ATLANTA -- You can talk all you want about marketing and promoting stars and tinkering with the playoff format and instant replay and television ratings, but when you get right down to it, baseball, like a force of nature, is most powerful when it is beyond control. The game rises organically above the noise and complaints. And the Division Series staged by the Giants and the Braves was baseball at its unscripted best.
San Francisco and Atlanta did baseball proud, in their competition and their sportsmanship. The Giants and Braves constructed four one-run classics in a row -- at one time six leads were wiped out in a span of 20 innings -- leaving everything to doubt. The narrative gave us 14 punchouts in a 1-0 duel by Tim Lincecum, the game-winning homer by Rick Ankiel, the joy from the Eric Hinske pinch hit home run punctured in a matter of minutes by another Brooks Conrad error, and finally, the managerial career of Bobby Cox ending with the tying and winning runs on base. It was the theater of baseball at its edge-of-the-seat best.
It was even more than that. The defensive troubles of Conrad were heart-wrenching, especially among his fraternity of brothers who try their best under the unblinking floodlights and cameras every night. They knew it could be any one of them. They saw a brother drowning in a sea of pain and embarrassment.
"We love Brooks Conrad," Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said, "and we love him even more now."
And if you stood behind the batting cage before Game 4, you even saw members of the Giants, such as outfielder Pat Burrell, who was released by Tampa Bay this year, giving encouragement to Conrad. And you heard Braves fans greet his pinch-hitting appearance with noise that was so heartfelt they were trying their best to will a hit out of his at-bat.
And finally, after the last out, those boisterous fans in Atlanta, just minutes upon seeing their season end, chanted, "Bob-by, Bob-by," and their beloved manager popped out of the dugout one last time to thank them as much as they were thanking him.
The Giants, who advanced to play for the pennant for the first time in eight years, immediately stopped their celebration on the field and turned to Cox and applauded. No one planned the moment. It was genuinely good.
And so think about the highest points of this baseball season: the wry smile without protest by Armando Galarraga after a blown call cost him a perfect game; the perfect game by Dallas Braden on Mother's Day with his grandmother in the stands and his mom in his heart; the no-hitter by Roy Halladay upon reaching the postseason for the first time at age 33; and now four superb games of baseball capped by a salute to one of the greatest managers ever.
For too many years baseball has provided us with reasons to doubt. And there is always risk in believing again in something that broke the bonds of trust. But if you look for reasons to believe in baseball, they are there. The game keeps giving.
Bobby Cox broke down when he tried to address his team after the game and he broke down when he spoke to the media in the postgame interview room. I walked with Cox from that room to his office through back hallways underneath Turner Field. He stopped at one point to sign and autograph and talk to a group of youngsters.
"Are you with the umpires?" he asked them.
"Yes," one of them replied.
"Great people," Cox said. "They're great people."
Cox always was a great credit to the game, a humble man who loves baseball and the men that give their best to it. And so when the end came to his managerial career, it was fitting that it came with Cox putting his faith in his players.
Never known as the brilliant strategist or stern taskmaster, Cox forged a Hall of Fame career by understanding and especially supporting his players. It was no different in the seventh inning of Game 4.
Cox should have pulled Derek Lowe with a 2-1 lead, two runners on and one out. But he was a player's guy to the end. Lowe convinced him he could get a groundball, so Cox left him in with 96 pitches. Lowe could not even throw another strike. Cox went to his bullpen belatedly with the bases loaded, and one groundball and a single later, he was losing, 3-2. It was the best way for it to end for Cox.
"The highlight of my career," closer Billy Wagner said, "was being a Brave and playing for Bobby Cox."
Cox did well to squeeze 91 wins out of this Braves team as well as a very competitive division series, something the Twins and Reds have no business claiming. Cox did so with an undermanned roster.
The last lethal blow to the Braves' chances was the injury to infielder Martin Prado, which forced Conrad into a starting role and .138 hitting Diory Hernandez onto the roster. Atlanta could have played the Giants 10 times in a best of five and lost all 10 -- but it would have made San Francisco sweat for every win.
Conrad deserves better than the lasting images of his glovework in this series. He is the only rookie to hit two pinch-hit grand slams in the same season. He logged more than 1,000 minor league games while playing every position but pitcher and center field just to become a 30-year-old big league rookie.
It's clear that teammates care deeply about him, as well as that he is a standup guy. Conrad stood at his locker and answered questions in each of the past two days. On Sunday he said he wished he could "dig a hole and sleep in it." Yesterday he broke down emotionally when trying to make sense of what had happened to him and, by extension, to the final days of Cox's career. He grew so emotional he could no longer speak. And if you're heart didn't ache just a little bit for Conrad and the history that will follow him, you don't care about people, nevermind baseball.
Here's one more legacy of Cox's contribution to baseball: he got beat in his final game by a team using a battery of rookies who grew up rooting for his Braves. The growth of youth baseball in Georgia and the Deep South is an offshoot of the 14 straight years Cox and the Braves won division titles. Among the thousands of young fans tuned into the game and the Braves were Buster Posey of Leesburg, Ga., and Madison Bumgarner of Hickory, N.C.
There are Poseys and Bumgarners all over the South. Posey was born in 1987 and Bumgarner in 1989. They fell in love with baseball when the Braves were the team of the '90s.
In Game 4, there was Posey behind the plate and Bumgarner on the mound sending Cox home to retirement. Bumgarner, who grew up a fan of Tom Glavine, allowed two runs over six innings while become the second youngest starting pitcher to win the clinching game of a series. The list looks like this:
Finally, we are lucky enough to get another beautiful unscripted moment this postseason: Roy Halladay pitches against Tim Lincecum Saturday night in Philadelphia in Game 1 of the NLCS. Their combined pitching line from their NLDS starts looks like this: 18 innings, two hits, no runs, two walks, 22 strikeouts. Yikes.
It is the first matchup of Cy Young winners since CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee met in Game 1 of the World Series last year -- one of only six all-Cy matchups in World Series history. But this is even bigger, given Lincecum's multiple Cys and the brilliance of their NLDS starts.
I dare think it's one of the best pitching matchups of the wild card era. Here's one list of the 10 best postseason pitching matchups since 1995:
1. 2001 World Series Game 7 Roger Clemens vs. Curt Schilling
2. 2003 ALCS Game 7 Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens
3. 2010 NLCS Game 1 Tim Lincecum vs. Roy Halladay
4. 1999 ALCS Game 3 Roger Clemens vs. Pedro Martinez
5. 1998 World Series Game 4 John Smoltz vs. Roger Clemens
6. 1996 World Series Game 3 David Cone vs. Tom Glavine
7. 1998 NLDS Game 3 Kerry Wood vs. Greg Maddux
8. 1997 ALDS Game 1 Mike Mussina vs. Randy Johnson
9. 2009 World Series Game 1 Cliff Lee vs. CC Sabathia
10. 2004 ALDS Game 1 Johan Santana vs. Mike Mussina