Okay. I’m going to start this one with a challenge: read this completely, 100% factually accurate description of what happened in the last two months of the 2011 Major League Baseball season, and tell me you couldn’t (if you really had to) make it into one of the greatest sports films of all time.
While my examples in Parts II and III relied largely on external events, and big picture, “good guy” vs. “bad guy” dynamics (though both were spectacular games in their own right), my final example does not have any such clear distinctions. The compelling part of this narrative is the sport itself. It is the epitome of an underdog story, with unlikely comebacks galore. For my money, the best “sports movie” fodder out there that someone has to make into a film sometime before I die is the improbable story of the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.
This team’s journey represented the end of several eras. It was the end of both Albert Pujols’ and Tony La Russa’s tenures in St. Louis. It was the end of the Wild Card format as we’ve known it since 1994. None of the above would go gentle into that good night.
The drama actually started before the playoffs, in September. And the Cardinals weren’t alone. But you wouldn’t have been able to tell at the beginning of the month. Simply put, baseball had no pennant races in 2011. The only real drama was whether the Yankees or Red Sox would be crowned champions of the American League East. On September 1st the Red Sox held a half game lead over the arch-rival New York Yankees, who held a commanding 8.5 game lead in the Wild Card race. In the National League, the Atlanta Braves held a similar 8.5 game margin over the St. Louis Cardinals.
And then this funny thing started happening. Toward the middle of September, people in Georgia and New England started talking very anxiously. Their beloved Braves and Sox seemed to have lost the ability to win games. No one could explain it. Especially in Boston’s case. Their roster was just absolutely loaded. Any expert that didn’t have “Phillies vs. Red Sox” as their World Series pick was just trying to be different.
And then they just kept losing.
The tone of the conversation shifted. The Cardinals and Rays were too far back to take advantage, everyone reasoned. The Braves and Red Sox had to win eventually. Honestly, there had never been a collapse like this one in the Wild Card Era. Never. And, as everyone knows, once you get into the playoffs anything can happen.
But the Braves and Red Sox kept losing. And the Cardinals and Rays kept winning.
Toward the end of the month, leads crept further and further down. 4 games. 3 games. 2 games. And then, on September 26th, something truly remarkable happened: the Boston Red Sox dropped into a tie with the Tampa Bay Rays, with matching 89-71 records. The next day, September 27th, the Atlanta Braves matched their ignoble feat by falling into a tie with the St. Louis Cardinals, 89-72 their matching marks. These events were simply without precedent.
Having just moved to the New England area after years of hating Boston-area teams, I will admit to having felt quite a bit of schadenfreude over the collapse of a mighty dynasty with a sickeningly high payroll. But that isn’t why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because of what happened in those days, those weeks. People talked about baseball in September. Everyone talked about baseball. During a time when baseball is generally an afterthought unless your team was in postseason contention, the internet, the radio, television… everyone felt something about what was going on in regular season baseball. Some, like me, were amused. Others were increasingly infuriated and frustrated. But suddenly regular season baseball mattered again.
September 28th, 2011 was the last day of the regular season. At the beginning of the day, the impossible had happened: both Wild Card races, which had been 8.5-game laughers at the beginning of the month, were tied. The Red Sox and Rays were tied at 90 wins and 71 losses; the Braves and Cardinals at 89 and 72.
As that day dawned, anything could happen. The Braves and Red Sox could both “back in” to the playoffs, as they say, their postgame celebrations a muted affair leaving us with more questions than answers. One or both could be forced to play a one-game playoff against a team they had held a seemingly insurmountable lead over at the beginning of the month.
Or the improbable, the impossible, the unthinkable could happen: both teams could be eliminated from postseason contention, setting the stage for two stories that would be shocking even if they happened by themselves.
This was, without any possibility of argument, the most dramatic final day of regular season play in Wild Card Era baseball.
Four games began at roughly the same time. Phillies/Braves, Cardinals/Astros, Red Sox/Orioles, and Yankees/Rays. With both races tied, the outcomes of these games would determine the fate of the Wild Card in both leagues.
The only game of the four that featured almost no drama saw Chris Carpenter shut out the Astros while his offense put 5 runs on the board in the first inning, and never looked back, winning a no-contest 8 to 0.
