BALTIMORE – His has been the uncertain life for so long that after 15 years Charlie Batch simply accepts it. Week after week he practices with the Pittsburgh Steelers, preparing to play quarterback, even though he knows the chance is likely to never come and he will spend the game wearing a cap, carrying a clipboard and celebrating somebody else's touchdowns.
Then he walks back to the locker room, sees the coach – a happy man with a congratulatory hand extended – and he never knows quite what to say.
Great job? For what? Wearing a cap and carrying a clipboard?
So on Sunday night, Charlie Batch wept. He turned away from the last-second field goal that gave the Steelers a 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, fell into the arms of injured Ben Roethlisberger and sobbed. He cried for the win. He cried for the chance. And he cried because he knows it will go away. But mostly he cried because he didn't want last week to be the final memory the NFL had of Charlie Batch.
You see, last week, he got to start a game. It was his first since the end of last season and it came in Cleveland, a place where the Steelers are expected to dominate. It was a game they needed to win. Instead they had eight turnovers. And even though those miscues weren't all his fault, they felt like they were.
"I was the one in charge of our eight turnovers, I took them personally," he said Sunday night as he stood in an empty Steelers locker room at M&T Bank Stadium.
Batch wasn't sure he would get another chance. Roethlisberger has injuries to his ribs and shoulder, and missed the Steelers' previous two games before Sunday. But Big Ben wanted to play in Baltimore, given the way Pittsburgh's season had fallen apart and the playoffs growing more unlikely. All week Roethlisberger worked to throw, pushing and pushing to play. Finally on Friday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told Batch that Roethlisberger wouldn't play.
Batch would have his last opportunity for redemption.
Sunday's victory was not a beautiful thing. Steelers-Ravens games never are. There were fights. There were cheap hits. Players shouted at each other. Tomlin seemed to stalk away from Baltimore coach John Harbaugh after the end-of-game handshake. And Batch was equally as imperfect. He was intercepted once. Another time he threw a pass over the head of a wide-open Mike Wallace in the end zone. He missed several other chances to push the Steelers downfield. Through much of the first half it looked as if the Ravens might blow out the Steelers.
Only they never did. And that says everything about the Steelers, Tomlin and Batch.
There is a resilience to Pittsburgh that is unique. In a league where wins often come because of sheer willpower, the Steelers manufacture victories when they seem most unlikely. Old stars have gone. Current ones like Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are worn down by years of the fight. On Sunday, the Steelers not only didn't have Roethlisberger, they maneuvered wide receivers around and juggled running backs hoping to find some dream formula. Somehow they found one.
"We persevered," Tomlin kept saying after the game.
Later, when asked about his defense that forced two turnovers, he said: "I appreciate the fact they didn't let go of the rope."
But Charlie Batch won this game for Pittsburgh. He won it the way Roethlisberger has won so many in the past: moving methodically, creating splendor from chaos. There was 6:14 left in the game when the Steelers got the ball on their own 15-yard line in a game tied, 20-20. They never gave it back.
"You put your heart and soul into it," he later said. "You try to leave everything out on the field."
Yes, he wept when kicker Shaun Suisham's field goal rose into the foggy night and dropped through the goalposts. What else could he do?
Last Monday he sat for hours at the Steelers' practice facility watching the tape of the eight-turnover game and a sick feeling grew in his stomach. All those days practicing for games he would never play and this is what he did with the one Pittsburgh desperately needed? How that memory of Cleveland burned inside.
"You want to prove that last week was a fluke," he said.
Next week he probably won't play. By the weekend, Roethlisberger's ribs and shoulders will be healed and Batch will practice but not play. He's started only nine games since the Lions released him in 2001. In 2002, 2004 and 2008 he didn't get in one game, not even for one pass. No statistical line exists for him in those seasons. It's like he was never there.
The Steelers knew. Players have come to trust him as a leader, as a reason to fight. He's been their union representative, a player-coach, someone who has been around long enough to have an answer for every situation that could possibly arise.
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And also, it seems, a way to win the game they absolutely needed.
So Sunday night, with the victory complete and the playoffs a reality again in this 7-5 season, Batch was one of the last Steelers to walk into the tunnel beneath the stadium. There outside the locker room stood Tomlin with a smile on his face and his hand outstretched just as he had all those wins when Batch never played.
"Good to see you got a trick or two left in you!" Tomlin shouted.
And for once Charlie Batch could smile back and say: "Yes."
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