Hope. It’s a rare commodity during these hard times of layoffs, joblessness, and economic suicide. So who do we turn to?
The Tampa Bay Rays, of course. Is it possible for a group of young, inexperienced baseball players to achieve the impossible? Do you believe in miracles? I sure do. And it’s time for you to do so as well.When the season began, the Rays had lost eight of their best players to free agency. Carl Crawford had fled to the Red Sox, Jason Bartlett was traded to the San Diego Padres, Matt Garza was sent to the Chicago Cubs, and our entire bullpen was spread to the winds. Experts predicted we’d win 70 games, tops. Only the brave renewed their season tickets.
We were nine full games behind Boston at the start of September. No team in baseball history had ever come back from that large a deficit. It was miracle enough that we had caught the Sox in a terrible season-ending 6-19 slump as their pitchers started dropping like flies.
And so it was that on the final day of the regular season the Rays and the Red Sox were tied with 89 wins each. As I walked through the hallowed Trop rotunda for the final game, I was thinking about how the Jews felt as they were escaping slavery in Egypt. In the Hagaddah, the Passover prayer book, the author talks about gratitude, considering all the great things God did for the Jews to allow them to escape.
If God had only allowed the Jews to eat unleavened bread, dayanu, it would have been enough.
If God had only parted the Red Sea, dayanu, it would have been enough.
It goes on something like that. You get the idea. That’s how I was thinking when I entered the Trop.
If the Rays lose tonight and don’t make the wild card, dayanu, it would have been enough.
By the eighth inning it was pretty clear that God had abandoned the Rays.
We were losing 7-0, and the Red Sox were beating the Orioles 3-2.
The Yankees had started a raw rookie whose name I barely knew. He had pitched one time before and had stunk up the joint. This time he pitched two innings of shutout ball. Yankee manager Joe Girardi then trotted out six other guys – Kontos, Laffey, Phil Hughes, Valdes, A.J. Burnett, and Brackman: all pitched shutout ball. We had exactly two hits.
At the same time, David Price, a kid with great stuff who hasn’t let learned how to get enough batters out, allowed six hits and six runs, including a grand slam by Mark Teixeira.
Disappointed and exhausted, about a third of the 29,518 fans, including Creative Loafing’s own David Warner, began streaming toward the exits.
“They’re going to be sorry if we end up winning this game,” said USF professor (and recent Best of the Bay winner) Ray Arsenault, who was sitting to my right.
“Yeah, right,” said the more realistic Wendy Grassi, who was sitting to my left. Both were diehard Red Sox fans in their youth. Both have converted.
Meanwhile, there was a rain delay in Baltimore with the score still 3-2 Boston. If the game was called, our season was over.
In the eighth, against two of Girardi’s best, Boone Logan and Luis Ayala, the Rays scored six runs, the final three on a long, majestic home run by Evan Longoria. Still, if the Rays didn’t score another run, they would be losers.
With two outs in the ninth and the game about to be a distant memory, the Rays' eminence grise, manager Joe Maddon, in an act of desperation sent Dan Johnson up to pinch hit for Sudden Sam Fuld. Johnson, a big bruiser, had helped us win a pennant in 2008 with a most improbable clutch home run against Red Sox relief star Jonathan Papelbon. Elevated to take Carlos Peña’s job at first base in the spring, Johnson proceded to bat .115. That is not a misprint. He was sent to Durham, and Casey Kotchman was rescued from the junk pile by Andrew Friedman, the new Billy Beane. When Johnson came out to pinch hit, Wendy and I both said, “No, not him.” But then we figured, What the hell. At least he’s got it in him to hit the ball out of the ballpark.
Cory Wade threw two strikes past Johnson. We were one strike away from losing the game.
Wade then threw Johnson an inside fastball, which Dan Johnson clubbed down the right field line. The ball was five feet fair and five feet deep into the grandstands. The score was tied at 7-7.
One could only stand there with one’s mouth agape.
The Yankees should have won the game in the 12th. They had runners on first and third and nobody out, but after a hard-hit ball to Evan Longoria at third, Greg Golson, the runner on third, took two steps forward, two steps back, and was tagged out by a heads-up Longoria to save the day.
In the bottom of the 12th with Longoria up, the scoreboard indicated that the Sox were still winning 3-2, when a rumble, then a roar erupted from the stands. The Rays fans with radios, droids and other Best Buy contraptions had received word that Jonathan Papelbon had blown the game for the Red Sox after Carl Crawford muffed a line drive hit at him in left field. The cheering in the Trop was so raucous that Longoria had to call time, step out of the batter’s box and compose himself.
Longoria, who will go down in baseball history for his heroics in this game alone, faced Scott Proctor, a Yankee pitcher who didn’t have the sense to pitch around him. Proctor threw Longoria a fastball, and Longo pulled it down the left-field line. Like Dan Johnson’s home run, it was a cheapie, but who cares? As it went over the shortest part of the outfield wall to give the Rays the win and the wild card title, the rest of the Rays players rushed onto the field to greet him and to celebrate one of the grandest victories any place, any time.
Meanwhile in the stands, Wendy, Ray and I formed a group hug and jumped up and down with tears in our eyes. In all my years, only Don Larsen’s perfect game and Reggie Jackson’s three home runs in one World Series games were on a par with this one.
The Jews were pretty happy about escaping Egypt, but they couldn’t have been happier than the Tampa Bay Rays fans who remained in the park to celebrate with their heroes and their heroes’ families. On the field, the players sprayed each other and the fans with champagne as their wives and children mingled and hugged each other. No one could quite believe it. The Rays had literally come back from the dead.
Now the Rays will play the Texas Rangers, the team that defeated them for the pennant last year. Is it enough that the Rays have emerged as wild card winners?
Dayanu, my ass.