Baseball, glorious baseball

One day, the final regular season game of the baseball season: September 28, 2011, will go down as the day baseball finally emerged from the Steroids Era. It featured four teams battling for two playoff spots and dramatic finishes that will be remembered for years to come.

The National League Wild Card battle was only the opening act.

The Cardinals took care of business against the Astros but the Braves were three outs away from securing a one-game playoff with one of the top closers in the National League in Craig Kimbrel on the mound. He couldn’t get the job done as he walked three batters and surrendered a sacrifice fly as the Phillies tied the game. The Phillies would go on to win in 13 innings thanks a bloop single from Hunter Pence.

But the American League was where the real drama was Wednesday night. One of the preeminent franchises in the game, the Boston Red Sox, and the little engine that could: the Tampa Bay Rays, were tied entering tonight’s action for the final AL playoff spot.

First the Rays were one strike away from losing their game to the Yankees.

But Dan Johnson, a career 3.3 WAR player who was below replacement level for the Rays in 2011 was at the plate. Of course he homered to tie the game. Did I mention the Rays were down 7-0 at one point? We’ll get there, I promise you.

Then the Red Sox were one strike away from winning their game against the Orioles.

And Nolan Reimold, a player I admittedly had never heard of and a career 2.3 WAR player was at the plate. He was facing Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon, who looked untouchable until he gave up a two-out double to Chris Davis. But still, the right-handed Reimold looked overmatched.

Of course he doubled to right-center to tie the game. And of course Robert Andino, a career 1.9 WAR player, delivered the game-winning hit. It was a low liner to left that Carl Crawford could not catch despite a sliding attempt. His throw home was poor and the Orioles celebrated like they were going to the playoffs.

Of course they weren’t, the Rays were. Only three minutes later, Evan Longoria moved closer to legend status with a walk-off home run down the left field line in the 12th inning to win it for Tampa.

It was Longoria, one of baseball’s brightest post-Steroids Era stars, who delivered the initial body punch in the eighth when the Rays stunned the Yankees with six runs. Longoria’s three-run home run that inning pulled Tampa to within one after having been down 7-0 and seemingly doomed to start the inning.

What made this night amusing for me was seeing the Yankees, bitter rivals of the Red Sox, playing their scrubs. The Yankees had already clinched the East Division so instead of Robertson and Rivera it was the likes of Ayala and Proctor that Tampa had to deal with. It didn’t make the night any less dramatic, just slightly humorous.

Baseball has taken a beating in the national press ever since 1994. The strike killed many people’s interest in the game that season. It was revived during the Steroids Era due to the prominence of the home run, culminating in the epic 1998 clash between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that resulted in McGwire hitting an unfathomable 70 homers in one season. But as the internet took over the country at the end of the 20th century, attention spans started to go down and Barry Bonds made a mockery of competitive fairness with his 2001 season. The revelation that all those home runs were produced not from smaller ballparks or a juiced ball, but from juiced players, once again killed many people’s interest in the game.

Football has taken over as the king of American sports. Baseball has responded with more statistics, each one more advanced than the rest.

But the beauty of Wednesday night was that it was one of those classic cases where the stats go out the window. Dan Johnson, Nolan Reimold, Robert Andino. Are you kidding me? It was the culmination of epic collapses from both the Braves and the Red Sox, but it was more than that. Baseball has seen epic collapses before but it hasn’t seen a night like this in many a year. Tampa Bay is a wonderful story. In a game that is often dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox, the Rays have made the AL East one of the most compelling divisions in the game the past few years. They only started playing baseball in 1998 in Tampa, and for years they were complete jokes. Their World Series run a few years ago ended those jokes and Wednesday night saw them capture the imagination of the country.

I don’t pretend Twitter is a good gauge of the national conscience. But it certainly is a good gauge of the national media’s conscience, since almost every relevant media member has a Twitter account. And the media can set the agenda for the country. Well, Twitter was buzzing Wednesday about baseball in a way I’ve never seen before. I follow lots of baseball people of course, but being a huge college football fan, movie fan, and my fascination with politics, I follow a fairly wide segment of the population. People I’d never seen tweeting about baseball before were tweeting tonight. The usual tweet? “I normally don’t get very in to baseball, but this is incredible.”

Wednesday night was the night baseball made a statement. Baseball said loud and clear that it will not go quietly into the night. It will not be ignored.

It has risen again.