One of the greatest World Series games ever played was one of the worst I’d ever seen. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and the St. Louis Cardinals down two runs, I turned the television off, more or less in disgust. I didn’t want to watch the inevitable. If you don’t see it, maybe it doesn’t happen! So when David Freese tripled to drive in Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman and tie the game, I was climbing into bed. By the time he hit a home run in the bottom of the 11th, I was deep asleep. I missed the most exciting sequence of events that sports has to offer.
I’m told this is a tragedy. My friends say they are sad for me. But I couldn’t be more thrilled.
It’s not that I want to have missed the roller coaster — the back-and-forth heroics, the shaggy brilliance of Berkman, the redemption and immortalization of Freese — that ended in delirious pandemonium. I’m filled with regret and guilt. The National League Championship Series MVP was at bat with two men on when I turned off the game! Had this season taught me nothing at all? Wasn’t it clear by now that no game, no season, is over until it’s over, until the last pitch thrown? But even as I cursed myself, I felt some secret joy.
I cannot actually imagine what it was like to watch the ball come off Freese’s bat when I had been so certain the game was over. I can’t imagine what it was like to experience the drama that followed. The strain of trying, though, is so sweet. The incredibility of the heroics of the Cardinals is inflated by my disbelief. That sneaking suspicion about the nature of reality — if you don’t see it, maybe it doesn’t happen! — cuts in both directions. I can’t square the fact of the ugliness I saw last night with the unreality of today’s highlights and stories. The ending of Thursday night’s game as it exists in my imagination is too vivid, too dramatic, too emotional, too impossible to have actually happened — and it’s all the better for it.
On some level, this exaltation of the imagination is probably sentimentality and self-justification, since some part of me knows that the game’s ending really was that vivid and dramatic and emotional. Part of me wonders if I was just weak, too eager to avoid one more shot of Nolan Ryan’s phlegmatic face. At the same time, I think it can be too easy to forget how great a role imagination can play in making the best memories, especially in the age of online videos.
With constant video coverage and so much statistical analysis, it can be easy to forget how thrilling it can be to picture a ball sailing through the air with so much riding on it.
Of course, by now I’ve watched so many replays of Freese’s solo shot in the 11th that maybe someday I’ll assume I saw it in real time. Memory can be weird like that. Some of my best sports memories are in slow motion — replaced by the incessant dissection on television after the fact — and some are framed by YouTube screens. Sometimes it runs the other way: I can’t remember watching my favorite moment in sports — Peter Forsberg’s shootout goal to win the gold medal in hockey for Sweden at the 1994 Olympics — even though I could describe it automatically if you asked; I can only remember my happiness. It’s as if my mind wants to preserve its disbelief — to keep things, always, incredible.
Louisa Thomas is the author of Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War I.
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