Somewhere the baseball gods are laughing. In fact, they are rolling the aisles and splitting their sides over what happened to two storied franchises -- the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox -- on the last night of the regular season.
By now you've seen the highlights. How the Braves blew a ninth-inning lead and then lost to the Phillies in 13, which allowed the St. Louis Cardinals to take the wild-berth in the National League. Meanwhile, the American League was even wilder as the Red Sox had the Baltimore Orioles down to their last strike, only to lose, while the Tampa Bay Rays were down to their last strike against the New York Yankees, only to somehow rally to win in 12 innings. A three-minute turnaround that rocked the game. As they say, you can't make this stuff up.
After the dust settled, with many calling it the best night of baseball action ever, I was reminded how fine the line is between winning and losing. How a different choice, here and there, often makes all the difference.
For much of the season, the Braves got by with a bunch kids in the bullpen. It fell to them because Billy Wagner, one of the hardest throwers of this generation, decided to retire so he could spend more time at home with his kids. Until a few weeks ago, it was going well in Atlanta. The Braves held a 10½-game lead for the final berth in the playoffs on Aug. 26. But soon things became so desperate that Atlanta turned to Kris Medlen, a reliever who had pitched only one game this year due to injury, with the season on the line. In the end, it didn't work. Desperation rarely does. The Phillies rallied and the Braves were eliminated.
Arguably, things were even more warped with the Red Sox. By winning two championships in the eight seasons, Boston has transformed itself from a lovable loser to a ballclub that more and more fans love to hate. Now if you have the choice, you go with hate over lovable any day. Just ask fans of Chicago Cubs which camp they'd rather be in. Still, that doesn't make a crash landing of this scale any easier.
No franchise, not even New York, has gotten more publicity than Boston recently. Just this week, ESPN magazine devoted much of its issue to the winning ways of the city of Boston, whose professional squads (the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics) have won a combined seven titles in 10 years. Front and center stands the baseball team, with a major spread on how adept the Red Sox are at drafting and developing young players.
The recent movie Moneyball, which is about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane trying to field a winner in a small market, includes a nod to the wisdom of the Boston front office. A notion that's emphasized in Sports Illustrated, where stories about the film and star Brad Pitt run in tandem with how the Red Sox excel at doing business.
Certainly Boston has as good a front office as anybody in the game, led by GM Theo Epstein. Yet it can swing and miss with the best of them. How else does one explain such free-agent flops as Carl Crawford, J.D. Drew and John Lackey? With three weeks left in the season, the Red Sox's pitching rotation fell to pieces -- the major reason why the team blew a nine-game lead in the wild-card race.
Once again baseball reminds us that nothing is ever certain. One should never tempt fate. It only leads to bad karma and blowing what seem to be insurmountable leads late in the season. Just ask Bill Buckner.
The Red Sox's epic collapse left some wondering if the franchise was somehow cursed again. Instead of the Bambino perhaps the fog of Moneyball put a new hex on things.
In the movie and Michael Lewis' book, one of the best scenes has Brad Pitt, as Billy Beane, telling a roomful of his best scouts that they don't know anything. That the team has to look in a new direction, which in this case is the power of numbers, aka sabermetrics.
Of course, at the big league level, teams deploy top scouts and crunch numbers to find the best players available. They have to because the margin for success is razor thin. What keeps them up at night is when things fall out of alignment, even slightly, and before you know it you're the Braves or Red Sox -- blowing big leads late in the season.
What was a nightmare finish in Atlanta and Boston could be an unforgettable prelude for baseball's postseason. Just like that everybody is talking about the national pastime again. Anything seems possible. No lead, no matter how large, seems safe now.
Tim Wendel is the author nine books. His latest -- Summer of 1968: When Baseball and America Changed Forever -- will be out this spring from Da Capo Press. He teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University.
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