Anyone remotely interested in the MLB season knows how the playoff picture shook out, so I don't need to go into too much detail about it. For you folks, September 28, 2011 will go down as one of the most dramatic single days in baseball history. Thus, you may skip the next segment.
For those who don't follow it, here's the short version: Tampa Bay and Boston were tied heading into the regular-season finale for the wild card spot. This is the same Boston team that some had considered the favorite for the World Series earlier in the summer, that led the AL East for 56 days during the season, and that had held a nine-game cushion to make the playoffs to start the month. (Of course, this is the same Boston team whose penchant for coming up just shy of glory hogged up an inordinate portion of Ken Burns' 10-volume documentary, which means we Red Sox fans braced ourselves for a September collapse sometime during Spring Training.) A Boston loss combined with a Tampa Bay win would push the Red Sox out of the postseason.
So Boston-Baltimore played on the south end of the Grad, along the wall that contains the front door and the patio access. New York-Tampa Bay appeared on three screens at the bar. St. Louis-Houston played on two screens near the restrooms, and Atlanta-Philly took up the two screens closest to the grill. The dance floor is the middle of all this, which allowed me to pace back and forth between the two American League games.
And in my pacing, I'm pretty sure I burned off the entire Grad burger and pitcher of Aggie Lager.
Ah, so there IS a UC Davis connection to this blog post.
Hey, another connection!
When Boston-Baltimore went into a rain delay, I directed my attention to Tropicana Field. New York's seven-run lead had diminished to one, thanks in large part to a three-run home run by Evan Longoria, the Long Beach State alumnus who once played against UC Davis at our own Dobbins Stadium.
Now you're reaching, Honbo.
The Cardinals made relatively easy work of the Astros, behind their steady hitting and Chris Carpenter's right arm. The women made even more noise when Descalso entered the game as a defensive sub. He hauled in a harmless pop-up in the eighth then drove a single through the middle in the ninth. I caught both moments on replay, alerted from my post at the bar by the cheers and squeals from the center table.
By the time play resumed at Camden Yards, the three Cards fans had relocated to become ad hoc Phillies fans. At this point, Philadelphia had tied Atlanta with a run off Braves stopper Craig Kimbrel. Even more rowdiness and cheering.
During a break, I finally went over to the table and asked, "Do you all know Descalso or are you just big Cardinal fans?"
Two of them motioned to the apparent table captain, who replied, "I'm his sister."
I explained my interest: I work for the athletics department, I saw Daniel play for UC Davis, I wrote the UC Davis magazine article on Descalso and Cardinal quantitative analyst Sig Mejdal, etc.
The younger Descalso continued to exchange text messages with her brother, who sat in the Minute Maid Park visitors' clubhouse with the rest of the Birds. Two thousand miles apart, they hung on every pitch of the same broadcast together, the way two friends might remotely enjoy the same episode of Glee. On the next screen was the shot of the visiting locker room in Houston, readying for the potential Cardinal celebration.
When Philadelphia took down the win in the 13th, thus locking up a playoff spot for St. Louis, Stephanie and her friends erupted in celebration. On the screen above them, Daniel and his friends erupted in celebration. From my seat, they might as well have been in the same room (only we had better beer).
Three college-aged men sat an adjacent table, startled by this scene. Sensing their confusion, I explained: "Her brother is a rookie on the Cardinals. He just made the playoffs. She's pretty happy about it." Impressed by this connection, they each went up to offer their congratulations. I'm not sure they were baseball enthusiasts, or if I'd inadvertently given an opening to introduce themselves to three young women, but they gave their wishes either way.
But here's the thing: I grew up thinking major leaguers were larger than life, almost superhuman, as if they existed in an alternate universe that doesn't connect with the rest of us. The older generation probably doesn't share that feeling; we've heard the stories of New Yorkers who remember chit-chatting with Whitey Ford or Billy Martin on the subway car to Yankee Stadium. The salaries of professional athletes had not separated the players from the fans to the degree they have since. The younger fans might not feel the same way, given how social media like Twitter and tell-all media outlets provide glimpses into athletes' personal lives in a way only Jim Bouton's Ball Four could do. But for me, major leaguers seem to exist in their own little world, one that hashtags and high-definition fail to bring closer.
Even now, at an age at which I'm older than 95 percent of current MLB players, and having worked my 12th season with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats – one step away from the big clubs – I still feel those guys extricate themselves from the "normal" world the moment they earn their major league calls. I distinctly remember sitting next to Nick Swisher in the Raley Field press box, talking to him about his father (also a major leaguer). Now he's married to Joanna Garcia from my beloved Freaks And Geeks TV series. Hardly seems like the same guy, even though he is.
Seeing Stephanie on the phone with her brother, then celebrating the moment as it both transpired in front of my eyes and as it took place on Fox Sports, blurred that distinction and quite literally brought the game and its players back home. This was not some fan, celebrating a win by throwing drunken high fives to strangers on the rail. This a genuine moment between a sister and a brother, one who followed in the other's footsteps by attending this very university. At least one major leaguer became quite human, with one very proud family.
And, for what it's worth, Daniel... your Aggie family is quite proud of you, too.
-Mark Honbo, assistant athletics communications director, got so caught up in the scene described above that he missed Robert Andino's game-winning single to beat his Red Sox. So Slaughter outrunning Pesky's throw, Gibson besting a fatigued Lonborg, Perez' shot off the Spaceman, Dent vs. Torrez, Mookie's elusive ground ball, Clemens' ejection and Boone vs. Wake -- these moments collectively gained a new housemate.
He is further glad that the NCAA will not allow him to gamble on sports: watching those games was nerve-wracking enough that having to follow them on a daily basis with money on the line could only cause a rare medical condition known as "brain boilage."