I know the tardiness of this post may make it look like I'm a bit late to the party, but I think it's finally time for me to talk 2011 World Series Game 6. While I knew I had to write about Game 6 of this year's World Series between the Cardinals and Rangers, the historical implications of the game made me take a deep breath and process it fully before I started spouting off about how it was one of the best games I have ever seen played. Well, now a week has passed and I can confidently say that it was one of the best games I have ever seen played. I'm not only talking about baseball here either, Game 6 was one of the most enthralling and entertaining games I have ever watched in any sport.
Because it has been a week since the game was played I'd like to shift the focus for the most part away from a recap of the action (which was sublimely abundant) and more towards what the experience of a great game is all about for a fan. In any sport, during any season, there are always great games. There are back and forth contests with shifts in momentum and amazing moments throughout that constitute a truly great game, but rarely do they come in the playoffs, let alone a championship series or game, and seemingly never in an elimination game where the sport's crown is up for grabs. Game 6 between the Rangers and Cardinals had all of this, and added to its implications was a litany of oh-my-god moments that left me on the edge of my seat and gasping for breath when the game was over.
If the surging Cardinals seemed like a team of destiny during the stretch run of baseball's regular season, where they had to go on an unbelievable tear to even make the post-season, and during their subsequent run through the National League playoffs, where they rode their heroic superstar Albert Pujols into the World Series, their magic seemed to be fading in Game 6, especially in the seventh inning, when the Rangers took what looked like a Series' clinching 7-4 lead on back to back home runs by Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre. A 7-4 lead going into the bottom of the seventh is just about where you want to be when you're up 3-2 in the series and only need 9 more outs to be a World Series champion, but the Rangers were destined to come up short and what happened over the next four innings was as breathtaking a turn of events that has ever occurred in sports.
What happened after the Cardinals' went down three runs was simply stunning. From there the game went to 7-5, 7-7, 9-7, 9-9, and finally, with a walk-off home run from St. Louis' David Freese, a final score of 10-9 in eleven innings. That's 11 runs in the last 4 innings combined from both teams, which included what looked like a series clinching home run by the Rangers' Josh Hamilton, misplayed balls, errors, and so many pitching substitutions that the Cardinals' Tony La Russa was using his pitching staff as pinch hitters. In case you aren't too familiar with baseball, the pitcher hits 9th in every line-up because they aren't paid to swing the bat, they're paid to throw the ball.
As a fan, when you're watching a game like this, you're simply trying to enjoy the action, but what inevitably happens is that your brain starts to add weight to the outcome because of the circumstances and consequences of the gameplay. Sure, this would have been an amazing regular season affair considering the amount of runs scored and frenetic play in the last 4 innings and because the game went into extras, but when the magnitude and timing of the game are also considered, you begin to see what sets it apart and makes it one of the most memorable contests ever witnessed. Let's just go down the list of reasons this game was so incredible.
We'll start with the where the Series itself was at when Game 6 started:
- The Rangers were playing in their second consecutive World Series and have never won a championship in franchise history, having lost to the San Francisco Giants in last year's fall classic.
- Texas held a 3-2 series advantage after a mystifying end to Game 5, in which a miscommunication between the Cardinals' dugout and bullpen resulted in the wrong pitcher being called into the game.
- The Series featured two of major league baseball's premiere players--Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton--one on each side, and one of its most decorated and venerated managers in the Cardinals' Tony La Russa.
- A rain cancellation postponed the game one day to allow the Cardinals' ace pitcher Chris Carpenter enough time to rest and take the mound instead of watching it from the bench. A clear advantage for the Red Birds.
And as for the game itself:
- It featured 5 errors, a staggering number considering these were supposedly the best teams that their respective leagues had to offer, any one of which could have ended up contributing to a win or loss for either team.
- The Rangers were twice not only one out away, but one strike away from ending the game, but failed to do so both times. Additionally, their clubhouse was twice covered in plastic in preparation for their championship celebration, before being restored to its normal, stain-susceptible condition by Busch Stadium employees.
