Honestly, I was more okay with the Red Sox losing last night than I should have been. And yes, I know how insane that sounds coming from someone who considers himself to be a diehard Sox fan. How can I be okay? How did I not cry myself to sleep? What’s wrong with me?
I thought those things last night, but ultimately, I was okay with the fact that I didn’t have a full fledged freakout like I did in ’03, or when the Patriots blew Super Bowl XLII, or when the Bruins blew it in 2010. I didn’t scream, yell, cry, or complain. I wasn’t numb. I wasn’t wandering around like a zombie.
It’s a shock that I’m about to say this, but…I was just happy to be there. Seriously. I was so pleased as a sports fan to see what was happening that I didn’t even have time to get mad. I know I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in Baltimore. Or Tampa. I wasn’t in Houston, and I wasn’t in Atlanta. I was sitting in the corner booth at Izzy’s Deli on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. I had nowhere to go for Rosh Hashanah, so my buddy Landon and I decided to celebrate the holiday with some Reuben sandwiches from Izzy’s. They had a couple televisions showing the games, allowing me to become a part of the drama as I happily filled my stomach with salted cured meats.
There are so many times when sports fans question why they love sports. Even the most rabid fan has asked himself (or herself), “Why do I care so much?” or “What effect will this game have on my life?” Then nights like September 28th, 2011 come along and even the most casual sports fan has to take a step back and say “Wow, that was amazing” or “I feel bad for anyone who can’t appreciate this.” What happened in those four cities last night transcends sports, and can more appropriately be described as being poetic, dramatic, and downright cosmic.
The Red Sox, less than four weeks ago, had a 99.6% chance of making the playoffs. If they played out the remainder of the season 1000 times, they would only miss the playoffs in four of those scenarios. It was virtually impossible for the Red Sox to not make the postseason. The same went for the Atlanta Braves. While the Sox had a 9.5 game wild card lead over Tampa on September 3rd, the Braves had an 8.5 game wild card lead over the Cardinals on September 6th, meaning a collapse on their part would be every bit as epic as one by the Red Sox. That’s two scenarios in which there was less than a 0.5% chance that something would happen.
Yet, on the night of September 28th, both of those virtually impossible scenarios had the potential to come to fruition. By the end of the night, after countless twists and turns, both scenarios would somehow be realized.
Let’s recap the night’s events. The Yankees were sending a pitcher, Dellin Betances, with an ERA of 27.00 to the mound, and the only pitchers available were the rejects who would be left off the postseason roster. Their lineup was mostly intact, but there was no way the heavy hitters would be playing the entire game. Meanwhile, the Rays were throwing their ace, David Price. The Rays were going to roll.
The Red Sox had their ace, Jon Lester, on the mound. They were facing the last place Orioles. They needed to win. They were going to get it done.
The Cardinals had their ace, Chris Carpenter, on the mound, and were facing the 100-loss Astros. They were going to win.
The Braves had Tim Hudson, a seasoned veteran of multiple postseasons, on the mound, against a Philadelphia team with nothing to play for, having clinched the best record in baseball already. The Phillies were playing their top guys, but still, the Braves were at home, with an experienced winner, and needed to win. No reason why they shouldn’t.
The Cardinals were the only team that stuck to the script, easily dispatching the Astros. The other games were the prime examples of why we love sports. The Braves, trying to hold on to a slim lead, fell victim to a blown save from rookie closer Craig Kimbrel. At the same time, the Red Sox clung to a 3-2 lead with a rain delay looming. In Florida, Price had choked, and the Yankees had an astounding 7-0 lead in the late innings, bolstered by a joint 2-hitter through seven innings between several pitchers who had nothing to play for. The rains came in Baltimore, knocking Jon Lester out of the game and delaying the final three innings. The Rays scored six runs in the 8th inning. In the 9th, down to their final out, the Rays used pinch hitter Dan Johnson, he of the .108 batting average. Down to two strikes, Johnson somehow hit a game-tying home run, sending the game to extra innings. Moments later, the Red Sox started back up. Sox workhorse Alfredo Aceves pitched the 7th, Daniel Bard got through the 8th, and it was on to Jonathan Papelbon in the 9th. Before Papelbon, though, the Sox squandered prime scoring opportunities in both the 8th and 9th innings. Around the time the Yankees-Rays was heading into the 12th, the Braves were putting the finishing touches on a 4-3 loss in 13 innings, ending their season and completing their improbable collapse. Papelbon recorded two outs, and then had two strikes on the next batter. Just like the Rays had come back from two out, strikes, so did the Orioles. A double. Another one. And a single. Game over, 4-3 Orioles. Same score the Braves lost by. Literally, in real time, three minutes after the Sox lost, Evan Longoria hit a walk off home run, sending the Rays to the playoffs and sending the Sox home for the winter. The term “roller coaster” doesn’t do justice to what happened. There truly isn’t a word to describe what happened.
All the while, fans were writhing in anxiety. I’m not going to lie: I was nervous. I know what it’s like to watch these kinds of games, and it’s absolutely terrifying as a fan knowing that your team can be out of it if one thing goes wrong. Yet, I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face as I devoured a Reuben at Izzy’s.
Personally, I think it speaks volumes that I was able to watch without covering my eyes, screaming, or freaking out somehow. For one, I think I’ve matured as a sports fan. It’s no longer life and death. I still care plenty. It’s just that I can live with the defeat, especially if it’s so deserving, like with the 2011 Red Sox.
What’s more, is that I can appreciate a transcendent sporting phenomenon even if one of my teams is going down in flames. Nights like September 28th remind me what sports are capable of. It reminded me that there’s no better theater than what can take place on a baseball diamond, a hockey rink, or a basketball court on any given night. What happened last night was beautiful. I just don’t care as much that my team lost, because it was simply magical. Look at the symmetry. The Rays, down to their final strike, hit a game tying home run. The Red Sox, needing just one more strike, give up a series of game tying and game winning hits. The Rays, a mere three minutes after the Red Sox failed to finish a game in the same manner in which the Rays extended theirs, winning on a walk-off home run. It was wild, and it was wondrous. It’s never happened before, and it’ll never happen again. It’s just not possible. For the month to culminate the way it did…it just isn’t real. It goes beyond sports. I can’t describe it. The greatest writers in the world can’t describe it. And if you watched it unfold, there’s really no need to describe it.
So yeah, my team lost a soul-crushing way. And for the first time in my life, I wasn’t miserable. It was so thrilling, you just had to appreciate and marvel at what was taking place. Just remember these kinds of nights the next time you question why you love sports so much. Because sports gives you a night where two events, independent of each other, yet so closely related, with probabilities of less than 1/250, can take place. Because sports, especially baseball, don’t end at a regularly scheduled time, and will go on until one team is left standing, no matter how deep in the night a game may go. Because sports provides us with more unexpected drama, poetic symmetry, and surreality than anything we can imagine in any other aspect of life.
We all love those rare occasions where we can look back on a sporting event and say, “Huh, I bet that’ll never happen again.” Well, last night pretty much surpasses anything we’ve seen before in the “Once in a lifetime” department, so let’s just soak it in while realizing how fortunate we were as witnesses. Atlanta fans and Boston fans, you have every right to be upset, because your teams betrayed you in the cruelest way possible: they were choking slowly and painfully for a month, and then choked abruptly and excruciatingly in a night. But what makes us better for it is the ability to take away the beauty of the situation, no matter how much it hurts. And at the end of the day, if you’re a true sports fan, you just have to say, “I know my team lost, and I’m devastated, but I have to admit, in a strange way, that was perfect.” Of all the gifts that sports gives us, that is certainly one of its greatest.