I grew up with baseball. My ex-wife said she married into it. And the first World Series game I ever saw, and so far the last, was on my son’s first birthday with him sitting on my lap. I witnessed a team sweep over my beloved Padres, watched them celebrate, and then rejoiced as my own team broke convention and flooded back to the field to celebrate their own incredible journey with the fans who had accompanied them on it.
The details of the game itself are buried in me. I know them, but it is almost as though they happened to someone else. The emotions of the time are a different story. Some of them are joyful, some bittersweet and there are even a couple that pulse like raw wounds. I desperately wanted the Yankees to lose that game, despite the fact that watching them win it would be owning a share of baseball history. I felt then, and feel now, like I already have been lucky in that regard.
Andy Petite started for the Yankees, facing off against Kevin Brown in his only Padre season. Petite cruised until late, while Brown struggled. But in the eighth inning, down three runs, our ever-fighting Friars loaded the bases off Petite and reliever Jeff Nelson. Jim Leyritz, as much a post-season hero to that point for the Padres as he had been for the Yanks a couple years before, faced Mariano Rivera. Leyritz put the bat on the ball and for a moment we believed in miracles, but this fly ball found a glove rather than seats. The Padres went down in order in the ninth and the Yankees had won again.
They celebrated on the field and the Yankee fans migrated to the stands above their dugout, a small but vocal and delirious minority in a stadium of Friar Faithful. Then something unprecedented happened. The San Diego fans, unwilling to let go of a dream season, stayed. Stayed and willed their heroes to return, cheering and crying while the public address system played Green Day’s bittersweetly titled and entirely appropriate “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” The Padre players, disbelieving at first and then with growing enthusiasm, returned to the field.
I have never, and may never again, witnessed such a love between a team and a city. They had been swept, the other team was pouring champagne and the television cameras were focused on the New Yorkers. Yet the mutual admiration that poured forth created a lifelong bond between those players and those fans. It was evident after that team had been dismantled, when Ken Caminiti returned to San Diego for the final series in that stadium with trepidation, expecting to be mistreated. When they showed him on camera and the fans voiced their love, the big man broke down and wept. Of course, a couple years later he was gone.
I will always remember those few minutes, when a city and a team became a single entity, feeding on the pure joy each had given the other. It was the purest expression of community solidarity I had ever seen, and was a precursor of what I would later witness in the wake of September 11 and two devastating firestorms. It was more than baseball, more than a World Series. It was everything good that sport can mean in America.