The Greatest Game on Earth

Only one team in the history of baseball had ever come back from an 8 ½ game deficit in September: the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals. The Rays and Cardinals both did it last night.

I just heard Tim Kurkjian describe last night as maybe the greatest night in the history of regular season baseball. Out of 200,000 regular season games, 3 last night became the epitome of everything that is great about the game.

The Braves players would find it difficult to describe last night as great. They needed to win their game to keep pace with the Cardinals and force a playoff. They led going into the top of the ninth, yet couldn’t hold on, as the Phillies pushed one across to send the game into extra innings. And then, in the top of the 13th, Hunter Pence of the Phillies hit what may be the ugliest, cheapest, weakest single since Luis Gonzalez’ blooper to win the World Series for the Diamondbacks.

But the highlight of the night occurred nearly simultaneously in Baltimore and Tampa Bay. The Red Sox were leading the O’s 3-2 and had the best closer in the league on the mound. With 2 outs, and the Orioles on their last gasp, Papelbon gave up consecutive doubles (the second one tied the game), and then a game-winning single.

Literally moments later, Evan Longoria lined a ball down the left-field line to win the game for the Rays in extra innings. The Rays had trailed 7-0 in the bottom of the 8th inning, yet had scored 6 in that frame to somehow bring themselves back to striking distance. Then, in the bottom of the 9th, with 2 outs and 2 strikes, Dan Johnson lined a home run down the right field line to tie the game.

The most amazing thing about the night to me was to watch the fans. The Oriole fans last night really had nothing to root for; their team had been out of contention for months. Yet, those that stayed til midnight and waited through the 1½-hr rain delay cheered for their team as if they had won the World Series. And the players themselves, when the winning single was hit, raced onto the field and mobbed each other as if they had become champions. It was a meaningless game for them; yet they still gave everything, still fought until the final strike, because they had a chance to stop one of their rivals from going to the playoffs.

Even more exhilarating was to watch the fans in Tampa Bay. Their team needed to win (after all, Boston was leading Baltimore 3-2 in the 9th), and although they had come back from a 7-run deficit, they still needed to push across another run to actually win the game. Everything happened quickly once the game hit the bottom of the 12th. The crowd had one eye on the Rays and one eye on the scoreboard; and when that score in Baltimore went from 3-2 to 3-3, the fans went nuts. Thousands of people, who had no idea what was going on in Baltimore, who were watching the game through three numbers on a board, willed the Orioles to score another run. And when they did just a few moments later, the crowd erupted. They knew. They knew that if they won, they were in.

And suddenly the Rays themselves seemed to know it. It was as if some window had opened up and made them see that with just one swing of the bat, they could achieve something so rare that only 2 teams in baseball had ever done it before. They needed a hero; enter Evan Longoria. There were 2 outs, 2 strikes, and off the bat, it looked harmless, like it would hook foul or at most bounce into the left-field corner for a double. But somehow, even though it never got 20 feet off the ground, it inched over the tiny 4-foot left-field fence, sending the fans and the Rays into a frenzy.

It had happened: magic. A miracle. The impossible had become possible.

I had nothing invested with these clubs. I had wanted the Cards and Rays to make the playoffs simply because they were extreme underdogs (oh, and because I hate the Braves and Red Sox). But watching what happened simply overpowered me; there’s no other way to describe it.

There aren’t many baseball movies that follow a team which is completely out of contention, depicting how the team fights to gain ground in the standings and sees all their hard work and determination pay off as they win in the final day of the season. There just aren’t those feel-good, underdog baseball movies – the reason is that there is no need for them. Baseball in real life provides all the drama and magic for us; there’s no demand for it from Hollywood. We don’t need to pay $10 to find the thrill in a theater; we can watch it happen live every single year.

What happened last night could only happen in baseball. In football, if you are down 35-0 in the 4th quarter, you’re done. But, as the Rays proved last night, if you’re down 7-0 in the 8th, you still have a chance. Baseball has no clock; no time ticks away with each passing second bringing you closer to the final buzzer. In baseball, you control your own destiny; it’s not at the mercy of some relentless clock.

And the hero can be anybody. At the end of a basketball game, who takes the final shot to win? Kobe. MJ. Lebron. For the Rays last night, it was Longoria, exactly who you would expect. But who tied the game? Dan Johnson (who came into last night’s game hitting .108). And for the Orioles, it was Robert Andino; I’m sure they knew who he was in Baltimore, but I’d never heard his name before last night. In baseball, the little guy can become the hero. The kid can be the star. The 35th man on your roster can send you to the playoffs.

With baseball, anything can happen. It’s a game of eternal hope. Of unsung heroes. Of gut-wrenching pain and blissful elation. It is the best game on Earth.