Some people think that there are better games than baseball. But they're wrong. Something in sports can, perhaps, be just as good as Tuesday night's game between the Mets and Braves. But how could anything be better?
Within one game, baseball can create so many individual dramas, so many subplots, so many countervailing trends and crosscurrents that you want to break up laughing at the sheer ridiculous richness of the plot. These two teams reached a point Tuesday night where virtually every player came to the plate or took the mound with a personal playoff legend trailing behind that was of almost Arthurian weight.
What has this brave knight Piazza done before to prove his valor? Will the knave Punk Rocker be punished? Can the humble servant Todd Pratt save the whole realm again? Will the sorcerer Valentine find potions to neutralize the incantations of Cox? Can the jester Kenny Rogers, so often the object of mockery, redeem himself? Or will he wear the cap and bells again? And what amazing fluke of fate--a runner caught between bases who escapes, a bobbled throw at the plate, a double switch that backfires two hours later, deep in extra innings--will change everything that follows?
Oh, by the way, the Atlanta Braves won the National League pennant Tuesday night, 10-9, in 11 innings in Game 6 of the league championship series. Andruw Jones drew a bases-loaded, six-pitch walk from Rogers who, once again, simply crumbled under the same pressure that seemed to bring out the best in almost every other player on both teams. Rogers's inability to throw a ball within two feet of his target with the season on the line seemed to be a cruel abject lesson: This is what would happen to any normal human under such conditions. Imagine the strength of these others.
For the legion within baseball who consider Mets Manager Bobby Valentine the game's premier overmanager, this was the richest imaginable ending. With a man on third and one out in the 11th, issuing one intentional walk--to set up an inning ending double play--is the normal book call. The overmanager, however, is tempted by a second intentional walk--injecting himself into the game, seeking credit--that will load the bases and set up a possible force at the plate. Valentine went for the second intentional walk, putting incredible pressure on a pitcher who desperately needs a margin of error to breathe. What ever happened to "Know thy men"?
To say that such a final act could capture such a story would be a joke. The Braves led 5-0 after one inning and 7-3 after six innings. They had this game locked up, salted away and hidden in the family vault twice. The Braves also trailed 8-7 in the eighth inning and 9-8 in the 10th inning. They were absolutely dead twice and on the verge of facing a humiliating Game 7. Team of the '90s? Dream on. If they lost that one, they'd be remembered longer as the only team in baseball history ever to hold a three-games-to-none lead and lose in October.
However, unlike almost any game you have ever seen, this four-hour-plus combination of blood feud and chess match was more a testament to the sport itself than to the determination of a champion. Some research, at a future date, when the blood is not pounding in everyone's ears, will no doubt be required to decide whether this playoff series between the Mets and Braves was the all-time best of its breed. The scores were 4-2, 4-3, 1-0, 3-2, 4-3 (in 15) and 10-9 (in 11). Every one a spellbinder. But, whatever the result of that analysis, one thing's for sure: This dog can hunt with any.
They say that sixth games are usually the greatest in baseball's historic seven-game October wars. Carlton Fisk's home run off the Fenway Park foul pole in 1975 was a Game 6. So was Bill Buckner's error in Shea Stadium in the '86 Series.
This series, however, had the great good fortune to end on an amazing crescendo. No anticlimax this time. The subtext of this entire game was the slaying of ghosts. How many times do you have to kill a ghost to make it stay dead? Or is that a contradiction in terms? Baseball players seldom bother themselves with such issues. But the Braves had to face it for more than four hours.
For the Braves, who thought they had their fifth pennant of the '90s all sewed up just four days ago, Halloween seemed to have come unnervingly early. They've been booed in New York. But the biggest "Boo" of all came here in Game 6.
The Mets totally ignored a five-run first inning by the Braves that knocked out New York's best starter--Al Leiter--before he could get a single out. How was that for a first-round knockdown? "Ding!" Walk across the ring. Left hook and a right cross. Break the guy's nose and loosen a few teeth. See how bad he wants to get back up.
The Mets wanted to get back up as badly as any baseball team ever has. The player who epitomized the Mets' gallantry was Mike Piazza. His two-run homer over the right field fence off John Smoltz in the seventh inning tied the game at 7. Piazza has hit many similar homers, yet none was remotely like this, because few players have been as injured, bashed and singled out for misery by their foes as Piazza has been in this series. These teams have despised each other all year. The memories of head-hunting and bad-mouthing criss-cross back and forth from one dugout to the other. Yet it is the great Piazza, symbol of the Mets, who has been the Braves' target in every game.
Tuesday night in the sixth inning, the Braves' Brian Jordan--a former defensive back for the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL--leg-whipped Piazza at the plate, cutting his feet out from under him on a force out. In the regular season, such a play would have absolutely mandated an immediate bench-clearing brawl.
Instead, Piazza simmered. For one inning. In the seventh inning, he had his revenge, hitting his homer over the head of which Braves outfielder? Jordan, of course.
That moment was typical of a dozen in this one game. At one point, it seemed that Pratt had struck the game-winning sacrifice off John "Punk" Rocker in the 10th inning. Yes, you read that right. Pratt--the ex-pizza delivery boy who has hung in the big leagues by the thinnest of threads--got his third utterly crucial postseason RBI.
And he did it off the despised (Off Your) Rocker who, a week ago, called Mets fans "stupid." Just to prove how smart he was, on Monday, Rocker slammed his sports car into a tractor trailer, totaling the front end and ripping a wheel sideways.
As he sleeps the sleep of the reprieved, Rocker can thank Jose Hernandez, who tied the game in the eighth with an RBI single, and Ozzie Guillen, who slapped a single off Armando Benitez to tie the game again in the bottom of the 10th. Of course, everyone who saw this game ought to thank all of 'em.
The Pittsburgh Pirates once beat the New York Yankees, 10-9, in the seventh game of the World Series on a 10th-inning home run by Bill Mazeroski. So we probably can't say that this 10-9 Braves win to capture a pennant was the best game ever to conclude a postseason series. Such categories are a kind of eternal 10-way tie. Everyone gets to pick their favorite.
Let me sleep on it. This might be mine.