Moments, Glorious Moments

I am an analyst by profession, and I bring that into my sports fandom. Analysis of baseball and football is a major part of how I follow, study and think about the games. In the baseball realm, I’m inclined toward what people called statistical analysis, Bill James, Baseball Prospectus and the like. Football, despite the efforts of people like the good folks at Football Outsiders, is not given to such quantification (a limitation the guys at FO are still struggling to get some perspective on), but even there, serious thought, challenging conventional wisdom and, yes, even some limited number crunching, is part of what I do as a fan.

That stuff is fun. It helps my understanding and appreciation of the games. But in the end, it’s the heart that is the center of sports fandom. There are moments in sports that explain why I get so emotionally attached to the games, why I growl in frustration when Kyle Farnsworth is brought into a tight situation and blows a lead, why I pound the table when Amani Toomer drops a key third down pass that hits him square in the chest. There are magical moments that make it all worthwhile.

Sometimes, those moments can come even when it’s not my team. Kirk Gibson’s game-winning homerun off of Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series was one of those. The gimpy slugger, forced to generate the power in his swing just from his arms, wins the game against the best reliever of his era. That’s a moment for poetry, not analysis. And it’s the beauty of baseball. Analysis can capture the value of a player’s season or career. But in a given moment, in one at-bat, or one play from scrimmage, anything can happen.

Of course, it’s better when it’s your team overcoming obstacles and long odds. But those moments can also be created by mediocre players. The 1978 season saw a near-miraculous comeback by the Yankees, overcoming a 14-game deficit to a very good Boston Red Sox team. But when all of that seemed like it might be for naught, it was weak-hitting Bucky Dent who creamed a three-run homer off Mike Torrez to bring the proper flourish to the Yankees’ season.

But moments are at their sweetest when your team is the underdog. The ’78 Yankees were a great team and the defending world champions. For the most part, even the greatest moments are somewhat dampened for Yankee fans. The Bronx Bombers are the greatest dynasty in sports. When they win, it is merely a promise fulfilled. It is when your team is clearly the inferior one, but wins anyway that sports find their potential for their greatest moments.

The ’88 Dodgers were such a story. No one seriously believes that team was better than the A’s, but Gibson’s homer kicked off a Series where they dominated a better team. For me, there have been two such moments in my life. I’m thankful for that, because most fans are lucky to get one.

One moment was in baseball, the other in football. And though baseball will always be my first love, the greatest moment was the football.

Obviously, this is coming up in the wake of the incredible run by the Giants through the playoffs and then their amazing takedown of the 18-0 Patriots. The run started with a loss to the Pats in week 17, and while that clearly did propel a change in fortunes for the Giants, it was still a loss.

The great dramatic victories over Dallas and Green Bay set the stage, but Super Bowl XLII has already gone down as the best ever. For many, the defining moment was the great play by Eli Manning, getting away from a collapsing pocket where a sack seemed assured and launching a pass to David Tyree, who made an amazing catch. Tyree is the latest in a long line of eminently forgettable players who are immortalized by one great moment.

For me, that moment was thrilling, but the transcendent moment was a few plays later, the touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. That moment was the one that drew out, as the camera panned away from the line of scrimmage and, as Burress appeared in the corner of my screen, he had gotten huge separation and needed only wait for the ball to come down into his hands. It wasn’t anything like the brilliant play, but it was the moment when an impossible run reached its culmination.

My moment of greatest elation in baseball came in October 1996. It was Game 4 of the World Series. The Yankees, with their new manager, Joe Torre, were a plucky, upstart team with solid pitching and a decent lineup, albeit one without a whole lot of power. The Atlanta Braves were the defending world champs, with a powerful lineup and a Hall of Fame threesome in their primes atop their rotation. The first two games, in New York, were slaughters, with the Braves scoring 16 runs in the pair, while the Yankees managed only one. Even after the Yankees won Game 3 behind David Cone, the outlook was grim.

In Game 4, the struggling Kenny Rogers was slated to go up against Denny Neagle. Rogers had been hammered in both his starts by both Texas and Baltimore. Neagle, who had been the Pirates ace before faltering after a mid-season trade to Atlanta that year, had pitched quite effectively in his one start against the Cardinals. It seemed to be a mismatch, and through five innings, it played out just that way, as the Braves led 6-0.

In the top of the sixth, the Yankees, who had been making Neagle throw lots of pitches all night, finally wore him down, driving him from the game with three singles and a walk. Aided by an error by right fielder Jermaine Dye, the Yankees had scored three runs and had runners on first and second with no outs, the tying run at the plate. In one of the most remarkable, clutch World Series relief performances, Mike Bielecki absolutely dominated Mariano Duncan and pinch-hitters Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez to end the inning. Bielecki’s performance is largely forgotten now, drowned out in subsequent events, but it was a truly heroic one, some of the best “fireman” work you’ll ever see.

