Ron Washington seems to carry about him the wisdom of a beat poet, buried beneath the glasses, the gap-toothed smile and, from his top-step dugout perch, the whooping and stomping of a rail jockey trying best he can to bring his horse home first. "That's the way baseball go," his much-repeated reflection on the sport's existentialism, is such a sine qua non of Rangers baseball that it was memorialized in the modern version of granite: the mass-market T-shirt.
When the 2011 season ended last Friday in St. Louis with a tepid World Series Game 7—as if baseball had withdrawn every bit of a 30-day supply of excitement and had to play a 31st day bankrupt—the Texas manager nailed what truth was found in a postseason of unsurpassed length and thrills. Sitting behind a microphone at Busch Stadium, with the world champion Cardinals and their fans madly celebrating a title that surprised even them, Washington practically read from his own version of On the Road.
"You know," he said, "sometimes when opportunity is in your presence, you certainly can't let it get away, because sometimes it takes a while before it comes back.
"If there's one thing that happened in this World Series that I'll look back on, [it's] being so close—just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten, and it could have been a different story."
In the first 106 World Series, 105 teams stood one strike away from the championship and eventually won it. The only exception was the 1986 Red Sox. In the 107th World Series, Washington's Rangers became the '86 Red Sox' fraternal twin. Texas somehow managed twice—in successive innings in Game 6—to slip on infamy's banana peel at the cruelest possible moment, blowing two-run leads in the ninth and 10th innings before losing 10--9 in the 11th.
Opportunity, like a rolling die, is many sided, however. The double-dog dare that was Game 6 became one of glory for the champion Cardinals, the signature moment for a team that stood on the abyss so often over its last 50 games that it could paint the view from memory like Van Gogh could Arles. "It's fitting for this team to be remembered for that game," said St. Louis outfielder Allen Craig, who hit home runs to start the Game 6 rally and to break a third-inning tie in Game 7. "We played with our backs against the wall for like two months. Every game was like the playoffs just to get in. So to win it like this—after being one strike away from losing—is a fitting way to end our season."
Even bigger than a championship was the opportunity for the rest of us to rediscover the very best kind of baseball: the baseball you never see coming. The kind that, as Washington could tell you, was too long in the making and could take awhile before it again comes this way.
From the last day of the regular season to the last day of the World Series—Sept. 28 through Oct. 28—baseball gave us 31 flavors of unexpected excitement. It began with The Night of 162, the single most exciting night in the history of the game as measured by sheer volume. As late as 10:39 p.m. Eastern time on the final night of the season all four Division Series matchups remained undecided. As late as 11:39 p.m. the wild-card spots in each league remained uncertain. But in an unforgettable sequence across three theaters of engagement—Atlanta, Baltimore and St. Petersburg—three one-run games that were decided in the last inning ended within 25 minutes of one another: The Braves lost to the Phillies 4--3 at 11:40 p.m., the Red Sox lost to the Orioles 4--3 at 12:02 a.m. and the Rays beat the Yankees 8--7 three minutes later. Only then were the Cardinals and the Rays ushered into the postseason.
It turned out to be the prelude to a magnum opus of postseasons. Never before had more games been needed to determine a champion (38 out of a possible 41, matching 2003). Never before had so many games been decided by one run (13).
The 31 days also offered four sudden-death games, including the first World Series Game 7 in nine years (the longest wait since the best-of-seven format was permanently adopted, in 1922), the first pitcher to win two sudden-death games in one postseason (St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter, the NLDS Game 5 and World Series Game 7 winner), the first batter to drive in 21 postseason runs (St. Louis third baseman David Freese, the NLCS and World Series MVP) and, in the company of Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, the third player to hit three homers in a World Series game (St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols).