It’s a cruel game.
Is there any other way to sum up the ending of the Rockies’ loss to the St. Louis Cardinals Wednesday night?
With two men on and Charlie Culberson at the plate, Todd Helton loomed in the on-deck circle. When Culberson hit a sharp grounder to third and beat out the frantic play that ensued, it felt like a moment that was meant to be. A little good luck had brought the greatest player in franchise history to the plate in his final homestand in the bottom of the 9th inning with the tying run on 3rd and the winning run in scoring position. Never mind the fact that the bases were loaded, setting up a potential walk-off grand slam…
The timeless rhythms of baseball aren’t sentimental, however. Three strikes, three outs, and nine innings, from the biggest stage to the smallest. When Helton took a healthy swing and fouled a looping pitch back for strike two, the line between glory and heartbreak became that much thinner. And when a fastball under Helton’s hands was simply too much for him to handle and #17 struck out, it was heartbreak.
In “The Green Fields of the Mind,” A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote the following about baseball:
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
When it stops this fall it will be the final time for Helton, and so it was just a bit more chilling to watch him strike out last night when it is impossible to forget these are his last few fall baseball games.
What doesn’t seem fair is that much of Helton’s career will be remembered for the moments when he was almost great, moments where he was set up to be heroic, moments where he was so close and yet things did not quite work out. He almost batted .400. He almost won National League MVP. The 2007 Rockies almost won the World Series. He could have hit his third three-run home run of the game, in front of his home crowd, for his 2500th hit. He had a chance for a walk-off hit in one of his last games at Coors Field. And he will likely almost be a Hall of Famer.
If anybody deserved more moments of gratification in a long and grueling career, it was the bearded first baseman who respected the game, the fans, and his opponents alike, and who always came to the park to work. And yet more often than not in his long career, the payoff never came. The difference between success and failure, as is always the case in baseball, was often a matter of milliseconds or inches or even centimeters. It makes it hard to resist the temptation to ask any number of “what if” questions when it comes to Helton’s career and what could have been.
But what’s the point? Would it change how great it has been to watch Todd Helton all of these years? Would it change how much he has meant to the franchise? And we did get to celebrate with Helton, from that walk-off home run against the Dodgers to the moment that he got to hold his hands straight up in the air to celebrate the franchise’s first NL pennant. It just felt like there should have been more…like he deserved more.
In some ways the cruelty makes the happy moments that much more enjoyable. But what last night reminded us is that, in the end, baseball just isn’t always fair. Todd Helton deserved to come through in that moment, and yet he couldn’t quite do it.
Why do we love this game so much anyway? I don’t really know, but what I do know is that, even knowing the outcome, I wouldn’t trade the chance to cheer my ass off for Helton in that moment last night. And I think I know that Helton wouldn’t trade the chance to come through in that moment, and that he would welcome the chance again tonight, knowing full well that it might end up in heartbreak once again.
It’s a cruel game and we love it anyway. It breaks our hearts, and yet we always come back. Maybe that makes last night’s disappointing outcome fitting. For the last 17 years we have lived through the ebbs and flows of baseball together with Helton. We watched his greatest moments on the way to what will hopefully be a Hall of Fame career along with those that were bitter in their disappointment.
Last night we wanted Todd Helton to come through so badly, and yet even after the latest reminder that baseball is cruel, one thing did not change and will never change.
#17…that’s our guy.