Monday, October 02, 2006

A Sunday to remember

I first became interested in baseball when I was about six years old; that would have been the 1970 season, the year Brooks Robinson completely dominated the World Series. The following year, 1971, I can vividly remember going to my grandmother's house (she had color t.v.) to watch Roberto Clemente cavort over the fields of Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Roberto became my hero, because he could do everything. Since those days, I've seen, played and coached a lot of baseball games. But I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like October 1, 2006.

As the day began, the Twins were kicking themselves; they had been given two remarkable gifts from the Kansas City Royals, but were in the process of losing two games to the hated White Sox. Amazingly, the TC Men still had an opportunity to win the AL Central pennant as the day began, but it was difficult to imagine that the lowly Royals would actually sweep the mighty Tigers in Detroit, on the last day of the season. Sure enough, the early reports from Motown were discouraging, as the Tigers jumped to a 6-0 lead over a team that had lost over 100 games. Meanwhile, the Twins had to beat the White Sox one last time to have a chance.

The Twins faced the enigmatic Javier Vasquez, a talented White Sox righthander who had struggled down the stretch after a fabulous start. The Twins brought out Carlos Silva, who has become the dictionary definition of inconsistent and who can rightly be regarded as the only disappointment in what has been a remarkable season. Somehow, the magic continued. The heart of the Twins lineup, Mauer and Morneau, managed to get key hits. Then Torii Hunter, at 30 the eminence grise of the Twins lineup, launched a Vasquez pitch deep into the left field bleachers. The celebration began. Meanwhile, Silva held firm, holding the Whities to only a handful of hits in a solid performance. Meanwhile, the Twins bullpen, best in baseball, shut the door on Ozzie Guillen's squad for the rest of the way. The Twins had done their part, winning 5-1. The pressure was on the Tigers, who were in cruise control with a 6-3 lead.

Then a funny thing happened. The Royals rallied and tied the score. The fans, who had witnessed the Twins victory on the Metrodome field, stayed in the stands and watched the Royals and the Tigers battle on the Jumbotron screens. The Royals took an 8-7 lead, somehow. Could this miracle happen?

Doubt creeped in as Tiger slugger Brandon Inge blasted a late home run. Now it was tied, and the Royal bullpen, kerosene merchants of the first order, were in charge of the Twins' fate. But somehow the collection of ragtag arms that had made up the worst overall staff in the American League began to stiffen. The game remained tied and extra innings ensued.

By now, the Twins players were watching too, crowding around their dugout and looking at the giant images above their heads. Some 30,000 fans remained in their seats, the day's contest long past, without vendors or other entertainment, simply watching the events unfold. And the Royals held on, through the 10th inning and onto the 11th, where they withstood a Detroit rally that had the bases loaded with only one out. Then on to the 12th, facing Kenny Rogers, the irascible lefthander who had started the All-Star game for the American League this season. And somehow, Rogers faltered, giving up two runs to the Kansas Citians, surrendering to the likes of Joey Gathright and Esteban German.

The Royals sent out someone named Jimmy Gobble to pitch the 12th. He retired the Tigers with minimal incident and suddenly, the celebration was on. The Twins, who had never been in 1st place all season, were, on the last possible day, finally there alone. A pennant would fly over the Metrodome again. And, most of all, the dread Yankees were forestalled.

It's an awful long way from Roberto Clemente to Jimmy Gobble. But each has made magic for this fan. One of the wonders of baseball is that you can actually see something like this happen. In football, you don't see that many upsets. If the Michigan Wolverines face the Minnesota Gophers, most of the time you can guess what will happen. But you never can tell with baseball. And as this magical 2006 campaign rolls on, there's so much more ahead. I can't wait.

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