By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Writer
The Opening Night of Major League Baseball within U.S. borders will be played tonight, and to honor the beginning of another season of the great game, I thought I would share my experiences during one of the greatest nights of baseball the world has ever seen.
I have always been a Texas Ranger fan, but since I was about 10 or 11 years old I began keeping an eye on a team that did not get a whole lot of attention from baseball fans, especially those in McKinney. It has been well documented through the podcast and my weekly columns that I am an enthusiast for the underdog, which is why I still watched this team a couple times a week despite the consistent years of 100-plus losses and a stadium that was fully equipped with its own catwalk rules and regulations.
I am of course talking about the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays, who came into existence in 1998 and spent the first ten years of its existence collecting dust in the cellar of the American League East. Despite all the losing and the constant uniform color changes, there was something about this team that kept me around. I saw the days of the Fred McGriff “Hit Show” gang, the three-year trial run of manager Lou Piniella, and the early professional footsteps of Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli.
Of course most baseball people remember the historic 2008 season where the newly named Rays, (dropping the ‘Devil’ out of the name should always be brought up when analyzing their dramatic turnaround) won their first A.L East division crown and made it to the World Series, eventually losing to Philadelphia in five games. Since that magical run Tampa Bay has made it to back-to-back postseasons, including its second division title in 2010. And for Ranger fans out there, they all know exactly how the Rays were eliminated so there is no need to bring it up. I still know.
Even with a World Series run in my back pocket, I doubt anything will trump what occurred last September in how the Tampa Bay Rays clinched the American League Wild Card and made it to the playoffs. On September 4th, 2011 the Boston Red Sox were nine games ahead of the Rays for the Wild Card spot. Most sports analytical projections gave Boston a 99.6% chance of making the postseason, while the Rays were hanging on by a thread with a .02% chance, tied with Los Angeles. Over the next three and a half weeks, Tampa Bay was going one way in the standings while Boston was seeing those odds dwindle down with every gut-wrenching defeat. Miraculously on September 28th, 2011, the Rays and Red Sox were tied atop the Wild Card standings with one game to be played by each squad. It was simply unbelievable.
The stakes were simple: if each team had the same results, then a one-game playoff would be played in Tampa the next night to decide the Wild Card winner, and if each team had opposite results, the winner moves on to face Texas and the loser becomes a 90-win team watching the playoffs from home. On this Wednesday night I was not only the biggest Rays fan in McKinney but I was also sporting my Baltimore Orioles cap around the house. The O’s needed to do a number on the Sox at home to take down the other evil empire in baseball, behind New York of course. Could the Rays come all the way back and make this September one no one would ever forget, or could the Red Sox avoid the greatest September collapse in the history of Major League Baseball?
I kept a running log of the entire day of Game 162, and I would like to share my tale of the events that transpired from the Bruu household on September 28th, 2011.
Here we go:
10:15 a.m. – Just woke up from a pretty sleepless night. There is no way I can withstand class today. Art is going to have to wait. I need a little MLB Network to tell me how David Price will shut down the Yankees’ AAA squad tonight and give us a chance to at least play tomorrow night.
10:30 – Stop telling me how good Jon Lester is versus Baltimore. I’m scared again.
12:30 p.m. – I know this is pretty pathetic, but food doesn’t taste as good today knowing the season might be over tomorrow. I hate becoming emotionally attached to teams. This night is going to suck.
12:45 – Bobby Valentine just picked the Rays to clinch a berth tonight. This night is going to be awesome.
3:15 – I went to Target wearing my Rays hat and T-shirt. I got behind a man in a Red Sox jersey while I was checking out. I still don’t understand why he wouldn’t let me get in front of him to check out real quick. I mean, I only had one product. What a jerk.
5:30 – Game is in thirty minutes. Seriously cannot sit down and focus. Too much adrenaline coursing through my veins. Overall I feel pretty good about things. My predictions: Rays win by 4 and Orioles win by 2. Totally a homer pick and have no problem with it.
6:00 – First pitch is here. Strike one to Jeter. Let’s get one strike at a time. I have the Boston game going on my iPad and the Rays game on the big TV. I love America.
6:05 – Some guy named Ryan Lavarnway is hitting fifth for Boston in a game to decide its postseason fate. This night is going to be money.
6:18 – Robinson Cano hits an easy grounder to second basemen Ben Zobrist with a runner on second base. Between the legs. Run scores and the Yankees are up 1-0. We needed one to win anyway.
6:49 – The Red Sox are cooking now. Ellsbury singles. Pedroia singles. 1-0 Sox. Now David Ortiz is up with nobody out. What’s worse? The Yankees are getting on base and David Price can’t throw a strike. Approaching sixty pitches now and raising the anxiety level in the Bruu home. Hold me.
6:53 – Mark Teixeira grand slam. 5-0 Yankees. I want to go to sleep.
6:55 – I take a trip outside to see my dog and grandparents. I tell them that the season is over, but other than that my day is going pretty good.
7:07 – J.J. Hardy of the Orioles hits a two-run homer. 2-1 O’s. I am contemplating switching the Sox game to the big TV. It appears my support is needed in Baltimore on this evening.
7:21 – A freaking balk by Baltimore’s pitcher allows the Sox to tie the game at two. He stuttered at third like they do in the 11-year-old leagues and the pitcher fell for it. My hope for October baseball may lie in the hands of the Baltimore Orioles. Baseball can be cruel.
