On May 25, 2011, I watched the Milwaukee Brewers defeat the Washington Nationals at Miller Park. Zack Greinke homered.
Then I drove to some bar in Milwaukee bedecked in blue and yellow, spoke with the bartender for about an hour, then started my drive west to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
For dinner I stopped at a TGI Friday’s outside Milwaukee. I just needed a bite. When I walked to the bar I saw the Phillies and Reds were on TV. National game on ESPN. Of course it was; practically every Phillies game during this time was televised nationally. Happy to see my team way out in Wisconsin, I watched the first couple innings as Roy Halladay tried to subdue Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and the Reds.
And it started that way. Ben Francisco homered to put the Phillies up 2-0 (seriously, the Phils could use early 2011 Ben Francisco right about now), and John Mayberry Jr. singled in another. A 3-0 lead after three. At that point I was back in the car, prepared for the four-hour drive west to Cedar Rapids.
Today is the five-year anniversary of this game, a 19-inning marathon that ended around 1:16 a.m. with a Raul Ibanez sacrifice fly. Utility infielder Wilson Valdez got the win, throwing an insanely efficient top of the 19th with a rabid crowd cheering him on. Dusty Baker let relief pitcher Carlos Fisher throw a full game (by the way, Fisher last pitched in the majors in 2011). Danys Baez summoned some spirit to pitch five clear innings in extra time. A Jay Bruce home run gave the Reds the lead in the top half of the 10th, and Ryan Howard promptly re-tied the game with a leadoff homer in the bottom half.
I didn’t hear that Howard home run. I had been listening to the game on Gameday Audio, even as my car traveled through the dark and sparse western Wisconsin night, and once Bruce homered, I shut the damn thing off. I was angry. All of that for nothing. Halladay pitched well enough. The bats didn’t show up late. Maybe Halladay could’ve done more. Damnit Phillies.
That’s not Baseball Zen. That’s when your team is considered among the top two or three in baseball, and you want nothing more than to have the very best team at the end of the season. So every loss counts, and every stupid game lost in the final innings is a knife to the heart.
I was driving, all alone in the quiet breeze of the Wisconsin night, when the sky looks as if it’ll collapse on you, when my dad called. “Did you hear that?!”
No, Dad. I didn’t.
Gameday Audio wouldn’t work, so I scanned the radio. Thankfully the Midwest is an open plain, and Marty Brennaman came in crystal clear from a signal somewhere out in Indiana, I presumed.
It was beautiful. Innings passed through like velvet. I started floating out in the lonesome night as pitchers ticked off easy innings and hitters sputtered. For a few moments it seemed as if the game would never end. Thirteen innings. Fourteen innings. Nobody got on base. Then the Reds finally put a man on in the top of the 15th. No problem for Baez. Then Howard singled in the bottom of the 15th. And from that moment on mini rallies would begin. A baserunner here, a baserunner there, but no great threat, no clear end. My car cruised on a straight line and crossed into Iowa at the Mississippi River in Dubuque. Baseball was endless.
In the 18th, as I neared Cedar Rapids, Valdez struck a double to put the Phillies in position for a dramatic finish. But that finish had to come off the bat of Michael Martinez, so they headed to the 19th and a problem: Dane Sardinha had pinch hit for Baez, the final pitcher available. And thus a legend was born.
I entered Cedar Rapids city limits as Valdez stood there, unassuming and carrying a fastball in the mid 80s, positioned to face Votto, Rolen and Bruce. The rest is history.
I reached the motel parking lot around 1:10 a.m. but stayed in the car as Ibanez waited for a pitch to drive into the outfield. He got it. Far enough to score the fifth and winning run, and to end one of the most memorable games in recent Phillies history.
That’s the joy of baseball. An ordinary Wednesday night game at the end of May became infuriating and frustrating, then exciting and exhilarating. Over six hours, regardless of where you were that night or what you were doing, you couldn’t help but get caught up in the game. For all its tedium, baseball has the ability of sneaking in something momentous. We watch because we’re always waiting for the momentous.