NEW YORK – This is a story about two men and their families. It is about life and loss, about loyalty and perception, about trust and faith. It is about a choice. It is about baseball, too, and how all of these things crashed together for one harmonious, glorious night.
This game was not supposed to happen like this, though, really, when does an October baseball game ever follow script? The Baltimore Orioles had played 76 games this year in which they held a lead after the seventh inning. They had won all 76. The last 16 times they went into extra innings, same thing: an Orioles victory. Voodoo, luck, skill – it mattered not how the Orioles mustered the marks. They just did.
Of all the times for them to vanish. Here they were, in Game 3 of the AL Division Series against the New York Yankees, walking not gingerly in the Bronx but stomping about Yankee Stadium like they owned the damn place. The Yankees' offense had disappeared. Their pitching wasn't enough. The Orioles were about to take the series lead and its control.
And then came that choice.
Luca Gabriel Ibanez was born a week ago. He started to come right after Raul Ibanez popped a bottle of bubbly. The Yankees had just clinched the AL East division on the final day of the season and were celebrating when one of the team's security guards tapped Ibanez on the shoulder. His wife needed to talk with him.
Teryvette Ibanez was going into labor. She had scheduled a C-section in hopes it would coincide with Raul's off-day. Luca arrived early. Raul rushed to the hospital in time to see his fifth child born. It was the best thing that would happen to him in October.
And considering what took place Wednesday night, that's saying something. The Yankees trailed 2-1 in the ninth inning. Ibanez stepped in as a pinch hitter. He faced Jim Johnson, the Orioles' menacing closer. Johnson left a fastball up. Ibanez knocked it into the right-field bleachers. The stadium shook.
Then he came up again in the 12th inning. This time, he faced Brian Matusz, a left-handed pitcher. The book on Ibanez says he can't hit lefties. Ibanez does not think about this, of course, not when he eases into his routine: down in the batting cage, hitting balls off the tee, whacking short tosses from a coach into a net, visualizing, hoping, praying, wondering if tonight is going to be his night, his team's night.
The first pitch from Matusz was a cutter, 91 mph, high and on the outside corner. Ibanez yanked it back across his body, and it soared deep, all the way up to the second deck in right field. The stadium shook again. The Yankees won 3-2. They led the series 2-1. They could move to the AL Championship Series with one more win.
Out of the dugout before anyone was Alex Rodriguez. He was in there because in the ninth inning, Yankees manager Joe Girardi had made the choice to remove him from the game. To understand the magnitude of this decision takes some background. Yes, Rodriguez has struggled mightily this postseason. And, yes, Ibanez is the Yankees' late-inning home run hero of late. But …
"Alex is one of the best hitters of all time, and he still is," Ibanez said. "I mean, he's one of the greatest players in the history of the game. So, for a minute, I just thought something was going on. I didn't know what was happening."
What was happening was very simple: Girardi was pinch hitting for his No. 3 hitter with one out in the ninth inning of a one-run game. He was saying he had more faith, at that moment, in a 40-year-old reserve than he did in the starting third baseman still owed $114 million over the next five seasons. He was saying that all of the potential consequences involved with the decision were worth that tiny chance lightning would strike Ibanez's bat and send a ball into the stands.
"I just kind of had a gut feeling," Girardi said.
All of that on a gut feeling. Girardi must be megadosing probiotics, for that is the type of decision that, if it does not work, ends up with back-page headlines that say CLUELESS JOE and A-Rod looking neutered by his dopey manager and the Yankees in all likelihood down 2-1 to a team with a payroll one-third the size of theirs.
Raul Ibanez didn't know what was happening because what was happening was so far-fetched nobody could conceive of it.
"That part caught me off guard," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said, "pinch hitting for a guy who's half a billionaire."
Whatever shred of ego Rodriguez still had after a career that has balanced amazing accomplishment with overblown struggles, he lost it here Wednesday night. It wasn't his choice, either. Girardi told him, a future Hall of Famer, a member of the 600-home run club, one of the greatest talents the game has seen, steroids or not, that it was the point in his career where he needed to sacrifice for the betterment of everyone else, no matter how much he disagreed with the decision.
