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
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
And if you stood behind the batting cage before Game 4, you even saw members of the Giants, such as outfielder
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
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
"The highlight of my career," closer
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
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
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
Finally, we are lucky enough to get another beautiful unscripted moment this postseason:
It is the first matchup of Cy Young winners since
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
2. 2003 ALCS Game 7
3. 2010 NLCS Game 1
4. 1999 ALCS Game 3
5. 1998 World Series Game 4
6. 1996 World Series Game 3
7. 1998 NLDS Game 3
8. 1997 ALDS Game 1
9. 2009 World Series Game 1
10. 2004 ALDS Game 1