The Braves’ fate was sealed in a dramatic 13-inning affair against their arch rival Philadelphia, which saw the Braves leading 3-2 going into the 9th inning, only to see a 9th-inning rally tie the game, and a bloop single provide the winning run in the 13th inning. The National League Wild Card winner had been crowned.
But we were far from done.
Far more dramatic were the two decisive American League games. Early on, there was no such drama. The Rays watched with dismay as the Yankees jumped out to a 7 to 0 lead early in the game. The Red Sox had a much slimmer 3 to 2 lead over the Orioles before rain delayed the start of the 7th inning, but they went into the delay confident that their worst case scenario was a one-game playoff the next day. Surely the Rays would not be able to overcome a 7-run deficit.
The Rays loaded the bases in the 8th inning. The Yankees walked in a run, and it was 7-1. Sean Rodriguez was hit by a pitch, and it was 7-2. B.J. Upton hit a sacrifice fly, and it was 7-3. And then, with two outs, Evan Longoria hit his 30th home run of the season and suddenly the impossible was possible. It was a one run game. And Tropicana Field (for once almost full) was going crazy.
That was all for the eighth inning. And, with the Red Sox still rain delayed, the Rays came up in the bottom of the ninth inning. The first two batters were retired without incident. And Cory Wade, closer for the night, had Dan Johnson on the ropes. It wasn’t just the last inning. It wasn’t just the last out. It was the last strike. Johnson hit one of the most dramatic home runs you will ever see, and the Rays had come all the way back.
Play resumed in Boston as extra innings began in Tampa. The Red Sox clung to a 1-run advantage until the ninth inning. They sent one of the best closers in baseball to the mound to seal the deal. But, in a fitting testament to the season as a whole, talent alone was not enough to ensure victory.
After striking out the first two batters, Papelbon gave up a double. And then a ground rule double. The game was tied, and a runner was still in scoring position for Robert Andino.
The count was 1-1. Papelbon threw a 90 mile-an-hour splitter that Andino hit toward left fielder Carl Crawford of all people. Reimold was running on contact. Despite a diving attempt, the highly paid, much maligned outfielder saw the ball pop out of his glove, and he airmailed the throw to home. The Orioles, a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since Cal Ripken Jr. patrolled shortstop, were celebrating on the field on the last day of the regular season.
Less than three minutes later, with the fans still going crazy because the final score of the Red Sox game had just been posted on the scoreboard, Evan Longoria was at the plate facing Scott Proctor in the 12th inning.
How else could it possibly end? Evan Longoria put it in the seats for his 31st home run of the season, and the Rays were going to the playoffs.
I have never seen, and don’t expect to soon see, a more dramatic last day of regular season play. You can forgive me for assuming that the playoffs were going to be a letdown after the drama that unfolded in late September.
I was wrong. Three of the four Division Series went the distance, and the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, who had been cemented at Number One and Number Two in the power rankings for most of the season (interrupted by brief visits from Boston) were eliminated in the first round.
The League Championship Series were both 6-game affairs, the National League variety made more interesting by the fact that the Cardinals and Brewers were division rivals, and Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder were facing each other in Cardinals and Brewers uniforms probably for the last time. The real story, though, was the way the postsesaon unofficial rulebook was being rewritten: for decades, starting pitching has determined your success in the postseason. No more. The Cardinals and Rangers would face each other in a World Series in which none of their starting pitchers had recorded a quality start in the League Championship Series.
Though though the Rays’ Cindarella story had ended with a first round exit, the Cardinals found themselves in the World Series for the third time in seven years.
I need to stop here for a moment so we can reflect on this. The Cardinals had been written off before the season even started. They had lost their ace pitcher, Adam Wainwright, to Tommy John Surgery before he threw a single pitch in a regular season game. Albert Pujols’ impending free agency loomed over the entire year. There just seemed to be too many things going wrong for this team.
So the stage was set for the best World Series in my lifetime. Shockingly, despite seeing the impossible happen in so many different phases of the game, despite the eerily similar circumstances under which the underdog Cardinals stole the series from the heavily favored Detroit Tigers in 2006, almost every expert picked the Texas Rangers to win. The Cardinals were written off one more time.
