The 10-year-old in me loves comebacks. Maybe that’s true of the 10-year-old in all of us, I don’t know, but for as far back as I can remember I have loved two kinds of teams more than any other. The first, of course, were the hometown teams, which for me were Cleveland teams, the Indians and Browns and Cavaliers, those heartbreakers I had inherited because my father found a job at a factory there before I was born.
The second, though, was the team trailing at any given moment. In other words, I have spent more or less my whole life rooting for comebacks. Maybe you have too? When I was 10, I had no real understanding about anything but I already had a vivid understanding of the calculus of the comebacks. A football team down 17 could score, onside kick, score again, onside kick again, and kick a field goal to force overtime. An NBA team down 8 with 30-seconds left, needed to foul and needed to move fast. A hockey team down a goal later needed to pull the goalie and overwhelm the final few seconds with numbers and desperation. My non-Cleveland heroes were the masters of those comebacks. I despised the Dallas Cowboys, but could not but love the ways Roger Staubach seemed to emerge in the final two minutes, like the cardboard shapes that emerge from pop-up books. I loathed Larry Bird except when the clocked ticked to oblivion when I wanted him to hit the game-tying shot and extend the game. I could not abide Reggie Jackson, but wanted to see him come up with two men on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
I think that’s why I rooted for comebacks: I never wanted the games to end. When games ended, real life began — school, tests, homework, paper-routes, chores, bed-time, boring adult television shows — but as long as the game went on, they wouldn’t show 60 Minutes, and all those things that I dreaded were postponed for at least a few more minutes. The game was still on. This time, the game really might last forever.
The 10-year-old in me danced again Thursday night. For two-plus hours, Thursday’s World Series Game 6 between the Cardinals and Rangers felt incompetent to me. I have a friend who says that the biggest difference between football or basketball and baseball is that in football and basketball two bad teams can play a wildly entertaining game if they are equally bad, but that in baseball it isn’t so. I guess it depends on your perspective, but I think he’s on to something. Bad baseball is bad baseball. After six innings, St. Louis and Texas were tied at 4, and Joe Buck went to break by saying, “What a game!” which is what you’re supposed to say, I suppose, when a World Series Game 6 is tied going into the seven thinning.
But I honestly believed that no matter how close the game was it was a stinker for the ages. The fielders had already committed five errors — some of them comical — and the pitchers had walked nine batters, and twelve hitters had struck out, and Matt Holliday had earned special mention for getting picked off third base with the bases loaded — where in the heck was he going? There already had been inscrutable managerial decisions, like Ron Washington’s bizarre pinch-hitter fake which ended up with starting pitcher Colby Lewis at the plate flailing helplessly with the bases loaded and the Rangers on the cusp of breaking the game wide open.
It felt to me more like a Game 6 rehearsal than an actual game, and I was sad that this baseball season — that at times had been so electrifying and wonderful; there will never be another day in baseball quite like Day 162 — would end with such a dreadfully played game. The Rangers seemed to put it away in the seventh when Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz hit back to back homers off Lance Lynn and then La Russa, perhaps because of his bad experiences with bullpen phones, left him in to give up a single to David Murphy. In time, and after some drama, the Rangers would score once more on Ian Kinsler’s single and give Texas a 7-4 lead.
A three-run lead seemed like more than enough on this cold night, and in the bottom of the seventh Albert Pujols hit a feeble ground out that looked like it might be his last at-bat of the season. That meant it might have been the last at-bat for Pujols in St. Louis. I thought about how unfulfilling that must have felt to Cardinals fans. I still think he will re-sign with the Cardinals because it just seems so obviously right for both sides, but I’ve also been hearing from some people that something broke there, something that won’t be easy to repair. We’ll see. Either way, his groundout to end the seventh seemed as dismal as the rest of the game. The Cardinals’ Allen Craig did homer in the eighth, and the Cardinals loaded the bases, but Rafael Furcal — who has looked helpless all postseason — helplessly grounded back to the pitcher to end the threat.
And one more time in my life, I entered a ninth inning hoping, against hope, for a comeback, and a Game 7 and more baseball. You know, baseball’s comeback calculus seems to me more complicated than in football or basketball because there’s is no clock to guide you, no timeouts to postpone what feels inevitable. Theoretically, comebacks are always possible in baseball — a team down 11 runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth could conceivably win (while a team down 42 points in the final minute seconds cannot even win theoretically in other sports). But baseball comebacks feel rarer to me. That may not be technically true — it might be that baseball teams come back in the final inning just as often, perhaps even more often, than football or basketball teams come back in the final seconds — but it doesn’t feel that way. Teams losing in the ninth almost always lose.
St. Louis’ Ryan Theriot struck out swinging to start the inning. The game was winding down. The credits were about roll, the champagne (or whatever pop the Rangers had on ice) was about spill. And I felt good for Dallas/Fort Worth baseball fans, the ones who love baseball’s rhythms and do not see the sports calendar only as a time when the Cowboys are playing, training, drafting or resting. They’ve never won a World Series in Texas. And this really is a lovable team.
Pujols came up again, and this time he doubled into the gap, a more fitting end if indeed this was the end. Then Rangers closer Neftali Feliz walked Lance Berkman. Feliz looked uncomfortable on the mound, but I think he tends to look that way. Part of the magic of Mariano is the placid look, the slumped shoulders, as if this is all just a formality, as if he had already saved the game a few hours before and is only performing it once more for those people who missed it. Feliz, though, is a bit twitchy, he expresses disgust, his motion is violent and impassioned, and I thought after he walked Berkman he looked unsure. His first two pitches to Allen Craig were also balls. But then he threw a 98-mph fastball over the middle of the plate, and that seemed to comfort him, and after a little battle he finished off Craig with a nasty pitch that was some combination of a slider and cutter. Craig, expecting a triple digit fastball, watched it go by for strike three.
