One of the questions I get more than any other question these days seems to be this one: "Do you really find baseball all that interesting?"
For as much a I write and ramble about baseball, I never really know how to answer this question. How can you really quantify or explain the best part of an intense duel between a pitcher and a hitter in any game? For me, it's exciting when Craig Counsell fouls off five straight pitches from Daniel McCutchen in July in a game between a first place team and a fifth place team. The mental battle that takes place when a pitcher and a hitter try to outthink each other is something that I just can't find in other sports, and it's why I always gravitate back to baseball.
What makes for special moments, though, is when the magnifying glass focuses. Each season is made up of countless little moments between pitchers and hitters that play out in countless different ways over 162 games. Even then, sometimes you get nights like this one that's just ending now, when the Red Sox and Rays battled out over thousands upon thousands of pitches, only to get to a point in the 162nd game of the year where both of their seasons turned in just a few swings of the bat that happened within minutes of each other.
At 9:45 last night, I lamented the ultimate fate of the Rays as a team that came up just short. I'll never be anything but a Pirate fan, but the Rays are the ultimate ideal of a small market franchise and I'll always root for them over anyone that's not in black and gold, simply because if the Rays can succeed in the American League East then any team should be able to succeed anywhere. I live in North Carolina, I watch all of their top prospects come through Durham, in another lifetime in some other universe, some other me might be a Rays fan. That's not the way it is here, obviously, but when the Pirates season ends the Rays of the last few years have always been the team I gravitate to. Seeing them get destroyed by the Yankees with the season on the line after coming back from a near insurmountable deficit was not what I wanted to see on the final day of what had already been a trying 2011 baseball season for me.
So I did what I do on most Wednesday nights: I went to the bar down the street for trivia. After the first round of questions, I went up for a second beer and checked the Rays/Yankees score. I thought it was a mistake when I saw the score was 7-6. I watched Casey Kotchman make the second out of the inning and Dan Johnson step up to the plate. I ordered my second beer of the night -- The Great Pumpkin by Heavy Seas Brewery -- and I commented to my friend (a Yankee fan rooting against the Red Sox) that Dan Johnson is known in some circles as The Great Pumpkin for his tendency to come up with a huge hit exactly once a year in the autumn. Johnson lasered a ball over the right field fence to tie the game at seven.
The rest of the pub quiz continued with the Yankees and Rays locked in a scoreless tie while the Red Sox and Orioles waited out the rain. The Rays and Yankees played on the TVs above the bar, while I watched the Red Sox score on my phone (in North Carolina, the Orioles are considered local and we're blacked out of all special ESPN and MLB Network telecasts, so we literally could not watch the other game in the bar I was in tonight). As the quiz ended and we went to close out our tabs, it looked like the Sox were closing out the O's. Then, Chris Davis hit a ground rule double.
"Hey, the guy I played with in high school is up with a chance to bury the Sox," I said to no one in particular. I kept an eye on the TV and an eye on my phone.
"In play, run(s)," said the screen.
"Hey! The Orioles tied it up!" Most people in Chapel Hill aren't baseball fans, but the ones that are tend, like me, to have a soft spot for the Rays because of their affiliation with the Durham Bulls. Suddenly, a bar full of people that was once more concerned with obscure bar trivia and the free pint glasses that first place brings was watching the TV.
"THE RED SOX LOST!" the yell came across the room from someone watching the TV, which updated before my phone. I turned my focus to the television in the corner. The TV that had Evan Longoria up at the plate in the bottom of the 12th inning in a 7-7 game. Without notice, every single pitch of every single game that involved the Red Sox or the Rays this year was washed out. The only pitched that mattered was the next one. I was in a bar full of people, alone with the TV. And then Evan Longoria wrapped a laserbeam around the left field foul poll.
For a fraction of a second, there was silence.
"HOLY SH*T!" I yelled. "RAYS WIN!"
That broke everyone out of their trance. People clapped, people yelled, people I barely knew wanted to talk to me about the Red Sox collapsing the Rays coming back from a 7-0 deficit and the Rays hitting a walkoff home run just minutes after the Red Sox blew their lead. My phone rang, with my dad wanting to make sure I saw the hometown boy come through and the small market team prevail against all odds.
On most nights, I don't even care about the Tampa Bay Rays or the Boston Red Sox. I can promise you that most of the people I watched last night's events unfold with don't, either. But when baseball really takes over, it doesn't matter who's playing; I'm always just along for the ride. Sometimes, when I get buried in the depths of a 19th consecutive losing season for the Pirates, it's always nice to have that reminder.
Particularly fun sidenote: Both the Red Sox and Braves lost two games to the Pirates this year. Bet they'd love to have those games back!
I'm thankful my parents retired down to Tampa a few years ago because I can root for the Rays as "my AL team" without feeling like a bandwagon jumper or disloyal to the Bucs. I think I damn near woke up half the neighborhood yesterday watching those games unfold. Although it does pain me a little when you watch and see guys like BJ Upton or Matt Wieters play big parts in how these races unfolded and think what might have been.
Oh and to jump in on what Andy said, I can't speak to why the Tampa fans can't sell out their football stadium but their baseball field is an absolute dump. My dad takes me to games when I go down to visit and I'm not kidding when I say the Trop makes Three Rivers look like PNC. There are spring training stadiums (I go down every year for Spring Training) like the one the Phillies play in (Clearwater Field or something) that are nicer than the Rays'.
I live within the 75 miles of Tampa to be considered "in their market" and have to sit through a lot of their games. And while I like what they've done as a team, their fan base is absolutely atrocious. Not just the Devil Rays (notice I still use 'Devil,' that's not just to annoy Tampa fans, but it's like still calling the 'First Niagra Pavilion' "Stsr Lake Ampitheater") but ALL Tampa teams. They have a good team there but no one cares about them until late August. It's really a shame. Their three ALDS home games last year vs Texas DIDN'T EVEN SELL OUT! I saw first hand what our fan base can do this summer and I'd love to see that every night when we get a decent at PNC, in a nice ballpark as opposed to toilet that is Tropicana Field.