I remember 1991.
Not unlike this year, the end of the season featured high drama and compelling storylines. The World Series, among the best ever, featured a straight-out-of-Hollywood matchup between the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves, two teams who had finished last in their respective divisions the year before. Atlanta’s victory over the Pirates was the opening act, when Francisco Cabrera, a little-used backup catcher, snuck a single into left field and Sid Bream lumbered home from second for a walkoff pennant-clinching win.
Then, in the World Series, the Braves and Twins took three games into extra innings, and five of the seven games were decided by only one run. There are so many memorable moments – Kirby Puckett‘s catch against the glass and walkoff homer in Game 6, Kent Hrbek pulling Ron Gant off of first base, Jack Morris throwing ten shutout innings in Game 7.
Out of all that, though, I remember the end of the broadcast. Before rolling the credits, they played a narration of the above quote, written by former Commissioner Bart Giamatti. It’s from an essay called “The Green Fields of the Mind” and in 1991, after an incredible World Series, I found myself crying at the words.
Many of my friends don’t “get” baseball. They think it’s slow, or boring, or nothing happens.
And that’s okay. Some people won’t see the subtle things or get invested enough to let each game stand on its own. As a Royals fan, I have to do those things because, for most of my life, they’ve been a pretty terrible team. I turn my attention to the present. If they can win this game, everything will be okay. But there’s always tomorrow if they don’t. Hope springs eternal. There’s always tomorrow. Steve Berthiaume had a great piece on ESPN.com a while back about this and the amount of attention that a baseball fan has to exhibit to follow the game. It’s its own reward.
There’s a necessary optimism and even stubbornness to being a baseball fan. You have to get in there every day, win or lose, and cheer for your team. It’s difficult, it’s a grind, and it’s painful. But there’s always a feeling in the back of my mind that the day everything falls into place, all the dutiful following will be worth it and more.
It’s that kind of optimism – Giamatti calls it “illusion” later in his essay – that keeps millions of baseball fans going. It’s the tension of watching the pitcher come set on the rubber, check the runners, and as he winds up to deliver the pitch, an infinite number of outcomes could happen. Anything can happen. I get caught up in the moment, anticipating the wicked curveball to freeze a batter or the fastball waist-high that gets crushed over the left-field fence.
When a basketball team wins a championship, there’s a lot of chest-pounding and table-leaping. In football, there’s celebration, but the same bravado is there. In baseball, men jump like boys when celebrating a big win. It’s an entirely different spirit.
There’s no time clock in baseball. This is one of the key features that fans use to defend baseball to their non-baseball-enjoying friends. It is, literally, timeless. It’s still as simple as a ball, a bat, a glove. The game has changed since the days of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, but it hasn’t distorted itself to the point that you couldn’t imagine Lou Gehrig being a star in today’s game. The stories still float out there about the greats, and as good as many of today’s players are, they’re always compared to the giants of the past. The memories are so thick, so goes the line, you have to brush them away from your face.
Because of that, every memory I’ve had about baseball is there while I watch today’s game. Baseball sticks with you. Then, like Giamatti says, it’s gone. In the case of the 1991 World Series, the heartbreak wasn’t because the team I’d rooted for had lost, but because after a grueling season, a magical postseason and a legendary ending, that feeling of baseball’s magic had reached its peak – and then simply stopped.
I liken it to watching the 2011 Royals. No, nobody really expected them to contend in any way, and by June it was clear they were going to suffer another losing season, but there was hope watching Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and all the rest, providing us with hints about what we could see in years to come, that I didn’t want it to end. Just as the Royals were getting into a groove, the season was over. I don’t know about you, but I was wanting more.
I like a line from Doc Graham in Field of Dreams - “This is my most special place in all the world, Ray. Once a place touches you like this, the wind nevers blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.” Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked. There are days where I don’t know that I can sit through a whole game – maybe I get pulled away, maybe I have to work, maybe I just want to do something different – but at the end of the year, I can’t help but feel like I missed an opportunity once the season is over.
The Royals season ended and there’s a long wait for the next tomorrow.
This has been a fantastic year for Major League Baseball. The Cardinals stormed back late to take a playoff spot that they may not have thought they’d reach. The Rangers have rallied behind a former face of their franchise in Nolan Ryan to reach their second straight World Series. To get to this point, baseball had one of the most amazing sports nights ever that saw the conclusion of the Red Sox collapse and the Rays comeback within moments of each other, both games being decided in the final moments. We’ve witnessed baseball’s magic, and now it’s over.
Then there’s the high drama of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. After lots of sloppy play early, the Rangers looked to have the game in control. They escaped a jam to keep it 7-5, then handed the ball off to Neftali Feliz. Then the weirdness started. David Freese, who went to high school in St. Louis, tripled to right with two strikes and two outs in the ninth. The next inning, Josh Hamilton, battling a groin injury and with his well-known story of addiction and redemption, hit a two-run homer to take the lead back. At that point it seemed the Rangers had to have it in play. After two bloop singles and a pitcher pinch-hitting for another pitcher (and almost bunting for a single), Albert Pujols (in his potential third final at bat as a Cardinal) was intentionally walked to load the bases. With two outs and again with two strikes, Lance Berkman, this year’s Comeback Player of the Year, singled up the middle to tie it.
The next inning, Freese hit a walkoff homer to win Game 6.
It wasn’t the most well-played game. The decision making by both managers left much to be desired. It wasn’t pretty, but with every at bat in every inning, the drama increased. The game became more than just a game – it was a moment. The game is already being linked with Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Game 6 of the 1975 Series. Even that 1991 Game 6.
Game 7 was nearly as sloppy, as the Rangers first walked in a run, then hit a batter to bring in another and from that point, the drama was largely gone. David Freese, living out the dream of every baseball fan who follows their hometown team, earned the World Series MVP and cemented himself in the minds of Cardinals fans.
For Rangers fans, it’s exactly how Giamatti described.
But just wait until next year. There’s always next year.