Walk Offs. The name is pretty descriptive. One pitch and the game is over. And last night, I had the chance to see one in person. From my perspective, nothing in sports is so exciting.
You may ask, “What’s the difference in a walk off in baseball and a sudden death touchdown or field goal in football, when the last score wins it all?” (I recall Curt Gowdy liked to rename these extra periods “Sudden Victory” in place of “Sudden Death.”) What about the last second shot in basketball?
Here’s why…in baseball, the walk off comes as part of the normal course of the game. Baseball is famous for not having a clock. This infuriates some when it is 11 p.m. and you have babysitters at home or an early morning alarm clock is on the horizon for work. But there is no sudden death (or sudden victory) in baseball. When you win with a walk off, it means that the home team has won in the course of the normal rules of the game. It is exciting because you’re always playing in the home team’s stadium when a walk off occurs. The home crowd goes wild. What could be better?!
In many football overtime scenarios, the rules are increasingly tortured to try and get someone to score and end the game (e.g., each team gets the ball on its opponents 40 yard line; after several series you are forced to go for a two-point conversion; who can keep up with the difference between overtime rules in college and professional football). And don’t get me started on basketball. Ever since the NBA inserted that silly rule which allows a team to get the ball at half-court in the final minutes of a game, you have endings where teams (i.e., Lakers) steal victory after their opponents (i.e., Spurs) hit what should have been the winning shot because they are not forced to advance the ball the full 90 feet in the final .4 seconds left in the game (hello Derek Fisher). That’s not basketball…at least as Dr. Naismith imagined it.
Saturday was a beautiful night for baseball at Nationals Stadium, and Dolores and Jamie had invited Candice and me to join them to watch the Nats vs. the Braves. The seats are great (you can see the perspective from the shot above), Teddy (see right) lost the President’s Race again to go 0-for-his-career, and the crowd was swaying to the sounds from 70s night (reminds me of why I stopped listening to rock and pop music in the 70s…but that’s another story). I brought along my scorebook, because as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told Claire and me during a book-signing, “There’s no better way to understand the game.” And it was an offensive show, with the Braves jumping off to a 4-0 lead, and then the Nats clawing back. At the end of 9 innings, the score was tied 8-8, the game was already at 3 1/2 hours, and some had to leave for early morning drives to see family or other adult obligations.
But one of the great things about having teenagers is that you no longer have a baby-sitter at home, and one of the advantages of scoring the game is you want to see the thing through. So there we were, as 11 p.m. neared, when the bottom of the 10th came around. In the 9th I had said that Elijah Dukes was going to hit a walk-off, while Dolores opined that it would be fun to see a “walk-off walk.” Well, that didn’t happen in the 9th. But by looking at my scorebook today, I can remember that in the home half of the 10th, the inning started when Braves pitcher Vladimir Nunez (where is he from!) started by walking leadoff hitter Anderson Hernandez, who then advances to second on a passed ball. The second batter, Christian Guzman (or GUZZZZZZZZZMAN as the Nats announcer intones) gets a single and suddenly we have men on first and third with no one out. We CAN’T lose (can we?). The crowd boos as the Braves play this right and intentionally walk Nat’s #3 hitter and rising star Ryan Zimmerman, who has already gone 3-5. The bases are loaded with no one out. I say to Candice, “Lastings Milledge has to do anything but strike out and we’re in great shape.” So with the infield and outfield in tight, he strikes out. All of a sudden, the infield backs up, and a double play means we play more free baseball (as Skip Carey liked to call it). Groan.
The #5 hitter Ronnie Belliard comes up and we look like winners. Belliard is batting almost .400 for August and he rips one to left center. But the outfield is in close, and the Braves catch the liner, whip the ball back in, and hold Hernandez at third. The fans left around us scream that he should have tested the outfield arm, but I’m not so sure.
So, it all comes down to…Elijah Dukes! The Nats right fielder has started hitting since coming off the DL with an injury and he just is built like a hitter. Nunez works him very carefully. After fouling off some pitches, we find our selves at a 3-2 count, with two out and the bases loaded. Dukes wiggles his bat, steps in – and watches Nunez fire a ball outside for ball four – and a walk off walk! Unbelievable!! Dukes dances down to first base where he’s slapped and congratulated by teammates. Hernandez stomps on home plate with the winning run, and the fans scream and go home happy. The most exciting moment in sports indeed!
More to come…