Baseball Magazine

Why We're Fans

By Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy

Why We're Fans

Rays celebrate their playoff-clinching win

This isn't a sports blog. But this blogger is a sports fan, and I occasionally write sports-centered and sports-related posts. Whether as a witness to tennis excellence, as a critique of college sporting bureaucracy, or as in the case of this post, reflecting on a sequence of events from last night's Major League Baseball games that encapsulates why we fans spend our time and energy following the sports we love. Why we're fans in the first place.
A very short synopsis: last night, on the final day of the regular season, the Tampa Bay Rays and the St. Louis Cardinals clinched the American and National League Wild Card playoff slots, edging out respectively, the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. But how it happened is genuinely remarkable.
Major League Baseball has existed as an organization since 1876, just this past weekend the league's 200,000 game was played. That's vastly more than any other profession league in any other sport can boast. Yet journalists and broadcasters that follow the game, and long-term interested fans like this writer, have never witnessed a night like last night. A night eagerly anticipated, and then fulfilled by games loaded with tension and drama, improbable and sudden twists, and a timing of outcomes that's hard to believe. A baseball fan, a sports fan, could ask for nothing more.
Two Historic September Collapses
Coming into last night's games, the Rays and Red Sox were tied for the American League Wild Card. Ditto the Cardinals and Braves in the National League. The standings were surprising because the Red Sox and Braves had led the Wild Card races by 9 and 8.5 games at the beginning of the month. No team in baseball history had ever failed to make the playoffs with September leads that large. But awful months by both teams (7 wins and 20 losses for the Red Sox; 9 and 18 for the Braves) and strong finishes by the Rays and Cardinals made races out of what should have been early playoff berths. When I write awful, I mean not only were these teams losing, but in many ways their play - so solid all year - almost seemed self-destructive. Both teams were imploding and had one last night to try and salvage the season.
A Phenomenal September 28
All 30 teams played last night, but the baseball world's attention was focused on just four; the Red Sox and last-place Orioles in Baltimore, the playoff-bound Yankees and Rays in St. Petersburg, the Cardinals and woeful Astros in Houston, and the (MLB best) Phillies and Braves in Atlanta.

Why We're Fans

Cardinal win easy

The Cardinals clobbered the hapless Astros, jumping out to a 5-0 first inning lead on route to an easy 8-0 win that was over before 10:30 PM. They had clinched at least a one game playoff with the Braves.
The Braves jumped out to a 3-1 lead over Philadelphia. The Red Sox jumped to a 1-0 lead over Baltimore, fell behind 2-1, tied the game, and then took a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning. The Yankees jumped all over the Rays and starter David Price, taking a 5-0 second inning lead thanks to Mark Teixeira's grand slam, and stretching the lead to 7-0 by the fifth inning.
So far, nothing remarkable. In fact the Rays-Yankees game was turning out to be anti-climactic. Around 9:30 PM it started raining in Baltimore, leading to a rain delay with the Red Sox still leading 3-2 in the middle of the seventh inning. The Braves were leading by the same score. The Rays had managed just two hits. The Cardinals were rolling to victory. Anyone who turned away at this point could have never anticipated what was about to happen. Allow me to summarize in bullet form:
  • The Braves had a ninth inning 3-2 lead, but the Phillies managed a one-out run off a tired Craig Kimbrel, the Braves rookie closer. Score tied 3-3.
  • The Rays, trailing and going down meekly in the most important game of the year - and against none of the Yankees top-line pitchers - come to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, six outs from defeat. Here's the sequence: single, double, hit-by-pitch, walk - score 7-1, hit-by-pitch - score 7-2, strikeout, sacrifice fly - score 7-3, and then a three-run home run by Evan Longoria. What a shift! Score 7-6 Yankees.
  • The Rays, at bat in  the bottom of the ninth, two outs. Pinch hitter Dan Johnson, batting 0.108 with just nine hits all year - the last one in April - is down to his last strike, and so, seemingly, are the Rays. He hits a game tying home run off the right field foul pole! Score tied 7-7.
  • The Red Sox and Orioles resume play after an hour-and-a-half rain delay.
  • The Braves-Phillies game continues into the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth inning. Phillies batter Hunter Pence drives in the go-ahead run on an infield single. Score 4-3 Phillies.
  • The Red Sox escape an Orioles rally in the bottom of the seventh. In the top pf the eighth, with a Marco Scutaro on first base, Carl Crawford rips a double to the left-centerfield gap, Scutaro, off with the pitch, scurries around second as centerfielder Adam Jones rushes to cut off the ball. Scutaro races towards third being waved home. Jones fires the ball to shortstop J.J. Hardy who wheels and fires a bullet to catcher Matt Weiters waiting at the plate. Scutaro and the ball arrive nearly simultaneously...out! Score still 3-2 Red Sox.
  •  In the bottom of the thirteenth, the Braves go strikeout, walk, ground ball double play. Game over, Braves lose, and the Cardinals advance to the playoffs.
  • The Yankees-Rays games continues into the tenth then eleventh inning.
  • The Red Sox rally again in the top of the ninth with the heart of their order. Jacoby Ellsbury with an infield single and stolen base, then a Dustin Pedroia single. They have men on first and third with no outs. Then after a David Ortiz barely hits the ball leading to a force out at second, Adrian Gonzalez is intentionally walked. Bases-loaded with one out. Rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway grounds into and inning-ending double play. Score still 3-2 Red Sox.
  • The Rays escape a Yankees first and third, no out rally in the top of the twelfth to keep the score tied.
  • Nearly concurrently, Red Sox closer Jonathon Papelbon strikes out the first two Orioles batters in the bottom of the ninth. Then Chris Davis doubles down the right field line. Nolan Reimold, down to his last strike, crushes a double to the right-centerfield gap. Davis scores to tie the game. Then light-hitting Robert Andino slashes a line drive in from of left fielder Carl Crawford, who dives but has to short-hop the ball. Reimold is racing around third base as Crawford pops up and throws home...too late! Reimold scores, the Orioles win, and rush the field like they just clinched a playoff spot.
  • Why We're Fans

