The threat of lightning brought a public address directive to leave the ever-dampening seating bowl, and we had all taken refuge in the concourses of Oriole Park to wait out the rain delay. Red Sox fans were ubiquitous, each wearing some form of team logo, along with the smug visage that accompanies a $160 million payroll. For several years, as attendance has dwindled in the face of what now seems to be endless losing by the hometown team, the appearance of swarms of Boston fans has been as predictable as a periodic cicada infestation, as, in droves, they have taken over our lovely ballpark with a haughty air of entitlement. While Orioles fans have generally welcomed them politely, our outward expression masked a rising fire of resentment with which we had slowly begun to seethe. On this night of Sept. 28, they had come to celebrate another trip to the post-season, the specter of which filled us all with utter revulsion.
The Major League Baseball season has traditionally ended on a Sunday, but the 2011 schedule called for an unprecedented Wednesday night finale. As the evening began, after 161 games, the Red Sox were tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League wild card berth. Boston had blown the nine-game lead it held at the beginning of September — thanks, in part, to having lost three of four at home to the last-place Orioles. The teams had split the first two games of the season-ending series in Baltimore, and their final confrontation would define the Red Sox season.
The game had been halted with Red Sox leading 3-2 in the middle of the seventh inning. As rain pounded the pavement outside the ballpark's iron gates, the concourse had been turned into a large concrete and steel sports bar, where monitors displayed the events unfolding in Florida. To the delight of the assembled Boston fans, the Rays had fallen behind the Yankees, 7-0. The Red Sox needed only to finish off the lowly Orioles, and Camden Yards would serve as the venue for a riotous New England party. But the Rays were staging a comeback. Down 7-3 in eighth, a three-run homer brought Tampa to within a run. The Red Sox Nation contingent in Baltimore was downcast, while Orioles fans burst into such exuberant cheers that they appeared to have adopted the Rays as their own. Indeed, the local faithful seemed determined to not countenance another Boston celebration in their midst. Enough was enough. The fierceness of divided allegiance that permeated the concourse was undeniable.
When the rain finally subsided, the fans moved back to their seats, and the Red Sox took the field for the bottom of the seventh. Behind them, the out-of-town scoreboard revealed that the Rays had tied the Yankees, 7-7, in the bottom of the ninth. Still, by the time the renowned Red Sox closer, Jonathan Papelbon, took the mound for the ninth inning, and promptly struck out the first two batters, Boston needed only one out to clinch at least a tie with Tampa, and a Yankee extra-inning victory would send them to the playoffs. It seemed inevitable, after all, that they would finally dispatch the Orioles to ponder their 14th straight losing season. Indeed, they were 77-0 this season when leading after eight innings.
But when Chris Davis sent the first pitch he saw into the right field corner for a double, the ballpark air began to turn. Speedy Kyle Hudson was dispatched to pinch-run, as Nolan Reimold advanced to the plate. The entire crowd was standing and jawing, filling the night with adversarial chants. Nolan Reimold took two balls, then swung and missed twice, bringing the Red Sox one strike away from their 91st win. The ballpark rocked with anticipation. Then Reimold caught hold of a fastball and drove it to deep right-center. As it rose in a night sky still thick with moisture, it assumed a trajectory at which it became evident that it could not be caught. Pinch-runner Kyle Hudson, at the crack of the bat, raced for home. At midnight, Reimold's drive bounced over the fence for an automatic double. Tie game. Red Sox fans stared at the spot on the wall over which the ball had skipped with stunned disbelief, while heads in the Boston dugout collectively slumped forward against the rail. Orioles fans literally bounced in utter jubilation. Losing record notwithstanding, this was our playoff game.
Now Robert Andino moved into the batter's box. A utility player, Andino had been pressed into a starting role by the loss of All-Star Brian Roberts to a concussion injury. Just days before, he had twice beaten the Red Sox with clutch game-winning hits at Fenway Park. Now he stood between the Red Sox and extra innings. With the count 1-1, Andino ripped a hard shot to left field, and Reimold sprang from second. Red Sox left fielder Carl Crawford slid on the soaked grass toward the sinking liner. The instant in which the ball traveled became an eternity of breathless amazement in a crowd bearing witness to the extraordinary. The ball glanced off Crawford's glove, but he quickly scampered to retrieve it and throw home — a throw that arrived well after Reimold had safely slid across the plate and bounced to his feet. Moments later, the Rays beat the Yankees on an Evan Longoria home run in the 12th inning.
There was a celebration at Oriole Park that night, but not one that anyone had foreseen. Players poured onto the field. Fans screamed, hugged and cried in absolute jubilation.
Baseball, the game that has no clock, is a most fitting stage for the wonder of human determination, and the honor found in never giving up, never packing it in, never just going through the motions. After 14 straight losing seasons, Baltimoreans shared a moment that took us back to what once was our birthright and generational bond.
May our collective announcement on that soggy September night that "enough is enough" be more than the epitaph of a past season. May it be a beginning that renews the spirit that once blessed this community with the thrill and pride of sharing baseball memories to be forever cherished.
Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun