At one point last Wednesday, on what has rightly been called the best night in baseball history, I texted a sports-obsessed friend whose hometown Baltimore Orioles were in the thick of the action.
“You watching this? Amazing!” I wrote just after the Orioles tied their game against the Boston Red Sox, who were fighting desperately to hold onto a playoff spot.
“The baseball game, you mean?,” he wrote back. “Nah, I barely follow baseball these days. Too slow.”
His answer depressed me so much that I didn’t even encourage him to turn the game on in time to see the Orioles win in the bottom of the ninth. This was a guy who had grown up a rabid fan, for whom every childhood story seems to revolve around Cal Ripken Jr. If baseball didn’t have his attention on a truly epic night, I thought, the game might be in serious trouble.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about my friend, as well as the dozens of other sports fans I know who have decided baseball is too boring to merit attention. And I’ve decided that the problem isn’t baseball, it’s them. Last Wednesday night may have been exceptionally dramatic, but it illustrates a broader point: Baseball's brand of drama can't be replicated in any other sport.
For much of that evening, the last of the regular season, it looked like the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves would be forced into a one-game tiebreaker for the National League wild card, and that the Red Sox would earn a spot in the postseason despite a September collapse of historic proportions. The Tampa Bay Rays, who were battling the Sox for the American League’s final playoff spot, were getting crushed by the New York Yankees.
I won’t recount all of the details (ESPN’s timeline has that covered), but the result was that the Braves and Red Sox both lost while the Cardinals and Rays both won, completing two major turnarounds that put St. Louis and Tampa in the playoffs. The American League race came down to three minutes just after midnight Eastern time, when a walkoff single by Oriole Robert Andino and a bottom-of-the-12th homer by Ray Evan Longoria put the final nails in the Sox’ coffin. The Kentucky Derby claims to be the “greatest two minutes in sports,” but surely this was the greatest three.
And it could only have happened in baseball. This unique brand of drama serves as the perfect retort to anyone who thinks baseball is a boring game.
For starters, the Rays’ game-tying home run was hit by an absolute nobody named Dan Johnson. Johnson, a .108 hitter, had no expectation of getting into the game—he wasn’t even sitting in the dugout. But once the coaches tracked him down in the batting cage, he walked out, watched five pitches, and launched one over the right field wall to save his team’s season. More remarkably, it was the second time in three years he had hit a dramatic late-game home run against the Red Sox to propel his team into the playoffs, and he spent most of the time in between in the minors.
Can you imagine the equivalent of Dan Johnson taking the last shot in basketball, the Hail Mary pass in football, or the final penalty kick in soccer? Of course you can’t—it doesn’t happen. In baseball, thanks to its rigid lineups, the game comes down to whoever happens to be up, not the team star. This makes baseball less predictable, and thus more compelling—when Dan Johnson is deciding your team's fortunes, anything can happen.
Furthermore, a comeback like the Rays’—they were down 7-0 in the eighth inning—wouldn’t have happened in most other sports. A soccer team up 3-0 in the 85th minute can just play keep-away until the clock runs out. A basketball team down by 20 in the fourth quarter is doomed. A football team that’s trailing late in the game can try on onside kick, but the best-case scenario is one extra touchdown. But a pitcher trying to preserve his team’s lead has no tricks to turn to; he just has to keep throwing his best stuff and hope it’s enough. The great philosopher Yogi Berra was describing baseball when he said “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and it’s still more true on the diamond than anywhere.
Everyone likes drama, whether they're a fan of theater, celebrity gossip, politics, or sports. Baseball may seem non-dramatic on the surface, but the million small moments that make up a game can add up to something nearly unbelievable. I can't think of a more exciting way to spend a Wednesday night in September.