…It would have been a 100 point cigar. No doubt.
Four teams: the Red Sox and the Rays in the American League; the Braves and the Cardinals in the National League; and there were only two golden tickets left for the playoffs. And all was decided yesterday.
Days like yesterday are what World Series dreaming boys live for. Nomadic scouts and under-appreciated coaches have seen countless days of baseball and have never seen anything like what happened. If yesterday was the last scene in a movie the cranky as Sparky Anderson movie critic Roger Ebert would have given it one star for being utterly insane. And it was.
Beating the Astros 8-0, the Cardinals were the first team still in contention to take care of business. It was like a cigar that starts out amazingly but without much complexity. You know the kind of cigar I’m talking about: the flavor, whether it be spice, earth, meat or what have you, is very pure and gives your mind a readily available comparison to a flavor you already love. But something was missing.
The next game to end put the Cardinals into the playoffs; unfortunately for the Braves, it eliminated them. Thirteen inning affairs are hard fought battles that leave nerves raw and drain every last ounce out of everyone involved; fans included. This is even more so when the stakes are as high as they were yesterday for the all-but-playoff-bound Braves. They lost the initiative a couple of weeks back and never found their way back to the right path. I think all baseball fans have a little bit of pity for that team and their fans.
With the National League’s playoff dance card now filled in such a dramatic way you would have been right to proclaim yesterday as one of the better day for baseball fans. It was like a cigar that is powerfully flavorful evolving into something that was even better. More flavor, more nuance. Just… more. And then the most amazing thing happened.
Joe Maddon has been “new school” for so long that he has made it old school. For well over a decade, probably closer to two, he was the Angels’ consigliere of statistics. Before there was Moneyball there was Joe Maddon serving as the Angels’ bench coach with enough stats to make the combined works of Tolstoy look sparse. Massive three ring binders elucidated the tendencies of every opponent the Angels faced. More Sun Tzu than George Patton, his even keeled demeanor and analytical mind set the tone for the Angels for at least the last decade of his tenure in Los Angeles via Anaheim.
I know Mike Scioscia gets most of the credit for the Angels’ successes over the last decade but Maddon (and the rest of the coaching staff) deserves more than a footnote worth of the credit as well. It may sound odd ridiculous to the uninitiated baseball fan but Maddon became a hero to Angels fans while we were lucky enough to have him. That is why even though I have a lot of respect for both the Yankees and the Red Sox it is the Rays that I root for once (hopefully someday soon that will be an “if” again) the Angels get eliminated. Even though I don’t have a great knowledge of their roster I know their team because it is the embodiment of the bespectacled Maddon.
Basically since the earliest days of August it was a fait accompli that the Yankees and the Red Sox were going to the playoffs; one winning the East and the other the Wild Card. When September rolled around Maddon’s Rays were nine games out in the Wild Card and all hope seemed lost. But Maddon, the maestro of determination, kept his team playing hard. As each week passed the Rays crept a little closer to the faltering Red Sox. Soon, faltering became flailing and flailing became collapsing. And all of that lead up to yesterday with the Red Sox tied with the Rays.
Yesterday turned out to be a microcosm of the seasons that both teams had. The Red Sox got a lead and looked like mortal locks for the Wild Card once the Yankees tacked on seven runs against the Rays early in their game. A rain delay in Baltimore became like Chinese water torture for the Red Sox as they were able to see the Rays score some runs against the Yankees and, in the ninth, tie their game with a pinch hit home run by a guy who makes pitchers take a sigh of relief. Dan Johnson, the improbable hero in an improbable Rays’ season, doubled his home run total and breathed life into a beleaguered Rays’ team with one swing of the bat. Right down the right field line his hit sailed over the wall as if it were pushed by the collective will of thousands of Rays’ fans. The game was tied and headed for extra innings.
The Red Sox game had continued by this point and soon their Superman closer, Jonathan Papelbon, came in to at least guarantee his team a one game playoff between his team and the resurgent Rays. Papelbon quickly disposed of the first two hitters that he faced with such dominance that there seemed to be no hope for the Orioles. But then Chris Davis doubled and then a guy named Reimold hit a ground rule double to score Davis’ pinch runner. The game was tied and the only thought going through my mind was: “collapse.” They had the game in the bag but they just couldn’t close the deal. The next batter up, Andino, hit a single and made every heart in Boston sink a little further when the Orioles scored the winning run and gave the Rays a way into the playoffs without having to play in a game 163.
A mere five minutes later in a city 1,000 miles away a phenom named Evan Longoria walked to the plate and dug in. A ball, a strike looking, a strike swinging, a ball and a foul ball started off the at bat. And then Longoria sent a screaming line drive down the left field line. It was very low and did not look like it had any business going over any Major League fence but it did. In what had to be the shortest home run of the year the Red Sox were banished from the playoffs and the Rays were able to clinch a Wild Card berth.
Every element of baseball last night was amazing. For a fan it embodied everything that is amazing about baseball. It transcended the normal bindings of baseball and reached you at an emotional level.
Hopefully someday I can smoke a cigar that is as amazing as last night’s games. It might not happen but, as the Rays and the Cardinals proved this September, anything is possible.