In baseball, no scenario is more dramatic: bottom of the ninth, Game 7 of the World Series, down by one.
It's a playground mantra for every kid who fantasizes about playing in the big leagues. And as he narrates the imagined scene, pointing his bat with emulated bravado, he's either wearing the Yankee pinstripes or facing them down. See, this fantasy is about the ultimate pressure, about being and beating the best when it counts the most.
"It's like being in an essay contest with Hemingway - or in a painting contest with Picasso," said the Arizona Diamondbacks' ace pitcher, Curt Schilling, about playing the 26-time champion Yankees.
This time, in the most emotional World Series in modern history, it was the batter facing down the storied pinstripes that won the ultimate baseball contest. The Diamondbacks' Luis Gonzalez fulfilled the playground scenario - not with a homer, but with a bloop single to left center field off the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, the most feared and dominating closing pitcher in the game today.
The hit came as a jolt to the Yankees' haters and fans, both of whom have come to expect their post-season dominance. There was also a sentiment this fall that Yankee greatness somehow embodied New York, that another ticker-tape parade down the "canyon of heroes" - a stretch of Broadway near the World Trade Center ruins - would demonstrate the city's strength and resiliency.
Of course, it was just another fantasy, a sentimental dream that had as much to do with reality as a kid's guttural rasping has to the sounds of a real stadium crowd. Yet these emotions and fantasies are precisely what sports brings to culture. The pleasure of watching a team win in dramatic fashion, or even just perform valiantly in defeat, can bring fans a diversion from the sometimes hard realities of everyday life.
The unprecedented drama of this year's World Series, then, was made only more acute by Sept. 11. "There's a level of emotion that's just on the edge for many people," said Peter Levine, a baseball historian. "And it doesn't take much to ignite it, to have it pour out. And it's all displacement for what's really happening - that's the vulnerability [New Yorkers feel]."
Throughout the post season, the Yankees played out scenarios of vulnerability followed by remarkable and resilient comebacks. In the first-round series, they lost the first two games at home to the Oakland Athletics. On the brink of being knocked out of the playoffs without a single win, they won the next three games, sparked in part by a near-miraculous flip to the plate by shortstop Derek Jeter, saving a run that might have ended their season. Then they faced the Seattle Mariners, who had set a single-season record for wins. Yet it only took the Yankees five games to dispatch Seattle. During the clinching game, the crowd erupted into what many say was the most emotional display ever seen in Yankee Stadium.
But the most improbable scenarios took place in the World Series. Completely shut down in Games 1 and 2 by the Diamondbacks' two 20-game winners, the Yankees won Game 3, setting the stage for two of the most emotional comebacks in series history. Down by two runs in the bottom of the ninth in both Games 4 and 5 - akin to the playground scenario - the Yankees smacked dramatic game-tying home runs when only one out away from defeat. They won both games in extra innings.
The talk of baseball after they went up 3-2 in the series was the Yankee aura of winning that made another title seem inevitable. But in the end, the Diamondbacks had the greatest comeback of all. Never has a team had to pick themselves up after two such devastating, emotionally draining defeats. In the end, the Diamondbacks proved more resilient.
Consider this: The Yankees had won 11 straight series, and were 10 and 0 in one-run games under manager Joe Torre since 1997. But, more than that, Yankee closer Rivera had been untouchable since 1998, running off 23 straight saves.
Despite the Yankee mystique, the Diamondbacks prevailed, led by two of baseball's best pitchers, Schilling and Randy Johnson, and Luis Gonzalez, who hit 57 home runs this season. Responding to such crushing defeats in Yankee Stadium, they came back to demolish the Bombers 15-2 in Game 6 and then win, in playground fashion, after trailing by two in the ninth and facing the indomitable Rivera.
"It probably couldn't have finished in a more dramatic fashion," said Luis Gonzalez after his series-winning single.
"Us being down by one run in the ninth inning, it couldn't have been scripted any better for our ball club. I mean, the way our team was relentless all year, battling, fighting tooth and nail.... It was storybook ending for our team from front to back."