CLEVELAND — Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new candidate for Most Amazing Baseball Game Ever Played.
Granted, this category might have a 1,000-way tie for first place. Still, Saturday's Game 3 of the American League Championship Series between the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians will have its passionate advocates for many a year, well into the game's next century.
In the end, after four hours 51 minutes and 12 innings, the Indians won, 2-1, in the only way that would have been appropriate to this staggeringly bizarre series -- in an amalgam of excitement, controversy, confusion, unthinkable mistakes and inside baseball.
Marquis Grissom scored on a passed ball by Orioles catcher Lenny Webster as the Indians attempted -- and botched -- a suicide squeeze play. Omar Vizquel missed the bunt, Webster missed the ball and, as Webster stood with the ball in his hand a few feet from home plate, Grissom raced across the base.
"I missed the bunt. I was ready to kill myself, because Marquis would have been out at the plate (by many yards)," said Vizquel. "Then I saw Marquis run across the plate and I just started jumping."
The Orioles jumped, too--screaming in rage on the field. They thought Vizquel had foul-tipped his bunt attempt, which would have nullified the play.
The umpire who made the call--which looked correct to many people on replay--was John Hirschbeck. Yes, the same umpire into whose face the Orioles' Roberto Alomar spat last season.
"He definitely tipped the ball and it deflected off my glove," said Webster. "All I could do was get a bit of my glove on it. I definitely saw contact. I heard contact. When (Hirschbeck) gestured with his arm, I thought he meant 'foul ball.' I didn't run and get the ball for that reason." But what if he had run after the ball? Would he have gotten Grissom.
"I don't think so. If I dash, I'd have to dive back (toward home plate) for him," said Webster. "I don't know."
"I thought I heard a 'tick,' " said Orioles Manager Davey Johnson. "Maybe that's wishful hearing. And I saw the ball change direction. To me, that means a foul tip. When my catcher doesn't go after the ball, I figure it's a foul ball."
"I did not hear anything," said Hirschbeck. "If I had ruled a foul ball, I would have screamed foul -- loud. And waved emphatically."
That final play brought together many of the protagonists in a series that the underdog Indians now lead, two games to one.
Grissom, standing on third base, was both hero and goat. His three-run, eighth-inning homer in Game 2 gave Cleveland a 5-4 comeback win. Yet, with one out in the ninth inning Saturday and an Oriole on second base, Brady Anderson hit a fly to center. Grissom -- who was playing with flu symptoms and, at times, has taken fluids intravenously in recent days for dehydration -- never saw the ball. The fluke fly fell to the turf as the Orioles tied the score, 1-1.
"So far, destiny has smiled on (Grissom) twice and dumped on him once," said Indians Manager Mike Hargrove.
This series has already provided a winter of hot-stove fodder for debate. Everybody had chances to win. Rafael Palmeiro struck out with the bases full in the 11th inning. But Sandy Alomar Jr. struck out with the bases loaded in the bottom half of the inning. Three batters earlier, Cal Ripken had saved the game for the Orioles, temporarily at least, with a diving stop behind third base.
For the first seven innings of this battle, Orel Hershiser and Mike Mussina staged one of the best post-season pitching duels ever seen. The Orioles' Mussina struck out 15 in his seven innings, the most in a League Championship Series game -- or by any Oriole ever. Mussina allowed three singles. He left trailing, 1-0.
Hershiser, 39, thought to be nearly a decade past his prime, was better. The sinkerball specialist faced only one batter more than the minimum in his seven innings and allowed no Oriole past first base. Using the twilight shadows of Jacobs Field to his advantage, the crafty Hershiser fanned six of the first nine batters. Then, he got double plays in the next four innings, three on limp grounders.
But few pitchers have ever battled more gloriously than Mussina, who beat Randy Johnson -- the fabled Big Unit -- in back-to-back playoff starts against the Seattle Mariners last week in their first-round divisional playoff series. This time, Mussina struck out the side in the first, third and sixth innings. But Hershiser matched him, zero for zero.
Finally, in the seventh inning, the Indians staged a pitched battle with Mussina worthy of any sports dime novel. Leadoff man Manny Ramirez actually might have given the Indians a chance to win by leading off the inning with a strikeout. But what a strikeout. Ramirez battled the Orioles right-hander through 13 pitches.