Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Why I Love Baseball

Two improbable things happened in baseball on back-to-back nights. Sunday the Chicago White Sox beat the California Angels to win the American League Pennant and enter the World Series. Monday Albert Pujols became the second player in baseball history to hit a post-season home run that reversed a deficit and save a team from elimination.

Anyone who is from Chicago (as I am) knows why #1 is so amazing. Growing up there I did not just play baseball, I inherited a family tradition. Mine was the cross to bear as Chicago teams failed to win the pennant for 46 years, not to mention a solid 78 years since a World Series title.

Baseball was probably the only thing my father and I had in common, and it was a big part of our lives. I remember taking a family vacation to Maryland, but on the way we stopped in Cincinnati to watch Pete Rose as he closed in on Ty Cobb’s career hit record. We then drove to Cooperstown New York to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame. On the way my dad and I talked about Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson.

There is no crying in baseball and there is also no parity in baseball. And that latter way it is like life. There are the Haves and the Have Nots. One team, the Yankees, has been to the World Series 39 times, including 15 since the last time either Chicago team made it. Some people are born into that type of perennial dynasty, others live to see it once.

Another team, the Houston Astros, has never been to the World Series in their entire 43 year history; this despite nine post-season appearances since 1980. Houston was within one game last year, until the Cardinals took two and won the NLCS. In fact Houston is 0-5 in NLCS clinching games. Last night they were one strike away from winning the NLCS and realizing that 43 year-old dream. The announcers had all but given them the title as their un-hittable closer, Brad Lidge, took the hill in the 9th inning with the Astros winning 4-2 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Hitting a relief pitcher is probably the hardest thing to do in sports. Unlike a starting pitcher that you see three or four at bats against per game, you only get one chance to hit against a relief pitcher. They are paid to simply come in and get three outs and end the game. Lidge is nearly un-touchable due to a 98 mph fast ball and a devastating slider.

So, after two outs (strikeouts) I don’t think anyone in Houston was too concerned when Cardinal David Eckstein squeaked a two-strike hit between third-base and shortstop. The next batter, Jim Edmonds drew a walk, which set the stage for a classic match up: Lidge vs the great slugger Albert Pujols. On the 0-1 pitch Pujols connected with that devastating slider. The ball went sailing up into the electric light, up over left field. It traveled at a fantastic speed over the left field wall, up over the stands, and caromed off the back of the dome. Pujols, holding his bat parallel to the ground like a club watched his handiwork, then jogged around the bases.

43,000 Houston fans were instantly silenced. The Cardinals suddenly were up 5-4. The Astros came up in the bottom of the ninth and went three up and three down. The dream was dramatically dashed, at least for a day, by one magic swing. The Cardinals suddenly had new life.

This is baseball.

Why are sports so popular? I can think of three reasons. First, In our mostly scripted and automated life, we live vicariously through our athletes who represent us in competition. Most of us go to jobs which we know deep down have no meaning. If I don’t do my job someone else will do it. Nothing will be missed. I don’t have to rely on my skills for my next meal. All I have to do is go to the grocery store. There is not much competition in life anymore, but we can get it in sports.

Second, in sports there is a winner and a loser. Period. It is rare to find something so quantifiable in our vague and confusing lives. We can break games down by stats, we can analyze and question why certain things happen and extrapolate accurately the answer and not make the same mistake twice. The winning team or the winning player is the one who does this the best. And, unfortunately, real life is rarely so obvious.

And third, sports provide a community. I’ve sat in bars and celebrated with people I didn’t even know over a special victory. I’ve made friends through playing sports. It provides commonality among a wide group of people. Everyone in St. Louis knows what Pujols did Monday night, and if they don’t I don’t trust them!

The highs and lows are great in sports because when it’s over, it’s over. Everyone knows what happens if Lidge strikes out Pujols. I know how I felt when the Cubs collapsed in 2003. I know where I was when Kirk Gibson hit the game winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. I cried when the Cardinals lost game 6 of the 1985 World Series. Sometimes it is not fair, sometimes it is great and sometimes it burns, but it is always eternal.

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