Originally published on October 31, 2008
When Game 5 of the World Series resumed at 8:40 on Wednesday night, it was less like a normal baseball game and more like one of those chess problems that are printed in the newspaper.
All the pieces were already in place on the board, the timer was ticking, and the endgame was nearly at hand.
For two days, managers Charlie Manuel and Joe Maddon puzzled over the next moves, and it seemed most likely the game would resume with an exchange of pawns. Geoff Jenkins would pinch-hit for Cole Hamels, forcing Maddon to remove Grant Balfour from the mound in favor of lefthander J.P. Howell. That domino would then fall on Jenkins, and Manuel would have probably batted So Taguchi in his place.
But Maddon, perhaps unwilling to shorten his bullpen in a tie game that might stretch into the night, perhaps unconvinced that Jenkins posed much of a threat, stayed with Balfour.
Baseball is made for second-guessing, because the alternate moves are so obvious, and - here's the beauty - because they are never tested. Taguchi might have taken Howell over the fence in the alternate universe of the game that was never played.
We'll never know. All we know is that Jenkins, who was hitless in three postseason at-bats, doubled off the wall in right-center on a 3-2 pitch from Balfour. He scored one of the two runs necessary to beat the Rays and secure a remarkable world championship.
Maddon, who should have been managing like the furiously paddling duck, was a little too Zen for his own good in the game. He twice went against the grain of the left-right probabilities, and both decisions led to Phillies runs.
In the other dugout, grandmaster Manuel played straight down the middle of the board, even though his choices were mostly dictated by the game. He chose Jenkins instead of Greg Dobbs for the pinch-hit to open the resumption, but only because Maddon would have certainly gone to the lefthander if he had, forcing Manuel to waste a very valuable piece. He also let J.C. Romero hit for himself in the seventh inning with a runner on and the Phils holding a tenuous one-run lead, but that worked out, too. Romero made it through the eighth unscathed and got the game to Brad Lidge.
"Hey, how about that?" Manuel said afterward, after the on-field celebration and after the jumping around in the locker room had gone from champagne spraying to beer sipping.
He was at the desk in his office, grabbing piles of stat sheets and scouting reports and breakdowns and dropping them into the wastebasket next to his desk. Won't be needing these anymore.
"Not bad for an American League manager," Manuel was told.
"Yeah, well, [expletive] them, too," he said. "Funny game, huh?"
It is a funny game, even when it is played nine innings at a time, and not a swatch here and a swatch there over 49 hours, 38 minutes.
What you have to remember is that destiny is a false concept in baseball, and life, and that the events of the last six weeks didn't have to happen. That's what should make them even more special. They happened anyway.
On the evening of Sept. 10, after the Phillies lost, 7-3, to the Marlins, they were 31/2 games behind the Mets and four behind the Brewers in the wild-card race, with 16 left to play. They were 6-8 in the previous two weeks and didn't seem to be going anywhere in particular.
"Last year, we were hot," Manuel said that night. "We could score runs, and it seemed like we had enough pitching to get through. Our team this year, when you're struggling to pitch and score runs, that's tough. But at the same time, I've seen us bounce back. We always have."
Words echoing through the darkness at the time, but not now. The Phils went 13-3 at the end of the regular season, then 11-3 in the postseason. That's 24 wins in 30 games. As Manuel would no doubt say, "Pretty gooood."
The final three innings of the last win took a while to arrive and can be picked over endlessly. Move the ball one-sixteenth of an inch on the bat of Ben Zobrist in the ninth and he has a hit to right instead of a line-drive out to Jayson Werth. The Rays have tied the game, Lidge has blown a save, and the Phils will be bringing Eric Bruntlett, Shane Victorino and Pedro Feliz to bat in the bottom of the ninth. One-sixteenth of an inch.
So, enjoy it, because the bat finally struck the ball in the right place for the Phillies after all these years, and an entire season landed in the city's sweet spot. It's enough to make you believe in possibilities instead of curses, in the future instead of the past.
"It's a wonderful story for the city," Mayor Nutter said on the field after the game. "Every now and then, we get knocked down, too. But we get right back up and keep on fighting."
The parade will take place, the trophy will be placed behind glass, and new seasons will arrive that push this one back into the history book, page by page and year by year. This once and forever, though, the problem was solved and the pieces all found their way to the right spots on the board.
Stop the clock. That's check and mate.