"We're a family," Rodriguez said. "No matter how we struggle or who does what, we just care about getting victories and wins, and that's exactly what we did here."
Rodriguez was remarkably composed for his manager having put him in a no-win situation. Every player wants that at-bat in the ninth inning, lest he seem like he's shrinking from the moment. Every player, or at least every player who cares as much about being liked as Rodriguez does, also wants to be a good teammate, to listen to everything the manager says. There is no middle ground. This was Rodriguez's reckoning. Perhaps, for the first time in his baseball life, he stared at expendability. Girardi had started him at DH, forsaking A-Rod's glove, and now the manager no longer needed his bat, ceding it to another Miami boy, one who had to scratch out a career at 30 years old instead of beginning it, like A-Rod, as an 18-year-old golden child.
The night hadn't gone well. In his first at-bat, Rodriguez grounded out to shortstop. The next two times up, he struck out. Boos chased him off the field with each strikeout. He was 1 for 12 in the series with seven strikeouts. His 2012 postseason was beginning to look like those of the previous two years, which had erased the goodwill he built up by leading the Yankees to a championship in 2009. That's the math with A-Rod. The bad always erases the good.
"I just went to him," Girardi said, "and I said, 'You're scuffling a little bit right now, we have got a low ball hitter and we've got a shorter porch in right field … and I'm just going to take a shot.' "
This is why managers get paid millions of dollars for what so often can be a paint-by-numbers job. This wasn't just about baseball. When he started thinking about the move in the seventh inning, Girardi had to weigh its benefits and detriments beyond that day. Did Girardi have faith Alex Rodriguez is in the right place mentally to handle this? Did Girardi trust himself? And was Girardi willing to risk the awkward intersection of those for a choice that might not even have been the right one in a baseball sense, let alone any other?
"Maybe 10 years ago I reacted in a much different way," Rodriguez said. "But I'm in a place in my career right now where team is everything. I don't think there was anybody in the ballpark more excited for Raul than me.
"We preach about team, team, team, and that's all we care about. Let's somehow collect victories to win a world championship here. When he told me, I said, 'Joe, you've got to do exactly what you've got to do.' And I got up to the top step and started cheering."
Some will question the genuineness of A-Rod's appearance throughout this, and that's fair. Rodriguez's entire public persona is as polished as his teeth. Maybe it leaks out down the road that he's mad and that he despises Girardi for so embarrassing him and that he can't spend another five years with the Yankees.
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And yet he was there. He hadn't skulked to the bottom of the dugout or into the back to lament his night, his age, his inability to catch up to his fastball. He stood on that top step and hugged Ibanez like a brother after the first home run and charged onto the field following the second, and from the look on his face, the sort of unbridled joy even the best actor can't fake, he was right. Nobody was happier than him.
In the afterglow, they didn't care about tomorrow. Girardi shrugged off questions about his lineup and whether A-Rod would even be in it, and Ibanez rattled off boilerplate jabber about staying in the moment, and all Rodriguez would offer was a chestnut of rebirth.
"I'm coming right back at 'em," he said, "and I'm gonna be swinging out of my ass."
It's going to be his turn, at some point or another, to do what the Yankees expect, what they need, even if he's incapable of doing it all the time like he used to. A family is a beautiful concerto of people. At home, Ibanez's is seven. At the stadium, Rodriguez's is 25. They work together and play together and love one another and relish great moments. They are loyal to one another even if they feel wronged, for they understand that the family is greater than the person.
"I'm a very blessed man," Ibanez said. "I have a healthy baby boy and my wife is healthy, my children are healthy, first and foremost, and then getting an opportunity to play for this great team, great franchise, and being in that situation and having it work out that way is a great blessing."
Ibanez really is lucky, and even on what might be the most humbling night of his career, so is Alex Rodriguez. This game teaches people things they don't know about themselves: how great they can be swinging a bat or throwing a pitch or making a choice or respecting a choice, how they can balance perception and trust and have faith and loyalty, how living and losing are part of it all, but especially on a night like this, where, against all odds, against everything we've come to believe is true, two men and their families won.
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