Sunday Pages: The Walkoff

In praise of the game winner.

On Wednesday night, Chris Taylor of the Dodgers hit a home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, winning the single-elimination playoff game in dramatic fashion:

I don’t particularly like the Dodgers, nor do I care for the Cardinals. Heck, I haven’t watched baseball in such a long time that I have no idea who any of the players even are. But I love walkoff home runs. They are the pinnacle of sports drama, where the stakes are the highest, and the outcome most improbable. The Yahoo! News headline summed up Taylor’s against-all-odds moment beautifully: “Dodgers’ 106-win season saved by a utility man mired in a slump.” As Mel Allen used to say, in weekly astonishment, “How about that?”

One of the drawbacks of football, a sport I generally prefer, is that close games usually come down to a field goal attempt, in which a player who has been on the bench for most of the game—traditionally a player who couldn’t reliably tackle you or me—lines up to either nail the attempt or fuck up royally:

Win or lose, the act of kicking a field goal, as your star players watch from the sidelines, is inherently anticlimactic.

Baseball, alone among the major sports, has no clock. A game can be over in two hours, or last all afternoon and into the night. At-bats seemingly go on forever. The tension ramps up. The stakes rise with every pitch. The anticipation is excruciating. And when the batter connects, and the ball sails into the stands, he generally knows right away that it’s going going gone. Then he gets to celebrate alone as he trots victoriously around the bases, only to be smothered by his jubilant teammates awaiting him at home plate. Look, I get that some people don’t dig sports, that “sportsball” means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Chris Taylor didn’t cure covid or stave off an insurrection. And yet I can’t imagine anything feeling as good as a walkoff homer.

The Dodgers are no strangers to this sort of high drama. Kirk Gibson hit the best walkoff home run of my lifetime in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. A longtime All-Star with the Tigers, he came to Los Angeles that year and lit the National League on fire, propelling the Dodgers into the playoffs and winning NL MVP. But then, in the championship series, he got hurt. Bum knee on one side, bum hamstring on the other. He didn’t even come out for the Game 1 player introductions, he was so hobbled. So it was absolutely nuts of manager Tommy Lasorda to have him pinch hit down a run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth—against Dennis Eckersley, no less, the best closer of his generation. It was the ultimate baseball Hail Mary.1 Simply put, if this happened in a sports movie, you wouldn’t believe it. Vin Scully’s call of Gibson’s at-bat is one of the greatest sports announcing moments in the history of broadcasting, and may as well be its own short film:

Look at how happy they all are! Look at Lasorda, no spring chicken, jumping up and down like a kid at Christmas! Gibson would not play another game in that series, which the Dodgers would go on to win. He had one fucking at-bat, and it was a plate appearance for the ages.

For me, the only sports moment that came close in recent memory was in Game 7 of the 2019 NBA Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard somehow got off a shot at the buzzer, which hit the rim four times before going down. The ball rattled around for so long that he was crouched, watching in anticipation, like a golfer eying a slow put:

Leonard is famous for not showing any emotion at all on the court, neither joy nor frustration, but even he screamed when that shot went down.

What must it feel like, to hit a walk-off home run in a big game, or a buzzer-beater to win a series? The opportunities don’t even come around that often; the players who come through in these big moments are the only ones who really know what it feels like. And yet the beauty of sports, as I see it, is that fans can share in that emotion. We feel it, too, albeit vicariously. Sometimes it’s painful, as when the Knicks lost to the Hawks in the playoffs last year. And sometimes it’s pure joy. I was rooting for Toronto when Kawhi made that shot, and afterward, I was obsessed with it. I must have watched it a hundred times. I couldn’t get enough of it. Because it made me feel good. And that was as close as I was ever going to get to feeling that good on account of my own athletic accomplishment.

But someone in my house knows what it really feels like. In the Youth Basketball Association here, the games are held at the big gym at the SUNY campus. Usually they subdivide the court, so they can have three games going on simultaneously. But for the championship games, they use the entire big court. And everyone watches. It’s a big stage, for a 10-year-old.

I was coaching the girls team in the 2017 fourth-fifth grade championship game. We led most of the game, then had a few defensive lapses and were down one with 20 seconds left. My fifth-grader came up with a rebound on the other end, dribbled the length of the great-big court, and with 12 seconds on the clock, drained a perfect jumper from eight feet out to win the trophy. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy in my life. I still can’t believe it happened. “Take this in,” I said after. “You may never do something like that ever again.”

But you only have to do it once to join the ranks of Bobby Thomson and Bill Mazeroski, Kirby Puckett and Joe Carter, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner and Jalen Suggs. Obviously, first place in the 2017 NPYBA Girls 4th-5th Grade Division is not a Lombardi Trophy or the A.L. pennant. But the emotions, I can faithfully report, are exactly the same. As NBA champion Kevin Garnett said, of winning the title: “It’s like knowledge. Once it is achieved, it is achieved.”

“These are the types of moments that you dream about and that you live for,” Chris Taylor told reporters after Wednesday’s game. “I’ll be able to look back on this for the rest of my life.”

Enjoy it, Chris. I know I did!

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In football, a Hail Mary is when the quarterback launches a ball 40 or 50 yards into the end zone on the last play of the game, hoping for a miracle touchdown catch. The term was coined by Dallas Cowboy QB Roger Staubach, who, after doing it successfully, told reporters after that he threw it up there and “said a ‘Hail Mary.’”