This is it. Tonight, this is finally it. Baseball is a grueling endurance test, a 162 game regular season marathon, followed by three rounds of white-knuckle playoffs, a test of character, of consistency and finely honed skills on daily display. It’s about nagging aches and high pain tolerance levels, about sliding strawberries and pulled hamstrings and hard baseballs fouled off feet and thighs and ankles. The best teams are the teams that make a habit of professionalism, the teams that drill into their players the need to always take the correct route to a fly ball, to always throw to the right base, to always stay low on grounders. Play the right hop, swing at good pitches, cut off errant throws, back-up teammates.
And the quality of baseball has improved markedly over the years. When I was a kid, I read the baseball kids’ novels by Duane Decker, and in those novels, on ground balls to the infield, a sign of extra hustle, unusual enough to remark upon, were instances where a catcher hustled down the first base line to back up the first baseman in case of a bad throw. This wasn’t required, we were given to understand, but was something special, for important games and big moments. And Decker was reflecting the baseball of his day; Yogi Berra almost never hustled down the line. Now, Buster Posey, the Giants’ catcher, always does it, always backs up first. He never doesn’t. All catchers play it that way; it’s expected. I remember when, on double plays, the second baseman didn’t actually have to tag second, but just tagged the ground somewhere close to it. It was called a ‘phantom double play’ and it was the normal, everyday way you turned one. Never happens anymore. Television has done this, increased accountability, and therefore, professionalism and quality.
Game Seven. And because of the way pitching has gone in this series, neither manager is able to start his ace tonight. Madison Bumgarner of the Giants has pitched brilliantly. Right now, in his third World Series, he ranks statistically as the finest pitcher in World Series history. That’s ever; he’s been better than Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford and Christie Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Ever. But he last pitched on Sunday, and may only be available for an inning or two tonight. “Big Game” James Shields, the Royals’ ace, is likewise gassed, and unavailable.
Instead the Giants are going with Tim Hudson, who is 39 years old and therefore the oldest pitcher to ever start a Game Seven. He’s been an outstanding pitcher for many years, with Oakland and with Atlanta, but he’s never pitched in a World Series before. The Royals’ pitcher is Jeremy Guthrie, another veteran and one of the few Mormons in all of Major League baseball. He attended BYU, served a full-time mission to Spain. Another respected veteran, he’s known as a tough and smart competitor, if a trifle under-talented. Both pitchers, in other words, survive on guts and guile, not raw talent. I love it. It’s going to be a match-up of craftsmen, two intelligent and respected leaders making the most of fading gifts.
This World Series has, above all else, honored the game of baseball. The defensive play, on both sides, has been remarkable. The Royals’ outfielder, Lorenzo Cain, has been a revelation, running down fly balls that looked completely unreachable. Both shortstops, Alcides Escobar and Brandon Crawford, have played well, Crawford, perhaps, a bit more consistently. One things I’ve noticed is that neither team seems to strike out much. Baseball today has evolved into a home-run happy game, where hitters swing from the heels and try to hit the ball a mile, and if they miss, no big deal. Neither the Giants or Royals do that much. Both teams hit well with two strikes, both sides believe in hitting the ball and making the other team play defense.
I’ve been a San Francisco Giants fan since I was eleven, growing up in Indiana. I’m going to watch tonight in a kind of heart-felt agony. But the Giants won in 2010 and 2012. And this Royals team is exciting, young, appealing and tough. If we lose, we lose to greatness. This is it. The end of an endless season, the finale, the curtain. Go Giants! Gulp.