- Josh Hamilton, a recovering drug and alcohol addict who was a hand-full of pills and a couple of shots away from being a tale of what could have been, hit a home run that put the Rangers up two runs that he alleges God Almighty told him he was going to hit before the at-bat.
- The Cardinals overcame not only Hamilton's seemingly game-ending two run blast, but also back-to-back home runs by Beltre and Cruz in the seventh.
- Veteran Lance Berkman of the Cardinals, "The Big Puma" (née "Fat Elvis") was seemingly left for dead after a terrible season in New York last year, but after signing with St. Louis in the off season both scored and drove in runs to keep his team in the game.
- The Cardinals' David Freese, a native of the city where he now plays major league baseball, ended the game with a walk-off home run, baseball's most exciting play, after botching an easy pop-up to third base earlier that could have cost his team the game and the Series.
Just look at all of that drama! That's the sort of thing that is running through your head as you're watching this game. There's so much on the line, so many twists and turns in the action, and so much back story and emotional investment for both the fans and players, that it all adds up to a truly monumental game. Not only that, but this was a baseball game after all, the sport with so much soul, history, memorable moments and apocryphal legends that it could fill a set of encyclopedias. This game is so great because it is set against baseball's fabled backdrop, where not only are there myriad moments of glory and agony, but enough great World Series Game 6 memories that this contest had one of the highest historical bars to leap over and seemed to clear it with room to spare.
As NPR sports correspondent and Slate contributor Stefan Fatsis pointed out in Slate's Hang Up and Listen sports roundtable following the Series (a podcast any intelligent sports fan should have a subscription to), this year's Game 6 was played in the shadow of Carlton Fisk's arm-waving walk-off home run in 1975, Reggie Jackson's three home run game in 1977, Bill Buckner's infamous gaffe on Mookie Wilson's ground ball in 1986 (a moment that provided the title and plot device for the one and only movie my favorite author Don DeLillo has written), Kirby Puckett's game-seven-forcing walk-off dinger in 1991, and Joe Carter's walk-off home run two years later off of Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams in Toronto in 1993. As Fatsis points out by referencing these amazing moments, the World Series has seen its share of Game 6 drama, and this year's has set itself within that pantheon, if not holding the position of its quintessential example. For me, it has to rest at the top of the Game 6 list, simply because I'm not old enough to remember any of those moments save the Joe Carter walk-off, which I vaguely recall gaping at as a wide-eyed eleven year old boy.
A game like the one played out in St. Louis last Thursday night is the kind of game that makes you remember why you love sports so much if you're a fan. It lets you forget about inflated salaries, performance enhancing drugs, labor disputes and contract negotiations and just revel in the beauty of a game-winning home run sailing through the dry air of autumn, clearing the fence to send one team into a champagne-soaked ecstasy and the other into the nadir of emotional experience as professional athletes. The Cardinals victory in Game 6 of course did not win them the World Series, but only tied it 3-3 and forced a game 7 the following evening, but I think if you asked anybody with an iota of knowledge about sports who would win that Game 7, they would have all said St. Louis. The emotional baggage a loss like that creates for the loser, in this case Texas, versus the blue-whale-sized wave of momentum it gave the winner, St. Louis, was simply too much to disregard.
And of course, last Friday night, that's exactly what happened. The Cardinals won easily 6-2 and took home the World Series crown, but if there were ever an anticlimactic Game 7, this year's was it. There was just no competing with Game 6 and its positively breathtaking moments and historical repercussions. Sure we didn't have the Yankees or the Red Sox in this year's Series, but if the 2011 showdown between the Cardinals and Rangers is any indication, we don't need any east coast heavyweights to give us something to watch. Instead, all we need is the beautiful game of baseball, where anything can and does happen, over and over. I'm just glad I get to sit back and watch it all happen. Hope you are too.