The SPORTS PHILOSOPHER says: ‘Sometimes reality ain’t all it’s cracked up to be….’

October 2, 2011
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     Why does the world of Sport have such a vise-grip on us Americans?

     I mean I know people who genuinely hate sports.   Women, mostly.   It’s true.   They think we men, their men, watch too much of it.   Also probably true.

Johnson joins Bobby Thomson and Carlton Fisk in baseball legend with his improbable home run…

Johnson joins Bobby Thomson and Carlton Fisk in baseball legend with his improbable home run…

     Anyway, it’s natural to wonder why something as seemingly innocuous as adults playing various kids’ playground games infects us and stays with us from the cradle to the grave.   But when sports days like last Wednesday happen—in this case, concerning baseball—it doesn’t make you wonder why, it makes you understand why.

     The short story is that the Boston Red-Sox and Atlanta Braves blew the two biggest leads for a post-season berth ever taken into September.   Wednesday, September 28th, was the last day of the season, and the Sox and Braves completed their ill-fated entrée into history and infamy by blowing leads in each team’s final game.   Perfectly fitting.   But it wasn’t just that it happened, it was the way it happened.   It was either glorious or gut-wrenching, depending on which side you were on.   And if you didn’t have a side, it was just pain wonderful.

     But before I dissect the particulars for you, let’s take a look at some of’s headlines from that very same Wednesday, shall we?


*Baby Joseph dies in his sleep

*Christian pastor in Iran faces execution

*13 cantaloupe-related deaths

*Guard charged with inmate sex abuse

*Severed heads found near Mexican primary school

     And last but not least, my personal favorite….

*Hilary Swank & dog kicked out of café


     Depressing, huh?   Poor Hilary.   And that’s just one day’s CNN headlines.   Each new day brings a fresh bushel-basket of even more depressing stories into our lives, homes, computers, iPhones, etc.   But for purposes of today’s lesson I’m going to ask you to hold those horrific headlines in your head for a few minutes, while we get back to Wednesday’s thrilling baseball action….

     The Cardinals were chasing the Braves for the National League “wild card” spot.   The plucky Cards had already won 8-0 earlier in the evening (the only one of the four relevant ballgames that did not have an epic, gut-wrenching finish), and therefore the Braves needed to win to force a one-game playoff.   They led into the 9th inning, their usually reliable closer Craig Kimbrel promptly gave up the tying run to the Phillies, and then the Braves lost the lead and the game in the 13th inning to complete the 2nd-biggest collapse of all time.   Not only did they blow an eight-and-a-half-game September lead over the Cards, but they did it with a flourish, losing their last five games in a row and scoring only 7 runs in those five games.   Brutal.

     Amazingly, while this was going on, the American League wild card spot was being contested in even more dramatic, never-happened-before-and-will-never-happen-again fashion.

     The Red-Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays were tied coming into the final day, Boston was in Baltimore playing the Orioles, the Rays were at home playing the Yankees, and both games were going on simultaneously.   The back-and-forth was so intense that it was a virtual smorgasbord from the gods for viewers of ESPN and the MLB Channel.   Things looked bad for Tampa Bay at first.   Boston was leading Baltimore 3 to 2, in the middle of a 7th-inning rain delay, while a thousand miles to the south the Rays were getting killed.   The Yankees were thrashing Tampa Bay 7 to 0 in the 8th inning, Tampa Bay had managed only two base hits all game, baby this game was virtually over.   Every year you can count on one hand the number of 7-run leads blown with two innings to go…. 

     Fortunately for Tampa Bay, however, was the fact that the Yankees had already clinched their division, so they were determined to rest their key players.   Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Curtis Granderson—all-stars all—were pulled from the game early.   Alex Rodriguez didn’t play at all.   And New York was pitching everybody in their dugout, all their scrubs.   Finally, the dam broke.   The crummy Yankee pitchers started to walk people, hit people with pitched balls, Evan Longoria hit a big three-run home run, and suddenly Tampa Bay had scored SIX RUNS in the 8th inning!   Unbelievable!   The score was now 7 to 6.