And this led to David Freese and the Cardinals last hope. Soon, as announcers like to say, he was down to his last strike, and then he hit a 98-mph fastball hard to right field. And the beauty of it was that in the instant after the ball was hit, it had a chance to be anything. He had obviously hit it well — the ball cracked off the bat — but there was no telling how well. It had a chance to be a home run. It had a chance to be an out. I have written before that there is nothing in sports like the successful football Hail Mary pass, and the main reason I think that is that no two Hail Mary passes are alike. Sometimes they deflect from one receiver to another. Sometimes, they bounce off the defenders hands and back to a waiting receiver. Sometimes, the pass just drops into a pile and just sticks in a receiver’s hands. Really, there are countless geometrical possibilities. Baseball doesn’t usually have that kind of geometry. Home runs are home runs. Singles are singles. Pop-outs are pop-outs.
But Freese’s fly was something like a Hail Mary, there was just no telling how it would end while the ball was in the air. Cruz went back on it with the cautious nature of an outfielder who is about to make a catch. This is the thing that baseball people told me and I have told countless people — watch the outfielder. They will usually tell you the story. Cruz seemed ready to catch the ball. But this time Cruz’s apparent calm was an illusion — Cruz had misread the wall. He thought he was a lot closer to it. I have seen the replay a dozen times now, and it seems to me that he could have caught that ball, should have caught that ball, that the wall and the moment conquered him. He leaped for the ball but awkwardly and meagerly, like someone descending stairs in the dark who doesn’t realize that there is one more step. The ball crashed off the wall, bounced by him, and the Cardinals scored two runs to tie the game and the St. Louis crowd transformed into a jet engine.
What followed felt too awesome, like those imaginary games we all used to play in our backyard with impossible comebacks and ridiculous twists and all those things that real sports so rarely become. The Rangers took the two-run lead on a home run by Josh Hamilton, that made-for-TV movie star who seemed to throw his life and talents away on drugs but somehow found his soul and came back to the game and became one of the most magnificent players in the game. The Cardinals in the bottom of the inning were sending up Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and a pitcher (La Russa had run out of bench players, of course) and so they had no chance at all, except that Descalso’s ground ball went through for a base hit, and Jay singled on a lazy blooper to left. Kyle Lohse’s sacrifice bunt was hit in the air and, if circumstances had been only slightly different, might have ended up a triple play. As it turned out, it slipped past third baseman Adrian Beltre, and only an alert play by shortstop Elvis Andrus made it an out.
So, second and third, one out, and Ryan Theriot grounded out — scoring one run, but the unimportant one — and that brought Pujols to the plate one more time. If this had been a Disney movie, as one Brilliant Tweeter said, he would have hit a home run that knocked down the Arch. Instead, this being something at least resembling real life, he was intentionally walked.
God, I hate the Intentional walk.
This brought up Lance Berkman with the tying run on second, and he was voted the Comeback Player of the Year in 2011. I’m not entirely sure what he came back from, other than a semi-lousy season, but I was happy for him just the same because Berkman is one of the good guys in baseball, and he’s also one of the game’s most underrated hitters, and I mean ever. He roped a base hit that scored Jay and the game was tied again.
There is, in life, something I have come to think of as the “rain line.” If you’ve ever played sports in the rain — football in the rain, tennis in the rain, running in the rain — you might have felt this, that moment when you are so wet and exhausted and thrilled that it no longer matters, you’ve crossed that line, and you don’t care it ever stops raining, you just want it to go on forever. That Berkman single is when this game crossed the rain line for me. It wasn’t beautiful. It wasn’t artistic. It wasn’t the best baseball. But it was wonderful. And I wanted it to go on all night.
It didn’t go on all night — didn’t go on much longer, in fact. But it ended just right. David Freese, who hit the Hail Mary triple back in the ninth inning, led off the 11th with the score tied. He had grown up in the St. Louis area, a Cardinals fan. He crushed the ball his senior year of high school — set a school record with 23 homers — but he was not regarded. He was not drafted. He went to St. Louis Community College, then South Alabama, and he was again not drafted after his junior year. It was the San Diego Padres, not the Cardinals, who took him in the ninth round when he came out as a senior, though he hit well enough in the minors that the Cardinals asked for him when they traded an old Jim Edmonds to San Diego. Freese is 28 years old now, and he he has yet to get even 400 at-bats in a season.
He has been electrifying this postseason. It isn’t just that he’s hit .393 with power for the postseason, but there has just seemed something sturdy about him, something that appeals to the many, many Cardinals fans I know. It is the something almost inexpressible that Ken Boyer had, that Terry Pendleton had, that, yes, David Eckstein had, something that has to do with visible effort. They may not really be trying any harder than anyone else. But damn it, they LOOK like they are.
Freese hit the home run that won the game, hit it to straight away center field, a blast that will make every drink free in St. Louis for the rest of his life. And the 10-year-old in me was still shaking with joy. That 10-year-old always believed in comebacks, always, even after I had seen a thousand of them thwarted and smothered. “Next time,” I have always thought because that’s the wonder of sports. And then came this imperfect game, bloated with mistakes and brain-lock and baffling choices, and then, absurdly, miraculously, it became the most wonderful game I can remember. “See you tomorrow night,” Joe Buck said after Freese’s home run landed in the grass over the center field wall, a tribute to his wonderful father, and it was true in St. Louis. But where I was watching the game it was already tomorrow.