1: SUDDEN VICTORY
Even though he was only fourteen years old, Stevie Thomas considered himself a veteran of sports victory celebrations. He had been to the Final Four, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, and the U.S. Open--in both tennis and golf. He had seen remarkable endings, miracle shots, and improbable last-second heroics.
But he hadn't seen anything quite like this. He was standing just outside the first-base dugout inside Nationals Park, the home stadium for the Washington Nationals, and even though the game had been over for several minutes, the noise was still so loud he couldn't hear anything Susan Carol Anderson was shouting in his ear.
"Mets_._._._clubhouse_._._._press box_._._._," he managed to make out over the din. Since she was starting to pick her way through the celebrating Nationals and the media swarm surrounding them, he guessed that she had told him that she was going to make her way to the clubhouse of the New York Mets and then meet him back in the press box. She was taking the harder job--talking to the players on a team that had just suffered a shocking defeat. His job was easier: talking to the winners.
The ending of the game had been stunning. With the National League Championship Series tied at three games all, both teams had sent their star pitchers out to pitch game seven: Johan Santana for the Mets, John Lannan for the Nationals. Both had pitched superbly, and the game had gone to the ninth inning tied at 1-1.
Nationals manager Manny Acta brought Joel Hanrahan, his closer, in to pitch the ninth, a bold move in a tie game. And it seemed to have backfired when Carlos Beltran hit a two-out, two-run home run to give the Mets a 3-1 lead. In came the Mets' closer Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez to get the last three outs needed to give the Mets the pennant.
He got two quick outs, and it wasn't looking good for the Nats when shortstop Cristian Guzman hit a weak ground ball. But somehow Mets all-star shortstop Jose Reyes booted it, allowing Guzman to make it safely to first base. Clearly upset and distracted by the error, Rodriguez then walked Ronnie Belliard, bringing Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals' best hitter, to the plate.
Guzman began dancing off second base, stretching his lead each time Rodriguez looked back at him. Second baseman Luis Castillo kept flashing toward the bag, as if expecting a pickoff throw from Rodriguez. Sitting in the auxiliary press box, Stevie was wearing headphones that allowed him to hear the Fox telecast.
"Rodriguez and Castillo need to forget about Guzman," he heard Tim McCarver say. "Right now K-Rod has one job, and that's to get Zimmerman out."
"But if the Nats double-steal, the tying runs would both be in scoring position," play-by-play man Joe Buck said.
"True," McCarver said. "But I'm telling you, there is no way Guzman is risking making the last out of the season trying to steal third. He's not that much of a base stealer to begin with."
Rodriguez finally focused on the plate and threw a 97-mph fastball that Zimmerman just watched go by for strike one. Again Guzman danced off second base. This time Rodriguez whirled and did make a pickoff throw as Castillo darted in to take it. Guzman dove back in safely.
"That tells me Guzman has gotten inside K-Rod's head," McCarver said. "You don't risk a pickoff throw in this situation. The only man in the ballpark he should care about right now is Zimmerman."
Rodriguez threw another fastball, and Zimmerman fouled it straight back to the screen.
"That one was ninety-seven too," Buck said. "He doesn't seem too distracted."
"Zimmerman was about two inches from crushing that ball," McCarver said. "You see a batter foul a fastball straight back like that, it means he just missed it."
Rodriguez came to his set position again. Guzman was off the bag once more and Rodriguez stepped off the rubber. Everyone relaxed for a moment.
"Zimmerman has to look for a fastball here, doesn't he?" Buck said.
Rodriguez set again, checked Guzman one more time, and threw. Stevie glanced at the spot on the scoreboard that showed pitch speed, and saw 98. Rodriguez had thrown a fastball, and Zimmerman had in fact been looking fastball. This time he didn't miss it. He got it. He got all of it. The ball rose majestically into the air and sailed in the direction of the left-field fence. Mets left fielder Daniel Murphy never moved. The ball sailed way over the fence, deep into the night, and complete bedlam broke out in every corner of the stadium. The Nationals had won the game 4-3 and the series 4-3. Shockingly, they were going to the World Series.
The auxiliary press box was down the left-field line, and Stevie and Susan Carol had seen Zimmerman's shot go right past them heading out of the park. As 41,888 people went crazy, they had joined other members of the media who were scrambling to get down to the field and the clubhouses.
There had been no point trying to squeeze onto the elevators, so they had dashed to the ramps--which weren't too crowded, because most of the fans were still standing at their seats, celebrating. The Nationals were on the field, spraying one another with champagne--which someone had brought out from their clubhouse to allow them to _celebrate in front of the fans--so the media was directed down the tunnel to the home dugout and stood just outside the dugout watching the celebration.
"I guess when you go seventy-six years between championships, you're entitled to go a little crazy," a voice shouted behind Stevie.
He turned and saw Bobby Kelleher, his friend and mentor, standing there with a wide grin on his face. Kelleher, a columnist for the Washington Herald, had been sitting in the main press box and had apparently just reached the field.
"Is Walter Johnson smiling somewhere?" Stevie asked Kelleher, referring to the Hall of Fame pitcher who had been the Washington Senators' star in the 1920s and their manager when a Washington baseball team last played in the World Series--in 1933.
"My guess is someone will claim to have spoken to him by tomorrow morning," Kelleher said, still shouting because the noise had abated only a little bit. "It's hard for people to understand how remarkable this is. Washington's always been a town that either had no baseball or played bad baseball."
Not one but two teams had left Washington--the original Senators left town in 1961 to move to Minnesota; then an expansion version fled to Texas ten years later.
"Where'd Susan Carol go?" Kelleher asked.
"Mets clubhouse," Stevie said.
"Figures," Kelleher said. "She's always willing to take on the tough jobs. That's where Tamara went too. I have to write the Nats. I mean, seventy-six years without a pennant. Not to mention that this team lost a hundred and two games a year ago."
Tamara Mearns was Kelleher's wife, a columnist for the Washington Post. The two of them had taken Stevie and Susan Carol under their wing when the teenagers won a writing contest and were awarded press credentials to the Final Four in New Orleans.
That was a weekend that had changed Stevie and Susan Carol's lives forever. They had gotten off to a rocky start: the wise-guy kid from Philadelphia clashing with the seemingly wide-eyed Southern belle from a small town in North Carolina. But they had stumbled into a plot to blackmail a star player and had worked together to nail the bad guys, starting them on what had often been a bumpy road to media stardom.
From the Hardcover edition.