After the last home run was hit and the last save was blown during a string of amazing comeback victories and heartbreaking collapses on perhaps the most astounding final night of regular season in baseball history, my son turned to me and said, "Dad, as much as I liked 'Moneyball,' it didn't have an ending anywhere as cool as this."
For a baseball fan, Wednesday night was the ultimate baseball movie, played out on TV in real time. If the Atlanta Braves' collapse was enormous, the breakdown of the Boston Red Sox was even more complete. The Sox started September with a nine-game lead in the race for the American League wild-card birth. They frittered that away until it all came down to Wednesday night, when Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was about to close out a 3-2 victory, then gave up three straight two-out hits to lose the game.
Just minutes later, the Tampa Bay Rays finished an amazing stretch drive by rallying from a 7-0 deficit against the AL East-leading New York Yankees to win the game, knocking the Red Sox out of the playoffs and making the Rays the most unlikely wild card team. They came back to tie the game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, thanks to a home run by Dan Johnson, a nobody who had zero hits in September and was batting a lowly .108 overall. The Rays won it in the 12th inning with a home run from Evan Longoria, who is one of the brightest young stars in the game but is paid relatively modestly; the behemoth Red Sox and Yankees each have 13 players on their roster making more than he does.
If there's a Billy Beane-style "Moneyball" team in baseball these days, it is the Rays. Just as the 2002 Oakland A's celebrated in "Moneyball" were made up of castoffs whose value had gone unappreciated by other teams, this year's Rays are plucky underdogs. Stuck in a tiny media market and saddled with perhaps the worst ballpark in the majors, they are 29th out of 30 teams in payroll, paying their 2011 roster $41.9 million, compared with $196.8 million for the Yankees and $160.2 million for the Red Sox.
The Rays lost a slew of their top stars--and virtually their entire bullpen--to free agency last winter. But the team rebuilt its roster virtually overnight, using many of the precepts pioneered by Beane and sabermetrician Bill James--i.e. finding players who had hidden value. If Hollywood ever wanted to make a "Moneyball" sequel, there would be no more worthy successor to the Beane saga than the unlikely rise to prominence of Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman. Only 34, he was a scrappy Little Leaguer who went to Tulane on a baseball scholarship. After he got hurt and left the game, he ended up as a financial analyst for a variety of investment banking firms, including Bear Stearns.
When the Rays ownership plucked him out of obscurity to help run the team, old-time baseball people scoffed, just as they had when Beane brought in Paul DePodesta to help him make personnel decisions. But Friedman has made so many shrewd moves that his skeptics have been silenced. It remains to be seen how far the Rays can go in the playoffs, but they have such a well-stocked group of young talent coming up from the minor leagues that they could be a force to be reckoned with for years to come, even playing in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox.
And when it comes to comebacks, nothing may ever equal what the Rays did Wednesday night. If anything could do justice to the spirit of "Moneyball," it was seeing the Rays celebrate on the field, knowing they had overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve victory. We often pay tribute to the great moments of suspense and surprise in our movies, but no cinematic storyteller could top the drama that unfolded at Tropicana Field.
Photo: Tampa Bay Rays swarm around Evan Longoria following his 12th inning home run to beat the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Credit: Brian Blanco/European Pressphoto Agency