I got to work this morning with an e-mail from my dad waiting for me, telling me that maybe last night's game was just one game, but that everyone that watched it last night is cranky this morning and that it's a game that nobody will forget anytime soon. He talked about the time Matt Alou dropped a similar fly ball 40+ years ago and how he's never forgotten it. He also reminded me of the time that I was pitching in a game in the 9-10 year-old league and our first baseman dropped a pop-up and because I was a nine-year old asshole, I stormed off the mound, yelled at him, and got ejected from the game and suspended from the next one from my mortified father/manager. The point being, of course, that Andrew McCutchen feels that way about Starling Marte today, even if he was able to slap him on the back and laugh with him about how weird baseball is after dramatically calling him off to make a routine catch in extra innings last night.
My dad is absolutely correct about these things. Everyone that watched that game last night will talk for 50 years about Starling Marte's dropped pop-up and how it cost the Pirates a game. There won't be much context to it and we won't talk about it with any malice at all, but when we teach our Little League age kids and grandkids to catch fly balls, we'll mention Starling Marte's dropped pop-up as a cautionary tale to use two hands, or we'll use it to console them when they do inevitably drop their own cans of corn. We'll think about it the next time a fly ball cuts through the night sky in our general direction during our softball or baseball games.
As terrible as that game was last night, it's important not to forget why it was terrible. The reason that that game is now burned into the collective memory of Pirate fans from now until two generations from now is because that game mattered and we all watched it. The Pirates have had countless terrible losses over the 20 years that preceded this one, and quite a few of them were as weird and infuriating as last night's. The details of many of those losses have slowly eroded over time, because they happened on hot summer nights when Pirate fans were doing anything other than watching the Pirates plod their way towards another losing season. My only specific memory of Homer Bailey's no hitter is that I watched absolutely none of it and spent zero time feeling bad about it. I know the Pirates have lost scores of games on silly errors and baserunning gaffes and dumb mental mistakes, but I'm struggling to remember many of the details right now.
I'm not trying to be all "gollygeewhiz the Pirates are playing important baseball and that sure is great even if they do dumb things," because no one has time for bullshit like that this morning. My point is just that this is a byproduct of important baseball games that happen in the last quarter of the season. If Starling Marte had caught that can of corn and the Pirates had won 3-2, guess what? Last night's game would still be a memorable one in a good way for Pirate fans and in a bad way for Cardinal fans because of Neil Walker's crazy shift-catch of Matt Adams' line drive in the bottom of the eight. The bottom of the eighth inning last night was a tense, heart-pounding sequence that ended in borderline unbelievable fashion and for about 15 minutes, it seemed emblematic of all of the good things about this Pirate season and not a manifestation of all of our deepest fears. One fly ball later, and everything had turned on its ear. It all would've turned on its ear again if Andrew McCutchen had been running on contact in the 11th inning, because he probably would've scored when Pete Kozma bobbled that ground ball. And if Russell Martin's sweep-tag on on Starling Marte's incredible throw in the 14th last night had nipped Jon Jay and the Pirates had gone on to win? Well, my goodness, we'd have a narrative on our hands this morning.
We don't have any of those things, of course. The beauty of baseball is the weird randomness and unpredictability that decides individual games that all get somehow baked together to form a season full of interpretable patterns. The infuriating and exciting part of it is the way that those patterns can get tossed aside in favor of the randomness and unpredictablity once the pennant races kick in and then the playoffs start. Last night, we Pirate fans got the short end of that stick. It's mid-August, though, and the Pirates are still in first place. They're firmly rooted in what appears to be a three-team race to avoid the one-game wild card and they've got plenty of games left against the other two teams in the race. There's plenty of time for the ball to bounce back in their direction in an equal and opposite way.