There were two outs, two balls and two strikes for Doug Mirabelli as he stood at the plate in the bottom of the ninth. The crowd was on its feet chanting "Dougie, Dougie, Dougie, Dougie." My hair in humid, sweaty curls around my face, my feet crunching on the peanuts on the ground, I joined in the chant and then paused, telling my dad to put on his rally cap. I tented my fingers in front of my face and said quietly, "We need a miracle, here."
And then Dougie took ball four in the forearm, achieving a walk and a HBP in one fell swoop. One man on base, though, for Alex Gonzalez, did not exactly fill me with cockiness. I grasped at a vague hope, but I will admit I was not positively visualizing as Gonzo stood in.
Moments later, Gonzo too had taken a pitch off the arm, and he walked slowly and stiffly to first, his body language so prickly that it brought Tito out of the dugout to lay a reassuring hand on his arm when he reached the bag.
The cries of "Youuuuuuuuk" were thunderous and continuous as our leadoff man stepped in. I hoped against hope that the inning would continue, but all the possibilities--indeed, likelihoods--of the game being over right then and there still raced through my mind unbidden. Anything--a ground ball, a popup, a foul ball caught, a fly ball too shallow, a strikeout, a bouncer back to the mound, a liner to an infielder--the list went on and on.
But amid the guttural chant of "Youk! Youk! Youk! Youk! Youk! Youk!" the Romanian Jewish God of Walks worked a magnificent base on balls, loading the bags.
This brought me to crisis. My hope was surging all the while, but my natural pessimism warred with it nonetheless.
"Great," I said to my dad. "Now we have Mr. Pop-up coming to the plate."
Right up until Loretta stood in against the hapless Fausto Carmona, that's what I saw as the inevitable outcome--a pop-fly to second or short, or perhaps even a foul pop-up to third. There were still two outs, no room for error, and I'd been on this doorstep before, only to see it end in a warning-track flyout, a strikeout, a grounding into a double play. Dozens of games have come and gone with me in person at the ballpark since my rebirth as a Sox fan, and perhaps a handful have ended on just such a moment--the crowd on its feet, chants reverberating through the park, hysterical applause upon urgent exhortations, a cacophany of encouragement that seems to fall on deaf ears.
Not this time. Finally, not this time.
At the very last moment I remembered the positive visualization encouraged by Edward Cossette and others in the Bambino's Curse days before the 2004 season; at the very last moment I looked out to the blank expanse of grass between the second baseman and the center fielder, playing deep, and tried to aim my thoughts in the direction of its vulnerability, willing the ball toward some uncanny sense I suddenly had about an opportunity there, at the thickest part of the outfield.
I had pictured a blooper falling into no-man's-land in shallow center, but what followed off Loretta's bat was a towering fly ball to deep center, which first appeared to be a home run, and for a disconcerting instant or two, a possible flyout to the warning track, another trudge toward Kenmore Square to the tune of "Goodnight, Sweetheart" on the Fenway organ.
And then--miraculously--it granted every wish by glancing off the wall, and plunking onto the dirt of the track behind the center fielder, while Mirabelli and Gonzalez sprinted home, pumping their arms and legs in urgency, and finally that footstep I've been waiting for came down on home plate.
The first person to come flying from the dugout was Jonathan Papelbon, who had worked a masterful top of the ninth, non-save situation notwithstanding--as usual, he was a conossieur's delight, a thing of beauty to the initiated on a par with the finest of wines, the most riveting of painterly masterpieces, the most delicate Mozart symphony. After Loretta's ball fell to the warning track, Papelbon, capless, jersey billowing as he jumped and howled and fell all over Gonzalez, was the picture of youth and joy--I was glad it was him.
The rest of the team followed while Fenway shrieked its lungs out, me included. There was a fundamental hope validated there, in this strange religion we've made of baseball--a reaffirmation, a testimonial to positive belief that will carry me light on my feet for days to come.
In other words, the walkoff I've been waiting for was absolutely everything I'd thought it would be. It was just...everything.