The best show on television is Red Sox baseball. Everything else sucks.--Stephen King
Let's start with the ending, because right now, that's all I can remember.
Bottom of the ninth. Two on. Two outs. We'd been here before--the Sox had been threatening with baserunners in each of the last two innings and had not managed to push that precious run across.
It felt like the world was holding its breath.
Everyone stood at Fenway. On various residential couches and bar stools, the rest of us leaned toward the TV. On the dugout rail, the players perched on their elbows, every eye trained on the field.
1-0 count to Manny. K-Rod on the mound. The bespectacled firecracker delivered the next pitch at 96 mph, throwing so hard he whirled 360 degrees on the mound following through.
And Manny hit that ball with a crack the likes of which have rarely been heard even in the hallowed confines of Fenway Park. A crack that rang out into that attentive silence and smashed it like a hammer striking glass.
The crack ran through the players, jolting them to a man into standing position, thrusting fists into the air. The crack set the crowd ablaze, thundering down joyful noise, arms raised in full Hallelujah position.
And on the ripple went, past the Monster where fans turned to try and spot the ball across Lansdowne Street. Out to the Cask, where I'm sure they partied all night long. Out over horns honking in Kenmore Square, and spreading over Red Sox Nation from Brookline, Mass. to Ogunquit, Maine to Paris, France.
"That was the kind of sound that you hear at the park even in batting practice and you know someone just hit a bomb," my dad said, on the phone from aforementioned Maine destination where he and my Mom are vacationing for the long weekend. "That was a no-doubt shot from the second he hit it."
"Just wanted to clear up that whole 'Ellsbury playing for Manny and JD' thing," Iain IMed from the Central European Time Zone today. "I didn't mean NOW, of course. I meant 'when those guys are not winning key playoff games for us'."
In seriousness, he added, "That pic on boston.com (above) is awesome. The one with Manny and about 8000 people with their hands in the air. It's perfect. Talk about a communion between player, manager and fans."
That moment, the moment of that no-doubt ringing sound of Manny's bat in full swing, may have smashed the tension of the game apart, but it also brought all of that energy of Red Sox Nation and its players to focused, communal life in that one explosive split second. Manny stood frozen at the center of it all, still in the batter's box with both hands over his head, mirroring the crowd.
Fenway went absolutely, full-on berserk, and when my friend Ryan tried to imitate what Jonathan Papelbon looked like in the middle of the bounding pile of Red Sox players surrounding the plate at one o'clock in the morning, he ended up making a sound like a gobbling turkey. Papelbon was right out by the first base line to give Manny a crouching low-five, while Julio Lugo spread his arms like a plane's wings and motored around third base.
Manny came around third base with a pleasant smile on his lips, but with every step it broadened until, by the time he took those last slow-motion, helmet-flipping steps into the crush of his teammates, it was a full-on, nose-wrinkling grin.
And it felt like that ball still hadn't come down.
Ever since then, the pure, unadulterated joy of the walkoff has blotted out everything else, for me and most of the people I've talked to about last night's game. But as in the first game, the Sox served up not just a key blast from a hitter but a nails performance from one of the pitching staff to match.
We're so used to stories of the gritty underdogs, the unsung heroes, coming through in the postseason. The Dave Robertses and Mark Bellhorns of the world. But so far this series, the Sox have been flashing their big guns with no holds barred--in the first game it was two marquee names, Beckett and Papi, that came up big. In this game, it was time for the next-most-hyped names on the roster, Manny and Jonathan Papelbon, to step up for their own turn at postseason heroics.
While Josh had me puzzled with his relative lack of hollering and carrying on the other night, Jonathan seemed to have borrowed Beckett's share of insanity and poured it, along with his own generous helping of Crazy, into one reaction as the top of the eighth ended. Not only did he pump his fist about eight times, but he also squeezed his eyes shut as he screamed at the top of his lungs. I do believe that's the most fired up I've ever seen Jonathan Papelbon, and that, friends, is saying something.
But it was hard to blame him, considering he'd begun his appearance in relief of Okajima with two outs, only to put a man on after a throwing error by Mike Lowell. It wasn't till a walk and three--THREE--stolen bases later that he even faced Figgins, and Figgins had fouled off two good pitches in a row before that last strike looking on the outside corner.
Figgins stayed behind with the home plate ump to argue as Papelbon completely lost his shit as described above. It was a pretty close pitch. On Papelbon's face even as he yawped in victory was a touch of relief.
But there aren't any style points in baseball, and what matters is another W under Jonathan's belt, his first of October. If it hadn't been for Jonathan Papelbon's scoreless final two innings of the game, Manny might not have been at the plate with a chance to take the game as regulation drew to a close.
Meanwhile. It might be understandable if he were overshadowed by the on-field heroics that ended the night, but we would be remiss if we forgot the kid.
Danny Vinik is his name. He's 17 years old. His dad is a limited partner in the Sox, which is how he happened to have front-row seats along the first base line last night.
With two on and one out in the fifth inning and the Sox down 3-2, Manny hit a foul pop-up into Vinik's section. Angels catcher Jeff Mathis gave chase, laying out over the wall near the photographer's well with his glove held out.
But Vinik reached out with his bare hands, cupping them just above Mathis's mitt, almost inside it. The ball came down into his hands first, and he held it, and took it away from Mathis. It was perfectly legal--Mathis was reaching in to the stands and Vinik was in his rightful place. In the next moment his father and Stephen King were slapping him on the back and the TBS commentators were calling him "the most popular person in Boston."
It's something you'd dream about. And then tell all your friends about the crazy dream you had.
Especially the part where, after you prevented Mathis from getting the out on Ramirez, Manny walked, bringing up Mike Lowell, who hit the game-tying sacrifice fly to center field.
This series so far has felt almost too good to be true, right down the part where Boston's Tenth Man got to make a game-changing play. For that one all-time-classic moment, Danny Vinik got to have the impact and the participation in the game we all sometimes like to believe we have (note my annoying but intractable habit of using the first-person-plural pronoun to describe a professional baseball team in Boston of which I most assuredly am not a member).
And just in case that wasn't enough, one of the great American writers of our time* was sitting right there, witnessing it all. You can't tell me nobody's calling up King to contribute a guest column on that, like, yesterday. You can't tell me we're not going to hear from King on that game.
* If I have any King-haters in the crowd, please, please do not start with me on this. Let's just agree to disagree and stick to talking baseball.