Though I often say that I "always" loved baseball, in truth it started in 1999, when I went to fifteen professional games and truly fell in love with the sport. I went to some fantastic games that year, including the deciding game of the Diamondbacks-Mets NLDS when Mets backup catcher Todd Pratt hit a walkoff homer to end the series, but the undeniable high point came on a blisteringly hot day in Phoenix in June.
My father was my baseball guru. He introduced me and my brothers (Charles and William) to the sport, patiently took us to games that we insisted upon leaving after the first three innings, tried his darnedest to explain the balk rule, etc. He told us that you see something new in every game you go see, and ask us at the end of each game what it was. Sometimes that was easy (Jose Vidro hit a walk-off grand slam!) but more often it was hard to do (each team hit a two-out homer in the 9th!) without coming up with really mundane, not-so-special "new" events. However, on the night of June 25th, 1999 it was very easy indeed.
My father was also the sole reason we were in Bank One Ballpark that night. He had a crackpot scheme to see a game in every major league ballpark and my brothers and I were lucky enough to get pulled along. We had been to Denver the previous year but 1999 was going to blow that one up: Arizona on Friday, Houston on Saturday, and Kansas City on Sunday before heading back to New York. On the plane from Newark I found a newspaper that announced the game's starters: my beloved Cardinals (they were my little league team and had captured my heart ever since) were facing Randy Johnson, the best pitcher in the National League, possessing a 9-3 record with a 3.36 ERA and a staggering 157 strikeouts in 120 innings. Against him, my Redbirds could offer...Jose Jimenez, a rookie with a 3-7 record and a staggeringly-bad, even for 1999, 6.69 ERA. In the past 11 games he had pitched, the Cardinals were 1-10, and his ERA was higher than a Boeing Jet. Wonderful. Just wonderful. I got to see the Cardinals so rarely and they were going to get obliterated.
After swimming and eating at the hotel we went to the game, where I recall getting upset upon discovering they had McDonalds concessions ("Why did I eat at the hotel restaurant when I could have had McDonalds! -- such were my thoughts at age 12) before cheering up when the game started. The Cardinals, predictably, could do nothing against The Big Unit. They struck out with depressing regularity and couldn't get anything going that Johnson couldn't end with a strikeout. The surprise was that Jimenez was just as good, better even. After six innings we allowed ourselves to notice that he hadn't given up a hit, and after eight innings we were dying every time a Diamondback made contact, hoping desperately that the no-hitter wouldn't end. Through eight it didn't, but there was a problem -- the Cardinals didn't have a run. 0-0 went the game to the ninth!
In the ninth the Cardinals managed to draw two walks, but they were sandwiched between a pair of strikeouts, bringing Johnson's total to 14. Up stepped Thomas Howard, an unmemorable hitter in the lineup due to his success against left-handed pitchers. Miraculously, he came through with a broken bat single to left, pushing across the go-ahead run even as Mark McGwire was caught at third base and ended the inning. To the bottom of the 9th!
As nervous as I've ever been at a sporting event, I watched Jimenez strike out Andy Fox, the Dbacks' eight-hole hitter. Then up stepped pinch-hitter David Delluci, who lined one to right and destroyed all of our hopes...until the Cardinals aging right fielder, Eric Davis, made an amazing diving catch to save the no-hitter! In doing so he injured his shoulder and wouldn't play again the rest of the year. But it was worth it for me. The final batter, Tony Womack, grounded to second base and the game was over. The Cardinals mobbed Jose Jimenez, who kissed the ball and held it to the sky. Paraphrasing the great baseball movie Major League, my older brother and I started singing "The Cardinals win it! The Cardinals win it! Oh my God the Cardinals win it!" It remains the best moment of my baseball life, next to the Cardinals' comeback in the 2011 World Series.
So that, faithful Marriott readers, is my story of something "new," in honor of Jackie Robinson.