Blatant Homerism Theatre, in Conjunction with Lack of Historical Perspective, Brings You a Jayson Stark Production

The great thing about sports in general–and baseball in particular, I think–is that it turns adults into little kids again. It makes us marvel at amazing feats, believe in miracles…

/the theme from The Natural swells

Sorry, almost had a Costner moment there. Schmaltz aside, sports are fun because they can bring us unbridled joy and enthusiasm. We can all go a little nuts when our team wins The Big Game, pump our fists and proclaim THAT’S THE BEST DAMN GAME I’VE EVER SEEN!

And when I say “we”, I mean “the fans”. That should not include members of the media, who are paid to be impartial and stoic and have a sense of perspective during even the most thrilling moments. Jayson Stark of ESPN must have missed that day at J-school, because he busted out a column about game 4 of the NLCS that blew my mind with its complete lack of historic perspective or rational thought.

When last we met Mr. Stark, he was advising the Mets (via anonymous MLB scouts) to trade Jose Reyes. So his judgment is already suspect in my eyes. My opinion of him has not been elevated by his piece about Monday night’s thriller, entitled “Phillies walk off into history”.

He sets the scene with a series of one-sentence paragraphs, describing how the Phillies were down to their last strike when Jimmy Rollins belted a two-run double into the right field gap, completing a come-from-behind victory and putting Philadelphia on top three games to one in the series.

It was a dramatic win, to say the least. It deserves some dramatic prose. What it does not deserve is to be described as “an October baseball game that is going to be talked about for the rest of our lifetimes.”

Maybe Stark has powers of prognostication that I don’t. But “talked about for the rest of our lifetimes”?! This was, at best, the third-best playoff game played in the past week. It was the second-best playoff game played that day. Games 2 and 3 of this year’s ALCS–extra-inning, tension-filled marathons–were both better.

That’s an opinion, of course. Obviously, if you’re a Phillies fan, you’d disagree. Or you don’t give a shit what I or anyone else thinks about game 4′s place in history. You’re just ecstatic over an improbable ninth inning comeback that puts your favorite team one win away from another trip to the World Series. You can feel any damn way you want, as a fan.

But as a journalist, you have to step back and take off the rose-colored glasses and judge
what you’ve seen objectively. Stark didn’t. If anything, he slathered more pink paint on his lenses when writing his column.

Keep in mind, Stark is not writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer. If he was the sports opinion guy for a local paper, I’d cut him a lot more slack. But he’s not. He’s a writer for the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader, whose only alliances should be to The Truth and Brett Favre.

You can count the postseason baseball games that resemble what happened at Citizens Bank Park on this indelible Monday with two fingers. And those two fingers would be used to count games that can best be described with one word: “LEGENDARY.”

“When the history of man is written, only two accomplishments will stand above all else: The Great Pyramids, and this NLCS victory!”

Stark actually writes, “let’s do our best to put that game-winning hit into historical perspective.” But just as he cherry-picked anonymous quotes for his Reyes article, here he points to the way the game ended, juxtaposes it against similar playoff outcomes of the past, and hopes the Phillies’ win will acquire epic status by osmosis.

His contention: This game is LEGENDARY because only two other postseason games have ever ended with “a walk-off extra-base hit by a team that was one out away from losing.”
These are pretty big ones: Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, featuring Kirk Gibson’s walkoff homer; and game 4 of the 1947 World Series, when Cookie Lavagetto’s two-RBI double in the bottom of the ninth broke up a no-hitter and turned a 2-1 loss into a 3-2 win for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Aside from the fact that these were two World Series games–thus making the stakes much higher–there’s a few other big differences between them and Monday night’s game. In both of the earlier games, the Dodgers were the decided underdog. The ’88 Dodgers weren’t even supposed to be in the World Series, and the ’47 Dodgers were playing the juggernaut Yankees in the midst of their dynasty. Contrast that to the 2009 Phillies, who are the defending champs and considered the favorite in the NLCS by virtually everyone.

There were also some remarkable extenuating circumstances in both of the games Stark cites. In game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Kirk Gibson came off the bench to pinch hit, the baseball equivalent of Hail Mary pass. He could barely walk to the plate, his legs were so banged up. And he was facing Dennis Eckersley, arguably the greatest one-inning closer ever not named Mariano Rivera. In game 4 of the 1947 World Series, Brooklyn had been no-hit for 8 2/3 innings. The Yankees starter, Bill Bevens, was not only one out away from victory, but one out from the first no-no in World Series history. And in one swing of the bat, it all vanished.

Both of these games had heart-stopping, heart-breaking drama, punctuated by fascinating details that heightened the drama even more. What happened in game 4 of this year’s NLCS? Jonathan Broxton, who turns into a pumpkin every time he leaves Chavez Ravine (ERA of under 1 at home, over 6 on the road), walked Matt Stairs, who he gave up a titanic home run to in last year’s NLCS. Then he hit Carlos Ruiz. He induced a popup from Ben
Francisco to bring the Phillies to their final out, but left a fastball to Jimmy Rollins right over the plate, thus resulting in the game-ending double.

An exciting ending? Undoubtedly. But it’s not in the same class as the two games to which
Stark compares it. If they were all players, those two earlier games would be Hall of Famers, and Stark’s new favorite would be Andre Dawson.

