Championship Memories

October 26, 1997. Game 7 of the World Series. Marlins and Indians tied in the bottom of the 11th inning. Edgar Renteria at the plate, and he bloops a single over the glove of pitcher Charles Nagy and through the Indians’ infield. Craig Counsell trots home from third scoring the Series clinching run, and I start screaming like a mad man. Standing alone in my apartment, I race into the bedroom where my fiancé was sleeping. I wake her up with my yelling and incoherent blabbering. It would be three days before she speaks to me again.

October 25, 2003. Game 6 of the World Series. Josh Beckett on the mound for the Marlins, pitching on only three days’ rest, and trying to close out the series – on the road – against the vaulted Yankees. I’m once again standing alone in the family room of my house; pacing, sweating, praying. I’ve long since devoured my finger nails. My heart is racing at 120 beats per minute. Jorge Posada stabs at a pitch, making contact, and sending the ball dribbling up the first base line. Charging from the mound, Beckett scoops up the ball, tags Posada, and the Marlins are once again World Series champions. It would take me four days to get my voice back.

June 20, 2006. Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Dallas Maverick Jason Terry misses what would have been a game-tying three point shot, and the Miami heat hold on to win the game and their first ever NBA Championship. Standing alone in my apartment, I once again go into crazy person mode, and hope my neighbors don’t call the police because of all the yelling and screaming.

I remember vividly where I was for each of the recent championship-clinching moments for my beloved South Florida sports franchises. They are memories that are emblazoned into my brain; mental tattoos I will carry with me forever.

The same applies to other key sports moments I witnessed in my lifetime.

I remember jumping up and down with my dad in our living room as Kirk Gibson hit his majestic and legendary homerun to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. I remember yelling gibberish at the TV as I watched Marcus Allen weave his way through the Redskins’ defense in Super Bowl XVIII on his way to a 74 yard touchdown run. I even remember crying both a year before and a year later as I watched my Dolphins fail in Super Bowls XVII and XIX, respectively. The images of John Riggins plowing over Don McNeal and Roger Craig high-stepping into the end zone still haunt me as a sports fan.

But I recall more distinctly sharing those moments with my dad and other family members. I remember the laughing, the screaming, the cheering, and yes, the crying. I remember the euphoria and the sorrow those moments brought, but more so the fact I was able to share those emotions with the people I loved.

With the recent championships of both the Marlins and the Heat, however, what I specifically remember is that I was alone as I watched them happen. It was just me and my sports psychosis. The moments are still very memorable, but they don’t exactly rank with the memories from my childhood, where the smile on my dad’s face was outdone only by the smile on my face. Those moments were special, snapshots in time dipped in magic and sealed forever in that happy place that is the corner of my heart.

June 21, 2012. Game 5 of the NBA Finals. There was no drama. There was no suspense. For the better part of the 4th quarter, the Miami Heat held a twenty point lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The only things that were shocking were how dominating the Heat played to win their fourth consecutive game of the Finals, and Mike Miller’s lights out performance from 3-point range.

But one thing was spectacular as the clock ran down to zeroes and the Heat put a bow on their championship run. I watched the whole game with my daughter sitting right beside me. She laughed at my quirky mannerisms and ignored my sports Turrets as I yelled at the TV. She asked me why I spent so much time tweeting during the game. She indulged me as I felt the need to highlight and explain the nuances of the plays we’d just witnessed.

Yet through it all, we took in the historic moment together. I was able to watch her excitement build as the game progressed, as her eyes exploded open with every laser beam pass and gravity-defying dunk. I relished the sound of her pre-teen voice as she’d marvel, “that was awesome” or “that guy’s on fire.” She was less cheerleader and more a student of the game, but a fan nonetheless who was thrilled to see her dad’s favorite basketball team win it all. It would officially become her favorite basketball team that evening as well.

And as we took in the post-game festivities and watched LeBron James hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in poetic celebration, I noticed the only thing bigger than the smile on my face was the smile on the face of my daughter. I hope she, too, will carry that mental tattoo with her forever.

It’s in the Cards

Destiny is a mysterious thing. In sports, it’s often used to explain the unexplainable.

On August 31, with a month left to go in the Major League Baseball regular season, the St. Louis Cardinals trailed the Milwaukee Brewers in their division by 8.5 games. In the ever important race for the lone National League Wild Card spot, they, too, trailed the Atlanta Braves by 8.5 games.

By September 15, the Wild Card lead for the Braves was down to only 4.5 games. By September 27, the second to last day of the season, the Cardinals found themselves tied with Braves in the standings. With one game left for each team, it was “win or go home” time for both squads.

Destiny has a flare for the dramatic, but it was the Cardinals who took care of their opponent the evening of September 28, the Houston Astros, in clinical fashion. There was nothing dramatic about their 8-0 win over the hapless ‘Stros. They did their job, the way a team that closed out the season winning seven out of ten games should do.

The Braves, on the other hand, found themselves with their season on the line in an extra-innings battle against a Philadelphia team that had already secured both the best record in the National League as well as a spot in the MLB post-season. It seems Destiny was indeed involved, as the Braves lost in 13 innings to the Phillies and missed the playoffs.

Had the Phillies had the gift of clairvoyance and could see that just nine short days later, they’d see their season come to an end at the hands of the Cardinals, I wonder if they would have changed the outcome of that  game against Atlanta. (To be clear, had both Atlanta and St. Louis finished the season tied, they both would have faced each other in a one game playoff, with the winner advancing to the post-season as the Wild card champion.)

The St. Louis Cardinals overcame a double-digit deficit in the standings to qualify for the playoffs. They tore through the post-season by dispatching the best and second best teams in the National League. They faced elimination not once but twice in the same game of the World Series, both times trailing by two runs and down not only to their last out, but to their last strike. In both instances they prevailed, tying the game, extending their season, and perpetuating the idea that Destiny was on their side.

Still, it’s hard to believe that a team lead by a manager with a career .536 winning percentage (.543 in the playoffs), five previous pennants, and two previous World Series titles could be considered a team of Destiny. It’s hard to perceive a franchise that trails only the mighty New York Yankees in World Series victories to have been celestially chosen by the baseball gods to win one more.

Yet there they were, providing a spectacle in sports unlike anyone else had ever seen before. From written off in September to undoubtedly written about ad nasueum these next few days in October, the Cardinals made the 2011 post-season theirs and theirs alone.

If you still question the Destiny aspect when it comes to this team, consider this. If this exact same season – same players on each team, same results for each game – were to be played in the upcoming 2012 season, the Cardinals most likely do not even make the playoffs. Why? Because in 2012 the Florida Marlins move into their new stadium in Little Havana. It’s a baseball-only stadium, designed around a complete baseball experience. This is unlike the previous home of the Marlins, Sun Life Stadium, which was designed for football but also housed a professional baseball team. It was at this stadium, with its non-baseball specific configuration, where Braves third basemen Chipper Jones failed to field a chopping, yet still routine, ground ball that would have ended the game and secured victory for Atlanta. The reason for his error? The lights of the stadium. Yes, a professional baseball player lost a ground ball in the lights.

Rather than closing out the game with a victory, the Braves saw the Marlins win that game with a walk-off homerun. In a playoff race where every game counts, Atlanta’s loss allowed the Cardinals to close the gap in the standings, and it set up the drama of the final game of the season. As we saw with the Phillies-Braves game that went into extra innings, Destiny was working her magic in Miami to keep the Cards on track to the World Series.

Still not convinced? How about the fact Game 6 of the World Series was postponed a day due to rain? The delay allowed St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter to start the decisive Game 7 on short rest. After a rocky first inning in which he gave up a two runs on three hits, Carpenter settled down and allowed only three hits over the next five innings he pitched. Without the rain delay two nights before, Carpenter would not have been able to pitch Game 7, and who knows what the outcome would have been for the Cardinals.

There are probably a million other examples I could cite in favor of Destiny being in favor of St. Louis. Cards fans would take in and embrace each and every one of them. Rangers fans, however, would be less inclined to accept that argument, instead pointing to factors like tiny strike zones, inconsistent calls at the plate, head-scratching moves by Texas Manager Ron Washington, and just plain bad luck. To Rangers fans, Destiny is whore not worth discussing, let alone validating.

Yet taking it all into account, with the unwavering luxury of hindsight, it is indeed seductive to think a team won a championship not because they played hard, kept fighting, and had the bounces go their way, but instead because they were meant to win. Because the ghosts of Rogers Hornsby and Dizzy Dean conspired to make it so. Because the ever strong wills of Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith found their way into the clubhouse of this 2011 team.

The idea of such a power taking control of the outcome of a sporting event and, subsequently, an entire season is fantastical and illogical. And it is also exactly why we love sports, and why we embrace Destiny with open arms.