No End in Sight: Thoughts on a Long-Ass Baseball Game

I find Major League Baseball boring. The reasons—the lengthy season; the slow rate of play; the athleticism that, compared with other sports, is pretty lacking—aren’t novel, nor are they causes for boycott. But mostly, I’ve found there are better ways  for me to spend my summer months (reading, avoiding Hawk Harrelson, etc.), so I’ve steadily shifted the sport off my radar.

That changes in October, with the advent of the playoffs. Playoff baseball is a lot of things: the word that first comes to mind is “meaningful.” A team’s season becomes five games, or even one game—and holy shit, you guys, the play-in game is awesome—so every aspect of the ridiculously routinized sport is heightened. It’s a far cry from the “get ’em tomorrow” attitude that pervades the six-month season. Watching games on TV is electric (every swing is a disaster or a godsend waiting to happen), and in the ballpark itself, from the one playoff game I’ve attended, it’s a whirlwind of emotions.

On October 3, 2014, I went to see the Washington Nationals play the San Francisco Giants in Game 2 of the NLDS. It became the longest game in postseason history, both in terms of time (6 hours, 23 minutes) and innings (18, tied with a 2005 game between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves). As Baseball Reference tells me, the temperature at the 5:38 p.m. first pitch was 61 degrees; by the end of the game, I was reduced to fashioning a scarf from my newly acquired commemorative Nationals towel (which by law must be distributed to fans at playoff games).

The opening innings are a blur, primarily due to our obstructed vantage point standing on the right-field concourse. Being a five-foot-seven individual has its perks—small strike zone, sufficient legroom in Delta economy class—but viewing crowded public events isn’t one of them. I scrapped for glimpses of the field between armpits and foam fingers, cursing the Nationals’ disappointing Jumbotron performance.

The Nats’ best ballpark tradition is the Presidents Race, held in the middle of the fourth inning, in which mascots of Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Taft race around the perimeter of the ballpark. It’s a knockoff of the sausage races in Milwaukee, and the races invariably induce choreographed gimmicks, such as (thanks, Wikipedia!) the appearance of open manholes or banana peels, and the narrative hilarity of Roosevelt not winning for nearly seven seasons. (His first victory came in 2012 after the Nats clinched their first playoff berth.)

That night, Teddy had a comeback victory, fending off a knock-off Nacho Libre character with nunchucks. Were it not for the good folks at blog.letteddywin.com, I’d have no idea what happened. At the time, though, all I could think was that I’d missed the most memorable part of the game.

By the fifth inning, my roommate (a Giants fan who had scored our standing-room-only tickets) and I were fed up with our vantage point and hyper-aware of how underdressed we were. We headed to the Red Porch, the indoor dining area located in left-center field. It was here that we watched the middle innings of the game and, more important, where I tried my first beer float. I think the beer was pumpkin-y, and I can confirm that I was immensely ashamed from the placing of the order through the draining of the glass. A beer float serves only to indicate that your taste is garbage.

Outside our cozy confines, the game was, like most cold-weather baseball, a low-scoring affair. However, this showdown was a testament to the caliber of the pitching. The Giants’ Tim Hudson went seven and a third innings, striking out eight and allowing only one run, and he was the second-best starter. Jordan Zimmermann, who in his previous outing had thrown a no-hitter, gave up a single in each of the first three innings and allowed no hits thereafter. He retired twenty straight hitters following Travis Ishikawa’s leadoff single in the third, his only hiccup a two-out walk to Joe Panik in the ninth.

He wound up with a no-decision.

After the walk, with Buster Posey due up, Nats manager Matt Williams pulled Zimmermann to put in closer Drew Storen. A couple of notes: (1) Zimmermann was at 100 pitches—a robust, but far from obscene, tally; and (2) Storen is the relief pitcher who, bless his heart, struggled so much that his team was eventually forced to acquire the 2015 edition of Jonathan Papelbon.

