On the last night of the regular season last week, with two playoff spots yet to be decided, baseball fans across the country got to experience what has already been dubbed the sport’s greatest night. And, as one with memories from my youth of trying to hear the scratchy broadcast of a late night game from halfway across the country on a transistor radio, it was made all the more great by the veritable wealth of media now available to witness it all.
For those who don’t follow the sport or only follow it until the football season starts, here’s a summary of what took place.
The night started with both the National and American League wild card spots tied. In the NL, the Cardinals had come from ten and a half games back a month earlier to tie the slumping Braves. In the AL, the Tampa Bay Rays had done the same thing, closing a nine-game gap against the Red Sox. One-game playoffs were already scheduled in both leagues if the ties were not broken as a result of the games to be played that night.
Those games had the Cardinals playing the lowly Houston Astros in St. Louis, the Braves hosting the NL Eastern Division champion Phillies, the Red Sox playing the last place Orioles in Baltimore, and the Rays hosting the AL Eastern Division champion Yankees. Only one of the four games was a blowout (the Cardinals shut out the Astros 8-0 early, and then waited out the Atlanta-Philadelphia contest).
The other three games were nail-biters, the kind that would be considered great games had they been played in the middle of July. That they all occurred on the last night of the season, with so much at stake, was the stuff that only sports fans can truly appreciate (a point I’ll come back to).
In Atlanta, the Braves took a 3-2 lead into the eighth inning, only to have the Phillies tie it in their half of the frame. The game went into extra innings, and the Phillies finally won it (breaking the tomahawk-chopping Atlanta fans’ hearts) on a hit that barely made it out of the infield.
The American League games were just a tad more dramatic. In Tampa, the Yankees opened up an early 7-0 lead. The score stayed that way until the eighth inning when the Rays rallied for six runs. It was an amazing comeback, but they still trailed by a run when they batted in the bottom of the ninth.
In the meantime, in Baltimore, the Red Sox nursed a 3-2 lead into the seventh when it suddenly started to rain heavily. Play was halted for over two hours. The game finally resumed at around 11 PM.
By then, the Yankees and Rays were into their extra-inning game. This one came about when, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and with two strikes on him, the Rays’ Dan Johnson, a scrub who was hitting a ridiculous .108 for the season (including one hit in 45 at-bats with two strikes), stroked a fly ball just inside the right field foul pole for the tying home run.
Meanwhile the Red Sox and Orioles resumed their game, with Boston staying ahead by that same 3-2 score. In the ninth they had their premier closer, Jonathan Papelbon, on the mound. He got two quick outs and had two strikes on the next–and hoped for last– hitter but then gave up two straight doubles that tied the score, followed by a line-drive single that scored the winning run.
Four minutes later in Tampa, in the bottom of the twelfth inning, Evan Longoria hit a game-winning homer that completed his team’s dramatic comeback in the game and in the season.
How improbable were these finishes? The New York Times’ statistical guru, Nate Silver, famous for his FiveThirtyEight Electoral College blog, put the odds at one in 278 million that the wild card races would end in these ways.
Whether that figure is absolutely accurate or only a general approximation, for a baseball fan, it was a night to behold, a night to savor, a night to cherish.
And that brings me to the subject of this column, which is that the true fan can now experience all of it from just about anywhere. My story is perhaps not typical, but certainly not uncommon.
I began the night watching all four games on TV. I have the major league baseball package on my satellite system. It allows me to watch every game played all year in real time. But then, because I had some late work to complete for my classes at McGeorge the next day, I drove to the campus (about 20 minutes from home) to work in my office. No problem; I also have XM radio in my car, which allows me to listen to the broadcasts of every game played all year. On the way, I heard the end of the Phillies comeback against the Braves.
When I got to my office, I followed the two AL games on my computer. Major League Baseball has web sites for all 32 teams that carry all games (pitch-by-pitch) in real time.
And, so, on the greatest night in baseball history, I used all three systems. And then, when I got home, I watched the replay of the conclusions of the AL games on my DVR. When it was all over, my head was spinning, realizing that I had witnessed a very special (one in 278 million) night.
And that’s the thing about sports in general, and baseball in particular. It provides the kind of excitement that no other form of entertainment can produce, because it’s all unscripted, and, uniquely in baseball, there is no clock. Nothing will end the game but the winning run or the last out.
The baseball playoffs are now in full swing. They won’t likely match the drama of the last night of the regular season, but, if you have a pulse and like to feel it beat with excitement at the unfolding drama of life, they are still most definitely worth your attention.