Monday, August 16, 2004

Baseball's secret revealed

ATLANTA, Aug. 14 - The secret has finally been revealed.

Here at Turner Field, on a beautiful afternoon tailor made for baseball, the red hot Atlanta Braves outslugged the Major League leading St. Louis Cardinals 9-7, in a game that proved to be something of a well stocked smorgasbord.

There were plenty of home runs (six), 11 different pitchers, two hit batters, three arguments at home plate and a seesaw scoring struggle, something for everybody. Add to that a mild late summer afternoon filled with hues of blue and green, the recipe created a fleeting three hours of heaven on earth for those who love this grand game.

Walking through the parking lot that once was Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, one could sense that the afternoon was going to be special. Near what used to be home plate at the Braves' old park, a father and son were playing catch.

"Here it comes," the father said as the son prepared to receive the ball. They tossed the ball back and forth, engaging in a ritual that has been studied by sociologists, glorified by filmmakers and lamented by poets. The boy's eyes were glowing as he chased down the ball; his father was clearly amused at his son's happiness.

The Cards gained the early lead on a first inning two run blast by first baseman Albert Pujols and a fan down the way wondered whether Braves starting pitcher Russ Ortiz wasn't about to break his heart.

"This happens every time I see a game on the road," he sighed. "Last time I was here was for the Peach Bowl and I saw a loss, then, too."

But in a brief moment, as is often the case in this game, the plot turned on home runs by Chipper and Andruw Jones that put the Braves ahead. Ortiz and Cardinals pitcher Jason Marquis, himself a former Braves player, both struggled throughout the game, leaving the outcome in doubt. The Braves' lead widened, then shrunk as Pujols hit another one out of the park three innings later.

By the seventh inning, the Redbirds had a 7-6 lead and appeared to be well on the way to yet another win. The Cards have played exceptionally well all season and will be the team to beat in the playoffs this fall.

But disappointment was simply not meant to be on this near perfect day, as the Braves lit up Cardinals reliever Julian Tavarez in the bottom of the seventh, pushing across three runs to take the lead for good. Braves manager Bobby Cox summoned closer John Smoltz with two outs in the eighth inning, wanting desperately to earn a win against a team that relatively speaking does not lose.

Smoltz strutted onto the field, like a maestro entering the orchestra pit, as Braves partisans welcomed him with a standing ovation. Smoltz's confidence spread throughout the stadium with each advancing step.

By the time he got to the mound, the place was abuzz with electricity. A crowd that had endured the leisurely pace of the three plus hour affair was ready for a dramatic climax.

Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds watched a Smoltz fastball pass by like a house on the side of the road and the Braves partisans exploded. Smelling blood, they were itching for the kill when Smoltz quickly struck out Edgar Renteria and got Reggie Sanders to fly out to start the ninth.

Pinch hitter Marlon Anderson approached the plate as the screaming crowd rose to its feet. He fouled off eight or nine pitches, frustrating those who wanted the darn thing over and keeping the Cardinals' hopes alive for a few fleeting moments. Not having a clock to work, Smoltz had to secure the win the old fashioned way --- by earning it.

Anderson blasted a pitch to right field. Cardinals fans leapt to their feet, only to see the ball hook foul to the right. Smoltz leaned back and gave it all he had. Anderson swung, desperately, realizing the end was at hand. The ball trickled just out of the infield into the waiting glove of first baseman Julio Franco, who tossed the ball to Smoltz, who beat Anderson to the bag.

It was over. Braves fans exploded in relief. The Cardinals faithful collectively shrugged its shoulders, taking solace no doubt in the insurmountable lead the team holds over the Chicago Cubs, its postseason future nearly secure.

Perhaps it is foolish to seek deeper meaning in something as trivial as sports. But in one half inning, the secret of this game's hypnotic attraction was, at long last, crystal clear.

Rarely in life does a person have the ability to hold onto the ball long enough to figuratively run out the clock in order to succeed. Sometimes it isn't even possible to step back and punt.

More often than not, one simply has to stare the batter down and say "Here is the best I got. If you can hit this, you are the better one."

Sometimes the batter watches stunned as the ball arrives in the catcher's mit at 96 miles per hour. Other times, the batter connects, sending the ball 400 feet, snatching victory from the tips of your fingers.

But sometimes the ball just tickles by, only to be snatched up by the friend standing behind you, who has all the while been watching your back.

The game, like life itself, can not be won alone.

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