It’s October, something unfamiliar to the Detroit Tigers. The last time they won a playoff series was the 1984 World Series, twenty-two years in the rear view mirror. They’ve already won one this year taking three straight games over the dreaded Yankees after dropping the first. Tonight, they could sweep the perennial postseason participant Athletics. The game is tied at three as it turns to the bottom of the ninth. The first two Tiger batters went down quickly, Marcus Thames on a flyball to center and Curtis Granderson, in his first full season, on a liner to right. Craig Monroe singles. Placido Polanco follows suit. The pennant-clinching runner is in scoring position. In steps Magglio Ordoñez, the ten-year veteran from Venezuela. His opponent is the 2005 Rookie of the Year, Huston Street. They had only met twice before, the first time back on July 4th of the current year, when Street got Ordoñez to strike out swinging on four pitches. The second, three days earlier that ended in a groundout. But every at bat is another chance to undo a previous mistake. Comerica Field is shaking in anticipation of a World Series berth. Magglio steps into the batter’s box, grinds his front cleat against the dirt to get a strong foothold. Street gets the sign, winds and delivers.
Every base hit is a miracle. Yes, I’m aware these are the best of the best of the best in terms of the job, but like I said last time, the absolute gods of hitting still failed sixty percent or more. It’s the hardest thing in sports, hitting a baseball. There’s a rock not much bigger than what can fit wrapped in your hand. Someone is going to throw that rock in your general direction at a speed that, were it a car and you were behind the wheel, would likely leave you with a suspended license. Then there’s a stick that weighs a few dozen ounces and is obviously top-heavy. The rock starts out about sixty feet away, and covers that distance in a fraction of a fraction of a second. If the pitcher is good, that rock is hitting a specific spot that they intended, knowing you couldn’t get your stick to make contact. You get three chances to not miss it. You miss it three times.
In the present day of extreme three-true-outcomes baseball, strikeouts sprout up like dandelions in May. They were on their way up in 2006, a few years removed from the comeuppance of the steroid era. Pitchers like Street and the Tigers’ Justin Verlander, the 2006 Rookie of the Year, were of a new class of hard throwing arms constantly threatening to strike out the side.
Magglio Ordoñez had seen it all by 2006, however. His ten seasons in MLB had given him eyes for every pitch he could see. Over that time, he had a career batting average of .305 and had slugged 219 home runs. He was an all-star five times, making the team for the sixth and final time the following year. He had spent eight years with the White Sox as a fan favorite who would walk to the plate to a chorus of “MAAAAAAAAGGLIOOOOO”.
He had been granted free agency from the team following the 2004 season and signed with the rival Tigers soon thereafter. In his time on the South Side, the Sox had made the playoffs once, in the year 2000. They were swept by Seattle in three games. By the end of his first season as a Tiger, the White Sox had won their first World Series in 88 years.
The Detroit Tigers, on the other hand, had spent the early years of the decade in the purgatory of a hard rebuild. in 2003, they won a generous forty-three games, by every measure one of the worst seasons of all time. Three years hence, they were rebuilt and on the doorstep of their own World Series. In one of the most impressive turnarounds in sports history, the Tigers had gone from doormat to doorman, becoming one of the regular championship gatekeepers in the American League.
Facing elimination, dare I say total annihilation, the A’s and Huston Street were more than likely just holding off the inevitable. They were not the Red Sox, and this wasn’t 2004. Street gets the sign from Jason Kendall, his catcher, and checks the two baserunners to keep them honest. He delivers a fastball just shy of 94 MPH. Home plate umpore Chuck Meriwether rightly calls it a ball.
Ordoñez is up 1-0 in the count, and gains leverage over his opponent. He knows the further Street falls behind in the count, the more desperate he’s going to be to pitch into the zone. A walk here would put the winning run, the series-clinching run, 90 feet away.
Street, though being young and less-experienced at the fine art of the batter-pitcher battle, has his own advantage. More often than not, pitchers will benefit from small sample sizes against particular hitters. They can analyze the weak points in a particular batter’s swing and target that with impunity. The batter, on the other hand, can only estimate what the pitcher might throw based on tape of his various pitches. He knows his own flaws, or at least the team hopes he does. From there, he can ascertain where the pitcher might attack. But there is no true simulation for a precise 90 MPH fastball, no drill he can run to whittle down the gaps in his swing. Over a dozen at bats, this balance shifts, and the pitcher has to adjust because the batter has now learned his strategy and begun to adapt. It is the most basic law of baseball- learn to beat em til you can’t, then learn to do it again.
But on a night light this, in a city like Detroit, with a crowd of 42,967 on their feet, the laws of baseball are tabled for the immediacy of one pitch.
Street gets the sign. He checks the runners. He lurches forward and delivers another fastball, his specialty. This one is more toward the plate, but down a bit. Ordoñez can take the pitch, its possibly ball two. Instead, the Tiger right fielder takes a hack at it.
Putting a round bat on a round ball and hitting it where you want it to go is a mathematical labyrinth. This is why, as we saw last time, a player can foul pitches away until the sun consumes the earth. Still, players get hits. They hit home runs. Many of those home runs are points of leverage that ultimately win a game. Some of those home runs end a game. A few end a season.
Magglio Ordoñez rips his bat through the strike zone in a vertical circle that more resembles a golf swing than a baseball swing. The metaphorical freight train that is his bat collides head on with the polarized force Street offered. The middle of the bat meets the middle of the ball. The sweet spot glides through the path of the pitch.
And up it goes. Higher and higher and higher into the black night divided by the glowing field. Ordoñez raises his right fist into the air, he knows. Street knows. All of the nearly forty-three thousand present in the stands know.
It’s called a no-doubter. It’s the inevitable.
Thom Brennaman is in charge of play by play for Fox and calls the moment.
“The oh-one… IN THE AIR, LEFT FIELD. THE TIGERS. MARCH TO THE WORLD SERIES.”
Ordoñez’s three-run, titanic home run ends Oakland’s season and Detroit’s pennant drought. The Tigers, just three years removed from being mathematically eliminated in early August, would now play in the last game of the season, win or lose.
The Tigers lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, a team ending its own multi-decade drought. Yet that night, baseball didn’t hurt the Detroit fans. That win, that swing had ended their Book of Exodus-like wandering. The Tigers’ rebuild laid the groundwork for teams like the Cubs and Astros of the following decade.
In that moment, however, the World Series and their legacy was not important. As Magglio Ordoñez crossed home plate, he was mobbed by his teammates. It was something beyond fiction, really. It was a formless chunk of marble instantly broken into a refined statue. It was a crescendo of human emotion that can only be created by unbridled, communal joy.
It was art.