an age where Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube dominate – in a here and now 24/7 sports world – it’s why baseball lags behind with younger fans. And yet tonight, simultaenously the Braves and Phillies were going into extra innings, the Red Sox and Orioles were a run apart in the late innings, and Tampa Bay was attempting a comeback from 7-0 down against the Yankees. If one game slowed down with a pitching change, or a break in between innings I could just switch to another equally intense, equally interesting, equally important baseball game. You may have that on any given night throughout the baseball season, but for each of those games to have a direct impact on a playoff spot in Game 162 was truly remarkable. What are the odds that there would be two walk offs, three teams surviving after being down to their last out, and two extra inning games occurring at once… and for those games to mean everything. It combined the intensity of earning a spot in the MLB Playoffs through the long grind of the season with the dramatic sudden death nature of our favorite knockout tournament.
Just like those early days in the NCAA Tournament, I found myself switching back and forth between the three games. Remarkably, a rain delay in Baltimore set the O’s/Sox game on course with the Yankees/Rays & Braves/Phillies games that had hit extra innings. ESPN and MLB Net did a great job keeping viewers up to date on what was happening in Atlanta, Tampa, and Baltimore. As much as we hold Bristol’s feet to the fire, nights like these are ESPN at its absolute best. I had a game on ESPN3, ESPN2, and ESPN all at the same time. It’s nights like these where Twitter is also at its best. I like to think I follow a diverse number of people – mainstream media, athletes, bloggers from every sport, friends… and yet all of them were tweeting about baseball. It seemed as if everyone was tuned in to the incredible theater we were witnessing.
“That was the single most exciting and intriguing day of baseball I’ve ever witnessed” – Barry Larkin
Each game offered something different, too. In Atlanta, the Braves were desperately trying to hang on. The angst at Turner Field bled through the screen like a movie character trying to hold on to their last seconds of life. The Braves might as well have been the black knight, trying to fend off their epic collapse as a bloody torso. A blown save in the ninth led to eventually losing the game on a double play in the 13th inning. To continue the March Madness analogy, it was like Gonzaga’s choke job against UCLA drawn out over the month of September. Tonight was the culmination, complete with this poor kid channeling Adam Morrison.
In Baltimore, the Red Sox were keeping the Orioles at arm’s length for most of the night, always seeming like they were certain to break the game open and assure at least a Thursday playoff. With Tampa trailing by seven through seven innings, it appeared the Wild Card was theirs. How Baltimore stayed in the game after the rain delay was truly quite extraordinary. In the seventh, they were able to strand two Boston runners. In the eighth, Marco Scutaro was narrowly thrown out at home on a play at the plate. In the ninth, Baltimore got out of a 1st and 3rd nobody outs jam. And after all that, it was still 3-2 Boston with 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth and Jonathan Papelbon on the hill. Three hits later, (inculding the last one landing appropriately enough in front of a sliding Carl Crawford) Boston’s season was on the brink and the O’s had somehow emerged with a 4-3 victory. For its finality, shock value, and unlikelihood, this was baseball’s Bryce Drew. And I will admit, as a Yankees fan it was a little extra sweet to grab this screencap…
In Tampa Bay, the Rays had fallen behind 7-0 with six outs left in their season. Then they loaded the bases and a small glimmer of hope returned. Then it became 7-2 and the thought popped into your head that this comeback may happen, but still highly unlikely. Then Longoria homered and it was 7-6 and you knew you could be watching something special. Then Johnson incredibly homered with 2 outs in the 9th and you realized this was a game that you would remember for a long time. A guy with a .119 batting average hitting his second home run of the year with Tampa Bay down to their last strike surely meant something big was going down. And then Longoria walked off in the 12th mere minutes after Baltimore’s upset and it finished the greatest night of baseball ever played. For the nature of the comeback and for the unexplainable hint of magic in the air, this was Illinois’ incredible comeback down 15 with 4 minutes to go in the 2005 Elite 8 against Arizona. A game appropriately enough finally won in overtime.
September 28th was one of those nights that we cherish as a sports fan. A night where we can never predict what is going to unfold before us. A night where you don’t know you’re going to be watching history, but one where it could just happen. A night where even the most casual of baseball fans could become emotionally invested in every pitch. Was it the most awesome night in baseball history? For my money, it was. Of course, there have been more important nights in baseball history. Better games. More significant games, and more historic games. But for this one September night, we all got to experience baseball in a way we have never experienced it before… and may never experience it again. That’s what made this night so unforgettably awesome.