It is finally here. Last Christmas, at the end of 2007, my wife Kathy game me tickets to an early-season Padres game. Now, after nearly four months of anticipation, it is here. We are going to the game tonight. Two of our friends, Jan and Judy, are coming with us. It should be a fun night.
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It’s Thursday, and knowing we’re going to tonight’s game has gotten me through most of the long work week. I hope the game doesn’t go too long, though, I’ve still got to work tomorrow.
It’s a nice April day in San Diego, in the low 70s, but it’s going get cold tonight. For those of you not in San Diego, that means the temperature is going to dip into the low 60s, possibly even the high 50s. Brrr! I’d better bring a light jacket to wear over my sweatshirt.
This will be the first game between the Padres and Rockies since last season’s Wild Card game at Coors Field – you know – the one where Matt Holliday never touched home plate?
Grrr. Don’t get me started.
But it’s a new year, the Padres have been in the playoffs two of the last three years, and just missed last year. We’ll get back there this year for sure. In fact, with the NL’s best pitcher, Jake Peavy, we might just make the postseason every year for a while.
The pitching matchup looks to be a good one, with Peavy, coming off his Cy Young Award winning, Triple Crown season, taking the hill for San Diego against the Rockies’ Jeff Francis. Francis is the top starter on the Colorado staff, and finished ninth in last year’s Cy Young balloting. He’s gotten off to a rough start this year, though, bringing an 0-2 record and 9.53 ERA into tonight’s contest. The Padres also did well against Francis last year, so we could be looking at a big Padres win tonight.
Peavy has picked up right where he left off last year, winning his first three starts, and is coming into tonight’s game with a 3-0 record and 1.64 ERA.
We get to the ballpark. Pretty good seats, fourth row down the left field line, section 122. Grab a dog and beer. Let’s get this game started. Peavy comes out firing. He strikes out Willy Taveras on three pitches and then catches Troy Tulowitzki looking to start the game. Todd Helton manages to put some wood on the ball, but lines out to Padres first baseman Tony Clark.
Brian Giles leads off for the home town team. Giles is starting to look old. He’s 37 now, and his power numbers have dropped every year since coming to the Padres. He grounds out weakly to second.
Kevin Kouzmanoff comes up with a man on first. KOOOOOOOOOOOZ! I love that chant. KOOOOOOOZ! Yes! The chant works. Base hit, and we’ve got men on first and second. Let’s score on Francis early, and make this a rout. Argh! Clark and Scott Hairston strike out to end the threat. Ah well. We’ll get to you soon, Nine-and-a-Half ERA Guy.
We do not get to him soon. After putting runners on the corners on singles by Josh Bard and Peavy in the second, Francis finds his stuff, and retires the next 16 Padres in a row, leaving after seven innings with seven Ks. Peavy has been just as dominant, throwing 8 innings of 4-hit, shutout ball.
Jake comes out after eight, having thrown 113 pitches and striking out 11. In comes Hoffy, with no chance for a save. I always think this is strange, bringing in the closer in a tie game. But then, if the home team isn’t winning after eight innings, there won’t be a save opportunity for the rest of the game, so why not bring in your best pitcher now? Hoffman proceeds to do exactly what Hoffman does, retiring the side, getting Garrett Atkins to look at a fastball after a few knee-buckling change-ups.
After the Padres go down in order in the ninth, it’s time for free baseball. I look at my watch. Peavy and Francis worked fast tonight, it’s only about 9:45. OK, let’s finish this in ten.
Now, I love a good pitchers’ duel, but this was getting ridiculous. In the 13th inning, after playing nearly a game and a half, I check my scorecard and see that Bard in the second inning is the only runner who’s reached third base tonight. This game is like dating a girl who wears a promise ring. Nobody’s coming close to scoring.
I’m actually getting a little bored. And cold. And tired. But nobody has mentioned leaving the game. Kathy has heard me mock those who leave games early many times. So I’m not saying anything. Tomorrow isn’t going to be fun, though. It’s well after 11:00, and I’m getting up at 5:30.
In the bottom of the 13th, Paul McAnulty leads off and gets the remaining crowd cheering. For a total of about 8 seconds. Because after driving the ball deep to right, this round little bowling ball of a man, for some reason, decides to try for third, where he is promptly thrown out. “Don’t make the first out at third base!” the crowd of 3,000-4,000 screams in unison. Okay, maybe they didn’t. But they should have.
In the 14th, the dam finally bursts. The Rockies plate the first run of the game on a single and three walks. A bases-loaded walk seems an appropriate way for the run to score, after 96 hitters have come to the plate and failed to drive in a run. Now, could the Padres score two in the bottom half to send the faithful home happy? That would be great, but at this point, frankly, we’ll be happy just to have the game over.
What’s this? Take Me Out to the Ballgame, again?! The fourteenth-inning stretch. OK, that was interesting. The crowd is talking to each other quite a bit at this point, and people are moving closer and closer to the field and home plate. We decide to move down a few sections, until we’re about even with third base, in the second row.
When KOOOOOOOOOOZ leads off with a single, the fans whoop wildly. The extra stretch and an improved view of the field have invigorated the crowd. Three hitters later, Bard drives in Kouz with the tying run, and the fans are cheering like it’s a damn playoff game. There hasn’t been a beer sold for the last seven innings, but we’re drunk with delight. The bases are juiced with only one out. Surely the Pads are going to reward us for sticking it out through 14 long innings.
Or not. McAnulty hits a grounder and the Rockies throw home to get Clark at the plate. And Colt Morton grounds out to end the threat.
About half of the remaining crowd decides that they’ve seen enough baseball for one night, and now there are maybe 1500 of us left in the park. And then interesting things start to happen. Third base coach Glenn Hoffman comes over to the stands and starts chatting with some fans. The fans are talking to the umpire in normal-volume voices, and he can hear them clear as day. Here we are, in the 15th, 16th, 20th innings, and the game no longer feels like a major league game. It has taken on an intimacy that you rarely find in a major league ballpark.
People who live where it snows a lot know about this phenomenon. In a blizzard, or any extreme weather condition, really, people start to talk to each other. Strangers on the street begin talking about the howling wind, about falling on the ice, about just how ridiculous everything is right now due to the extreme conditions. In these situations, we all have something in common, we’re all going through the same hardship. And so we bond.
And that’s what’s happening at this game. Around the 18th inning, third base umpire Bob Davidson turns around to a fan who’s been yelling funny comments at him, and puts his fingers up to his lips to shush the fan, then breaks into a big smile. He comes over to the stands and hands the fan a baseball after the third out.
Bruce Bochy joins in the act. He steps out of the dugout and starts chatting with a fan sitting above the dugout. When the players come in from the field, they start thanking the fans for staying. And our little group is now on a first-name basis with every other fan sitting within talking distance of us.
And when the 21st inning starts, we all start getting excited about singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame for the third time.
The game eventually ends after 22 innings, the longest game in Padres history. It is 1:21 in the morning. Willy Taveras, after his 10th at-bat of the game, scores the winning run for the Rockies after reaching base on a controversial call, and the game ends 2-1. But it didn’t really matter who won or lost. We had experienced something unique, something that almost never happens at a major league game. We got to see the game at a different level, at a more personal level with the players, with the managers, with the umpires, and with the other fans. And we felt more connected to them because of it. And so home we went, exhausted, but delighted with the experience.