Baseball is, as has often been said, a game of failures. There are, of course, miscues in basketball and football—bricked free throws, dropped passes and shanked field goals—but mostly it is the glory that is transcendent. We remember "The Catch," Montana to Clark to win the 1982 NFC championship game against the Cowboys, but not the name of the defensive back Dwight Clark leaped over in the end zone (Everson Walls). Michael Jordan's steal and buzzer-beater to win the 1998 NBA title was against the Jazz, but I have only the vaguest recollection of whom he victimized (Utah guard Byron Russell).
In baseball we always know the names of the victims. Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World", the ninth-inning homer that won the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants against the cross-town rival Brooklyn Dodgers, has long been regarded as baseball's greatest moment. And as long as we recall Thomson's name, it will be paired with Dodgers hurler Ralph Branca, the man who gave up the immortal blast. So many heroes of bygone seasons are forgotten, but fans of baseball lore know of "Bonehead" Fred Merkle, whose baserunning gaffe may have cost the Giants the 1908 pennant; Mickey Owens, whose ninth-inning passed ball cost the Dodgers their shot at the 1941 World Series; and, of course, Bill Buckner, whose impersonation of a wicket back in 1986 set back the dreams of Red Sox fans for another 18 years.
And in the final days of this baseball season—a season with so many dramatics that you wonder if October can live up to the prelude—two of the game's greatest pitchers, future Hall-of-Famers and class acts both, were given a shot at glory and wound up wearing the goat's horns. As a result, fans witnessed two of the great come-from-behind playoff runs in baseball history, the first by the Philadelphia Phillies and the second, in the witching hours one day later, by the Colorado Rockies.
The first to stumble was the New York Mets' Tom Glavine, who could be, if Randy Johnson can't mount a comeback from injury, the last pitcher ever to top 300 wins. Given the chance to rescue a team in freefall and keep the Mets tied for first place, Glavine turned in the kind of performance that pretty much any random fan out of the stands could have delivered. In the top of the first inning, he surrendered seven runs while getting just one out.
Sure, the Mets' flop was a genuine team effort, with the biggest culprits down the stretch being New York's bullpen and its 24-year-old shortstop, Jose Reyes, who somehow in the course of a month stopped hitting and running and went from being baseball's most ballyhooed young game-breaker to a potentially worrisome problem for next year. But it is Glavine—delivering what, given the stakes, was certainly the worst performance of the 669 regular-season and 35 postseason starts he has made over 21 seasons—whose ghastly finale will endure as the face of the Mets' failure. And if it is, in fact, Glavine's last start ever, it may wind up overshadowing a glorious career. Not fair, of course. But then how many folks remember that Bill Buckner won a batting crown, hit over .300 seven times and banged out more than 2,700 hits during his standout career? If baseball were truly fair it wouldn't be half as interesting.
The very next day, the role of Glavine was reprised by San Diego Padres reliever Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman, despite being baseball's all-time saves leader, has pitched 15 seasons in relative anonymity (that's essentially a baseball synonym for San Diego). Over the weekend he had already blown a game that would have sent the Padres to the playoffs, giving up, in a classic baseball irony, a two-out hit in the bottom of the ninth to Tony Gwynn Jr., son of the man who will be always be the greatest Padre ever.
On Monday night Hoffman was given a chance to redeem himself. Called upon to ring up one more save, which would have been the 525th of his career, with a two-run lead in the 13th inning, Hoffman got only one out: the sacrifice fly that drove in the third and winning run. It was scored by Rockies star Matt Holliday, the N.L. batting champion and an MVP candidate, who in one game experienced the full range of hero/goat possibilities. Until he tripled in the tying run and scored the game-winner, Holliday would have been recalled for the defensive lapse in left field that enabled the Padres to send the game into extra innings.
Today, though we have had less than 48 hours to catch our breath, the playoffs begin. There will be new heroes and, almost certainly, new goats. Here's my capsule preview and my predictions, with potential goats.
Phillies vs. Rockies
Baseball's two comeback kings hook up in a karmic test. The balls fly out of Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park the way they once flew out of Coors Field in Denver. The Phillies have an amazing 1-2 punch with Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, and an all-or-nothing slugger behind them in Ryan Howard. But these days some wild-card team always makes waves and the Holliday-Todd Helton tandem will drive the Rockies to the next round in five games.
Most Likely Goat: Phillies—If Howard hits a bad streak he could strike out 20 times in this series. Rockies—Helton, a career .332 hitter, has never had a postseason at-bat and is not quite the hitter he was in his prime.
Diamondbacks vs. Cubs
The Diamondbacks are the most inexplicable team in the postseason, having the best record in the league while having been outscored by the opposition this season. But they have a real ace in Brandon Webb, and he's ready—and rested—to start two games. The Cubs, by contrast, have the worst record of any team in the playoffs. That didn't stop the Cardinals from winning it all out of the same wretched division last year. But unless the Cubs find a miracle cure for their bullpen, it will be Arizona in five.
MLG: Cubs—Carlos Zambrano signed a $91.5 million extension in August and will be asked to match up with Webb. He hasn't allowed a run in his last two starts, but he was lousy in the postcontract weeks. Diamondbacks—Webb, practically the only player on the whole team that a casual fan might know, has to carry the load or Arizona will be snakebit.
Red Sox vs. Angels: The Red Sox are the most balanced team in the American League, though their pitching, particularly the bullpen, has shown some late-season vulnerability. The Angels have a solid top-to-bottom staff and will try to compensate for a less than frightening (and injury-hampered) lineup by running wild on the bases. It's unlikely to be enough. Red Sox in four.
MLG: Red Sox—Boston bet the bank on Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka and now are doubling up. Instead of playing it safe with Curt Schilling, the Sox slated Matsuzaka to start game 2 and a possible game 5. Angels—Francisco Rodriguez was already a World Series hero at age 20. At 25, the relief ace known as K-Rod has seen his walks go up and his strikeouts down.
Indians vs. Yankees: Two very similar teams, but Cleveland has one huge advantage with the hefty lefty C.C. Sabathia slated for two starts. But Sabathia and a great lineup better be enough, because the Indians' bullpen is filled with question marks. Of course, the same could be said about the Yankees bullpen, including the greatest closer in baseball history, Mariano Rivera. Seems likely that Alex Rodriguez, the best player in the game coming off his best season ever, will be the decider. I thought the Indians would go all the way last year. Maybe I was just a year off. Cleveland in five.
MLG: Indians—Joe Borowski led the league in saves despite an ERA over 5.00. Indians fans have to pray the series doesn't come down to him. Yankees—A-Rod had an MVP season, but it still doesn't entirely erase the memories of his last two disastrous playoff series when, against the Angels and then Tigers, he went 3 for 29 without an RBI. If he winds up batting eighth in the Yankees lineup again this year, the Bronx Bombers are in trouble.