What have the Red Sox wrought? And where does it stand?
In the constant attempt to pronounce the latest remarkable event of the day as the greatest in the annals of everything, is it possible to weigh the sports equivalent of a miracle?
For a frame of reference, let's limit ourselves to the last 30 baseball seasons. That's a generation. It begins with Carlton Fisk's foul pole homer in the 1975 World Series that re-ignited interest in baseball after a dormant decade.
To sense how special, exhilarating, exhausting and historic this American League Championship Series was, let's start with a short list of thrilling events that don't come close to making the cut in comparison. For example, the famous October home runs of Fisk, Dave Henderson ('86) and Joe Carter ('93), the gaffes of Grady Little and Steve Bartman last season, the World Series upsets by the '85 Royals, '88 Dodgers and '90 Reds, don't even make the radar screen.
The eras of the Big Red Machine, Bash Brothers and Joe Torre's Yankees three-peaters never hit the baseball nation with an event of comparable force. The worst-to-first Twins of '91 and wild-card Marlins champs of '97 and '03 don't even move the meter. We're in the high country now, far above the frost line.
To what do we compare the Red Sox feat of becoming -- repeat after me, like the pledge of allegiance -- "the first team in 101 years of postseason baseball to win after falling behind three games to none."
The best single game of the last 30 years was the 1978 AL East playoff, now known as simply the Bucky F. Dent game. That game elevated the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, which had simmered, then boiled for 50 years, from lore to American mythology. It's place in lore is so great that the Yankees, perhaps in a desperate gesture, had Dent throw out the ceremonial first ball on Wednesday night.
The best postseason series of our period -- and probably ever -- was the '01 World Series. In the span of seven games, we saw three masterpieces that would be included in any list of the top 15 games ever played. Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius hit down-to-the-last-out homers at Yankee Stadium to avoid defeats as the tattered 9/11 World Trade Center flag flew over center field. Then the Diamondbacks scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 to win 3-2. The karma associated with that series is so great that the centerpiece of the Red Sox "This Really Is the Year" quest was to trade for Curt Schilling, who dominated the Yankees in three starts in that Series and mocked their "Aura and Mystique" as cheap nightclub table dancers.
See how the thematic threads, not just of recent years but recent decades, tied together in this week's drama?
The worst self-inflicted collapse in the most mournful World Series of our time was Bill Buckner's error in 1986. That disaster gave pop-culture currency to baseball curses, which have been a cottage industry since. The Cubs, losers in everything, even drummed up a fake curse about a goat that nobody remembers just so they wouldn't feel left out.
So, if the best game, best series and worst collapse are all spoken for, then what have we just seen in this monstrously moving ALCS in which four of the last five games ended after midnight and the other was the longest postseason game ever played?
For starters, Games 4 and 5 are an utterly unique best of breed. On Oct. 18, Boston won twice on the same calendar day -- at 1:23 a.m. and 11:01 p.m. -- both times after blown saves by Mariano Rivera and both games ending on game-ending hits by David Ortiz in the 12th and 14th innings. That certainly constitutes the best two postseason games ever decided on the same day.
As a bonus, every other game in this ALCS provided a superb story even when it wasn't a heart-stopping game. The heroes of Games 1 and 6 -- Rivera and Schilling -- showed singular fortitude, one with his emotional strength and the other with physical determination. And Game 3's 19-8 Yankees slaughter at Fenway Park, which demolished a novella-length list of offensive records, made a perfect bookend for Johnny Damon's ghost-slaying grand slam in Game 7.
From a possible sweep at Fenway Park, the lowest of all possible Red Sox lows, we ended at Yankee Stadium with the lowest October nadir of any team from any town in the entire history of baseball. And the New York media was so predictably generous in its Thursday morning banner headlines. "The Choke's On Us." "Monumental Collapse." "They're History." "Damned Yankees."
Frame 'em. Send 'em to friends. They make great holiday gifts.
Ultimately, the crux of this Red Sox-Yankees affair was not one game or hero, but rather a succession of interlocking events that began at precisely midnight on Monday and ended three days and one minute later at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday. Those 72 hours encompassed four excruciatingly tense games that took 5:02, 5:49, 3:50 and 3:31 to play, plus travel time between cities. Each event built on itself, game by game, until this series accumulated the largest mass of momentum the sport has ever seen.
"When these teams play," said Torre, "every game is a series."
So, imagine the building psychological weight of losing one game after another, each feeling like the loss of a whole series.
Sports miracles are always a mix of good luck and great labor. Both, for once, aligned in the Red Sox' corner and refused to leave. Game 4 was actually won by Boston General Manager Theo Epstein, 30, the architect of this team. The Yankees have always been famous for depth. Epstein built deeper. Pinch runner Dave Roberts, 38 steals in 41 attempts, was acquired as a designated Rivera Rattler.
The great reliever knew if he allowed even one base runner, Roberts would immediately come in and steal second base to reach scoring position. Talk about seeing your margin for error shrink. In Game 4, Rivera walked Kevin Millar to start the ninth, Roberts pinch-ran, stole second and scored the tying run on Bill Mueller's line drive that missed Mariano's glove by inches (luck).
That turned the tide.
In Game 5, the Yankees might've won in nine if a ground-rule double hadn't hopped over the right field fence. I say Ruben Sierra probably wouldn't have scored from first. But the Yankees think so. Which matters. Because that "break" spooked 'em more.
After that, it was only natural that the umps would reverse two calls in Game 6 -- going against the Yankees twice in their own stadium just for the sake of getting the play correct. What next, Kerry carries Florida by one hanging chad?
Finally, as midnight tolled over Game 7 and the "ghosts" did not arrive, the final place for this ALCS in our pantheon became clear. You think I'll say that what the Red Sox accomplished was the best comeback in the history of baseball. Because Boston had to win four straight sudden-death games, the last two at Yankee Stadium. Because, except for poor clutch hitting, the poised Yankees barely made a single fundamental mistake in any of their four losses. And because Boston won two of those games with a starter -- Derek Lowe -- who the front office had taken out of the rotation as a total-loss late-season head case.
However, the Red Sox stealing the pennant from the Yankees not once but four times within 72 heart-stopping hours was something more than just the greatest last-gasp comeback in history.
More than that, it was a partial squaring of accounts, a down payment on simple fairness. With due respect to Brian Cashman, Torre and their classy players, the Yankees cannot escape the fact that their franchise has used its wealth to tilt the supposedly level playing field of sport by a larger margin and over a far longer period of time than any other team in our national history. If somebody should have the biggest flop on record in our national pastime, it should be the Yankees; and it should be while George Steinbrenner III owns them at a moment when he has, yet again, broken his own gluttonous payroll record with a $182 million team.
If any club deserved the right to administer these dishonors to the Yankees, it was the Red Sox, crownless for 86 years. The true distinction of this fabulous week was that this ALCS was the most fun -- the most unadulterated, disbelieving, decades-overdue fun -- that baseball has experienced in our time. And maybe, if you like a pinch of malice with your meat, ever.