The win-expectancy graph tells the story as well as anything—a series of jagged back-and-forths, dipping and lurching over the course of a tense few hours, before a spectacular rise at the last second to a final place of clarity. It looks bonkers. The typical metaphor for these graphs is a roller coaster, but if this one had been a roller coaster, it would have killed you. It suggests, accurately, the scale of the bottom of the ninth of Game 4 of the 2020 World Series.
The graph accurately communicates the scale. But it does not convey the experience. So here is all that the graph is missing—here is how the universe sculpts the perfect baseball ending.
1) Set It Up
Stuff it with drama. The game is a must-win for the Rays, down 2-1 in the series, and they fall behind in the first inning. Let it putter along until the fifth, where you start to crank the dial labeled insanity, with twists and turns and changing leads. By the time you get to the end of the night, everyone watching should be both exhausted and completely uninterested in even thinking about going to bed.
Give the Dodgers a one-run lead in the eighth. Get the dramatis personae perfectly aligned for the ninth: On the mound for the Dodgers will be Kenley Jansen, the veteran closer, a standby of all the playoff triumphs and failures for the franchise over the last decade. He’ll face the bottom of the lineup for the Rays … and, if just one of them can get on base, he’ll face the rookie-turned-October-God Randy Arozarena, too.
2) Make Everyone Think They Know Where It’s Headed
Obviously, one of them makes it on base. Obviously, Arozarena comes to the plate, with one on and two out. He’s a little more than an hour removed from setting the record for most home runs in a single postseason. He has spent the entire month demonstrating that the usual logic of probability and physics and baseball forecasts do not matter to him. He has been unstoppable. And now, he represents the winning run, with his team down by one, in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series.
3) ...Then Give It A Twist
Come on. The hero cannot be the one who has been the hero all month! That’s a great ending. But we’re here for the perfect ending. It will not come down to Randy Arozarena. (Instead, after all the questions about whether he should have just been intentionally walked, Jansen will walk him anyway, in a fraught, seven-pitch at-bat.) No, we’re here to see it all come down to the next guy, Brett Phillips—a guy who was left off the roster entirely for the ALCS, a guy known primarily for his cutesy cheers from the bench, a guy who’s only in this game at all because he was needed to pinch run. That’s who you want at the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth for the perfect ending.
4) Two Strikes
There have to be two strikes. (In this case, two called strikes, which is even better.)
5) Make It All Uncertain
When Phillips makes contact, the ball looks as if it could be catchable, or it could not be, and it could score one run, or two, or possibly none at all. It’s in the air for only a few seconds—it’s just shallow right field—but that is time enough for the future to go kaleidoscopic, ashimmer with all those possibilities, a million dreams and nightmares. Then it snaps.
6) Total Chaos
Make it so that there is too much to watch at once. After the agonizing dramatic tension of the last two at-bats—real taut, hyper-focused, slow-burn affairs, where you had to live and die with every individual pitch—give the people so much that they cannot take it all in at once. There is an error by the outfielder, Chris Taylor, and there is something happening on the base paths. One run has scored to tie. A second run to win is … coming? The location of the ball is unclear. The catcher is covering the plate, but where is the ball, where why how what who when: no question is enough.
7) Someone Needs To Fall Down
There are plenty of reasons to watch sports, but, in the end, there are two: You watch for the chance to see divine feats of athleticism and for the chance to see someone fall down.
Randy Arozarena fell down. Randy Arozarena—on the biggest run of his baseball life, halfway to home plate, straight in the face of history—fell down.
He did not just trip. He somersaulted. It was like a cartoon, like slapstick, like a bad dream.
He got back up. He scored.
Which, of course, was the perfect ending.