Later this evening, the 2011 season will end. It is a season in which the Yankees were sent home early, where the preseason favorite Red Sox and Phillies won a combined 2 playoff games, and where you could make a strong argument that no matter who wins tonight, the best team did not win it all. And yet, despite all that, I have a feeling that this is a season that will stick out in the minds of many of us for a long time as one that reminded us of why we love baseball.
When people ask me why I love baseball, I often wish I had some sort of wise soliloquy prepared, in which I could distill my love of the game down to a paragraph or two that got at the heart of this amazing game. But the truth is, there are a variety of reasons underlying my feelings about baseball. I love the cadence of a long season, in which we live and die with every pitch but at the same time can always look to a new game the following day. I love the strategic battle that occurs on every pitch, with pitcher, catcher, and batter locked into a battle of skill and wits every time a hitter steps into the batters box. I love that baseball is a statistical game, in which the individualized batter-pitcher matchup within the larger team setting lends itself well to evaluation, discussion, and passionate debate. I love the hot stove phenomenon, in which we spend months gearing up for the upcoming season by inventing hundreds of roster permutations and potential trades. These are all factors in why I find baseball so fascinating, and I could probably sit here for hours adding to that list.
However, the most compelling thing about baseball, in my book, is something that this season epitomized. As someone who loves statistics, I am constantly working with odds and probabilities. When you write about baseball based on statistics, inherent to your arguments is the idea that event A is more probable than event B or Player A is more likely to succeed than Player B due to the numbers involved. Sometimes, when dealing with a sport that is at its heart a numbers game, we lose sight of the fact that 99% is not 100%. We can sit and do projections and read playoff odds reports, and most of the time our dependence on these tools will serve us well and lead us to the proper conclusion. But the beauty of baseball is in that 1% that says something amazing can happen. Baseball has no clock, meaning teams cannot run out of time to do something astounding. A game is not truly out of hand until the final out is recorded. On any given night, we can dream that this game will be part of the 1%, that we will see something amazing and memorable. Sure, most of the time it doesn’t happen, and we simply enjoy the game for the reasons I stated above. But the few times that it does happen infuses every game and every season with the hope that this time, on this particular night, something unforgettable will happen.
This season was that 1%. We had two teams who entered September with a 1% chance to make the playoffs go on incredible runs while the teams they were chasing collapsed, setting up a thrilling final day. That day saw 3 fantastic games that each included a 9th-inning comeback, with one club coming back from 7 runs down in the 8th inning to win in extra innings and complete their amazing September. We saw the Phillies lose to the vastly inferior Cardinals in the ALDS, as well as the Yankees losing a Game 5 at home to Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and the Tigers. We have had an excellent World Series between two teams that no one expected to be here, with names like Derek Holland, Mike Napoli, and Allen Craig playing huge roles in getting the series to a Game 6. Coming into last night, this was already being regarded as one of the better seasons in recent memory.
And then we had last night, with the Cardinals, twice down to their final strike, finding a way to pull out one of the most thrilling games you will ever see. The Cardinals had a win expectancy of about 4% at one point in the 9th inning and then at about 8% in the 10th, and both times they were able to get the runs they needed to tie the game. Then the hometown kid who had tied the game in the 9th inning launched a ball to straightaway center field and gave us one more night of baseball. It was a game that epitomized this season, a game that will get banked in our memories as part of that 1% that lets us believe that anything can happen. And, at least for this baseball fan, it reminded me of why I love baseball.