I could say that there are no words, but then I wouldn’t be a writer. I could say that I didn’t know what to think or say when Evan Longoria tore Scott Proctor’s 2-2 service over the fence for game, wild card, and what remained of the Boston Red Sox’s hearts; when badly-spent rookie Atlanta relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel heaved up the tying run in the ninth and Hunter Pence ripped a two-out RBI single in the thirteenth. But then I wouldn’t be a baseball fan.
Except that for a good while I actually didn’t know what to say. I had just kept my closest eye on maybe the greatest night in baseball history, and the most heartbreaking fifteen minutes the sport has ever seen, and I could only replay the moves in my mind and my heart. Not to mention where the Red Sox and the Braves stood well enough at the top of the wild card heap when September began only to stand in the shadows of collapse, complete and profound, two nights before September would end with a postseason beginning that both teams would see only on television. Assuming they retained the stomach for it.
Fredi Gonzalez isn’t likely to lose his job over the Braves’ self-immolation. Terry Francona may well have lost his over the Red Sox’s. Gonzalez inexplicably sounded the call of no excuses after Pence’s single closed the Braves’ coffins and one his key mistakes, his overuse of his bullpen in the first half, no longer had the resources to keep Atlanta’s anemic offence from being overmatched by a Philadelphia lineup that didn’t know the meaning of the words lay back and let it happen. Francona inexplicably dozed at the tiller while his Red Sox proved ill-conditioned, ill-consistent, and perhaps ill-aligned when the heaviest heat of the stretch drive bore down upon them.
Remember this time notation: 9:56 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, Wednesday, 28 September 2011. From that moment, as the Red Sox and the Braves enjoyed tight 3-2 leads while the Tampa Bay Rays were unamused by a 7-0 deficit (to the AL East champion New York Yankees, basically in tuneup-for-the-postseason mode), baseball essentially chose to remind a jaded nation just what is its real national pastime and which of its professional sports still holds the deepest capacity for the most transcendental drama. Especially when, as many did, the final month begins with those who should know better yawning over its guaranteed absence.
Even if it meant Kimbrel, otherwise a solid Rookie of the Year candidate with the rookie saves record, throwing a meatball that could be dumped for a seeing-eye tying RBI in the ninth.
Even if it meant Longoria possibly giving the out-of-town scoreboard a fleeting glance before hitting a three-run homer off Luis Ayala to pull the Rays to within a run of a Yankee team with no stake in the race any longer because they’d already wrapped the East.
Even if it meant the St. Louis Cardinals—whose own stupefying return from the land of the living dead will be forgotten too often in the tales of Atlanta and Boston deflation—finishing their 8-0 abuse of the worst roster in Houston Astros history, ensuring that even if the Braves hung in to pull out a win it would mean, at best, the equal of a condemned prisoner filing one more court appeal.
Even if it meant an up-and-down first baseman, who can’t normally hit if you suggest he try a hangar door, stepping in against a Yankee no-name named Cory Wade and hitting one out with the Rays down to their final strike, sending that one to extra innings in the bargain.
Even if it means the drama going from acute to beyond the fifth dimension, when a rain delay in Camden Yards finally ebbs and the Red Sox can resume the festivities against the Orioles, whose season would end in the basement but who were playing for spoiler to climax an apparent season-long feud with the Olde Towne Team.
Even if it means Pence swinging like a quadriplegic to sneak a broken-bat base hit to where neither second baseman Dan Uggla nor first baseman Freddie Freeman can reach it, to put the Phillies up 4-3 in the top of the thirteenth.
Even if it means Freeman grounding into a season-ending double play, leaving the Braves the potential holders of the worst September collapse ever this side of the 1995 California Angels.
Even if it means Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox’s hearty reliever, opening the ninth with back-to-back punchouts only to close it with back-to-back doubles, including the ground-rule game tyer from Nolan Reimold and, three minutes later, Robert Andrino dumping a quail that Carl Crawford, the Red Sox’s high-priced snatch from Tampa Bay, whose season had been one of exposing himself as an overrated talent in the first place, got a glove on only to see it bang off its edge unconscionably and roll away for the game-losing RBI.
