On May 20, 2015, Nick Day hit a home run off Trace Dempsey in front of a few dozen fans, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Last year, Ohio State started the season strong. After never having made an NCAA tournament under fifth-year head coach Greg Beals, the Buckeyes looked like they’d end up not only making the tournament but hosting a regional if they didn’t collapse.
Then they got swept by Illinois, lost two of three at home to Maryland and got swept by Indiana. Heading into the conference tournament, the Buckeyes still needed at least one more win to impress the selection committee.
I remember the moment before the home run. It was Ohio State’s first game of the tournament, the second of four games to be played on a blindingly sunny but frigid afternoon at Target Field, and Dempsey, Ohio State’s senior closer, had the ball, a one-run lead and two strikes on Day, with two outs and a man on in the bottom of the ninth.
Covering the Big Ten and living in Columbus, I’d seen Ohio State play a lot that spring, and I’d grown fond of Dempsey in the way you sometimes do when you cover a player over the course of a season. Not only was he far and away the best interview on the team, Dempsey was wrapping up an interesting career. He’d been an All-American as a sophomore before falling apart as a junior. With the pressure of the postseason and team captaincy on his shoulders, Dempsey had put together a solid senior season, which he had the chance to extend if he could get one more pitch past Iowa’s No. 9 hitter, who’d been playing through an excruciatingly painful back injury.
I don’t remember the pitch. I remember whispering “Oh god,” under my breath as the ball landed in the left field seats and Dempsey fell to his knees like he’d been shot. Ohio State lost again the next morning to Indiana and missed the NCAA tournament.
I don’t remember the pitch, but I can’t stop thinking about it because it destroyed a state of the universe we’d come to take for granted, in an instant and without warning.
Even if you’re part of the overwhelming majority of baseball fans who knows nothing about Trace Dempsey or Nick Day, you know these moments, because baseball delivers them routinely. We take for granted that history will evolve one way, until it suddenly and irrevocably doesn’t.
A few weeks ago, Steve Rushin wrote a back-page column in Sports Illustrated about how the perception of time is elastic. “The Kentucky Derby is the fastest two minutes in sports, and a two-minute penalty kill in the Stanley Cup playoffs lasts a century,” he wrote, and while that’s true, and interesting, it’s not the most interesting thing about time in sports to me.
Baseball reminds us that time is linear and indelible.
In fact, in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, when Commander Sisko had to explain the concept of linear time to the noncorporeal wormhole aliens, he used baseball to illustrate the point.
And yes, the uncertainty in baseball is an example of humanity’s fascination with the unknown, but it’s not just discovery for discovery’s sake that makes baseball so compelling. It’s how the uncertainty of the game shows us all of the possible histories we could have lived in but didn’t.
We thought we’d live in a universe where Terry Collins took Matt Harvey out of Game Five of the World Series and hung on to the lead. We thought we’d live in a universe where Moises Alou caught that foul ball in the eighth inning of Game Six of the 2003 NLCS. We had time to imagine those universes, and now they’re gone.
The looming specter of the unexplored is part and parcel of every facet of human life, but in baseball, events unfold slowly and in discrete events, with time to reflect upon them as one link in the causal chain connects to the next. Baseball is patently extensive-form, and not only can we look back on what might have been had the big, noisy, spectacular moments turned out differently, we can re-evaluate after every single pitch. It's not just a matter of: Would the Royals have won the World Series if Terry Collins had taken Matt Harvey out? It's a matter of: Would the Royals have won the World Series if Yoenis Cespedes hadn't gotten hurt? Would they have won the World Series if Ben Revere hadn't gotten hosed on a called strike in Game Six of the ALCS?
Baseball was the first major sport to have its own notable empirical awakening precisely because it's so segmented. There's great randomness, but little chaos and almost no fluidity. Events are determined by individual actions, which makes the value of those actions relatively easy to quantify.
That's why win probability and leverage stats are my favorite outgrowth of baseball's statistical revolution. Not because they're predictive, but because they represent an attempt to quantify the impact of every action in a game, to illustrate the likelihood of every destroyed timeline we thought we'd live in but didn't.
That's why great moments in sports feel so important, or have the capability to move even neutral observers in profound ways. A shocking reversal, like a down-to-the-last-strike walkoff home run, destroys a timeline that had been taken for granted as a fait accompli.
I can't stop thinking about that afternoon in Minneapolis because it was the clearest example I saw last year of baseball's capacity for shock, and for trading limitless possibility for the concrete reality of what has actually come to pass. These moments stick with us because what we’d expected, what we’d planned for, has not only not turned out to be the case, the possibility of it ever coming true has passed us by forever. They stick with us not because of they happened, but because it’s no longer possible for something else to happen. With each pitch, possibilities disappear.
A great moment leaves us with a tangible event that resolves what came before and shapes what is to come, but it also leaves us with the memory of what was possible in the moment before the moment.