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Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Riedel

Penultimate greatness

Sports | This year's theater of Game 6 was more than a baseball game; it was a history lesson

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

A late-inning defensive miscue allows two runs to score, sparing a team from sure defeat and extending the World Series to Game 7. The year? 1986-and 2011.

A walk-off home run in extra frames ends an epic back-and-forth grudge match, pushing the Fall Classic to a final decisive game. The year? 1975-and 2011.

A broadcaster named Buck commemorates one of only four game-winning home runs in World Series history, inviting viewers back for an unlikely Game 7 with the understated refrain, "We'll see you tomorrow night." The Year? 1991-and 2011.

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Few would disagree that the St. Louis Cardinals' 4-3 series victory over the Texas Rangers to claim baseball's highest crown ranks among the most compelling theater in the game's storied history. And the height of that drama unfolded-as it has so often in years past-in Game 6. On Oct. 27, the Cardinals twice found themselves backed against a seemingly unscalable wall. And twice they scaled it, replaying some of baseball's most memorable moments in the process.

The first such moment played out in the bottom of the ninth inning, when Cardinals third baseman David Freese faced a two-out, two-strike pitch with his team trailing by two runs. Freese ripped the offering from Texas closer Neftali Feliz into right field. Outfielder Nelson Cruz appeared fooled on the play, hesitating in his pursuit of a catchable ball that eventually ricocheted off the wall for a two-run, game-tying triple.

The play conjured memories of another defensive miscue, that of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, whose misplay of a ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series resulted in two runs for the Mets and a heartbreaking loss. Like Buckner, Cruz will be ever remembered for the play, however unfair. The Texas slugger had more to do with the Rangers' postseason success than any other player, blasting a record-tying eight home runs during the team's playoff run. Buckner, likewise, delivered clutch hits during Boston's 1986 run but carries the label of World Series goat to this day.

Cruz might have avoided such associations had the Rangers managed to overcome the ninth-inning gaffe in extra innings. It seemed they might on the strength of a two-run Josh Hamilton blast in the top of the 10th. So unlikely was another Cardinals comeback that New York Times editors prematurely posted an online story heralding a Rangers World Series victory. The article recounted the history of frustration that has characterized the Texas franchise and declared that now new images of ultimate success "will live in Texas sports lore." Those images proved remarkably short-lived, as St. Louis mustered yet another last-hope, two-run rally to tie the score. The comeback robbed Texas lore but forever cemented the game's place among the heights of World Series lore.

And then the final act. As if the drama to that point were not enough, Freese stepped to the plate again in the bottom half of the 11th, this time as a lead-off man with the score tied and the bases empty. He homered, straight away to dead center field, and Busch Stadium quaked. From within the roar of the crowd, baseball aficionados could almost hear the echo of another Game 6 moment: Carlton Fisk's solo shot leading off the 12th inning of the 1975 World Series had capped a Red Sox rally to stave off elimination and force a Game 7.

But the echoes of that memory were dim compared to an audible voice that emanated from the ghost of Game 6 past. Broadcaster Joe Buck played specter: "We will see you tomorrow night," he said as the Freese homer sailed out. Buck stole it, of course, from his late father Jack, who delivered the identical refrain 20 years earlier almost to the day. On Oct. 26, 1991, Jack Buck had the perfect call for a lead-off Kirby Puckett dinger in the bottom of the 11th that pulled the Minnesota Twins into a three-games-apiece tie with the Atlanta Braves, pushing the series to a final decisive game.

ESPN has previously ranked the 1991 World Series the best ever played-and with good reason. The series three times required extra innings and had four games end on the final pitch. Taken in total, the 1991 affair may never meet its equal. But as Game 6 goes, the 2011 version may be the best yet. And that is no small matter.

Hard court

By Mark Bergin

David Stern/Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

The scheduled start of a hugely anticipated NBA season has come and gone with nary a final score to show for it. Owners and players remain locked in a labor dispute that threatens the recent uptick of momentum born of gripping playoff action and compelling superstars. The primary disagreement centers over the percentage of basketball-related income that should go to players. The owners want a 50-50 split. The players want 52.5 percent. And by some strange calculation, both parties deem that discrepancy worthy of an argument that could trample the delicate and surprising sprout of growth that last season afforded.

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