Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Four and Out

You may have heard something about an unlikely team winning the NL pennant and electrifying a city. I can't add a lot from the baseball side, but a couple of us did have the good fortune to attend last night's NL pennant-clinching game, so I thought I'd recount a bit of the experience.

When we got the tickets to the fourth game, it was more because Monday worked better in our schedule than Sunday did--driving out from California to see family, the trip planned well in advance of the playoffs, we only started thinking toward the end of the season, "You know...if the Rockies beat the Phillies...nah, don't say it." And when it turned out there'd be a game coinciding with our visit, we grabbed some tickets online from a long-suffering Cubs fan who'd succumbed to a rare bout of optimism (thanks, Gus!).

After the Rockies' first win in Arizona, we thought, "you know, we might...don't say it, don't say it!" Then on the way out, we sat in a bar in Vail watching them win in extra innings in Arizona. Sunday night in Colorado Springs we were glad we weren't in the freezing rain, even though Torrealba's homer would have been an amazing moment to see. By the time Monday rolled around, it seemed almost inevitable that we would see the pennant-clinching game, the Rockies' first World Series appearance just 27 outs away against a team that had managed only four runs in three games.

We arrived in downtown Denver to see people selling brooms on every corner. Our non-sports-following friends who'd met us for dinner thought, because of this, that the Arizona team was called the "Dust Devils." We explained that they were the "Diamondbacks" and the brooms were because you kill snakes with brooms. Then we actually explained the "sweep" thing. They liked the snake-killing explanation better, and frankly, so did we. Not wanting to jinx the team, we opted not to buy a broom, amusing our friends with the power we felt we had over the team's fate.

After dinner, as we got closer to the stadium, we found people distinguishing their brooms by painting them in Rockies colors. The atmosphere was crazy, people hooting and cheering before the game even started. We found Mark's sister, brother-in-law, and friend, rounding out our group, and proceeded into the stadium.

We'd visited Coors Field in June, when the Rockies were struggling along toward what looked like another .500-ish season, flirting with the wild card. The upper decks in June were sparsely populated, especially with the light rain falling. Last night, of course, every section was packed. Our seats (sec. 303) were in the very top row behind right center field, but the weather this night was perfect October baseball weather: cool, clear, crisp, with a light breeze.

I've been to a few playoff games in baseball and basketball: the Timberwolves' second playoff game in history (loss to the Rockets), and a Twins playoff game in Oakland (their only loss of the series). The energy in a playoff game crowd is a level above a regular game--it's not unusual for chants to go on through the whole game. This one was even more enthusiastic than the Oakland game, because the crowd knew that the pennant was possible. Chants of "Let's go Rockies" came up at least once an inning, late in the game one side of the stadium started to chant, "GO!" and our side responded, "ROCKIES!" Matt Holliday got "M.V.P.!" chants every time he came up. Being a Phillies fan (yes, rooting for the Rockies--besides the family connections, my credo is, if you beat my team, you damn well better win it all so I can say we got beaten by the best), I couldn't let down Jimmy Rollins by joining in to that one--until Holliday popped that homer to dead center in the fourth. After that, I just told myself, "Well, it's for M.V.P. of the series..." Fan favorite rookie SS Troy Tulowitzki got the British football clap, with "TU-LO!" at the end. And of course, every time Eric "we've outplayed them" Byrnes came to the plate, he was greeted by loud and lusty boos (we were saying "Boo-urns").

The fourth inning was incredible. We were a little surprised that Hurdle pulled the pitcher so early, but Morales had been struggling and the priority at that point was clearly to keep the rally going. Seth Smith delivered, in spades. His bloop seemed to hang in the air forever, the crowd trying to help gravity with screams of "DROP! DROP! DROP!" And drop it did, just inside the foul line. And if we thought that was exciting, three batters later, Matt Holliday smacked a ball that was by no means a no-doubt-about-it from our angle. It hung in the air over center field while we jumped and yelled, opposing gravity this time, and then dropped out of our sight toward the center field fence. A second later, even people down in Colorado Springs heard the cheers as it landed 452 feet from home plate, scoring three more runs that would prove to be the difference in the game.

The energy subsided a bit after that, but being in the top row, we didn't sit down for the whole game. One man came backing up the stairs, eyes riveted on the field as he tried not to spill his beer and cup of fries. In the mid-to-late innings of a regular season game, people get tired, the stadium quiets down, and we usually take that time to do a walk around the stadium. Not last night. Top of the sixth, we started counting down the outs. 12...11...10. 9...8...7. Every strike cheered as though it were an out, every out cheered like a regular-season win. 6...5...4...4...4... Even when it got dicey in the eighth, a three-run home run almost equaling Arizona's entire offensive output in the first three games that brought the game back within reach for them, we kept faith. We knew intellectually that Arizona could come back, could take this game and maybe the next, but emotionally we felt it: there was no way. Fuentes went out, Corpas came in, and there were three outs to go.

Then two. Then a double, just to make things interesting. Then one. How fitting it was that Eric "they're just lucky" Byrnes should make the final out, a grounder to Tulo, who rifled it to Rockies legend Todd Helton. Pandemonium. We knew it was going to happen, and yet the actual moment still exploded in the stadium like the fireworks that seemed to go on forever, the "National League Champions" graphic repeating over and over on the screen as though it couldn't quite believe itself either. We kept yelling, cheering, trying to express the incredible elation of the moment.

Yes, I'm not a die-hard Rockies fan (note the dorky look in the above picture). I don't have years following the team. This victory probably meant more to just about everyone else in the stadium. But it's impossible to be in that crowd and not soak up some of the dizzying joy of it all, the giddy heights of we did it! Because no matter who you are, you're welcome to be a part of it. I high-fived more drunk people last night than I have since college. Several times, walking through the stadium after the celebration (which was full of awesome as well, seeing the stand set up and the trophy actually right there on the field), I met someone's eye and we'd both just grin for a moment and shake our heads, thinking the same thing: I can't believe this, how great is this moment.

I can't say enough about the city and its fans. Rockies banners on the state capital building. "Go Rockies" on every other LCD sign along the highway. The only thing I've seen comparable to it was the love for the Pacers, back in the 90s when I visited Indianapolis during the NBA playoffs. Whether they win the Series or not, these fans deserve their NL pennant, and, what's more, they appreciate it.

As we walked around after the game, there seemed to be a fan stationed on every corner getting cars to honk. Security guards drifted discreetly through the streets, but there was no need for them. No rioting for their first World Series here in Denver, just screaming, honking, cheering, more high-fiving. We walked around for a while soaking it in, and when we finally stopped in a bar to warm up, the bartender gave me my non-alcoholic drink on the house. "Go Rockies," he said, indicating our brand-new "NL Champions" hats. "You know we're goin' to the World Series??"

We grinned back. "Yeah," we said, "We think we mighta heard something about that."

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