It was about half past 10 on a warm September evening in Los Angeles when the faithless,literally turning their backs on their Dodgers, lit up the rolling hills of Chavez Ravine with the international symbol of baseball surrender: a cortege of red taillights, solemnly snaking into the dark of night while the home team played on. It was a Monday evening, which meant the fast approaching morning of school or work took priority, especially with L.A. trailing San Diego 9--5 and down to its last three outs.
The trouble with that thinking—mentally dividing four runs by three outs and coming up with zero chance—is an ignorance of one of the preternatural beauties of baseball. Unlike the finite quantity of time in most sports,sometimes parsed to tenths of seconds, outs are elastic. They don't abide by the comeback math of other sports.
What happened next on that Sept. 18 at Dodger Stadium will forever be invoked as a reason not only to go to a baseball game but also to remain until the final out.
Ask just about anyone who was there that night: from Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who left his box seat for the clubhouse as the bottom of the ninth began with victory apparently in hand, to the fan who, at the exact same time, was walking toward his car in the centerfield parking lot when a baseball landed in front of him, stopping him in his tracks. The shot, a home run hit by Jeff Kent, might well have come from Fort Sumter for all the mayhem it begat.
Beginning with that blast, the Dodgers, who hit the second-fewest homers in the National League in 2006, tied the game by hitting four straight home runs on four consecutive swings in a span of seven pitches. "You don't see that happen in batting practice," Los Angeles G.M. Ned Colletti says. Indeed, only three teams ever hit four straight homers (the 1961 Braves, '63 Indians and '64 Twins) but never to wipe out a deficit in any inning, much less the ninth.
The atmosphere at Dodger Stadium that night was electric from the start. The joint was packed with 55,831 fans, the most ever for a Monday night there, some lured by giveaway fleece blankets but most by an NL West race in which San Diego clung to a half-game lead over L.A. with 13 to play.
The first eight innings were charged enough. Padres starter Jake Peavy and Dodgers first base coach Mariano Duncan got into a shouting match, San Diego blew a 4-0 lead, Padres reliever Cla Meredith escaped a bases-loaded, no-out mess in the sixth with only four pitches, and L.A.'s Nomar Garciaparra whiffed to end the eighth with runners at second and third, Dodgers down 6--5. After San Diego added three runs in the ninth, the necklace of red taillights beyond centerfield quickly lengthened.
The 9--5 lead also prompted then Padres manager Bruce Bochy to order closer Trevor Hoffman to stop warming up. He instead brought in Jon Adkins. "I was doing everything I could not to use Trevor," Bochy says. "He had thrown the day before and had a little soreness in his shoulder." Adkins, who had allowed one home run in 51 2/3 innings, threw six pitches. Kent ripped the second, a fastball, and J.D. Drew hit the sixth, another fastball, for a homer to right center.
"By the time I got [to the clubhouse]," Towers recalls, "it was 9-7. Unbelievable.So I'm thinking, We're O.K. We've got Hoffy."
Hoffman had allowed two home runs all year and was three saves shy of the alltime career record. Towers, because of a superstition, does not watch Hoffman pitch. Hefinds bunkers under stadiums in which he cannot hear the crowd or see a TV,waiting for what he hopes is the sound of his happy team clattering back after a win.
Meanwhile, out on Stadium Way, the red taillights had turned into white head lamps. People were swinging U-turns and driving to a baseball game at 10:30 at night, work and school be damned.
Hoffman's first pitch to Russell Martin was a fastball. Martin walloped it into the leftfield stands. The roar reached all the way into a visiting clubhouse office, where a concerned Towers turned the TV to the game. "I saw the score change to 9-8 and one of their players circling the bases," Towers says. "I thought, We're still O.K."
With the Dodgers down 9-8, Marlon Anderson, already with four hits, stepped to the plate. Bochy grumbled in mock humor, "I hope we try something other than a fastball here." But Hoffman threw another fastball. Anderson smacked it into the rightfield seats to tie the game. "It's got to be only 10 seconds after the last one, and I can hear all the pounding and yelling going on again,"Towers says. "I'm thinking, What? A single? Maybe a double? I turn the channel. You've got to be kidding me!"
Dodger Stadium was refilling, and the fans were going berserk, a reaction that echoed through cyberspace. One blogger, following the game on mlb.com, reported with gleeful sarcasm, "GameDay seems to be broke. It keeps on saying every Dodger hitter is hitting a home run."
The Dodgers stretched the bounds of believability still further in the 10th, after the Padres had taken a 10-9 lead in the top of the inning. Journeyman righthander Rudy Seanez walked the first hitter, Kenny Lofton, then fell behind Garciaparra, 3 and 1. Not wanting to walk the tying run into scoring position, Seanez aimed for the fat of the strike zone. The pitch? A fastball.
Garciaparra hammered it so hard that before he even dropped his bat he punched the air with his right fist in celebration. Bochy immediately turned for the clubhouse, not bothering to watch the home run—L.A.'s fifth in a span of 11 swings against three pitchers—clear the leftfield wall for an 11--10 Dodgers win.
When he got to the clubhouse, Bochy was alarmed to see an ashen Towers. "You look like your dog just died," the manager said. "The last thing these players need is to see you looking like that right now." Towers knew Bochy was right and did the best he could to muster some cool. The ever smooth Hoffman immediately detached himself from the horror and found the right note, telling reporters, "That's why you come. You never know what you're going to see."
In the other clubhouse the Dodgers were childish in their euphoria. "The most celebration you'll ever see short of winning a playoff spot or series,"Colletti says.
Garciaparra hit his home run at 2:05 a.m. Eastern time, with most of the country asleep. It didn't change the course of the season. Both teams finished atop the NL West at 88-74 and, thanks to the wild card, both made the playoffs. Yet the game was one of the most powerful reminders this side of October of why baseball gives the most breadth to possibility.