7:35-7:36 – Things are getting freaky. Pedroia uppercuts a shot to left field to put the Sox up 3-2 moments before Teixeira sends another dagger into the chests of the Rays. 6-0 New York. Price is gone. I don’t think I will ever look back at this season with good memories if they lose tonight. If you don’t win the last game of the season, you have lost the entire season. No consolation prizes coming from this guy.
7:58 – Time for dinner. Mac and cheese should do the trick. I manage to miss reliever Juan Cruz give up another Yankee homer. 7-0. Mom asks me what the score is. I tell her “a lot to none.” I wish someone were here to share this pain with. To top it off, I used the wrong pot for the macaroni. I want it to be Thursday already.
8:20 – Send a text to my dad to tell him the score. He tells me that it’s not over until it’s over. I told him I’m thinking about watching Jersey Shore instead. That should be a good sign of how serious the matter is at the moment.
8:34 – Look down at the iPad to see Camden Yards being hit with heavy rain. There are only nine outs left for Boston to get. MLB won’t let a game this big be a victim of a rain delay. This could be a very long night.
8:45 – A.J Burnett shuts the Rays down in the bottom of the seventh. Thousands of fans at the Trop are walking out. They have seen enough. I am going downstairs to get away too. I need to reenergize myself before I become a Baltimore homer when that rain finally subsides. It’s over in Tampa.
9:07 – I have the game on the little game tracker on my computer. When I get nervous I just watch the stats of the game. Keeps my heart rate down a little bit. Six outs left.
9:08-9:18 – Bottom of the eighth. Damon leads off with a single. Zobrist doubles to left for runners at third and second. Kotchman hit hard in the hand by a ball. Bases loaded. Fuld walks in the first run. 7-1. Rodriguez hit in the chest. 7-2. Upton sac flies to center to make it 7-3. Two outs. Game is back on the TV.
9:23 – Holy cow. Brian Anderson on Sun Sports TV says that Evan Longoria is made for moments like this. Two on base with two outs. First pitch home run. 7-6 Yankees. Holy cow. Tonight is going to be special.
9:41 – No Mariano for the Yankees in the ninth. Thank you New York. Meanwhile it is still pouring in Baltimore, but I feel like the Rays won’t need to rely on that outcome so much. They are winning it here tonight.
9:45 – Cory Wade for the Yankees is getting outs. Manager Joe Maddon is calling up Dan Johnson, who is hitting .108 this season. Comfort level is obviously very high at the moment.
9:47 – Two outs, two strikes, with the entire Rays season on the line. I have Kleenex’s in my palms to keep them from dripping with sweat. I am bouncing around my TV room upstairs. BOOM! Line drive down the right field line. OH MY GOD! (The rest of the entry was unreadable due to the high level of emotion at that moment. Just know the score is now 7-7.)
10:02 – Game begins in Baltimore again after close to a 90-minute delay. At this point my mom is fully aware of what is going on. I need someone to share this with.
10:50 – I had to put the journal down. It got too intense for me to put words on paper. The Sox are going to the ninth inning still up 3-2. The Rays can’t scratch a run home in the 11th. Longoria boots a ball to start the top of twelve. For a Gold Glove winner, his errors can be awful. I need a new Kleenex.
10:52 – Yankees first and third with no outs. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon records first two outs. MLB Network is doing an incredible job switching back and forth between games at this point. They deserve an Emmy for this. My mom joins me upstairs and I recap the situation. I tell her this night will never be forgotten.
10:54 – Baltimore’s Chris Davis doubles. The Yankees make a bone headed base running error at third. What is going on? Is this real life?
11:00 – Boston 3, Baltimore 3. Are you serious? But wait, there’s more. The Yankees just ended the 12th without a run. Rays coming to bat. I am laughing at this right now. Baseball can be absolutely breathtaking.
11:02 – Orioles shortstop Ronny Andino rips it to left. I stand up as the ball approaches Red Sox left fielder Carl Crawford. He slides, looks like he should catch it, but rather boots it a few feet in front of him. Runner on second base is charging around third towards the plate. The throw….LATE!! THE ORIOLES HAVE WON IT! 4-3! Yes, Al Michaels, I do believe in miracles.
11:04 – Back on the Rays game. The stadium just found out the score of the Sox game and is on fire. Upton is at the plate and can’t figure out why the crowd just burst into applause. Longoria is on deck. I tell my mom that this is unbelievable. She can’t believe it either. I have never felt this proud before. Maybe there are consolation prizes after all. Upton strikes out. Longoria is up
11:06 – 2-2 count.
11:07 – Tampa Bay 8, New York 7. Longoria line drive home run down left field line. Rays win the Wild Card. I might be sports crying.
11:10-11:25 – I am hugging my mom while calling everyone I know to recap the night. My dad is stuck at work but can’t believe what I am telling him. Sports Center is already doing a mash-up highlight package of the two games. This is being called the greatest regular season night of baseball of all time. I know I won’t ever see this again. I don’t even care about the Ranger series. We did it. Baseball is the most incredible sport, you know?
Nights like that are the reasons why we love sports and allow our emotions to become vulnerable to possibly be completely thrown for a loop. I hope that even if you don’t like baseball that you have a sport and a team that you are passionate about, because there is not a greater feeling than being knocked down over and over again with disappointment from another failed year, only to rise up and pull off a miracle like the Rays did in 2011.
Opening Night is upon us once again, so here is to what I hope is a long and very successful 2012 campaign for you and your favorite team. Unless you like the Red Sox or Yankees, of course.