Scott Podsednik trotted around the bases slowly, calmly, his head down at times as if, despite the speed that got him 59 stolen bases this season, he wanted to cherish every instant of the home run trip, extend it, if possible, deep into the night. All too soon he would reach the bedlam at home plate where his White Sox teammates jumped, danced and waited to pounce upon him.
"It's pretty indescribable," Podsednik said of the bottom-of-the-ninth-inning home run that ended one of the best World Series games in an era when October classics seem to fall over each other demanding our breathless attention.
Once the left fielder finally reached home plate, after the slowest trot you ever saw by a fast little man, there was no more time to think, feel and absorb what he had done. The 7-6 Game 2 victory was in the books; only questions remained. How could Podsednik, a player who did not hit a single home run in the regular season, manage to hit a ball over the center field fence against Houston's Brad Lidge?
Yes, that Lidge, Albert Pujols's recent good friend. In less than a week, two of the last three batters Lidge has faced have hit game-winning home runs off him, the first to deny, temporarily, his team a pennant, the second to put his Astros behind two games to none in this World Series. Write down the name and home town somewhere: Lidge, Houston. Send him a Christmas card.
As for the city of Chicago, congratulatory telegrams from all over the world may be in order soon. And that's a mouthful after the October feasts that baseball has provided us the last five years. In a scene worthy of this unforgettable night, a crowd of 41,432, decked out in a rainbow of rain gear, stayed at U.S. Cellular Field for half an hour after the game, singing along to the driving blues of "Sweet Home Chicago."
When the great Series games are recalled, this one will surely have a place because, in less than an hour, we saw three of the most stunning pieces of clutch hitting that this sport can provide. The sequence was sublime, yet almost ridiculous because it was so amazing. First, Paul Konerko, the White Sox' 40-homer cleanup man, hit a grand slam off Chad Qualls in the bottom of the seventh inning to turn what had seemed to be a safe 4-2 Houston lead into an equally secure 6-4 Chicago lead. After all, both the White Sox and Astros are known for bullpens that seldom squander a one-run lead, much less two. Few October scenes will ever top that moment when the White Sox crowd stood to scream for "Paul-ie, Paul-ie" as though the demons of 88 seasons, and a thrown World Series in 1919, were finally being expiated.
Then, as though the deeds of the Black Sox would never be forgiven, the Astros came back to tie the game. Little-known Houston pinch hitter Jose Vizcaino sliced a two-out, ninth-inning single into left field to tie the score at 6 off the White Sox' 99-mph relief phenom Bobby Jenks. That crisp clutch single to the opposite field sent a silence down the spine of this crowd that was as chill as this brutal night with a wind-chill factor in the 30s and swirling mist, drizzle and rain sweeping across the light towers. Ironically, the White Sox' culprit on the Vizcaino play was Podsednik, whose two-hop throw to the plate from shallow left field was so lame that the slender White Sox speedster almost could have run the ball to the plate faster.
Podsednik, Podsednik, how can you atone? Especially with no one on base and one out in the ninth. Sure, Scott hit a home run earlier this month in the Division Series. But what are the odds after zero homers in 507 at-bats during the regular season? Since it is October, the month of magic in baseball, apparently the odds suddenly change. A Podsednik can hit a home run. And not just a home run but a bomb to center field that barely clears the wall. By how much? Oh, not much. A couple of feet. Just about the amount of aid provided by the wind -- the Chicago wind -- that, at that moment, blew briskly straight toward center field.
Thus this 7-6 walk-off win -- actually, a dance-off, jump-off, prance-off victory -- was fashioned at a moment when no one expected it. The contrast with Konerko's blast was complete. Then, the stage could not have been set more melodramatically.
In the seventh inning, a Chicago scene almost worthy of an 88-year wait, unfurled itself as Konerko came to the plate with the bases loaded and Houston leading 4-2. Everywhere you looked were flags snapping in the wind as sheets of raw, cold drizzle swept across the field. The crowd, dressed in slickers, ponchos, plastic wrap and every manner of foul-weather gear, stood as one as Qualls entered the game. Qualls was entrusted with a lead that might take the Astros back to Houston tied in this Series, back to comfy Minute Maid Park where, since May, the Astros have chosen to close their roof for every game so that, like hothouse flowers, they might play under perfect conditions -- never cold, never wet, never wind blown, never nasty and broad-shouldered. So un-Texan, when you think about it, to turn baseball into an indoor sport.
Konerko didn't wait. Chicago has waited long enough, after all -- for the White Sox, for the Cubs, for both the infernal teams of this baseball-loving but always bitterly unrequited city. One pitch, one letter-high fastball, was all he needed. If the crack of a bat could speak, this one would have said, with perfect enunciation: "Table for four for Mr. Konerko at home plate. Would you like champagne with your grand slam, sir?"
In the next half inning, Podsednik actually stood in left field and thought about Konerko. "What does that man feel like?" Podsednik recalled thinking afterward. Little did he know that an even more breathtaking moment awaited him.
Few teams would have recovered -- on the road -- after a blow as symbolic as Konerko's. But the Astros did. And against Jenks. "After they tied the game -- with good hitting, not bad pitches -- we were kind of ticked off in the dugout," said Konerko. "We were like, 'We're not going to let this happen to Bobby.' But we didn't think it would happen that fast. Not on a home run by him."
And with that, Konerko cut his eyes to the delighted Podsednik.
The champagne in Chicago can stay on ice for a while, though history is quite eloquent on the subject of what the White Sox' odds now are of being the next world champion. In the past, 34 teams have won the first two Series games at home and 29 of them captured the crown. That's 85 percent.
After waiting since 1917, after listening to a million bad jokes about how the White Sox have thrown more World Series than they've won in the past four-score and eight years, it may be nearly incomprehensible for Chicagoans -- even of the questionable Cubs persuasion -- to comprehend how the swings of Konerko and Podsednik -- what a perfect pair of working-class, South Side names -- have suddenly transformed this Series. Had the Astros' bullpen held their two-run lead, and Houston's bullpen is as good as the National League has to offer, then the odds might actually have slightly favored Houston in the rest of this Series, especially with this playoff returning to the cozy, temperature-controlled Minute Maid playpen that they favor.
Now, all that is changed.
"We haven't done anything yet," said Podsednik. "Lotta work left to do."
Wrong, Scott. Much has been done. And the way in which it was done, on a brutal Chicago night and in the face of Vizcaino's heroics, should make the work that lies ahead of the White Sox just a bit easier.