The San Francisco giants brought their custom-bottled champagne, 20 cases of bubbly with their logo and WORLD CHAMPIONS inscribed on the label. Attendants in the visiting clubhouse at Anaheim's Edison Field began unpacking the bottles and placing them in giant tubs of ice during the top of the seventh inning of Game 6 of the World Series last Saturday night. Shortstop Rich Aurilia walked into the clubhouse after his at bat that inning and saw the champagne beginning to chill.
He had witnessed such an inviting tableau once before. It was in Colorado, in September 1998, when the Giants were one victory from clinching a wild-card spot. They blew a lead, though, and the champagne had to be packed away; San Francisco lost a one-game playoff to the Chicago Cubs the next day.
But this was as close to a mortal lock as there could be, especially after second baseman Jeff Kent smacked a two-out, run-scoring single that inning off Anaheim Angels wunderkind righthander Francisco Rodriguez to put the Giants ahead 5-0. Kent normally plays baseball with such a wooden bearing that he fairly throws off splinters. But even he, in triumphant salute, vigorously pumped his fist a few steps after leaving the batter's box.
Inside the clubhouse, laborers furiously ran TV cables and unsheathed rolls of two-inch-wide brown masking tape to hang protective plastic sheeting over the Giants' lockers. No team had ever blown a five-run lead in a potential World Series clincher. The party was nigh. "You start counting the outs," rightfielder Reggie Sanders said.
The countdown stood at eight after starter Russ Ortiz retired Garret Anderson on a grounder for the first out of the seventh. Yes, it was a lock. Ortiz had given up nothing but an infield single, and manager Dusty Baker had a rested bullpen. His team had scored 15 unanswered runs in its past 10 times at bat. A lock? Right. The surest thing since Dewey.
"You never know," Angels centerfielder Darrin Erstad kept saying in the dugout, to no one in particular but for the benefit of everyone. "You just never know."
Graham Greene wrote that "champagne, if you are seeking the truth, is better than a lie detector." On this cool autumnal evening champagne didn't have to pass the lips of any Giant to reveal two undeniable truths: that the World Series, constrained by neither time nor imagination, is the most spectacular trapdoor in sports, and that the Anaheim Angels have established themselves as one of the greatest rally teams the game has ever known.
For little more than 24 hours later, in a corner of that same Giants clubhouse, Game 7 starter Livan Hernandez sat on a folding chair, wearing underwear, a T-shirt and shower shoes, weeping into a white sanitary sock. All around him his teammates spoke in whispers, if at all. The inventory: 20 cases of unopened champagne, 25 cases of heartache.
What happened in between the bubbly on ice and the Giants' getting iced was the most unlikely comeback from the brink of elimination in all 98 World Series ever played. Yes, it's true that half the teams in the past six World Series that were no more than six outs from a championship have watched it go up in smoke. (The Giants joined the 1997 Indians and the 2001 Yankees.) What demolition experts will tell you, however, is that no two implosions occur in exactly the same way.
The Angels became the first team ever to rally from five runs down to stave off defeat in a World Series, storming to a 6-5 win. On Sunday they completed the reversal of fortune with a 4-1 triumph in Game 7.