Game 163: Twins-Tigers, and the game that turned casual fans into diehards

I am firmly of the opinion that the opening weekend of March Madness is the single-best four-day stretch for sports fans. I am also of the opinion that playoff hockey and postseason baseball rank up there in terms of raw excitement and drama.

One unusual event trumps them all, though: Game 163.

That 162 games played over six months can’t determine who’s playing in October and who isn’t lends a kind of frenetic chaos to baseball’s otherwise pastoral nature. That singular contest validates or nullifies everything a team plays for to that point. Where Game 7 lends a finality to certain proceedings, Game 163 is the leap of faith; it’s also where fans fall in love.

On October 6, 2009, I was working my way through graduate school as a hotel front desk clerk in Kansas City, Missouri, just off I-35. Hop on that northbound exit, give it about six or seven hours, and you’d be in the Twin Cities metro. We had a sizeable contingency of Minnesotans that arrived throughout the afternoon and they crowded into the lobby, surrounding the TV that we thoughtfully managed to have set to ESPN for the occasion.

They settled in for what is nothing less than baseball’s equivalent of a prize-fight.

The Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers both fought to an 86-76 record and, in the era before expanded Wild Cards, it meant win or go home. The contest provided all of the drama one could reasonably expect from a ball game: rallies, home runs, a pick off, extra innings, Fu-te Ni. I watched a group of middle-aged men lose their Minnesota nice in favor of being swept up in the moment, cheering and groaning, swinging wildly from joy to despair and back again until Alexi Casilla drove in a very young Carlos Gomez in the bottom of the 12th.

Now, those of us who have grown up around the Upper Midwest understand that Minnesota sports fans are odd [gray] ducks: unless it’s hockey, Minnesota fans are notoriously fair-weathered. I wrote early in this site’s history of how empty the Metrodome was at the close of the millennium, how cheap parking was. I know firsthand how many Vikings fans left losing contests well before the final gun sounded, how cavernous the Target Center feels when the Timberwolves struggle. Fast forward from my memories of downtown from the turn of the century to 2009 and 54,000 fans jammed one of sports’ legendary ear-splitting venues. A group of over twenty gentlemen in their finest business casual turned into children, and I mean that in the best possible way. They disturbed no one; and those who weren’t part of that contingency had a tacit understanding of what was at stake. We all had a mutual understanding of the gravity of the situation. It was Game 163.

Great games galvanize fans in a way not even championships can. I wasn’t much more than a baby in 1982, but I remember clearly the Beast Mode Brewers from 2011 and Nyjer Morgan‘s base knock up the middle. I remember how hard Glenn Robinson was hacked in the Eastern Conference Finals. I remember glancing at the hotel bar’s TV in October 2010 and saying to the bartender that Roy Halladay was throwing no-hit stuff. These moments turn casual fans into diehards, they consummate love for a team in a way titles can’t. That 2009 Twins team ran into the buzzsaw that was the New York Yankees, sure, but they gave their fans one of their last thrills until this year, when they clinched a wild card berth in the wake of the Cleveland Indians beating all comers for the better part of a full month. The AL Central was better than many seem to think, Chicago White Sox notwithstanding.

(Incidentally, the Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies would be playing Game 163 right now had it not been for the Brewers’ complete implosion Saturday in St. Louis. You don’t think that would be amongst the most entertaining contests we’ve seen this season? Yes, I’m a little bitter; why do you ask?)

The purest, most raw joy of sport is the unexpected. The perfect game, the cycle, the underdog. The 163rd game.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.