Even if it means, three minutes after that, Longoria turning on Proctor and the Red Sox with one long-distance swing and joining company with Gabby Hartnett, Bobby Thomson, Bill Mazeroski, Chris Chambliss, Carlton Fisk, Kirk Gibson, Joe Carter, Aaron Boone, Steve Finley, and David Ortiz.
Even if it means only too many people are going to obsess enough with the Red Sox’s and the Braves’s self-immolation that they need to be reminded that the Rays made themselves into the greatest comeback team September has ever known, from nine out to the wild card, with the Cardinals doing what they hadn’t been done since they did it on the backside of the infamous Phillie Phlop of 1964—from eight back to the World Series.
That’s the genuinely sad part. More people remember the Phillie Phlop than the Cardinal Comeback. And more people will remember the self-immolations of this year’s Braves and this year’s Red Sox than the gallant self-resurrections of this year’s Cardinals and Rays.
Ortiz himself must be feeling the pangs of hell in his oversize heart. Once upon a time, he stood tall and proud as the man who finished what Dave Roberts started and launched the Red Sox toward the beginning of the greatest postseason recovery ever. Seven years later, he stands among the beaten as part of the worst collapse in the same team’s tortuous enough history.
One only imagines the pangs in Chipper Jones’s heart. The only incumbent Brave to have been there when the Braves last won a World Series, in 1995, pushing himself now on balky knees while the rest of the bats around him ran the gamut from papier mache to parchment and back. Jones could do no more to stem his team’s deflation than had been done over all those early-and-often postseason executions. Only this time he wouldn’t even get into the postseason to test any prospective curse on the Braves. This time, the Braves had taken a gasoline bath and lit the cigarettes of the condemned before the bath was dry. It likely leaves the aging and banged-up Jones to ponder whether he’ll try one more season, one more pennant race, one more chance to join his Braves for one more clean World Series shot.
They’ll recover a lot more readily than the Red Sox will, alas. The Red Sox. A team who’d fractured a long-standing curse of surrealistic heartbreak, thought they had it made, and learned the hard way how unkind it is to tempt the baseball gods once too often and with little to appease them. A team who’d once been hale and hearty heartbrokens, learning the hard way that complacency, indifference (the stories have already wafted up about the striking lack of chemistry on this year’s model), and reputed sloth merely leaves you heartbroken.
It’s as though Dave Roberts’ stolen base, David Ortiz’s eleventh-hour bombs, Curt Schilling’s blood-and-boots pitching, Johnny Damon’s salami, and Keith Foulke’s shovel to Doug Mientkiewicz were figments of the imagination.
Once again, we see Leon Culberson throwing high to Johnny Pesky, Joe McCarthy pulling Ellis Kinder, Dick Williams asking what Jim Lonborg no longer had, Luis Aparicio stumbling around third, Darrell Johnson pulling Jim Willoughby, Bill Lee throwing an insult to Tony Perez, Don Zimmer sitting Luis Tiant for Ice Water Sprowl, Bucky (You-Know-Whatting) Dent hitting the home run, the grounder skipping through Bill Buckner’s wicket, Grady Little committing to Pedro Martinez’s heart without checking his flesh and bones.
Those Red Sox teams were at least done in in honest effort. This one was done in by . . . well, we don’t want to say dishonest effort. But this injury-pockmarked Red Sox team didn’t have what that injury-pockmarked Tampa Bay team ended up having. Those Red Sox teams provoked a literature of tragedy unlike any baseball has ever known this side of the Chicago Cubs. This one is likely to produce a book of calumny. (It’ll only begin with how the Rays could have come back from the dead without Crawford while the Red Sox came back from the land of the living with him.)
And, the unemployment of the franchise’s most successful manager. Terry Francona once shepherded the end of 86 years of transcendental heartbreak. Now he’s the the poster boy, right or wrong, for one season of transcendental heartbreak. Fredi Gonzalez is probably counting his blessings. In Atlanta, they don’t call for heads on plates or dates with the lions in Turner Field over this kind of thing. If they did, Bobby Cox would be the answer to a trivia question, not a Hall of Fame manager in waiting.