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Bill Plaschke

Despite All Its Faults, Baseball Somehow Remains a Fall Classic

November 03, 2001|Bill Plaschke

PHOENIX — The game is so bloated, its caretakers are contemplating liposuction.

Then Tino Martinez hits a ball even the biggest boyhood dreams can not hold.

The game is wedged so tightly under television's thumb, its biggest event ends while its biggest cities sleep.

Then Derek Jeter hits a ball so eye-popping, nobody notices the rattling scoreboard clock showing 12:04 a.m.

The game has become so hesitant and slow, its best playoff game has worse Nielsen ratings than the worst "Monday Night Football" game.

Then, from their bulging back pockets, the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks pull out a World Series you hope will never end.

The thought arose sometime late Thursday, sometime after another ball soared over another wall, winners again dancing, losers again frozen.

So this is why baseball survives.

So this is how baseball, in spite of itself, has kept America charmed beyond all reason and faithful beyond all sense.

In what other sport could one find the week of naked drama that has accompanied this generational battle between baseball's most fabled and funky franchises?

Drama, not by those in helmets or those who can fly.

Drama, by humans.

The kind of drama that baseball has always done best. Faced with Game 6 here tonight, the Yankees lead the Diamondbacks, three games to two.

Five games decided by ordinary-looking people finding memorable moments in maddening situations.

Five baseball games.

During Game 1, who didn't jump when the little kid with the helicopter batting stance put a ball in the seats? Only in baseball can one find such a curious invention as Craig Counsell.

During Game 2, who didn't squirm as the sweat flew off the stringy hair of the 6-foot-10 pitcher flinging his fastball? Only baseball could conjure up Randy Johnson.

The Diamondbacks won the first two games, and the Yankees were done. They were old and detached and drained.

Then came Game 3, when President Bush emerged from a dugout police state to stand alone on the Yankee Stadium mound and throw a strike.

During a time of war, has a sitting president ever walked alone out to the middle of the field at a football game?

The fans roared. The Yankees awoke. And then the biggest game of the baseball season thus far was decided on ... two tiny decisions.

The Yankees' Shane Spencer decided he would dive for a fly ball.

The Diamondbacks' Luis Gonzalez decided he could not.

Spencer saved the go-ahead run. Gonzalez allowed the winning run.

All of which proved to be only an appetizer for possibly the two most incredible consecutive games in World Series history.

Before this week, only four times in 96 years has a team come back from a two-or-more-runs deficit in the ninth inning to win a World Series game.

This week, it happened twice within 25 hours.

Even on Friday, Yankee Andy Pettitte, preparing for today's start against Randy Johnson, could barely find the words.

"You know, what's happened the last two nights is ... I don't know ... it's just almost ... you are scratching your head," he said. "I can't believe it happened. I really can't."

The Game 4 box score will show the Yankees tying the score with a two-run homer in the ninth and Jeter winning it with a homer in the 10th.

But only in baseball could such a thing happen on the same night the contract of the winning team's manager expired.

That's right. Sometime after Martinez's homer, and before Jeter's homer, Joe Torre stopped being paid.

Not only that, before hitting his homer, Jeter chided him about it.

"He started reminding me that I had an hour-and-a-half left on my contract," Torre said. "Like there was nothing else to think about."

A kid's game, volunteer managers and all.

The Game 5 box score will show the Yankees tying the score with Scott Brosius' ninth-inning homer, and winning it with Alfonso Soriano's single in the 12th.

But only in baseball would the real hero be that same manager, Torre, for a simple decision made on where to place his infielders.

In the 11th inning, the Diamondbacks had the bases loaded and one out and powerful Reggie Sanders batting.

But instead of playing the infield closer to home plate in hopes of grabbing a grounder and stopping a run--traditional strategy--Torre showed his confidence in his veteran team by leaving them back at double-play depth.

Sure enough, Sanders hit a line drive and Soriano was in a perfect position to catch it--something that would not have happened if he was playing closer.

Five games, three decided by one run, three in which the teams combined for five runs or fewer.

Five games that stuck to your hair and your clothes like the Bronx grime and desert wind.

A dozen affable heroes in two different shades of pinstripe. One lonely goat named Byung-Hyun Kim.

"I think this is real baseball," Torre said, shaking his head in amazement, the same look shared by everyone involved this week. "This is the real baseball game."

And there's, at most, only two left?

Oh, well.

Today's game will feature two of baseball's most dominating pitchers. Sunday's Game 7, if necessary, could feature ... well, two of baseball's most dominating pitchers.

Not bad, a weekend spent with Pettitte and Johnson and Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling.

A ballpark skins game.

Only in baseball, of course, could rumors of a player's arm soreness become so rampant that he is compelled to show up at a press conference on his day off to say he feels fine.

Then, as if to prove it, Schilling steps on the field and plays catch with his son.

Kid by the name of Gehrig.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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