     That means with one inning to go they were still down by a run.   But the Yankees, even though they had three days to rest him before the playoffs, did not bring Mariano Rivera in to close the game.   Mariano Rivera is the finest closer in baseball history.   The integrity of the sport demanded that the Yankees give their best effort, that Rivera be brought in, in fairness to the Red-Sox.   Any wonder why Red-Sox Nation hates the Yankees?

     Anyway, with two outs in the 9th and no one on, the tomato-can pitcher the Yankees selected in lieu of Rivera to close the game was facing a Rays’ pinch-hitter called Dan Johnson.

     As he strode to the plate Dan Johnson was hitting an anemic .108 for the season, having accumulated a grand total of 9 hits all year long in 83 forgettable at-bats .   That’s 9 for 83, people!   It’s not a misprint!    And the only home run he had hit all year was way back in April.   Heck, the last time Dan Johnson hit a home run Bin Laden was still alive and pro basketball still existed….

     All this makes Dan arguably the worst hitter in all of baseball.  At least for the calendar year 2011.    Is this a great country or what?  A country where the worst hitter in all of major league baseball can hit a 9th-inning, 2-out, 2-strike home run to tie a game his team had to win to stay alive.   Which is exactly what he did.   Given the mathematics of baseball, it is an impossible occurrence beyond Human belief.   With his team one strike away from losing and probably being eliminated from the race, Dan hit the next pitch into the right-field seats, and the home crowd went absolutely crazy.

     How do you explain something like that?   Maybe I can.   Let’s look at the numbers: As stated, Johnson was hitting exactly .108 at the time of his epic swing that has now made him a permanent part of baseball lore.   Strangely enough, there are exactly 108 stitches on a baseball.   If you don’t believe me, pick up a ball and count ‘em.   Baseball addicts already know about the 108 stitches thing, it’s as old as baseball lore itself.   Yes, baseball has a reputation for being a mystical sport, a speck of magic in the Human kaleidoscope.    Maybe it is.   Maybe that’s the only way to explain a .108 hitter hitting arguably the most desperate, the most dramatic, the most drop-dead clutch and least likely home run in the history of the game…. 

     So now it’s tied, 7-7, and the game goes into extra innings.

     Meanwhile, the Boston/Baltimore game had resumed from its rain delay, and after blowing golden scoring opportunity after golden scoring opportunity, Boston—staggering to the wire like a drunken marathon runner with an inner-ear infection—took a slim 3 to 2 lead into the bottom of the 9th inning.   Only three outs to go.   It looked like they would barely avoid the big collapse, and at least secure a one-game playoff with Tampa Bay if the Rays were lucky enough to win too.   And their big-game “closer”, the great Jonathan Papelbon, was striding to the mound to make sure of it….

