It takes a lot for me to get excited about baseball. Maybe this is because I still need to choke up on the bat to hit the ball out of the infield, or because the Cubs’ perennial failure has made me crotchety and bitter. Whatever the case, seldom in the 162-game season does a bottom-of-the-ninth, bases-loaded, two-out situation get me as excited as a field goal as tie is expiring, or a last-second three-point attempt as the buzzer sounds. That is, except for this past Wednesday night, when Major League Baseball concluded its regular season with arguable the single most exciting night ever in the organization’s 142-year history.
Before we dissect exactly what made the night so momentous, let’s return for a moment to the baseball season’s structure. To put 162 games into proper perspective, consider that that is twice as long as the regular NBA season and over 10 times as long as the regular NFL season. Sure, baseball players suffer less day-to-day wear and tear then do other professional athletes, but still, that many games will take a toll on anyone. I think that may be the single greatest underlying reason for my lack or rabid fanaticism for the sport as a whole. I’m honestly not sure I have the mental fortitude or emotional stamina to remain that invested in a team and group of players for 162 days year in and year out. Not only that, but the season rarely is that unpredictable (again, but for this past Wednesday). Even before the opening day in April, every player, manager, owner and fan knows that his or her team will win at least 54 games and lose at least 54 games. It’s what a team does with the other 54 games that actually matters. That’s why when a team enters into the month of September with a nine-game lead in the wild card standings, it’s viewed as a near mortal lock that they will be playing in October.
If you didn’t catch that, let me spell it out for you again. In the American League, the Boston Red Sox entered into September with — according to some crackpot sports analysis — a 99.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. In the National League, the Braves entered the month with an 8.5-game lead in the wild card race over the St. Louis Cardinals, and a similarly high probability of making the playoffs. Cue my losing interest in the season, and the final 20 games. But, almost as if to spite my fading concern, the baseball gods conspired to create on of the most unexpected but exciting months in recent memory. The Red Sox, with their lackluster pitching and shoddy fielding, dropped 18 of their final 24 games. The Braves performed with similar lethargy, going 9–18 over the course of the month.
All of this brings us to Wednesday, where both the NL and AL wild cards were on the line. Almost as though it were meant to happen, both the Red Sox and Braves lost, while the Cardinals and Rays each won to take their respective clubhouses into the October playoffs. It was more than that though, especially for the Red Sox and Rays. It was as if both teams’ games represented a microcosm of their entire respective seasons. The Red Sox had chances to win it, but blew it with careless errors, errant pitching, and a (now unemployed) manager who could control neither his lineup nor his bullpen. The Rays, on the other hand, toppled Boston’s greatest rival — the New York Yankees — on Evan Longoria’s walk-off home run. The Rays had entered the closing inning trailing 7–0.
Now, the night had other things going for it rather than just sports drama of the highest caliber. Though it is sad that the Cardinals had to prevail , as a true enemy of Boston sports teams, it gives me no greater pleasure than to watch one of their storied franchises implode in most of the most ignominious endings to a season in the history of sports. But, from an unbiased, purely observational perspective, those who were watching on a Wednesday witnessed history. For those few hours, as the season ended in the most dramatic of fashions, baseball reminded us both why it can be exciting, and why is stands as our national pastime.