Friday, September 30, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Watching baseball fans from a distance is a fun sport also

No sport delivers better TV fan shots than baseball. You know the ones. Not the ones of fans cheering and jumping and falling all over each other, although those are great too.

The moments right before that. The anticipative shots. The looks of fear, hope, pain, dread. The little kids covering their eyes. The old men clasping their hands in front of them as if they're engaged in a prayer (some probably are). The wives hanging onto their husbands for strength, and vise versa.

It never gets old. The message is as timeless as the game itself: Something's about to happen here, and we care way more about it than we probably should.

No sport flips the emotional switch quite the way baseball does, either. Try to film those anticipative fan shots in July, and you'll end up with riveting footage of a guy eating nachos while his buddy gabs on a cell phone. So many games, so many innings. The consequences just aren't big enough - until all of a sudden, they are.

The anticipative fan shots in Baltimore late in Wednesday night's Orioles-Red Sox game were some of the best I've ever seen. The venue had a lot to do with that. Oriole Park at Camden Yards has long been one of the safest havens for Sox fans. They come by the thousands, start chants like it was Boston's actual home field - Fenway Park, and typically leave happy, celebrating another easy win over the woeful O's.

But there are Orioles fans there, too. Not many, but some. And they were in full "protect this house" mode Wednesday as the Red Sox were one out away from keeping their season alive.

The crowd was announced at just under 30,000. An 86-minute rain delay had thinned the herd to only the biggest diehards. And there you had it, the rarest of the rare: The full spectrum of anticipative fan shots. Two locked-in factions in one stadium - one hoping to avoid the greatest September collapse in baseball history, the other pulling like crazy for a little bygone magic from the 68-win home team.

You know what happened by now. The Orioles rallied with two doubles and a single against one of the best closers in the game, and Baltimore celebrated like it was 1983.

Then, three minutes later, Evan Longoria hit his walk-off homer in Tampa Bay, clinching the AL wildcard. And then the Braves saw their final rally fizzle against the Phillies in the 13th inning, giving the Cardinals the final NL playoff spot.

It was one of the most thrilling, tension-filled nights in the history of baseball. As former Salem Avalanche and current Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist told the St.Petersburg Times: "There is no human explanation for what happened here."

And the best part? The postseason hadn't even started yet.

That opens today, with the Rays playing in Texas and Tigers playing at the Yankees. I can't wait to see Justin Verlander against that Yankees lineup. I can't wait to see if former Pulaski Rangers (now Blue Jays) pitcher C.J. Wilson can take that next step and become the ace of a World Series team. I can't wait to see whether the forgotten Cardinals can make a run, whether Joe Maddon can pull another low-budget rabbit out of his cap, whether Ryan Braun can cement himself as the best player of the game.

Most of all, though? I can't wait for the fan shots.

Baseball doesn't reward people for caring. If it did, the Cardinals, Red Sox and Cubs would win the World Series every year. Giants fans packed their stadium and created an unbelievable atmosphere all season long; their team didn't make it, either.

No, there's no reward for caring. But there is one for watching.

Every year, it seems, there is one for watching.

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