Plenty of other years, Derek Jeter smashing a ball over the fence for a Richter Scale-jarring 3,000th hit would find itself among the five biggest stories in baseball. Same with two of the sport's greatest players finding closure in their steroid trials, a rash of bone-crushing collisions at home plate and a pitcher winning the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards.
If the ramifications from the new collective-bargaining agreement are as widespread as executives believe, perhaps we'll look back on it as a seminal moment. Not yet, though. Ditto for Jerry Meals' blown call at the end of a 19-inning game that helped prompt an overhaul in replay.
No, cracking the top 5 stories in baseball for 2011 took something bigger – a confluence of emotion-tickling, shock-delivering might. It took money and drugs and tragedy and history. It took a great year of the sport and reduced it to its essence. And so the countdown begins with a pair of fathers, one whose trip to the ballpark turned deadly, another who survived the unthinkable.
Here are the top five baseball stories of 2011:
5. The Tragedies
The pall surrounding the Los Angeles Dodgers permeated opening day. Normally joyous – especially with their bitter rivals and defending champions, the San Francisco Giants, coming to town – it bore instead the feeling of the first game in a slog of 162. Owner Frank McCourt would declare bankruptcy less than three months later. The team wasn't very good. And that day, what happened at Dodger Stadium frightened away enough fans that the Dodgers ended the year drawing 627,179 fewer than the previous year.
Bryan Stow, a San Francisco fan, arrived that day clad in a Giants jersey ready to cheer for his team. In a parking lot after the game, two Dodgers fans, Louie Sanchez and Marvin Norwood, allegedly beat Stow into a coma from which his family feared he'd never recover.
Today, miracle of miracles, he's talking, moving, eating, breathing – basic functions even doctors once figured impossible. He is alive. Changed, yes. Maybe forever. But still a father for his two children.
Cooper Stone misses his dad. He was named Shannon Stone, and he was a lieutenant in the Brownwood, Texas, fire department. He took Cooper to a Texas Rangers game in July. They sat in left field, near Cooper's favorite player, Josh Hamilton. Shannon yelled at Hamilton and asked for a ball. Hamilton threw him one. Shannon reached over the rail and lost his balance. He fell 20 feet and died. He was 39. Cooper was 6.
Stone's friends and family still struggle without him. He was a good man – loyal and kind and willing to give up his life to save others. That he endured more than a decade in an eminently dangerous job and left a wife and son behind because of a baseball touched the country. Everyone wanted to rewind life and urge Hamilton to throw the ball harder or Stone not to lean so far.
Only we can't. Baseball took Shannon Stone away from his son. It almost stole Bryan Stow from his kids. The game can be cruel. Never so much as it was this year with two dads.
Perhaps this time next year, Ryan Braun will be on this list for becoming the first player to beat Major League Baseball in arbitration and overturn a positive drug test. Until then, he's the first sitting award winner – Braun was the 2011 National League MVP – to get popped for alleged performance-enhancing-drug use.
Braun's elevated testosterone level triggered a second test of his urine sample, which confirmed synthetic testosterone in his body. Exactly how attorney David Cornwell plans to attack Braun's case will be the most interesting part of the machinations to exonerate the 28-year-old. No pending case previously had leaked during its initial stages, and seeing the sort of information that comes out as it proceeds could give an idea of where the result may go.
Until then, the debate goes on about stripping Braun's MVP (stupid) and ridding PEDs from baseball (impossible). No matter the technology, no matter the will, the sport never can win because it tries to conduct itself within reason, while athletes cannot, will not and do not. To expect decades of behavior to disappear because of rules that aren't nearly stringent enough is a dream – an ugly, bad one that may have snagged itself an MVP.
3. Pujols leads contract-palooza
Everybody is going to remember Albert Pujols' 10-year, $254 million, what-the-hell-were-they-thinking boondoggle from the Los Angeles Angels because, well, a 41-year-old Pujols limping around like a geezer seems somewhere between certain and definite.
