The season begins on a back field, surrounded by 380 acres of flat woods near Florida's Gulf Coast, and sometimes it seems the only ones watching are the deer. Batting practice pitchers deliver belt-high fastballs, hitters drive them into the warm morning air and outfielders loll after them with the speed of local retirees. Manager Joe Maddon stands behind a batting cage, soaking up the rural idyll of Charlotte Sports Park, where the Rays gather for spring training. Then he interrupts it with the most urgent scenario he can conjure. "Last inning, tie game, get a knock here and we go to the playoffs!" Maddon shouts, like a father breaking the monotony of backyard BP with his son. He wants to see who digs in without tightening up. The Rays focus on the man in the cage. A line drive, they rejoice. A pop fly, they jeer. They rehearse how the season ends.
Five minutes after midnight on Sept. 29, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria walked into the batter's box at Tropicana Field, and stepped out for a moment. Since he was a boy, Longoria would come to the plate with games on the brink and start to shake, unable to control his body, much less his bat. "You feel like the whole world is on your shoulders," Longoria says, "and you can't hold it up."
When he was at Long Beach State, Longoria saw a sports psychologist who taught him to step out of the box when he was nervous and focus on one point in the ballpark. Longoria has always chosen the leftfield foul pole. But as he stared down the foul pole in the 12th inning of the final game of the regular season, with one out and the Rays and the Yankees tied 7--7, Longoria wasn't nervous and he wasn't shaking. He was just trying not to laugh.
Four teams entered the final night of the 2011 season, Sept. 28, with a playoff spot at stake. Four more had home field advantage on the line, an improbable backdrop for what became an unfathomable chain of events. In the four games that determined playoff berths, three teams came back to win after trailing in the ninth inning. Two clubs joined the ranks of the worst September collapses in baseball history, 25 minutes apart. Another team blew a 7--0 lead in the eighth inning for the first time in 58 years. There was the first final-day walk-off home run to clinch a postseason spot since Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard Round the World in 1951, and two other hits that were nearly as significant.
You can't find a consensus on the greatest team, greatest game or greatest player in baseball history. But there is no doubt about the greatest night. Its heroes included a September call-up who was batting .108, a utility infielder completing his first full season in the big leagues and a third baseman who thought he might have a hernia. Then there was Longoria, a three-time All-Star finishing his worst big league season, gazing at that leftfield foul pole and struggling to keep a straight face. Beneath the pole at Tropicana Field is a small panel of the fence that was lowered four years ago. Longoria didn't know why the Rays had altered that section. But he'd never seen anybody hit a ball over it.
The regular season is designed to reward the best teams, not necessarily to produce the most suspense. After 162 games powers have emerged, upstarts have faded, everybody has returned to the mean. In fact, 161 are usually enough. Game 162 is for packing boxes and giving away batting gloves. The lucky ones rest and arrange playoff tickets. The 2011 season was to be no different: The Red Sox were nine games ahead of Tampa Bay in the American League wild-card race on Sept. 1, the Braves were 8½ ahead of the Cardinals in the NL. The Orioles were 28½ games out of first place in the AL East, bound for their 14th straight losing season, when manager Buck Showalter outlined the plan for the final month. Showalter told his team that regulars would be used against clubs in contention and September call-ups sprinkled into less consequential games. "The last thing you want to be is a doorstop," Showalter said.
By Sept. 18, Atlanta's wild-card lead was down to 3½ games over St. Louis. Boston's edge over Tampa Bay had shrunk to two games. As the Rays left Fenway Park after taking three of four from Boston, the Orioles were about to arrive, ready to play seven games in the last 10 days against the Red Sox. Maddon asked Rays clubhouse manager Chris Westmoreland to leave a bottle of 2008 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon for Showalter, along with the message GO GET 'EM! But Showalter did not need any liquid motivation. In spring training he said of the Red Sox, "I like whipping their butt. It's great knowing those guys with the $250 million payroll are saying, 'How the hell are they beating us?'"
On Sept. 20 utility infielder Robert Andino beat Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon with a three-run double, and on Sept. 26 he did the same to starter Josh Beckett with a three-run, inside-the-park home run. Andino grew up in Miami and was drafted in 2002 by the hometown Marlins. He debuted in September '05, and two months later Florida traded Beckett to the Red Sox for a package highlighted by shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Andino languished behind Ramirez for three seasons before he was shipped to the Orioles.
On the morning of Sept. 28, the Red Sox and the Rays were tied for the AL wild-card lead; the Braves and the Cardinals were tied for the NL wild card; the Rangers were one game ahead of the Tigers for home field advantage in the ALDS; and the Brewers were one game ahead of the Diamondbacks for home field in the NLDS. Andino woke up, cleaned his apartment at the Harbor View in Baltimore and dropped off the keys at the leasing office downstairs. He and his father, Robert Sr., drove to Camden Yards and ate a goodbye lunch prepared by Vladimir Guerrero's mother, Altagracia Alvino. Cardboard boxes and duffel bags were strewn around the clubhouse. Players compared off-season plans. Showalter, who sprained his ankle two days before when he stepped in a hole on the field, told his pitchers they weren't allowed to come out of that night's game against Boston mid-inning. "It's too long a walk to the mound," he said.
Friends called Jeff Mayer and invited him to the season finale against Boston. In October 1996, when Mayer was 12 years old, his beloved Orioles were beating the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALCS when Derek Jeter hit a deep fly to rightfield in the bottom of the eighth inning. A 12-year-old named Jeffrey Maier, sitting in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium, reached down and pulled the ball into the stands. Jeter was awarded a home run; the Yankees outlasted the Orioles and won four of the next five World Series. Maier was feted on talk shows; Mayer was nearly beaten up at school. When Mayer started working for a computer company in Baltimore this year, some employees complained to management that they hired the kid who destroyed the O's.