|A conflict of senses|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: From his home on the Northern California coast, Page 2's Eric Neel is keeping a diary of the 2002 pennant races involving the Giants, Dodgers, A's and Angels. This is the fourth installment of Neel's journal.
Friday, Sept. 13
Status: Dodgers and Giants remain tied for NL wild-card lead (though the Houston Astros pick up a game and are now 4½ back). Angels and A's are now tied for the AL West lead, with 16 games remaining.
Two very different kinds of games Thursday night.
The only drama came in wondering whether Adrian Beltre, the Dodgers' young superstar-in-waiting, would get a hit (he came in 1 for his last 28) or take a pitch (he'd swung at 43 of the last 57 pitches he'd seen). The answers were no and not many.
Beyond that, there wasn't much to watch for. All the heat and pop of the wild-card race that was so intense the night before in San Francisco was gone.
Shawn Green hit his 42nd homer. Nobody cared. Terry Shumpert homered for Colorado. Nobody cared. The Rockies made a couple of very nice defensive plays, including a diving, tumbling catch by a backup catcher playing the outfield named Ben Petrick. Nobody other than Petrick and his folks will remember it.
The Dodgers are in an air-tight race with the Giants, but last night felt like a beer-league game in some outlying suburban park ... without the beer, the rowdy fans or the fun.
What must it be like for the Dodgers players on a night like that? A 53-minute rain delay, empty stands, big deficit right out of the box -- what do you do with all your anxious energy and desire? The night before, in front of 41,000-plus at Pac Bell, everything was so sharply drawn and pulsing with life. Now, the edges are blurring, the ground is slippery and you can hear yourself breathe and think.
I suspect a three-run victory and a solid pitching performance tonight will bring everything back into focus, but I wonder whether, on a night like Thursday night, it's hard to keep your bearings, to remember that you're caught up in the middle of something. I wonder how fragile feelings like momentum, enthusiasm and concentration are when you're standing around on the wet grass, staring at the empty seats.
The drama that was missing in Colorado was busting out all over the joint in Anaheim. Angels homer twice in the first inning, crowd goes wild. Strange, three-error fourth and Oakland takes the lead, crowd falls silent, A's radio announcers go wild. Hot young A's pitcher Mark Mulder gives up the lead to Angels pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro in the eighth, crowd goes wild, A's radio announcers mumble and sigh. Hot young A's hitter Eric Chavez ties the score on a two-out homer in the ninth, Edison quiet as a graveyard, A's radio announcer Bill King shouting into the mic with last shreds of his voice. Pinch-hit double and stolen base from Angels' Darin Erstad in the bottom of the ninth and a two-out hit from Scott Spiezio to win it. Crowd goes wild, A's and their radio announcers go home. AL West all tied up.
The game came in waves. It literally rose and fell, pouring out of and pulling back into my radio, full of big plays -- the kind of hits that make you believe there is such a thing as "clutch" -- and big swings of fortune and emotion -- the kind of reversals that make you realize that if clutch is real, so are luck and timing and coming up short. Everything seemed magnified and vibrant. Eric Chavez was seven-and-a-half times the size of a normal man; he carried a 30-pound bat. Darin Erstad was the very name of destiny. Scott Spiezio -- Scott Spiezio was a crack and a roar.
What must it be like for players on a night like that? How heightened must their senses be? Do they see more clearly and at greater distances? Can they hear every little thing -- conversations between fans in the stands, a guy rubbing the palm of his glove across the diamond, a bird crying far overhead? Is the smell of the grass almost too much to bear? Win or lose, on a night like that, they must know, in the most fundamental, bloodstream and breath sorts of ways, that they are in a fight. They must feel so alive and so glad of it, so incredibly dialed-in.
Tonight, the Angels host Texas and the A's are home to face Seattle. I suspect an early three-run deficit and a poor pitching performance for either team might dull the senses in a hurry, but right this minute the pennant race, and the task before them, probably seems crystal clear and solid as a rock.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column on Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.