The Cardinals got a strong start from Chris Carpenter in Game 1, and took the game 3-2 behind timely hitting and yet another gem from their bullpen. Low-scoring games in the World Series have a special kind of intensity, one where every play, ever small moment is magnified. This was one of those games.
Continuing the theme of surprisingly strong starting pitching that neither team had demonstrated elsewhere in the playoffs, Jaime Garcia and Colby Lewis held the game scoreless through six innings. It took a dramatic 2-run ninth inning and a save from Neftali Feliz for the Rangers to take a Game 2 that was almost a mirror image of Game 1.
Albert Pujols absorbed a great deal of criticism for leaving the stadium without addressing the media after Game 2. He responded with the greatest individual performance in World Series history in Game 3. Albert was 5-6, tying Paul Molitor’s record for hits in a World Series game, Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson’s record three home runs in a World Series game, Hideki Matsui and Bobby Richardson’s record of 6 RBIs in a World Series game, and setting a new record with 14 total bases in a World Series game. Unsurprisingly behind such an unparalleled performance, the Cardinals won in a rout, 16-7.
Game 4 saw a shocking gem from Rangers’ starter Derek Holland, who pitched 8 1/3 innings of two-hit baseball, and the Rangers took the contest 4-0.
Game 5 was another close contest, this time featuring an uncharacteristic Cardinals meltdown when closer Jason Motte was unavailable to pitch in the decisive 8th inning, when the Rangers took (and would hold) a 4-2 lead.
One more time, the Cardinals were written off. People started talking about which Ranger should be the MVP of the Series (Mike Napoli seemed to be the popular pick). The Rangers seemed to give ample reason for this when Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz hit back-to-back homers and Ian Kinsler added an RBI single in the top of the 7th inning to break a 4-4 tie and give the Rangers a 7-4 lead.
In the bottom of the 9th inning, the lead was still 7-5, and closer Neftali Perez came in to end the Cardinals’ cindarella series. He got Ryan Theriot swinging but gave up a double to Pujols and walked Lance Berkman. He recovered to strike Allen Craig looking, and suddenly the Cardinals were down to their last out.
Up to the plate stepped the unlikely NLCS MVP. On a team with the likes of Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and Matt Holliday, the big hero of the postseason thus far had been David Freese. And they needed him to be it again with the season on the line.
That wasn’t dramatic enough.
Perez worked the count to 1-2, and suddenly the Cardinals were down not only to their last out, but their last strike. Remember with me, if you will, another team that faced this same situation. Season on the line. One pitch away from losing it all.
David Freese didn’t put it in the seats, but he did hit a triple to right field, scoring Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman and tying the game at 7-all.
The Cardinals’ joy would seemingly be short lived. In the top of the 10th, Josh Hamilton hit a two-run homer, his first of the series, and just like that the Cardinals were staring elimination in the face yet again.
The Cardinals scored one run on Ryan Theriot’s groundout, but that run came at the cost of once again bringing them to the brink. Berkman came to the plate with two outs, and with a 2-2 count, the Cardinals were once again down to their last strike.
But by now you know the Rangers never got it. Berkman rifled a line drive to center field, and the Cardinals scored to tie the game.
One inning later, in the bottom of the 11th, the first batter of the inning was none other than David Freese, who two innings ago had saved the Cardinals from elimination. He took a full-count pitch to center field, and the most stunning World Series comeback I’ve ever seen was complete.
Now, you can be forgiven for pointing out that Game 7 was pretty forgettable, comparatively. But after the two largest regular season collapses ever, the 2011 World Series gave us what many are calling the greatest single-game performance by any player in World Series history (Game 3) and what many are calling the greatest comeback in World Series history, and what some are calling the greatest game in World Series history, or even baseball history (Game 6). Yeah, Game 7 would be part of the ending montage (Like the Gold Medal game in Miracle?), but that hardly matters at this point.
The biggest problem with turning this into a movie is that it’s more unbelievable than any sports movie I’ve ever seen. Game 6 alone strains credulity to the point that anyone who wasn’t watching or listening to the game would find it impossible to believe that it was actually that dramatic.
We started with the popular notion that sports movies are “more dramatic” than real sports. While that is often true, and while sports movies might run the risk of diluting these incredibly rare occasions, this was at least one occasion when real life sports was far more dramatic than its film counterparts.