Itâ€™s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year….
To those who have heard those words it represents the holiday season lasting for about a six week stretch from Thanksgiving through New Years. For the die hard sports fan those words mark the stretch of time from mid-September through October when you have the baseball schedule taking on new meaning with the minor league playoffs, major league pennant races and the start of college and pro football.
This time of year brings the sports junkie all of the same feelings as the average person at holiday time; excitement, joy, anticipation and the belief that miracles still happen (Kirk Gibsonâ€™s homer in the â€˜88 World Series?). It is a case of sensory overload â€“ can your favorite nine hold on to their playoff position or are they on the outside and you pray they have one last run left to slip in. It doesnâ€™t matter how you get in because if you are playing in October than you have a shot and you believe in your boys.
On top of that you have a clean slate of football ahead for your alma mater or pro team. Expectations can run anywhere from the hopes that the colors you bleed will be the â€œfeel goodâ€ story of the year or on the flip side of if they can live up to the pundits predictions that this will be their year. All of this only feeds into the neurosis of fantasy football, suicide pools or anything else one does â€œfor entertainment purposes only.â€
The beauty is that the two sports lie as a compliment to one another; the rocking chair on the front porch pace of baseball where a game in theory could go on forever as opposed to the battleground that a football field becomes where opponents fight one another along with a clock that seemingly runs too slow when you have the lead and too quickly when you are behind. Somehow they co-exist over this perfect stretch of time, never getting in the other’s way and gently passing you one from the next when the time comes. Maybe we all just accept this because of all the changes occurring around us this time of year â€“ leafs and weather changing from what we have seen and felt over the summer, seeing a new school year start for many and knowing that another year is three-quarters of a way over. Or I could just be over thinking it all.
Make no mistake though that this is baseballâ€™s center stage until a champion is crowned, and the game has earned that right. These are the times when even a pedestrian ball player seeks a seat at the table with the other â€œOctober Immortalsâ€ and in one moment their name can be etched in baseball history. At that table you have Babe Ruth with his called shot in 1932; Willie Mays catching the uncatchable in â€˜54; Bill Mazeroski in â€™60 showing that David could slay Goliath once more with a Game 7 homer; Bob Gibson and his buzz saw fastball making men look like over matched little leaguers in â€™67; and Carlton Fisk, along with the entire city of Boston, waving and pleading for a ball to stay fair in â€™75 to name just a few.
A player only needs one moment to be seated at the Table even if it means the things he did before and after that in the game is irrelevant. Do you think Don Larsen would be a recognizable name if not for nine-innings of perfection one October day in â€˜56? Or how about Francisco Cabreraâ€™s pinch hit in 1992 sending the Braves to the World Series after watching Sid Bream seemingly run in quicksand to score the winning run? Then there is Bucky Dent in 1978 batting ninth for the Yanks and homering to shock the Red Sox in their one-game playoff to earn the nickname Bucky â€œBleepingâ€ Dent from those in New England.
Unfortunately, baseball also has a way of making a ballplayer infamous to the point where it follows them for the rest of their lives and beyond. Last year I read an article on former New York Giant Fred Merkle and his gaffe that cost the Giants the 1908 pennant, which was a big deal at the time. Imagine having a bad day that people are still talking about 100 years later. The pennant races and World Series has a way of joining hero and goat at the hip forever which is different from most sports where just the hero is exalted.
Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the â€œShot Heard â€˜Round the Worldâ€ in â€™51 where Branca was never the same pitcher again; Mookie Wilson and a creaky-kneed Bill Buckner in 1986 with a play that essentially drove Buckner from Boston until just recently; and Joe Carter with Mitch Williams linked together from the home run ending the â€™93 Series. Rarely do you get a player such as Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who can be involved in a legendary play like he was with serving up Gibsonâ€™s homer in â€™88, and not be remembered solely for the time that he stumbled.
On the extreme side you have what happens when it no longer becomes a game and goes too far. The prime example being Donnie Moore in Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series where he was one strike away from securing an Angels’ trip to the World Series. Moore gave up a home run to the Red Soxâ€™s Dave Henderson that gave the lead away in the ninth. Lost is the fact that the Angels would tie the game in the bottom of the ninth only to lose in extra inning and then go on to lose the next two games. Mooreâ€™s blown save opportunity forever haunted him until he ultimately took his own life in 1989. Possibly one of the saddest stories in baseball.
Even as a fan you never know when October is going to come and tap you on the shoulder. In 1996 I can assure you that 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier did not wake up and say â€œtonight I am helping the Yankees win.â€ That is exactly what happened in the eighth inning, though, as young Jeffrey reached over the outfield wall to deflect a Derek Jeter drive that surely would have been caught, into the stands for a home run that tied the game that the Yanks would go on to win. But for every Jeffrey Maier there is a Steve Bartman who in 2003 took his place in Cubs lore alongside goats and black cats by reaching for and touching a foul ball that was about to be caught by Cubs leftfielder Moises Alou with the Cubbies needing only five outs to make it to the World Series. Bartmanâ€™s desire for a souvenir prevented Alou from making the catch and has since driven Bartman pretty much into seclusion. Of course, the Cubs came completely undone after the play by squandering a 3-0 lead and losing the game and the following Game Seven.
Like the holidays it is only the most wonderful time of year for some.