I've been hugely enjoying watching the Oregon State University (OSU) baseball team wend its way through the loser's bracket of the 2018 College World Series.
Now, I readily admit that I'm a "fair weather" OSU Beavers fan, since every year I only start watching them when the NCAA playoffs start.
(I do have a good excuse, though, since I have DirecTV, and the super-irritating pissing match between DirecTV and the Pac 12 Networks shows no sign of being resolved. Thus it's only when OSU games show up on ESPN that I can record and watch them.)
Back in high school, though, I was an avid San Francisco Giants fan, living as we did in central California.
Since Three Rivers was about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, albeit in the foothills of the Sierras, about half of the boys who took the bus from Three Rivers to Woodlake Union High School were Giants fans, and half were LA Dodgers fans.
Ah, I fondly remember the heated arguments we'd have on the bus about whether Juan Marichal or Sandy Koufax was the better pitcher. And here's another interesting memory:
The fact that even now, more than fifty years later, I can pretty clearly remember some of the Giants team that won the pennant in one of my high school years: let's see... Tom Haller, Orlando Cepeda, Willy Mays, Jimmy Davenport, Mattie Alou, the aforementioned Juan Marichal.
I mention this because without much success I've tried to explain to my wife, who is utterly uninterested in sports, why I find watching baseball on TV so engrossing.
It's not so much the action on the field that is important. It's feeling like you know the cast of characters on your favored team. Then watching a game becomes a lot like reading a novel. You care about the outcome because you care about the characters, which in the case of the OSU baseball team are real people, not fictional ones.
Even more: in the case of the College World Series, the drama continues beyond a single game, because this is a double-elimination tournament where a team remains alive until it loses twice.
OSU lost its first game.
So the baseball team needed to win four games in a row to make it into the World Series championship series. Amazingly, and happily, they did just that. I'm looking forward to seeing them play tomorrow against Arkansas in a two out of three series.
Thus though OSU started off as a favorite to win the World Series, after they lost that first game against North Carolina they became underdogs who had to fight their way against considerable odds to make it to the championship series.
The final hurdle was yesterday. After beating Mississippi State, a team that was undefeated in the World Series up to that point, OSU had to beat them again, or be eliminated from the tournament themselves. Hence, it was a must-win game for both teams.
And as I just said, the drama is made much more interesting if you feel like you know the players, rather than just seeing them as guys holding a bat, or pitching a baseball, or standing on a baseball field. Yeah, baseball is boring if all you know is what you see.
Which basically is a lot of nothing happening, until occasionally something does.
In yesterday's game, which OSU won 5-2, all of the Beavers' five runs were scored in the third inning. To add to the drama, the four hits that produced the five runs came with two outs in the inning. Four consecutive hits is quite rare, given that a batting average of .333, one hit in every three at bats, is pretty darn good.
So what OSU did, basically, was beat the odds: 1/3 X 1/3 X 1/3 X 1/3 equals 1/81. Meaning, if I've gotten my math correct, if each of the Beavers had a batting average of .333, the odds of four consecutive hits would be one in 81.
But this happened.
And it seemed to happen because some sort of hitting chemistry took place in the third inning. Maybe it was due to the Mississippi State pitcher losing some of his mojo, but watching the game, I felt it was more that the OSU batters willed their way to get the four hits and five runs.
That's the mark of heroes. OSU didn't score again, yet for one inning, with two outs, there was magic on the field -- punctuated by Tyler Malone's massive three run homer that turned out to be the winning margin in the game.
Mississippi State didn't fold, though. In the bottom of the ninth inning they created the baseball equivalent of a "cliffhanger." I was on the edge of my TV-watching seat as a single, a walk, and a hit batter by the OSU pitcher loaded the bases with the winning run at the plate.
And the Mississippi State batter, if my memory is correct, was a guy who had hit a grand slam homer in a previous World Series game.
A quote in today's Oregonian story says this about the OSU pitcher in the ninth inning, Jake Mulholland: "Mully is a drama queen, [Kevin] Abel said." (Abel was the starting pitcher.)
Yesterday's game had all the ingredients of a thriller novel that demanded to be read straight through, it was so suspenseful. Just when you thought the good guys would come out on top, if you're an OSU fan, they find themselves in a highly dangerous situation.
It was spellbinding to watch the OSU coach pacing back and forth in the dugout, powerless to do much except watch the drama unfolding on the field. Mulholland looked unhittable for several innings, but when he needed to get the last out that would put OSU in the championship series, it appeared that nerves affected his pitching.
Which was totally understandable.
If Mulholland made just one poor pitch, the Mississippi State batter could hit a home run, ending the OSU baseball team's dream of making it to the championship series, and hopefully winning it. For the rest of his life that one poor pitch would nag at him. He'd wish he could take it back, but since life only goes in one direction, that would be impossible.
During the ninth inning the OSU catcher, star second baseman, and, I recall, other members of the team went out to the mound to talk with Mulholland. I have no idea what they said. I can imagine, "Relax," "You've got this," "We've got your back," and such.
In the end, Mulholland threw a pretty good pitch, the Mississippi State batter hit it to the OSU shortstop, and after a bit of trouble getting the ball out of his mitt, he threw it to Nick Madrigal for a force-out at second base.
Happy ending, for OSU fans. Sad ending, for Mississippi State fans. A thriller, for everybody watching the game. Baseball can be hugely entertaining. But really only if you know the cast of characters, which makes a drama much more engrossing.