And yet it wasn't just Pujols who got paid at the winter meetings where baseball clubs lost their minds, which, come to think of it, oughta be renamed annually the Winter Meetings: Where Baseball Clubs Lose Their Minds. The Angels also gave C.J. Wilson a five-year, $77.5 million deal, and the Florida Marlins spent nearly as much in a week as they had in almost a decade, and … wait. The Angels and Marlins? What happened to the Yankees or the Red Sox?
The fact that all of this went down – the profligate spending without the Yankees or Red Sox bidding heavily for the vast majority of free agents – dominated baseball chatter during one of the most interesting times of year: the hot stove season, where ridiculousness often cedes to rumor.
Not here. Pujols left St. Louis for $44 million more than the Cardinals, the only team he knew, offered him. They burned his jersey and called him a traitor and will slather him in boos when the Angels come to St. Louis one of these days. It won't be this year, not unless both teams make the World Series, in which case they can try to improve upon one of the best nights in postseason history – and almost certainly fail.
2. The Game
They were down to one pitch – three times. Even now, a couple months later, that feels wrong. The Texas Rangers threw 23,482 pitches during the regular season and 2,723 more during the postseason. That's more than 26,000 pitches. All they needed was one more swing and miss in Game 6 of the World Series to win their first championship.
The first of the three jumped off David Freese's bat and past Nelson Cruz's outstretched glove, one forever to be cursed by Texans. The next slipped by Lance Berkman just inside, a coulda-been strike. The final one jumped off Berkman's bat and landed in center field.
In baseball, you get three strikes before you're out. The Rangers struck out on their strikes. And thus came the thunderbolt: Freese's home run later that won Game 6, the incredible apex of the St. Louis Cardinals, those never-die zombies. It was better, frankly, than the next night, which was nice and all since they won their 11th championship, but nothing compared to what had happened in Game 6.
The World Series this year had been compelling because of close scores and managerial boners and pretty decent baseball. But this. Neither soothsayer nor deity could've called this one.
It compelled people to call it the greatest game ever. Probably not, but there's an argument to be made for it. And knowing the backdrop – that Tony La Russa, one of the all-time great managers, planned on retiring win or lose, and that Pujols would chase his $254 million to the Pacific Ocean – maybe, in hindsight, it will be seen as such, not just for the action but the context.
To beat that, then, takes quite the marvel. Maybe a slate full of games without quite the implications but with every bit the drama.
Nobody can muster an argument that the Night of 162 wasn't the best single evening of baseball ever played. There simply is no better. The union of high stakes, great performances, epic comebacks and technology to tie it together in a neat, consumable package made Sept. 28, 2011, as friendly to a baseball fan as a hot dog at the park.
To imagine such a night would seem fanciful and fictitious. Two playoff spots at stake, the AL and NL wild cards. Two massive chokes nearing their nadirs, the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. Two surging underdogs happy to steal their booty, the Tampa Bay Rays and Cardinals. And one explosion of tools, from flat-screens to iPads to radios to Twitter, to consume all of it like a recovering addict.
Through our devices and interactions, we saw the Cardinals destroy Houston and the Braves get their hopes destroyed by Philadelphia, which had all of nothing to gain by winning, other than the pleasure of bouncing Atlanta. As the Braves' clubhouse came to terms with gagging an 8½-game lead, word filtered throughout that something had happened in the Red Sox game.
They'd lost. To the Baltimore Orioles, they'd wilted once again. They didn't deserve this playoff spot, of course, because their rotation was slacking off and their leaders didn't know how to lead and pretty much everyone ignored the manager who later would get shoved out of town. Had the Red Sox won that night, Terry Francona may still have his job. Hell, they may have won a World Series.
Instead, they're owners of the all-time blown-lead record, a nine-game scarlet number. The Tampa Bay Rays, made of no money and pluck, rode a two-out, two-strike, foul-pole-wrapping, game-tying home run by a man named Dan Johnson into extra innings. Soon thereafter, another Rays hitter, Evan Longoria, smashed another home run, this one to bury the Red Sox, to crown the Rays, to cap the madness.
Nothing else could've. It was the perfect end to the emotion-tickling, shock-delivering, perfect night of baseball.
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