If I told you about the seventh inning of the game between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays, you’d think it was a stretch.
What do you think of that lead? How would it look on top of a game story involving what baseball experts agree was one of the craziest and most emotional innings of baseball in playoff history?
If I were responsible for writing that game story Wednesday night – a game the Blue Jays won 6-3 to advance to the ALCS against the Kansas City Royals – I would have to account for these events:
— An inning that lasted close to an hour.
— Texas scoring a go-ahead run when the Toronto catcher – flipping the ball back to the pitcher, hit the batter’s bat, sending the ball down the third-base line, allowing the Texas runner to score.
— An extended argument over that play, including the home-plate umpire admitting he made a mistake – after a number of consultations with his crew and a look at the video.
— Emotional misbehavior by Toronto fans that led to throwing trash and other objects onto the field, requiring both security and the field crew to clean things up.
— The Toronto manager declaring the game would be played under protest.
— Three errors and another misplay by the Texas infielders — on consecutive plays — that allowed the Jays to load up the bases and score a tying run in the bottom of the seventh.
— A monstrous home run by Jose Bautista that put the Jays ahead for good at 6-3.
— Two altercations on the field in which both teams grumbled at each other near home plate after Bautista launched his bat like a javelin, a gesture of celebration considered offensive by purists.
Take that, those of you who think robots can write good game stories! Stick that in your search engine and optimize it!!
In the days of Red Smith and Shirley Povich (the father of Maury) such a game would have inspired not only a great game story, but a lead memorable enough to match the weight of the moment.
On Oct. 4, 1951, Smith, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, tried to capture a moment that remains — in the minds of many — the most dramatic in baseball history. Bobby Thomson had just hit a ninth inning home run off of Ralph Branca, sending the Giants over the Dodgers for the National League pennant. It became famous as “the shot heard round the world.”
Red Smith wrote:
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
If you were looking for a score, or even a game summary, forget it. Why rush things? This was a game for the ages. One that not only deserves a great lead, but a memorable kicker:
The second pitch – well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight up in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time.
Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.
Five years later on October 8, 1956 Shirley Povich writing for The Washington Post would step up to the plate:
The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach first game in a World Series.
The energy and ingenuity does not end there, as evidenced by this scene:
Larsen whizzed a third strike past pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell in the ninth. That was all. It was over. Automatically, the massive 226-pounder from San Diego started walking from the mound toward the dugout, as pitchers are supposed to do at the finish.
But this time there was a woodenness in his steps and his stride was that of a man in a daze. The spell was broken for Larsen when Yogi Berra stormed on to the infield to embrace him.
It was not Larsen jumping for joy. It was the more demonstrative Berra. His battery-mate leaped full tilt at the big guy. In self defense, Larsen caught Berra in mid-air as one would catch a frolicking child, and that’s how they made their way toward the Yankee bench, Larsen carrying Berra.
Give me a moment to enjoy that passage. I find it just beautiful, not something I’m prone to say about sports writing. I especially appreciate the simile “as one would catch a frolicking child.” The image of Berra and Larsen is now iconic, but, remember, Povich is capturing it in real time.
The game story has seen better days. It has been worn down by endless replays, the multiple demands of social media, the incursion of data and by a news cycle measured by the nano-second. There are attempts to reduce it to formulas carried out by robo-writing. But then something happens. A big game breaks in and demands attention.
Fans see something they have never seen before and want to experience it again and again. Not just the what of the game, but also the why and how.
I’ve never met a great game story that didn’t have a great lead. I’ve harvested a sample from coverage of this game. I will analyze each, looking for something that is better than mine:
“If I told you what happened in the seventh inning last night, you’d think it was a stretch.”
Two of my editors rated this not a home run but a GROUND-RULE DOUBLE.
1. Scott Stinson – The National Post (Canada)
TORONTO — So, how is everyone enjoying playoff baseball?
In the space of, oh, about a half hour, the Toronto Blue Jays went from doomed to failure by one of the strangest umpire decisions in recent memory to roaring to victory on the back of a series of Texas blunders — and an absolute rocket from Jose Bautista that instantly becomes one of the great swings in franchise history.
This turns out to be a good game story. The writer uses that second sentence to inventory why the reader might be interested. While I am not philosophically opposed to a question lead, it seems too low-key for a story with such energy. It seems, well, Canadian. I would rate this a BLOOPED SINGLE TO CENTER.
2. David Waldstein, The New York Times
TORONTO — Postseason baseball had been absent from Canada for 22 years until this remarkable season, but the two decades’ worth of controversy, excitement and drama that fans had missed were synthesized into one rollicking and, at times, menacing inning that will be remembered for years to come.
The celebration continued into the early morning, hours after what may come to be known forever as the Inning.
After the dust had settled, and the bottles and trash thrown by playoff-starved fans at Rogers Centre had been cleared, and a protest had been filed, and Jose Bautista had hit a three-run homer for the ages, the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Texas Rangers, 6-3, on Wednesday to win Game 5 of their American League division series. The Blue Jays advanced to the league championship series for the first time since 1993, when they won the World Series.
Oh, and the benches emptied twice, which explains why the seventh inning lasted 53 minutes.
“A lot of veteran players in the dugout at the time said it,” Blue Jays pitcher R. A. Dickey said. “None of us had ever seen anything like it — not in the minors, not in winter ball, not anywhere. It was incredible.”
I like the way the first four paragraphs lead to the quote from a player, who validates the oddness of the inning. I also like that move that begins “Oh,” and adds another amazing detail for those who did not see it. I love the second paragraph that ends with “the Inning,” which has a sense of history to it. I wonder whether it could have served as the lead:
“The celebration continued into the early morning, hours after what may come to be known forever as the Inning.”
I would have rated that a HOME RUN as a lead, but as a second paragraph the lead scores a SOLID SINGLE TO CENTER; ADVANCES TO SECOND ON A THROWING ERROR.
3. Gerry Fraley – The Dallas Morning News
TORONTO – A season of unexpected success ended for the Rangers on Wednesday in one chaotic inning that had umpires checking the rule book and players dodging for cover from flying objects.
This is a serviceable lead, to be sure. I like its restraint, in the sense that the writer does not try to stuff all the circus elements into the story right away. This is a Texas story, so we might expect something – not celebratory – but expressing that this was not just a tough loss with unusual circumstances, but a monumental failure of execution, not on one single play, but on four successive plays. We get that eventually, but the writer could have found room for it at the top.
We rate this a BASE ON BALLS.
I’ve often argued that great news writing comes at the intersection of talent, preparedness and accident. An amazing thing happens, and we’re ready for it. Next comes the great lead. Some of this has been lost in the digital age, which is understandable, but it’s a loss nonetheless.
Other stories covering the game: