How great a moment would it have been if Alex Gordon had tried to score?
So God calls you up. Asks how you’re doing, makes a bit of small talk, then asks a favor. He wants you to design the perfect baseball moment, the greatest moment that could possibly be possible. He would do it himself but, frankly, he never really got the sport; if he’d wanted people to play baseball, he’d have obviously done the elbow differently. But he’s a benevolent creator and people seem to like watching great baseball moments, so he wants to give them a great one. A perfect one.
So design this for him. Getting started is easy, because you play-acted this 10,000 times when you were a kid: It’s Game Seven; it’s the ninth inning (or later); and it’s a home run to win the game. Or, in other words:
Now build on it. What makes this scene stronger? It should happen at the hero’s home ballpark, so that the crowd can amp up the excitement and keep it going indefinitely. The players involved need to be elite, household-name types. Or else they need to be so anonymously bad that the achievement is shocking and inspirational. And it’s not enough that it wins the game; it has to be the case that the failure to do the same would have lost the game — in other words, turning not just a tie into a win (or a deficit into a tie), but a deficit into a win. So:
*Star power OR unlikely hero
On second thought, though, home runs can be sort of plain. They’re over as soon as they’re hit; the moment is literally just that, one tiny moment, rather than a progression of excitement. So this can’t just be a home run: It needs to have suspense. It should be just inches over the fence, so that we spend six or seven seconds waiting to find out the outcome. But even still, home runs are one-sided; the defense is irrelevant to them. And home runs are such miserable highlights, aesthetically bland. So, better yet: It should be caught! It should be a walk-off robbed home run. Yes, that way we get a play that makes us wait for its resolution; we have something that we almost never see (far less often than home runs, for sure); and both the offense and the defense are crucial agents in the play. So:
*Suspense within the play
But while a robbed home run is unusual, is it unusual enough? Baseball’s rulebook is 120 pages long. Within it are so many possibilities — obstructions, balks, interferences, game suspensions, pace-of-play requirements, a batter’s box, a catcher’s box, uniform requirements, quirks and technicalities sufficient to invoke all manner of controversy and shock. Further, baseball fields have irregular dimensions, introducing near-infinite paths for the ball to follow. Plus, there are umpires, an ever-threatening deus ex machina. So:
*Some sort of freakishness of baseball that just can’t ever be anticipated
So you weigh all this, and you come up with this:
It’s Game Seven of the World Series. The score is 6-3 in the bottom of the ninth. The bases are loaded. The batter is the backup catcher, who is in the game only because the starting catcher’s wife had triplets that morning. We’ll call him Yantz. Yantz is a 37-year-old rookie who played 17 games in the regular season without as much as a double. But today he has accounted for all of his team’s offense with three solo home runs. The pitcher is the other team’s ace starter, who has thrown 40 consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason; he has been brought out of the bullpen for just this batter, having thrown a complete-game shutout the day before to force Game Seven. It was clear even in that start yesterday that he was throwing in pain, having been worked to exhaustion in the pennant race and postseason. In a dugout shot earlier in the game he looked pale and weak sitting on the bench, but his adrenaline has kicked in. His first pitch registers 100 mph.
The ace gets ahead 0-2. He throws the next pitch in the dirt, and Yantz swings and misses. The pitch gets away from the catcher, and the hitter and all three baserunners sprint ahead, trying to preserve the rally. But immediately the umpire rules that Yantz tipped the ball foul, and the runners all stop. Yantz returns to the batter’s box; replays show that he didn’t actually tip the ball. Nobody is sure who was screwed by the umpire’s missed call.
Yantz lays off some pitches, fouls some others off. The count reaches full. Two more fouls. The second one nearly decapitates the runner on third, who (like the others) is off with the pitch. On the 14th pitch of the at-bat, though, Yantz crushes one to deep center field. Could it be? His fourth home run of the game? A walk-off grand slam? It’s high, it’s deep, it’s …
The center fielder leaps over the wall and gloves the ball! But the recoil on his extension snaps the glove back and the ball squirts out of it, back toward the infield. All three outfielders sprint toward it. Runners are circling the bases. Yantz is around second, heading to third, and his coach waves him around. It’s going to be close. A good throw will get him. Yantz turns, chugging, when …
He trips! He flies face first into the dirt. The throw home was a perfect strike. He gets up and scrambles back to third. The catcher fires to the third baseman, and …
The throw hits off Yantz’s helmet and ricochets into the outfield. Yantz has no idea where it is. As four defenders converge on it, he sees the ball, turns around and runs back toward home. The throw comes in to the plate. It’s arriving just as Yantz arrives, but …
The catcher hasn’t left Yantz a lane to the plate! So Yantz barrels into him. The ball sails past the play, the umpire rules Yantz safe, the visiting manager rushes out screaming for a video review, but the umpire waves him off. The catcher lies motionless. Yantz’s teammates mob him. The game is over! The game is over! The game is over!
Oh, and Yantz plays for the Cubs.
So that’s it. That would be the greatest moment in baseball history.
You send Gordon, and it's one of the 5 greatest baseball moments ever, regardless of whether he scores.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) October 30, 2014
Man, five is tough. I’m fully unconvinced that it’s not top five, at this stage of this article, but five is tough. I don’t even know how to compare a play that happens in 2014, with a century and a half of baseball baggage behind it, with practically every baseball fan watching in the same bar (Twitter), with hot takes gushing out of the faucet within five minutes of the game’s conclusion, with GIFs and X-Mo and StatCast. So let’s ignore everything that happened before we (read: I) started seriously watching baseball. We’re going to go with what I often refer to as the Modern Era: 1988 to present. Would a Gordon play at the plate have been top five in that quarter-century?
Even over just 25 years, five is tough. By my reckoning, the following are incredible baseball moments that would be left out of the top five:
*Derek Jeter’s career-ending walk-off
*Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run
*Derek Jeter’s flip
*Kirby Puckett (catch AND home run, both)
*Roy Halladay’s postseason no-hitter
*Jim Abbott’s no-hitter
*All the other no-hitters, perfect games, amazing catchers, walk-off homers, walk-off walks, four-homer games, comebacks, meltdowns, and balks.
There are elements of your God-requested perfect moment in each of those, but five is toooooooooooouuuuuuuugh. To crack the top five, mere tension and stakes aren’t enough. The top five, probably:
5. Derek Jeter’s post-9/11, Mr. November walk-off home run in the 2001 World Series. It’s the bells, man. If that game had been played on Oct. 24 or something, without the haunting bonggggg bonggggg bonggggg of the midnight bells ushering in November a few seconds earlier, this probably isn’t a top five play. Of course, if it had been played on Oct. 24 or something, then 9/11 would have never happened, and we’d have been rooting against the Yankees with all our hearts.
4. Evan Longoria’s Game 162 home run in 2011, along with all the other Game 162 insanity that happened within about one toaster cycle of each other.
3. Joe Carter’s walk-off home run ending the 1992 World Series. It’s funny, David Freese hit a walk-off home run to end Game Six of a World Series. And Joe Carter hit a walk-off home run to end Game Six of a World Series. Carter’s home run had a bigger shift on his team’s chances of winning the World Series, but not by all that much. Freese increased the Cardinals’ chances from about 34 percent to about 54 percent, a 20 percentage point gain; Carter’s team went from about 70 percent to 100 percent, a 30 percentage point gain. Yet Carter is a no-doubter here in the top five, while Freese’s home run is only the second greatest moment by David Freese in this game. That’s the power of conclusion. If your home run ends a season, you get to keep celebrating until the Lord Almighty calls you home.
2. Armando Galarraga’s "perfect" game. The look on his face. The look on your face. Probably the most pure emotional non-injury baseball moment in our lifetimes.
1. Kirk Gibson. Brief rundown of what you might not remember from this at-bat: He dribbled a foul ball down the line that looked like it might end the game before it went foul; he fell behind 0-2; Mike Davis was nearly picked off; Davis stole second, and Gibson probably could have been called for obstructing the throw; he worked the count to 3-2. Of course it went 3-2. Another thing: The Dodgers let Mike Davis hit before they let Gibson. Mike Davis! Mike Davis had an OPS in the .500s that year. They let Jeff Hamilton hit in that inning against Eckersley. Hamilton hit .236/.268/.353 that year. He was right-handed! I know we all remember how hurt and how supposedly unavailable Gibson was, but I don’t think we appreciate how hurt and how actually unavailable he was. As far as I can tell, he batted not because he was the team’s MVP and Tommy Lasorda was holding him for that amazing walk-off moment, but because Tim Belcher got knocked out of the game so early (in the second inning) that Lasorda had to burn three pinch-hitters in the ninth spot of the order before Gibson. Gibson was at once the best and the worst player on the field. You can’t really do better than that, narrativewise.
So, where would an Alex Gordon play at the plate (regardless of outcome) fit here? Let’s go back to all those things we wanted in our self-designed perfect baseball moment.
*Biggest Stage? Yes. World Series.
*Conclusive? Yes. Game Seven, bottom nine. If he’s out, it’s over. (Were he safe, it would "merely" send us into Game Seven extra innings.)
*High-impact play? I mean, Kirk Gibson’s home run shifted the Dodgers’ chances of winning the entire World Series by about 17 percentage points. Joe Carter’s home run shifted the Blue Jays’ World Series chances by 30 percentage points. Bill Mazeroski: 37 percentage points. If Gordon took off for home, the difference between safe and out would be 50 percentage points. Those 90 feet would be among the highest-leverage four seconds in baseball history.
*Loud environment? If he scored, yes. If he was out, it might be too depressing to take. Which, actually, doesn’t hurt this play’s case.
*Star power OR unlikely hero? Gordon is neither, MVP-candidacy or not. But still this play hits the mark, because Madison Bumgarner on the mound was by then a household name during this postseason.
*Extreme stakes? Yes. It’s weird, but if the Royals are tied — and Gordon represented the winning run — this play wouldn’t seem as important. The ultimatum drives the drama.
*Suspense within the play? Yes, absolutely. It would be 15 seconds of suspense. There probably aren’t 100 plays in a major-league season that last 15 seconds. There usually isn’t even one in a postseason game that does. This one would.
*Highlight-worthy defense? A highlight of a sort. But no, defensive bungling.
*Unusual? Either result (assist at home, inside-the-parker) would be something we’ve never seen before to end or tie a World Series game.
*Some sort of freakishness of baseball that just can’t ever be anticipated? Absolutely. If Gordon tried to score on a simple ball in the gap, it would be amazing, still a top-five contender. But that he might have tried to score on a routine single that somehow got misplayed twice makes it impossible to anticipate.
There’s really no way to put math on this. But a Gordon play at the plate would have nearly everything we designed. Without living through something, we can’t know how we would react to it. But my gut tells me that a play at the plate would have been one of the five greatest plays of the post-1988 era. Not number one. Maybe not number two. But maybe number two, and no lower than number four. And I’d like to think that God, if not Royals third-base coach Mike Jirschele, wanted us to have it.