ST. LOUIS – After 40 years, my wait is down to four seconds.
In a tunnel below Busch Stadium on a chilly Oct. 27 night, about 100 members of the media assemble to witness World Series history. As Game 6 moves into the bottom of the 9th inning photographers and TV cameramen are frantically wrapping their equipment in protective plastic and themselves in rain ponchos. Officials from Major League Baseball are handing out information regarding the logistics of the imminent on-field celebration. In the visitors’ clubhouse nearby, workers are erecting covers over lockers. Whisked by on carts are huge ice chests filled with champagne and, yes, Ginger Ale. Wheeled into position and opened up are boxes containing Texas Rangers “World Champions” hats and T-shirts, on the verge of being donned by a team about to go where it’s never been.
As a kid who spent his summers in Duncanville playing baseball, amassing baseball cards and 7-Eleven collector’s cups, and either trekking to Arlington Stadium beginning in 1972 or religiously listening to Rangers’ games on my transistor radio, I’m struggling to alternate shallow breaths with trickling tears. I became a sports writer because of the Texas Rangers, and now, finally, I’m on the verge of witnessing their landmark moment.
The Rangers lead the World Series over the Cardinals, 3-2, and control this game, 7-5. They’ve held Game 6 leads of 1-0, 3-2, 4-3 and 7-4 in the 8th, with only five outs to get. Now in the 9th and with All-Star closer Neftali Feliz on the mound, one of the losingest franchises in all of sports is perched to be a winner. Two-run lead. Runners on 1st and 2nd. But two outs. And two strikes.
In their history the Rangers have thrown almost 1 million pitches. Feliz to David Freese. Just one more strike.
On my iPhone I type – fingers trembling – this unprecedented Tweet: “After 40 years your Texas Rangers are finally champions. As Mark Holtz would’ve proudly bellowed: “Hello, World Series win column!”
I never hit send. Only delete.
If only it was that easy in my heart.
On the 1-2 pitch Feliz indeed threw a strike, a 96-mph fastball in a perfect spot. Down and away. Perhaps a called strike three, had Freese not swung and sliced a line drive toward straightaway right field. Nelson Cruz, known defensively much more for his arm than his angles, took a step in and then quickly broke back toward the ball, which from the crack of the bat was hit well but clearly staying in the yard. Already playing too shallow in a “no doubles” situation that mandates no ball landing in play over your head, Cruz is hesitant in his gallop. He seems to have a bead on the ball, yet momentarily slows up before regaining full-speed toward the warning track. But a good four feet from the wall, he again slows, stretches his left arm as if to feel for the fence and awkwardly jumps in an attempt to end the World Series.
The ball, which an average Major League Baseball outfielder catches 80 percent of the time, sails over Cruz’ glove by about six inches and caroms shin-high off the wall, bounding violently past him and back toward the infield. Both Cardinals’ runners score on the play, a two-out, two-strike, two-run triple. 7-7. Extra innings. Barf bag.
“I thought he was in good position,” said Rangers’ manager Ron Washington. “He froze, and the ball took off. If he just takes the right route it’s an easy out. You’ve got to stay behind the baseball and he didn’t. I thought it was going to be caught. It didn’t turn out that way.”
Not exactly a Bill Buckner moment for Cruz, but the player who almost single-handedly clubbed the Rangers into the World Series with his bat had suddenly kept them from winning it with his glove.
In the 10th inning, Josh Hamilton quickly re-stocks Texas’ lead with a dramatic, fairy-tale two-run homer. Heading to the bottom of the inning, same emotions. Same stirring. Same Tweet, taxied down the virtual runway, again anxious for take-off.
But it’s here that Washington compounds Cruz’ physical error with a managerial mistake that could haunt him the rest of his career. Gifted a 9-7 lead and with St. Louis forced to bat a pitcher third up in the inning, Washington inexplicably yanks Feliz (after only 22 pitches, mind you) for … Darren Oliver. Asking a 41-year-old set-up man to close out the World Series might be the worst in-game decision in Rangers’ history. Again with two outs and two strikes and now Scott Feldman in to rescue Oliver (and Washington), veteran Lance Berkman singles to center to tie it at 9-9.
Thiiiiiis close. Twice. Life isn’t fair. But sports can be downright cruel.
In the 11th with a hobbling Mike Napoli on first and two outs, Washington pinch-hits Esteban German for Feldman, leaving only Mark Lowe on the mound. Just six pitches into the bottom of the 11th, heartbreak. Freese’s solo homer to center feels like a swift kick to the crotch. Cardinals 10, Rangers 9, Devastation Infinity x 2.
Game 6 was the gruesome, fatal car crash; Game 7 merely the funeral. A Rangers’ team that all year had been so resilient tapped out with a whimper, wasting another two-run lead early and getting only one hit in the final four innings in a lifeless 6-2 loss.
Trudging out of Busch Stadium after Game 6, I was stunned into speechlessness. Just minutes ago I was on the verge of a threesome with Megan Fox and Scarlett Johansson. But after succumbing to their come hither fingers, seductive lips and wanting eyes and crawling into a bed full of arousal and void of clothes, they instead yanked off their masks to unveil Tom Hicks and the Rally Squirrel.
It is teasing. It is torture. It is the most heartbreaking loss in the history of Dallas-Fort Worth sports. The Dallas Cowboys lost Super Bowl V on a last-second field goal, the Dallas Mavericks blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead in Game 3 en route to losing the 2006 NBA Finals and the Dallas Stars lost Game 6 of the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals in double-overtime. But this game was won. A routine play and this week we watched our second championship parade in the last 140 days. Instead, that’s Freese on Jay Leno and Tony LaRussa retiring on top. It feels like the Cowboys lost the Super Bowl when they scored a touchdown with one second left, missed the extra point and then allowed a kick-off return for a touchdown on the game’s final play. It feels like the Mavericks lost the NBA Finals after missing six free throws in the final minute and watching a half-court shot banked in at the buzzer. It feels…bad. Just bad. Like your wife winning the Lottery, hours after the divorce became final.
Don’t know about you but I don’t have the guts to even pick up the scalpel to begin an autopsy because I know the nauseous truth. The Rangers don’t need a pitching ace or Prince Fielder or Yu Darvish or anything really. Because they have the team that won a World Series … if they could’ve just caught a fly ball. No overhaul. No massive changes. No nothing.
Doesn’t mean there won’t be a significant hangover.
The Rangers are the first American League team to lose back-to-back World Series since the New York Yankees in 1963-64. Will Cruz’s almost catch become Scott Norwood’s wide-right field goal and will Texas deteriorate into the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, merely good enough to lose four consecutive Super Bowls? Will the Rangers become the 1986 Boston Red Sox, who likewise lost the World Series after being within one strike of a title and took another 18 years to finally win their championship?
You can argue that the season was a success. I didn’t think the Rangers would win the AL West, much less return to the World Series. But after that disappointing, epic collapse, it sure feels like failure. For Halloween I didn’t need a costume. I skipped every party as a depressed, gutted zombie, too lifeless to smile, much less partake.
Time heals all wounds. That which doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger. Yadda, yadda and more yadda. For now I feel like I left my heart in that Busch Stadium tunnel.
After 40 years, our wait continues.