     This is where I myself get a little mystical about baseball.    Boston didn’t deserve to make the playoffs; their pitching had been worse than awful in September, they’d already thrown away their entire 9-game lead over the Rays, they went from having baseball’s best record for the first five months of the season to going 7 and 20 during baseball’s final month, it is a collapse without precedent in baseball annals, they simply didn’t deserve to make the playoffs.   Period.   And yet they were about to do just that.   Not fair, not right.   Right?   Accordingly, this is where I’m convinced the baseball gods stepped in and made things right.   With two outs and none on in the 9th, one out away from victory and at minimum a one-game playoff with Tampa Bay the next day, Papelbon allowed a double, then another double which scored the game’s tying run (with two strikes on the guy to boot, for godsakes, one strike away), and then he gave up the game-winning single which sent the Oriole bench and the Oriole home crowd into delirium.   It all happened so fast it was breathtaking.  The Red-Sox left fielder who failed to catch the line drive which ended their season, Carl Crawford, is the guy who recently signed a 7-year, $140-million-dollar contract with the Red-Sox.   You’d think for $140-million a guy would put forth a titanic amount of effort on every play, right?   Especially on a play where if you don’t catch the ball the season is probably over.   Well, Crawford’s effort on the play was lethargic at best, and at worst it was just about the most sorry-ass, weak-ass, lazy-ass, low octane effort and utterly passive attempt to casually snag a sinking liner in the history of the grand old game.   If I was one of Crawford’s teammates, I would take him aside the way Tom Berenger took Corbin Bernson aside in the classic screen comedy Major League, and tell him that if he ever wimped out on a ball like that again I’d take the ball and stuff it down his bleeping throat.   Crawford acted like he was more concerned about how cool he would look pretending to slide as he casually and coolly caught the ball than he was about actually reaching out with frantic all-or-nothing desperation to actually catch the ball.   Given Boston’s overall collapse, it was perfect symmetry. 

     You probably know the rest, and if you don’t you can probably guess it: Back down in Tampa, in the Rays/Yankees game, Longoria homered again in the 12th inning, his second round-tripper for the ages in this single solitary game, except that this one was the walk-off game winner.   At least Longoria is a 30-homer-a-year guy, an all-star, as opposed to Dan Johnson being basically the worst player in baseball.   Anyway, the minute Longoria’s low line drive cleared the wall, all the Red-Sox players watching the game up in the visitor’s locker room in Baltimore knew their season was over.   It occurred exactly three minutes after Papelbon blew the save and Crawford pussied out on that liner.   After five hours of slowly escalating drama, the two games ended in sudden, unprecedented dramatic fashion only three minutes apart.   And in each game, the eventual winner was down to its last strike.

     They are calling it the greatest day of regular-season baseball in the game’s 140+ year history.  I think that’s an understatement.   So now, with that in mind, do this for me: Compare all that transpired in baseball on Wednesday with those CNN headlines listed above.  

     Do you get it now???

     The short answer as to why sports grips us so tightly is that sports is the good stuff.   News is the bad stuff.   Sports is the chronicle of Human achievement, what we can do if we dream, work hard, and keep the faith.   News is what level we as a species can sink to when we give in to our shortcomings.

     How great a day in sports, in baseball, was last Wednesday?   Here’s how ESPN sports anchor Scott Van Pelt put it: “I’ve said it a million times, I’ll say it until I’m dead….Sports are better than anything else; always.”  

     Okay, so maybe that’s a little clunky and over-the-top.   But the sentiment is dead-on true.

     Y’know what?   There’s an American novelist living amongst us right now who put it even better, I think.   He wrote the following phrase comparing the sports world to the news world and stuck it in one of his books, and I quote: “News is Reality’s cousin; Sports, the sublime salvation from such depressing and unwelcome ministers of the real world.”   Works for me.   Because I don’t know much, but I do know one thing: I’ll take a .108 hitter homering to tie up the most important game of the year in the 9th inning over severed heads and Hilary Swank’s dog getting thrown out of a restaurant any day of the week.

     I’m pretty sure I got the quote right.   And I certainly don’t think the novelist would mind that I quoted him in this column.

     Because it’s me.

     Chapter 17, page 316, 2nd paragraph.   If you had a copy of Where Gods Gamble handy, you could look it up….

meet….The Sports Philosopher!image002

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered literary giant, and celebrant of Sports over News any day of the week.    Brad’s other recent columns for La Verne Online can be found in the Sports section under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written 4 novels* and over 20 short-stories.   

*To pick up a copy of his recently published novel of life at the racetrack, of triumph, and of despair, WHERE GODS GAMBLE, a tale of American mythology, simply search for it on,, or   it’s easy!   (And then, the minute it arrives in the mail, open it up and turn to Chapter 17, page 316, 2nd paragraph….)






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