Things looked grim at this point for the Yankees. Already down 2-1 in the Series, their comeback seemed to have been stifled by Bielecki. Their bullpen had already been taxed as a rainout meant there was no travel day between games 2 and 3, and Andy Pettitte’s failure to get out of the third inning in Game 1 had already meant the bullpen had been busy. Rogers, likewise, had not escaped the third on this night. The Braves’ relievers had also been used, but for shorter stints, and were much fresher.

As the top of the eighth rolled around, it was still 6-3 Atlanta. And here Bobby Cox really left himself open to some second guessing. While Bielecki had pitched the night before, he had thrown only one inning and 18 pitches. That was his only appearance to that point in the Series. Bielecki had been a starter for most of his career, and had started five games for the Braves that year as well. He had thrown 34 pitches in the 6th and 7th innings, but seemed to have plenty of gas in the tank at the end of the 7th. Still it’s only hindsight that could fault Cox for his decision, but I remember thinking that I was more than happy to see Bielecki depart, even though it meant bringing the Braves’ closer, Mark Wohlers, into the game.

That was where the real second-guessing could take place. Wohlers had gone more than one inning only 13 times in 1996, and never more than 1 2/3 in any appearance that year. In fact, only four of the 13 was 1 2/3 innings. While it might be understandable to ask him to go two innings if there were no other ready and able arms, Cox could have easily called on Greg McMichael for the eighth.

In any case, he didn’t, and Wohlers had to contend both with not having his best stuff and some bad luck. Charlie Hayes rolled the first pitch he saw up the third base line where it refused to go foul. Darryl Strawberry ripped a 1-1 pitch through the shortstop hole, a very nice piece of hitting, going the other way not usually being one of Darryl’s great strengths.

Next, Mariano Duncan hit a tailor-made double play ball. But the normally slick-fielding and sure-handed Rafael Belliard booted the ball and could only get the one out at second. That left first and third with one out for what had been Joe Girardi’s spot in the order. But in the sixth, Girardi was pinch-hit for so that Paul O’Neill could be one of Bielecki’s strikeout victims. Now it was Girardi’s backup, the far superior-hitting Jim Leyritz, who came to the plate.

Wohlers’ first pitch to Leyritz was a laser fastball, low and in, that Leyritz fouled off sharply. His second was a high slider well out of the strike zone. That pitch might have served as a warning to Wohlers that his slider wasn’t sharp at that point.

The 1-1 pitch to Leyritz was another slider, very high on the inner part of the plate that catcher Eddie Perez had to stand up to bring in. As Perez tossed the ball back to Wohlers, he gave him the “calm down” sign. Wohlers didn’t look at all comfortable on the mound.

Now Wohlers comes back with a fastball much like the first pitch, if anything harder. The TV radar gun says 99 mph and while those guns are often unreliable (especially when they come from FOX), in this case, that may well have been an accurate reading. It’s now 2-2.

Now Wohlers throws another slider, but a much better one. It breaks down and just off the outside corner and Leyritz had all he could handle just to pull it foul.

It’s still 2-2 and Wohlers had to consider his next pitch. Leyritz was drawing this battle out too long, and Wohlers needed to have enough left in the tank for the 9th. Leyritz was right on his fastballs, fouling them straight back. Both the fastballs had been just off the plate, and Wohlers had to think that Leyritz would be ready to drive a fastball that was over the plate. The last slider he’d thrown was much better than the first two. And so, Wohlers made his decision.

It was the wrong one. Wohlers elected to go back to the slider, but the one he threw was the worst of the bunch. It hung over the plate, dropping right into Leyritz’ wheelhouse. He crushed it and the ball sailed easily over the left field fence for a three-run, game-tying homerun.

Leyritz’ homer did not win the game, or the Series. But up until that point, all the trends were going away from a Yankee victory. It was, for me, a moment where time slowed to a crawl. As soon as Leyritz hit the ball, it was obvious he had hit a homer. It was just a matter of waiting for it to land, and it seemed to me that second stretched into minutes. Having had the sense that the marvelous run of the 1996 Yankees was coming to an end in that Series, that moment turned everything around. From there, I believed the Yankees could pull off a great upset in the Series, and they did.

Jim Leyritz, David Tyree, Bucky Dent, Phil McConkey (anyone remember his play in Super Bowl XXI?)…these are not all-stars, not even particularly memorable players. But they gave us moments, and isn’t that why we watch the games in the first place?

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