Needless to say, this decision didn’t work out for Williams. Posey singled, and Pablo Sandoval doubled in the tying run on a play where Posey, the go-ahead run, was tagged out at the plate upon review.

The game would go to extras, despite my desperate, narrative-driven, Roy Hobbs-ian hopes for a Bryce Harper moonshot in the bottom of the ninth. (He grounded out. In 2014, plagued somewhat by injuries, Harper was playing the worst baseball of his career but still managed to hit dingers in three of four NLDS game—just not this one.)

From here, a weird sort of delirium took over. A look at the play-by-play shows a few rallies—the Giants had runners on third in the 11th and 12th innings, the Nats put a runner on second with one out in the 12th—but it was apparent that the best hope for the game’s end had been gunned down at the plate by Harper. From the 14th inning through the 17th, the two teams combined for one lonely single. The game had essentially entered its My Dinner with Andre phase: endlessly fascinating and pretty dramatic, even though nothing was happening.

Nothing during the ballgame itself, that is. In the stands, a progression of sorts was occurring. The fans, initially excited for some free extra baseball, were weakening. The inherent drama arising from the limited supply of outs was sapped as, more and more, it appeared no limit existed. Thoughts became existential; hypothetical questions—”If I leave the longest playoff baseball game in history, am I a bad sports fan?”—bordered on becoming realities. In the stands, battle lines that were drawn with pride in the first inning were receding. Indeed, by the 18th inning, my roommate, my Blue Jays fan self, and neighboring Nats fans in our half-vacated center field bleachers agreed on two things: (1) this game needed to end, no matter who won; and (2) given the cold, the lack of beer sales was criminal. (Per MLB rules, beer sales were cut off after the seventh. We chanted in protest, to no avail.)

In the 18th, Giants first baseman Brandon Belt hit a leadoff home run, and the Nationals went down meekly in the bottom of the inning, the game concluding at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

Generally, the home team losing in extra innings is awful, if only because that’s not what happens in the movies. But really, this finish was anticlimactic given what had transpired in the 13th.

After their choreographed, crowd-pleasing showing in the fourth, the racing presidents and the promotions team clearly thought their night was over. Extra innings were unlikely, and a marathon extra-innings game in the playoffs—of a duration that would demand a curtain call for Teddy and Abe and George and Tom—was that much more improbable.

Nevertheless, when the middle of the 13th rolled around nine innings after the first race, the mascot presidents returned to left-center field to run. And it’s, well, kind of a normal foot race. Teddy’s initially winning—which is symbolic, sure, and unsurprising for a man known for taking shortcuts (see: Canal, Panama)—but mostly there are just five presidential mascots hauling ass around the outfield, destined for the first-base dugout. No props or anything or player-mascot interplay that would make Tommy Lasorda proud; it’s a 150 m sprint with mascots, Taft and Lincoln lagging behind in a way that suggests they’re at best day-to-day and welcoming the end of the Nats’ home season. Then, Teddy pulls up short. And so do all the others.

What happens next will restore your faith in humanity:

Just kidding. The presidents pick up signs and start “Let’s go, Nats!” chants, and it’s weak as hell. The team, roundly uninspired after the race’s non-finish, ultimately eke out one single in their last six at-bats and are shut out by the Giants’ Yusmeiro Petit, he of the career 4.58 ERA.

There’s an emptiness to leaving a game like that, one where thousands have had their hopes dashed. Or rather, have seen their hopes, and their passions, slowly evaporate over six-plus hours. The disappointment isn’t so much in the pain but in how little pain is felt when the fatal wound is inflicted; the end is more a relief than a surprise. Because the warning signs were so clearly there: I mean, after seeing Teddy lose his will to win, how could the rest of us hope?

That day, we all were the Bull Moose Party.

***

Lucas Hubbard has finally thawed out from the 2014 Arctic Marathon. You should follow him on Twitter.

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