One Wild Night: Reflections Upon the Wild Card Eve of 2011

By John H. Ritter

Oh, what a night.

Late September back in oh-one-one (the song will go), what a day and what a night.

How many of us die-hard baseball fans can recall a day more baseball-packed than Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, when four teams went into four different games, tied for the chance to be the Wild Card in their respective leagues? By the early morning hours of Sept. 29, however, only two teams remained. There would be no ties, no Wild Card playoff games. The issue was settled. But it was all done by magic.

And in Boston they will tell you, it was black magic. This, of course, is a town whose populace retains a sharp knowledge of the curséd crafts. Remember Salem? What about the Curse of the Bambino? Is it possible that the fates have delivered yet another Red Sox curse?

Well, first of all, full disclosure. I just released a novel, Fenway Fever,predicated upon the belief, held by one quirky Red Sox

Boston Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez walks off the field as the Baltimore Orioles celebrate the Sept. 28 victory that helped cause the Sox to miss the playoffs.

Boston Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez walks off the field as the Baltimore Orioles celebrate the Sept. 28 victory that helped cause the Sox to miss the playoffs. (Washington Post photo)

pitcher, that his ballclub has been cursed again. But how could I have known, as I submitted that final draft to my editor, Michael Green, at Penguin, on Aug. 31, 2011 — with the Red Sox in first, 1.5 games in front of the Yankees — what the fates had in store for me or the Sox?

“Are you sure about this premise?” Green had once asked me. “You know the Red Sox are picked to win the 2011 World Series. If that happens…”

“It’s fiction,” I replied, in all innocence.

Little did I know how close I would come to having the book cancelled, as the 2011 Sox grew stronger during the summer. He then reminded me of the 2005 movie Fever Pitch which was, like my novel, dependent upon a non-World Championship year for Boston before release. Fever Pitch had to have its ending reshot when the Sox unexpectantly broke the Curse in 2004. I, too, had several rewrite scenarios in hand, hoping to save the book, if the first-place Red Sox actually won the Series.

The story premise of Fenway Fever is built upon a character named Billee “Spacebird” Orbitt (a composite of Bill “Spaceman” Lee, the eccentric, outspoken Red Sox ace of the ’70s, and quirky, Worcester-born phenom Mark “The Bird” Fidrych) who firmly believes a new Fenway curse is afoot. This one, claims Orbitt, was caused by a very real event in April 2008. After a hawk attacked a 13-year-old girl touring Fenway Park, Animal Rescue removed the hawk’s nest, as well as the egg within it. According to Orbitt, that moment caused the “butterfly effect”— or rather, a red-tailed hawk effect—to come into play, leading not only to the devastating “September Slide” of 2011, but the last place start of 2012. According to Fenway Fever, that is.

How did I know it would actually happen?

Well, the last day of the 2011 season should have tipped me off.

Let’s go back to that night, first to the Cinderella Cardinals of St. Louis, one of the Wild Card Four. They simply won their game, beating the Astros 8-0. But they had to wait and see what the Atlanta Braves did versus Philadelphia. A Braves’ victory would mean a playoff tomorrow, Braves v. Cards, to determine the National League Wild Card team. And the Braves were winning … until the ninth, when the Phillies, who were already assured a spot in the post season, tied it up, 3-3. The Braves, however, may be cursed as well. This one would go 13 innings, and the Phillies would prevail.

Meanwhile down in Tampa-St. Pete, the New York Yankees, who had also clinched a spot in the postseason, were busy dispatching the upstart Tampa Bay Rays and doing the Boston Red Sox — of all teams! — a big favor by beating the Beantowner’s only impediment to the postseason, and doing it so neatly, so completely, leading 7-0, in the seventh inning. OK, but hold that thought—for this one was far from over.

At the same time up in Baltimore, the Red Sox were leading the Orioles 3-2 in the seventh. Freeze both of those scores, in Tampa and Baltimore, and the Red Sox would not only avoid a playoff game versus the Rays tomorrow, but could waltz into the playoffs as the American League Wild Card.

Ah, but then it began to rain in Maryland. The Sox v. O’s game would freeze all right, for over an hour. But the Yanks and Rays would continue to play.

