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Sports can be a joyful heartache

ABC-TV’s sports series “The Wide World of Sports” put it succinctly in their opening montage. “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The accompanying video of ski jumper Vinko Bogataj violently wiping out punctuated the voiceover. Those words spoke to every fan who has experienced watching their team win or the heartache they feel when things go south. Some towns, like Cleveland, are snakebit more than others but every team’s followers have felt the heartache that comes when a season ends abruptly.

Sports isn’t the real world, it’s an escape from it. The average person can’t fathom the amount of money that is made by players, owners, and sports leagues. The work stoppages and battles between owners, players, unions, and leagues greatly affect our psyche. It’s not the same impact as some half-baked lunatic testing nuclear weapons overseas, but it directly affects our day-to-day moods. We know which is more important and which will let us forget about things for a while. To be absorbed in how to pitch a slugger or why the line can’t get to the quarterback is preferable.

I began this column as Game 5 of the ALCS between the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros took place. Game 4 of the series was a microcosm of the rollercoaster ride that is fandom. Five innings of scoreless baseball kept things tense. The Astros three-run 6th inning and tack-on run in the 7th had me wondering if the game would end by the time “NCIS” aired at 8 pm EDT.

Moments later, the rollercoaster started climbing back up the hill when Aaron Judge hit a tape-measure home run to center field. Before you knew it the Yankees had taken a 6-2 lead and tied the series up at two games apiece. A game like that flips your night. With a 5:00 pm EDT start and a Yankees win you still had the whole rest of the night ahead of you after the game had ended. Had the Yankees lost…you still…would…have had…the whole…rest of…the night….ahead of you.

Game 6 started out well as Luis Severino and Justin Verlander matched zeroes through four innings. But Severino’s lack of control in the bottom of the 5th inning changed the dynamic of the game and the mood of Yankees fans. By the time David Robertson crumbled and the 9th inning had rolled around, I was catching up on what was taking place on “Blue Bloods”.  (Sometimes it’s best to step away when things aren’t going well or you might break your TV remote during the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs…at least until your Captain fulfills his guarantee.)

Tonight’s ALCS finale will be an emotional game, without a doubt.  Hours before the players take the field, some fans will be unusually cool and calm (raising hand), while others will be popping antacids like there’s no tomorrow. And some, of course, might be mixing college football and beers to either rile themselves up or drink themselves silly. No matter the pre-game or in-game ritual, someone is going to be ecstatic tonight while others cry, drool, scream, rant and rave, and whatever floats their boat.

Some of the best moments in sports can also be some of the worst in sports. Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone’s home runs against the Red Sox in 1978 and 2003. Reggie Jackson’s three home run barrage against the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series. Charlie Hayes squeezing the final out in the 1996 World Series. David Tyree’s helmet catch in the Giants Super Bowl win against the previously unbeaten New England. The 1994 Stanley Cup victory that ended the New York Rangers 54-year winless drought. Those were fantastic moments that will live with me forever. But no fan comes out unscathed.

Other than my wedding, 2001 was a miserable year. I lost my Mom, my uncle, and a cousin, and knew many other people who lost relatives and friends in 2001. And, of course, there was the horror of 9/11. In the weeks that followed that horrific day, baseball became a huge escape from daily life for the entire nation. When the Yankees staged their two “miracle” comebacks on consecutive games to depart New York up three games to two over the Diamondbacks, a fourth straight championship seemed predetermined.

Oh, but John Sterling is so right. “You can’t predict baseball, Suzyn (Waldman)”, or anything else that mattered. After the Game 6 loss, it still seemed the Yankees would take home their 27th title right then and there. No one expects Mariano Rivera to have a rare 9th inning meltdown. I was recording the radio call so that I could hear Sterling’s call of the last out. But, just like that the game turned and the Diamondbacks had their one and only championship to date.

The loss was one of the worst sports moments I can remember. It was much more than just losing a sporting event. The entire emotional year came barreling down a hill like a snowball that gets bigger with each roll until it splatters you on the pavement. I never felt teary watching one of my team’s losses before, not even when I was a kid when you might expect a reaction like that.

But everything from 2001 just smacked me all at once as I walked our dog after the game. I was in a daze for days after that. My brother, 10 years my senior, cannot watch the end of the 1960 World Series when the Pirates’ light-hitting Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off home run in the seventh game to beat the Yankees. I knew exactly how he felt after watching Luis Gonzalez single in the series-winning run. I won’t watch that replay. For that matter, it’s tough to even watch Tino Martinez‘ and Scott Brosius‘ home runs that helped the Yankees take the series lead. The script stays the same, the overall outcome never changes.

There is no tension greater though than the finale of a best-of-seven series. And we’ve all been on either end of the outcomes. Tonight, we’ll tune our TV’s to the Astros and Yankees, and hope that this rollercoaster ride ends joyfully. Otherwise, there will be no joy in Mudville or wherever you are when the last out is recorded.