    Braves contemplating a season-ending defeat

  • Three minutes later, Evan Longoria hits a line drive smack down the left field line that barely clears the fence. Home run. Rays victory 4-3. Pandemonium!...the Rays advance to the playoffs and the Red Sox are eliminated, completing a historic collapse.
That's one ninth inning blown save, a huge Rays comeback punctuated by three huge home runs, including to stay alive on their last strike, and a two-out, two-strike bottom-of-the-ninth rally by the Orioles. For all the world it looked like the Cardinals and Braves were headed to a one game playoff, the Red Sox were going to avoid an ignominious collapse, and the Rays were headed home, showing little fight. Everything changed - in as dramatic and exciting a fashion a imaginable - in less than two hours. The games were like microcosms of the respective team's Septembers. In that way I guess it was fitting.

Why We're Fans

Red Sox watch the Orioles celebrate the end of their season


Reaction
John Perrotto from Baseball Prospectus wrote a great, succinct analysis of last night,
"You can search every page of baseball-reference.com. You can go back through every issue of the Sporting News, from the days when it was the 'bible of baseball.' Yet it would be impossible to ever find a night in baseball history...that was better than Wednesday evening. No way. No how..."

Tom Verducci from Sports Illustrated wrote that the drama of last night was never experienced before and may never be seen again. The end of the night was as he wrote, "the most thrilling 129 minutes in baseball history." Bill Simmons, the "Sports Guy", kept a running diary of his reactions watching the Rays-Yankee and Red Sox-Orioles games. Near the climax of both games he noted that the night had morphed into something more than a night of baseball games, it had become one of those nights that a sports fan will never forget. ESPN Sportscenter host Scott van Pelt, clearly at a loss, just stated that this night is why sports are the best thing (I'm assuming he meant best form of entertainment).
A coworker was at the Red Sox-Orioles game. He said the experience was uncommon, with a palpable intensity in the air. The fans (and undoubtedly the players) not only were riveted by the events in Camden Yards but were acutely aware of the unfolding stories in the other games. Such an atmosphere hadn't been felt in Baltimore since the Orioles last playoff team (in the last millennium!).
It's a tired cliche the truth is stranger than fiction. For sure, truth is far more interesting than fiction. And for one night, baseball showed just how dramatic, how much fun, sports can be.

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