Imagine now, as I did, the entire Boston ballclub gathered in the visitors’ clubhouse at Camden Yards watching the NY-Tampa game on television, confident of their prospects, as the Rays enter the eighth inning down seven runs—and proceed to load the bases. They even score a run. Then two. Then three. A little late for a comeback, but with two outs, they are climbing back into the game. I can see David “Big Papi” Ortiz elbowing Jacoby Ellsbury, saying, “Hey, kid, No problema,” and giving him a wink.

That would be right about the time Evan Longoria steps up and belts a three-run homer.

The Rays score six runs in the eighth and now trail only 7-6. The Sox are still watching … and hoping and praying … all the way to the bottom of the ninth, where it’s two outs, two strikes on the batter, Dan Johnson, the Rays’ last chance. But, by pure “coincidence,” this is the same guy who has already blasted two game-changing, season-altering home runs vs. the Sox, one in 2008 and one in 2010. The Red Sox hold their breath as Yankee reliever, Scott Proctor, faces Johnson and delivers a 95-mph fastball. And Johnson yanks it down the line, where it just barely clears the fence! Tie game, 7-7 after nine full innings. OK, hold that thought too. For this one will go 12.

Meantime, the rain stops in Baltimore. The Sox retake the field and get through the seventh and the eighth, still ahead by one. In the ninth, they put runners on first and third, no outs, with Big Papi and Adrian Gonzalez coming to bat … and they fail to score.

The whole time I’m thinking, this is too weird. Forget the World Series—what if the Curse in my book really comes true?

But no sweat. No curse. Sox are still ahead. And in the bottom of the ninth, their ace closer, Jonathan Papalbon, strikes out the first two batters he faces. So far, so good. Then bang, a Chris Davis double puts the tying run on second. Still no worries, as Pap gets two strikes on the next Oriole hitter, Nolan Reimold. He bears down and hurls a 96-mph four-seamer. Ah, but it is not enough. Bang again, another double. The O’s have tied the game, 3-3.

OK, Papal-visit blows the save, but keep in mind he has not lost a game all season. And that record holds all the way until the next batter — proven Red Sox thorn, Robert Andino — singles, driving in the runner on second. Game over. Orioles win, 4-3.

Curse on?

Maybe not, maybe not. Down in Florida, the Yankees can still beat the Rays, which would force a Red Sox v. Rays playoff game tomorrow (now today, since it’s after midnight) for the AL Wild Card berth.

Back again, the Red Sox slog into the visitors’ clubhouse. The TV has the Rays game on, but not everyone is watching. Not everyone is even inside yet. For within three minutes, that game, in the bottom of the 12th, becomes history too. On a one-out, bases empty, two-and-two count, Evan Longballia goes long again, as he delivers the final blow to the Red Sox season—a shot heard ’round the Whirled Series of Wild Cards on this fateful night! The Rays win, 4-3. They will go to the playoffs. The Red Sox will go home.

I sit stunned.

When the month of September started, the Red Sox led the Wild Card standings by nine games. However, after winning a double header on Aug.27, the Sox did not win two games in a row the rest of the season. In September, they lost 20 out of 27 games. No playoff contender in history had ever fallen so far in the season’s final month.

The next morning:

@MichaelGreen: Were you watching?

@JHR: Glued. Book on? As is?

@MichaelGreen: Actually, might have to pump up the Curse talk a bit…

Oh, what a night.
John H. Ritter is the author of six award-winning baseball novels, including The Boy Who Saved Baseball (Penguin, 2003), winner of the 2004 Paterson Prize for Fiction, and Choosing Up Sides  (Penguin, 1998), winner of the International Reading Association’s Book of the Year award. His most recent novel, the prophetic Fenway Fever (Penguin, 2012) is a Library Guild selection for 2012. A lifelong baseball player and fan, Ritter now lives and writes where his grandson plays, on the island of Kauai. Website:  Wiki Bio: wiki/John_H._Ritter.




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One Comment

  1. Marvin Ferguson

    July 15, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    My local library called me yesterday to inform me that my request for a copy of Fenway Fever was in. So I rushed to get my copy and am already in chapter three. A great book and I can’t stop reading it. Yes, the bullies are delicious just reading about them.

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