Just when $100 million dollar contracts, $170 million dollar payrolls, bat corkings, steriod scandals, Barry Bonds’ surly personality and insistence on showing up pitchers, Bud Selig, Rally Monkeys, and George Steinbrenner have made you sick of the game and convinced you that – like the other major professional sports before it, including college football – baseball has been handed over to the greed of networks, owners, and players who respect SportsCenter more than the game… the gods find a way to say, “don’t give up on us just yet – it’s still OUR game.”
I’m not talking particularly about that fact that the Yankees lost (though the sight of another team celebrating a World Championship in Yankee Stadium and rubbing the oh-so-smug noses of New York’s players, management and fans in the turf probably added two years to my life from sheer glee). I’m talking about the way they lost. And the way the team they lost to got there in the first place.
The Florida Marlins pulled off one of the bigger upsets in a generation last night, and they did it by riding the arm of an instantly legendary performance by a 23 year old kid who, by his own admission, has no real sense of the scope of the monument of his achievement. Josh Beckett stepped up yesterday when his team needed him, not just in performance but in demeanor. He ascended into that rarified air that few even among those who have become champions have ever reached. He became one of those rare individuals who, when history came calling, not only wanted the ball, but played beyond himself and took his game beyond his limits. Walter Johnson. Whitey Ford. Don Drysdale. Sandy Koufax. Jack Morris. Mariano Rivera. Curt Schilling. Randy Johnson… and now, Josh Beckett.
But the other great thing about Beckett’s performance was that it was so unexpected. When the playoffs began a month ago, did anyone wager that Josh Beckett would be the warrior that would emerge as this year’s post-season hero? Beckett was on my Fantasy League team this year, and I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming in the least. The pantheon Josh Beckett joined over the last ten days is even greater, in my mind, than the list of pitchers who carried their teams to titles. This pantheon is the Hall of the Unexpected, those unsung and largely average men who found themselves on their sport’s biggest stage and rose to the occasion. Beckett – and Alex Gonzalez, for that matter – joined the ranks of Tommy Agee… Gene Tenace… Bernie Carbo… Bob Welch… Bucky blanking Dent… Brian Doyle… Orel Hershiser… Jose Rijo… Criag Counsell… Fransicso Rodriguez… Aaron Bleeping Boone… and myriad others through baseball history. Guys who were unsung before their moment in the sun, and returned either to obscurity or mediocrity afterward – but for that one moment, they found something in themselves that allowed them to produce the unexpected moments that make baseball so great.
There’s two reasons why the Bucky Dent home run lives in infamy in Red Sox Nation. One, obviously, is that it beat the Sox and denied a playoff spot to The Best Team Of Its Generation Not To Go To The Playoffs. The other is that it came from such an unlikely source. Had Reggie Jackson slugged one over the Green Monster, it would have been understandable – almost expected. But Bucky Dent? Bucky Bleeping Dent???
The Yankees got the Sox again this year, thanks to Aaron Boone, Mariano Rivera, and some mismanagement for the ages by Grady Little. The ALCS was an instant classic, doubtlessly. But this morning, Yankee fans could now be discussing Alex Bleeping Gonzalez. Josh Beckett may have taken the first step last night into a memorable career, or he may fade back into relative obscurity beginning next season. But for one night, he was The Man, and no one will ever take that away. The Marlins may have been the Team People Least Wanted To See in the World Series this year, but they scrapped and fought and clawed and earned their way in.
Perhaps they were just too young to realize that they weren’t supposed to be in the playoffs, nor supposed to come from behind to beat the Giants on a home plate collision scripted in Hollywood.
Not supposed to be five outs away from losing in five games to America’s Darlings at Wrigley Field, only to come back to win three straight, including beating the two pitchers who Could Not Be Beaten.
Not supposed to be down 2 games to 1 against the Mighty Yankees and needing to face Roger Clemens in his adrenalinized last career start, and yet come back to win three straight and celebrate their world championship on the sanctified field of Yankee Stadium.
But maybe just young enough to realize that the baseball gods like grit and fundamentals and heart more than they like big payrolls and gluttonous ownership, smarmy management and smug fans.
I’d forgotten that last part too. In my despair over the Red Sox losing yet again to the hated Damn Yankees, I wrote off baseball as just another sport in which the victories go to the spoiled. I cursed at the Yankee fans around me and growled about Steinbrenner buying another title. I forgot that the Florida Marlins didn’t remember that they were supposed to lose. And I forgot that the gods of baseball still love the game enough to give us moments like this.