After Braun's astonishingly perfect approach to finishing off a series, I tapped Mark on the shoulder again.
"I take it back," I said. "Baseball's the grandest, most dazzling game anyone ever concocted."
On Sunday morning, my stomach felt so shaky that I thought I'd have to miss the last Brewers game of the regular season. I'd been to four games in five days. I'd stayed up late too many nights in a row. I was exhausted.
This season has tested my endurance. My optimism seemed to be pinned to the stock market. About the time our closers stopped closing and my guys couldn't get a hit with a man on base, I began nibbling my nails like Ben Sheets. When somebody jinxed the Brewers' bats in September and our manager got the ax, I found myself turning off the television before the games were over. Me, the true-blue Crew fan, couldn't stand watching the slaughter. I even tried to convince myself that baseball was only a game.
Back to Sunday morning: I pulled on my jeans and my new Brewers fleece jacket -- the one that just might turn out to be lucky -- packed up an easy-on-the-tummy sandwich, and drove to pick up my son Rick. By 12:40 p.m. CT, the preferred lots were so full we had to park on the access road. Inside Miller Park, the crowd was so thick I needed a traffic cop to help me squeeze through the parade of bodies.
Then the plaintive tones of the national anthem played by saxophonist Warren Wiegratz made me laugh out loud. There we all were, 44,000 people, wondering whether this competition would snuff our hopes or fan the flames.
Directly behind us was a boy about 10 years old at his first Brewers game. I told him I hoped it would be a day he'd remember for a long time. Nearby were four decked-out Cubs fans. As soon as the Brewers were announced, the noise level proved the home fans finally outnumbered our neighbors to the south. Maybe we could outgun them, too.
CC Sabathia took the mound, and a massive wave of fans stood to honor the gifted giant. As soon as he got his first out, my stomach unclenched. Sabathia is a surprising combination of power, grace and energy -- like a race horse barely under control. He pitches steadily one batter after another, one inning after another -- nearly as quickly as Sheets -- bristling with eagerness to do his job and help his team. Despite my confidence in Sabathia, I grew nervous. My pulse began to race, as if I'd had four cups of coffee and a Diet Pepsi. The score was stuck at 1-0 for too long.
In the bottom of the seventh, we finally got some breaks and loaded the bases. The crowd stood to cheer and stayed on their feet. Though we scored just one run in that inning, the crowd went crazy and continued to stand into the bottom of the eighth. Mike Cameron singled with one out, but Ray Durham flied out.
To deafening cheers, Braun sauntered to the plate, as if he had all day to do what he had to do, and began his glove adjustment, dirt-picking, toe-digging, bat-swinging routine with an absolutely bland expression on his face. While he was doing all that, I turned to the kid behind me and asked if he could see. Before he could answer, the roar of the crowd thundered in my chest. I looked up in time to watch Braun leap into the air on his way around the bases. I never saw where the ball went, because I was crying.
After Sabathia finished the game by inducing a double play, the entire stadium erupted into chaos. On the field, with their trademark shirttails flapping, the grinning, shouting players hugged and danced. Even the usher who stood guard on the dugout roof pulled out his shirttails.
With only the Cubs fans hustling to the exits, it was a bizarre scene as everyone settled back in their seats to watch the gigantic television screen, in hopes the Florida Marlins would give us the final boost into the playoffs.
And then, they did. Amid streamers and confetti everyone laughed, hugged and high-fived each other. Finally, our heroic Milwaukee Brewers took the field again, this time bathed in champagne.
See, I was right all along. Baseball isn't just a great American pastime. It's the grandest, most dazzling game anyone ever concocted.
P.S.: I heard a story about Braun that proves what an independent, confident player he is. On Sunday, every Brewers player was supposed to bring a packed bag to the stadium, so the team could depart immediately for New York if there had to be a sudden-death game the next day. Braun was the only player who didn't bring his bag.