Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The End of a Season

Today I'm going to diverge from my more philosophical tendencies to talk about my weekend a little. I can't promise that this will be strictly narrative, of course (who am I kidding, there's no way), but the hopefully the context the real-life events provide will help to illuminate whatever comes after. Or not.

As you may be aware, back in 2007 the Colorado Rockies went on something of a win streak to close out the season. Winning 14 of their last 15, they made it to the playoffs after a dramatic walk-off in extra innings against the San Diego Padres in a play-in game (and yes, Matt Holliday touched home). Since I have been a Rockies fan ever since 1993, I was very excited by this chance to see my team make the playoffs for only the second time in their history. Since I was only 10 in 1995, I didn't remember too well the beat-down the Braves put on the Rockies that year. Now, in 2007, I was finally old enough to appreciate it, and, what's more, I had shrewdly bought tickets to the first round before it seemed possible that the Rockies could make it.

My roommate Joe and I drove up from Santa Fe to Denver for what turned out to be the final game of a sweep of the Phillies, promptly driving back down the very next day, not even missing class (as I recall). I could go into more detail about 2007, but suffice to say the Rockies lost in a frustrating World Series to the Boston Red Sox. Even so, the chance to see playoff baseball at Coors Field was more than worth it, especially because of the sweet taste of victory at the time.

This season, for the third time in their history, and for the second time in three years, the Rockies made the playoffs as a Wild Card. Their first round opponent? The Phillies, again. Joe is now living and working - from time to time - in Denver. I'm not at Stanford in California. But when our paths crossed over the summer, I had promised Joe: "If the Rockies make the playoffs, and you can get tickets, I'll be there." And I was. And, even though the Rockies lost, it was, in many ways, even better than 2007.

Fortunately my schedule allowed me to get to Colorado and back without missing any class. Unfortunately, Major League Baseball, in its infinite wisdom, chose to postpone both games, forcing me to move my flight back in order to fulfill my purpose (and putting me in conflict with one class which, fortunately, the professor was going to miss as well). I flew out Saturday morning, arriving in Denver just in time for what should have been game three, but instead became a chance to talk to Joe until ?'o-clock in the morning.

Nostalgia having set in, we prepared for game three on Sunday. The Saturday game was scheduled for 7:00 pm, and it was deemed "too cold" to play (though there was a chance of snow, it didn't happen). The Sunday game was scheduled for 8:00 pm, and started at a toasty 35 farenheit. Anyone who has watched playoff baseball knows that the games tend to be slightly longer than regular season games. Pitchers are more deliberate, managers are quicker to make changes, and, most of all, commercial breaks are much, much, much, much longer (so long that, at the end of each inning, there would be a good minute of waiting before the fielding team actually left the dugout and started warming up). As a result, playoff games tend to clock in at about four hours, instead of the more typical two and a half or three we see all season long.

Now 8:00 pm + 4 hours, at 35 degrees... It doesn't take much imagination to figure out what this game was like. In fact, the game was particularly slow, and lasted closer to four and a half, meaning all those fans out in Philadelphia had to stay up until 2:30 if they wanted to see the conclusion. I have no sympathy, however, because in Denver, while not as late, it was much colder.

The game itself is one of the finest I have ever seen. It was hard-fought, gut-wrenching, and utterly frustrating. Time after time it looked like the Phillies would break the game open, or the Rockies would add an extra run or two. Time after time the whole stadium waited silently but nervously, only to erupt into euphoric applause and, in the end, groans. The Phillies won (6-5) after a run in the top of the ninth was surrendered by Rockies closer Huston Street (who had only lost one game all regular season). In the bottom of the ninth, Troy Tulowitzki (who you may remember as the Rockies best player), popped out to left field to end the game with the tying run on second base. It was a sad loss, but a beautiful game all the same, and Joe and I agreed that, if we had to lose, this was as good a way as any. The energy had been even greater than in 2007, when everything was too unreal to register. This time we all knew what was happening, and it was clear that the Rockies and Phillies were playing an uncommonly intense game from the outset.

The Monday game started at 4:00 - much to the consternation of fans who had previously held weekend tickets - and it honestly felt like the previous night's game had never ended. It was still cold, the atmosphere was still as charged as you'd expect at any Denver playoff game, and the players were still sore and tired from their all-night affair. The intensity was just as high, with the Rockies knowing a loss meant the end of the season and the Phillies trying to take another step in defending their World Series crown from last season.

