Baseball often seems a great mass of extraneous incident that exists only to give birth to a few ideal moments.
When a season comes down to a day, and when that day comes down to a pair of perfectly balanced moments of crisis, that seems almost too much to ask.
However, that's what happened in County Stadium as the Milwaukee Brewers wrenched the American League pennant from the grasp of a stunned cast of Calfornia Angels who, until their 4-3 defeat this evening at dusk, thought they held exclusive rights to a World Series visit.
For the victorious Brewers, one tableau will remain longest in mind from this day when Milwaukee completed the greatest comeback in the 14-season history of baseball's playoffs.
Cecil Cooper is up in the seventh inning of this fifth playoff battle. The bases are loaded with two outs. California leads, 3-2, and desperately wants to prevent the Brewers from becoming the first team ever to reach the World Series after trailing in the playoffs two games to none.
And that instant, Cooper, only two for 19 in the playoffs, was the emblem of the frustrations of the greatest offensive machine that baseball has produced in 30 years. As the crowd of 54,968 stood and implored Cooper to get a hit off relief "ace" Luis Sanchez, the pertinent statistics revealed that the most vital Brewers -- the Nos. 3 through 6 hitters -- were batting .121 for this championship series.
"The middle of our lineup hasn't been hitting at all. Not just in this series, but for the last three weeks . . . I think we've been trying too much," said the candid Cooper, one of many Brewers who's been overswinging in the clutch. "If I had struck out then, I would have been the goat . . . I'm just so thankful that I had the opportunity to redeem myself."
When Cooper, possessor of Brewerish numbers like 205 hits and 121 RBI, lined a single to the opposite field, driving home the game-tying and game-winning runs, this town was well on its way to its first pennant binge since the Milwaukee Braves won the National League title in 1958.
That was the moment, Milwaukeeans will say, when the Brewers turned their 13th year of American League existence into a charm. As Charlie Moore and Jim Gantner raced home, this Brewers team raced into the baseball history books. Fifteen previous teams had fallen two games behind, as the Brewers did in Anaheim, but none ever returned. Only one, in fact, ever so much as forced a fifth game.
The Brewers, who open the World Series Tuesday in St. Louis, now are completely accustomed to the unbelieveable. Just one Sunday ago, they had to face down a packed house in Memorial Stadium and capture a winner-take-all last-day-of-the-season game to win the AL East. Milwaukee now has won four sudden-death, win-or-it's-over games in eight days. Only one team in history has ever survived more brushes with extinction -- the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers, who avoided five potential season-ending games.
For the Angels, Cooper's hit may have seemed a death knell. But, to a man, they knew their last realistic chance didn't disappear until the final pitches of this 3-hour 1-minute masterpiece of tension when reliever Peter Ladd got Brian Downing and Rod Carew to ground out with the tying run on second, then third base.
The Angels had seemed in command of this game for so long that it hardly seemed possible that it could slip away, that the Brewers could win for the third straight day on their home turf.
Hadn't the Angels scored first when Downing doubled and Fred Lynn drove him home with a first-inning single? When the Brewers answered with an identical leadoff double by Paul Molitor in their first, then scored him on a Ted Simmons fly, didn't the Angels come right back with runs in the third and fourth to take a 3-1 lead?
Didn't Lynn, the playoff MVP who went 11 for 18, tying the championship series record for hits, drive home Bob Boone with a hit in the third? And didn't that same Boone, playing the "little ball" that Manager Gene Mauch loves, pull off a perfect squeeze bunt in the fourth to plate Doug DeCinces, the broken-nosed worthy who had three hits today?
So what if the momentum changed a bit when Ben Oglivie, playing in obvious pain with bruised ribs, hit a solo homer off Bruce Kison in the fourth? So what if that impetus swung a bit more to the Brewers in the top of the fifth when a shocked Reggie Jackson was thrown out by Charlie Moore trying to go first to third? Even Jackson admitted, "I was surprised. I couldn't believe the ball was there ahead of me. I thought it was automatic first to third."
And, so what if Angels starter Kison took himself out of the game after five innings, saying that a cut middle finger, and tiredness from pitching with three days rest, had brought him to the end of his tether?
Surely, the Angels had one last stand. Especially after pinch hitter Ron Jackson singled to open the ninth and got sacrificed to second base with Downing and seven-time batting champion Carew due to face erratic, inexperienced Brewer reliever Ladd.
"I drank a six pack of beer in one half-inning. I couldn't watch it (on TV)," said limping center fielder Gorman Thomas, who was taken out for defense by Brewer Manager Harvey Kuenn just in time to see replacement Marshall Edwards rob Don Baylor of a double with a leaping catch at the fence in left.
One man who could force himself to watch was starter Pete Vuckovich. Reliever Bob McClure got the scorebook victory for his five outs of work before Ladd appeared, but it was the gloriously stubborn Vuckovich who helped put the Angels in Hades.
In 6 1/3 innings, Vuckovich, working on only three days rest for the first time all year, allowed nine hits, walked three and endured four Brewer errors behind him. Yet only three runs scored. "We should have scored 10 runs off him," growled California's Tim Foli. "We had 50 guys on base."
But Vuckovich is a student of hitters under pressure. "I watch everything," he says. "I'm deep into hitters versus pitchers. Maybe I don't go to their weaknesses until it's time."
What Vuckovich, and all of Milwaukee saw, was Ladd jam Carew and getting that last grounder right at Robin Yount. Brewer owner Bud Selig jumped so high that he cut his hand on the ceiling.
"I feel like a little kid," said Ladd, who retired all 10 Angels he faced in this playoff. "This is all still new to me. I'm just going with it. I hope it doesn't sink in."
Buried deep in the belly of this game was one play that many of the participants had forgotten about until reminded afterward. In Milwaukee, it will just be remembered as The Bloop. The Brewers' two-run rally in the seventh began when a horrible-looking 90-foot popup by Moore somehow managed to fall safely in the middle of the Angel infield.
Diving, belly-flopping California bodies were strewn everywhere as the Angels tried to grab the elusive pop. One umpire, Al Clark, actually threw up his thumb, ruling that Bobby Grich had made a catch. However, home plate ump Don Denkinger saved him from endless instant-replay infamy by reversing the call -- screaming "safe," ruling the ball had been trapped.
After that, Gantner singled, Molitor popped up for what would have been the third out if Moore's ball had been caught, and Yount walked to load the bases for Cooper.
After such a taut finale, it is inevitable that many will second-guess Mauch, the symbol in his generation of the second-guess. His bunts this day, even in the ninth, will bring the rejoinder, "Play for one run, lose by one run."
However, Reggie Jackson, the man left in the on-deck circle at game's end, probably had the best perspective, as he tends to in October. "When Reggie Jackson goes two for 18," said Jackson, "and Rod Carew, Bobby Grich and guys like that only get three hits the whole series, you don't blame the manager.
"Hell," said Jackson, "blame the right guys. Blame the Brewers."