I don’t want to shit all over a great playoff contest. But Stark didn’t just say it was great. He called it LEGENDARY (a status attainable in less than 24 hours, apparently). He set the bar extremely high. He said we–all of us in the sports-loving world–would be talking about it 60 years from now, the way we talk about Gibson’s homer. And that’s insane.

After reading Stark’s whacktacular assertion, I wanted to see if I could come up with ten other LCS games that were more dramatic, just off the top of my head. Here are the criteria:

The Stakes: If the team trailing in this game does not come back to win it, what does that mean? If a loss means the end of your season, that = Drama.

The Players: Your Big Guy vs. Their Big Guy = Drama. And if Your Little Guy can come up big against Their Big Guy, that also = Drama.

The Odds: How far does the team that’s losing have to come back to win it? And
who do they have to do it against?

Backstory: Is there any history between these two teams? Is somebody battling an
injury or a personal tragedy? Rivalries and roadblocks = more Drama.

Using these criteria, here are some LCS games that immediately came to mind, in no particular order:

1986 NLCS Game 6: The Mets trailed Houston 3-0 going into the ninth inning. A loss meant they would have to face the suspiciously unhittable Mike Scott, who’d stymied them already twice in the series. Essentially, this was a potential elimination game for both teams. Somehow the Mets rallied to tie it in the ninth, and, after five-plus innings of great relief work from Roger McDowell, scratched out a run in the top of the fourteenth. With a trip to the World Series two outs away, Billy Hatcher–who’d hit six homers all season–banged a ball off the left field foul pole to tie it up again. The Mets scored three in the top of the sixteenth, seemingly assuring themselves of victory. But the Astros refused to die, scoring two runs in the bottom half, putting the tying and winning runs on base, and bringing up their most dangerous hitter, Kevin Bass. A completely exhausted Jesse Orosco went to a full count, then somehow found enough strength to strike him out on a slider in the dirt.

1986 ALCS Game 5: Down 3-1 in the series, the Red Sox were down to their last three outs and trailing the Angels 5-2. After a Bill Buckner single, Don Baylor hit a two-run homer to cut the lead to 5-4. With two out, Rich Gedman was hit by a pitch, and the Angels called on closer Donnie Moore, who battled Dave Henderson to his last strike. But Henderson belted one into the left field bleachers to put the Sox up 6-5. The Angels managed to tie the game in the bottom half, but blew a bases-loaded one-out opportunity to push the winning run home. Henderson came through again with a sac fly in the top of the eleventh, and the Sox held on to win it, stay alive, and send the series back to Boston.

2004 ALCS Games 4-7: Take your pick. Games 4 and 5 both forced the Red Sox to tie the game up against Mariano Rivera or watch their season come to an end. Both went into excruciatingly tense extra innings, and both ended in walkoff fashion. Game 6 saw Curt Schilling pitch the game of his life on a reconstructed ankle, as Alex Rodriguez tried to judo chop his way on base. And game 7, though it was never close, still had an insane amount of tension and drama, because as you watched it, you couldn’t help but think to yourself, Are they gonna do this?! Is this gonna actually happen?!

2003 ALCS Game 7: Pedro Martinez stifled the Yankees for seven innings, but began to falter in the eighth. Depending on your perspective, either he talked Grady Little into leaving him in the game, or the manager didn’t have the guts to defy him and go with anyone else. The Yankees rallied for three runs, as a two-RBI Jorge Posada double knocked Pedro out of the game. In the bottom of the eleventh, unlikely hero Aaron Boone led off with a homer off of Tim Wakefield to end the ALCS and send the Yanks to the
World Series.

1999 NLCS Game 5: We’ll get to this game on this site very, very soon as part of The 1999 Project. This was the Grand Slam Single game. Need I say more?

1999 NLCS Game 6: We will also get to this game soon, too, unfortunately. Suffice to say, it was an unbelievable. Early deficits overcome, titanic home runs, back and forth score changes, extra innings, and ultimately, a ridiculous ending to a ridiculous series.

1992 NLCS Game 7: Doug Drabek pitched eight brilliant innings, the Pirates somehow got two runs off of John Smoltz, and Pittsburgh went into the bottom of the ninth three outs away from a trip to the World Series. But a double, an error, and a walk loaded the bases with nobody out. With reliever Stan Belinda on the mound, the Braves cut the lead in half with a sac fly. Another walk reloaded the bases, but a popup brought Atlanta down to its last out. Bobby Cox sent up pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera, who’d had all of 10 at bats in the regular season, to bat for the pitcher. He hit a single to Barry Bonds in left. The tying run came in, and slow-footed Sid Bream, representing the winning run, was right behind it. Bonds fired a throw home, just a shade too late, and the Braves won the game, and the series, in improbable fashion.

Ten games, right there. These are just ones I’m familiar with, and this list is far from comprehensive. But even allowing for differences in opinion on so subjective a topic, you can’t make the case that game 4 of this year’s NLCS was better than any of these games. I’m sorry, you can’t.

And this list is only LCS games. Expand it to include all rounds of the playoffs, and I doubt game 4 cracks the top 25. I think it’d be lucky to crack the top 50.

I wouldn’t give two doots if Stark had said this was one the greatest games in Phillies playoff history, or if he said it was the greatest game he’d ever seen. But he didn’t do that. He projected this game into the pantheon of GREATEST GAMES EVER, which, if you have any historical perspective at all, is just nuts. His column reads like a breathless fan calling into WIP.

It’s fine to be a breathless fan. It’s great, even. Just not when you’re penning columns for ESPN.