Like Sunday's game, Monday's was brilliant. The pitching was better, and the starters exited with the score 2-1, leaving the Phillies troubled bullpen to protect a one run lead in the last two innings. One was all the Rockies would need. The eighth inning saw Jason Giambi knock a key game-tying double into right field, followed by a Yorvit Torrealba double to the gap that gave the Rockies a 4-2 lead. Torrealba pumped his fists like a prizefighter as he cruised into second, releasing all the pent up expectation of two days worth of "almosts" from the Rockies lineup. This time they had done it, they had broken through against the Phillies bullpen and put up a big inning. What's more, they led by two with their closer Street poised to enter in the ninth.

Street struggled, however, and soon found himself with two speedy runners (Chase Utley and Shane "The Flyin' Hawaiian" Victorino) on base, with former MVP Ryan Howard at the plate and two outs. Here it's important to make a quick sabermetric point. Howard is left-handed, Street is right-handed. Howard hits righties better than just about anyone in baseball, and hits lefties worse than just about anyone. He has one of the most extreme splits of any hitter in the Majors. The Rockies, in this situation, stuck with Street because he is their "closer," that mystical role that managers have come to love so well. Joe Beimel - who has made a career of getting guys like Howard out - sat unused in the bullpen.

Even if you didn't see the game, you can guess what happened next. Howard ripped a double to right field, scoring both Utley and Victorino. Tie game. Before anyone in the stands could really process what had happened, Street surrendered another hit to Jason Werth, allowing Howard to come around and give the Phillies a 5-4 lead. Tracy called on Beimel to get out three, two batters too late.

The bottom of the ninth was almost identical to Sunday's. Ultimately, Troy Tulowitzki came up with the tying run on second and two outs, just like the day before. This time he struck out, instead of flying out, and the Phillies celebrated on the frigid dirt and grass of Coors Field just as the Red Sox had in 2007. There's a strange disconnected feeling you get watching an opposing team celebrate on your home team's field. It happens so rarely - since you can never hit a "walk off" on the road - that you almost never see it. Watching the Phillies mob each other as we left the stadium, I couldn't help but feel it was odd that 25 men could be so happy when the 50,000 around them were so upset.

I love baseball, but this season is over for me. I have plenty else to do, and the remaining teams do not inspire. The two Los Angeles teams - the Dodgers and Angels - are hard to really like, and the Phillies just beat the Rockies. The Yankees, of course, are the Yankees. In all, it's money that's speaking loudest now, with the three of the five largest markets in baseball (only Chicago and San Francisco are left out) represented in the final four teams. In the end, the World Series is still the World Series, and great teams are still great teams, but there's only so much terrible announcing and huge-market mayhem I'm willing to take.

Strangely, though, I feel rather content with the Rockies season. Is this because I'm not a good fan? A Yankees fan sees anything less than a championship as a failure. That's why Joe Torre was fired, and why they spent $200 million on salaries this season. I didn't become a Rockies fan by watching them win, however. Baseball is not a game that can really be judged by its results. Oh sure, it's better to win than it is to lose, and I'd rather see the Rockies win the World Series than watch them finish 5th, but I would still watch if they finished 5th all the same.

Playoff baseball is intensified, but it needs those regular season games in order to be as powerful as it is. I would never be able to appreciate the energy of Coors Field on a 35 degree night in October if I had never sat in 90 degree sun and watched the Rockies lose by 12. If I hadn't stayed up listening to a 21-inning game in a lost season. If I hadn't lived and died with each Jason Jennings fastball in his promising (and unfulfilled) rookie season. If I hadn't followed the path of Ubaldo Jimenez since he was in AA, walking a hitter every inning. Baseball isn't about nights in October, it's about the whole world that surrounds it, the culture of the sport that is rife with injuries and surprise seasons and heated debates and, well, cracker jack. Where else can you get 50,000 people to sing together, but at a baseball game?

Speaking of the culture that surrounds a game, so much of that is present in the fans you see the game with. Those fellow denizens of the bleachers who you've never met, but you you're willing to hug and high-five like you've been friends for years just because some guy hit a ball with a stick. How much more so with the friends you actually have known for years, who have sat through those extra-inning games and blowouts with you.

In our academic and professional lives it's easy to frame our lives in terms of the so-called meaningful things we do. But sometimes it's the meaningless ones that really matter. The success and failure of the Rockies means nothing to my work as a student, or as an educator, but the sport of baseball - for all the money, the advertising, and the steroid-induced drama - remains a constant reminder... Of what? Nothing, really. And that's the point. It's easy to make baseball into a metaphor for life, or to ascribe it some particular profound meaning. That's silly. The whole point is that there isn't one. For those three hours (or four and a half), whether it be 76 degrees and sunny or 35, overcast, and windy, all that matters is whether or not Troy Tulowitzki can hit a game tying single in the bottom of the ninth with two outs to keep the season alive, and you care so much even though you shouldn't.

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