Virtually every sports fan has a story of a Game 7 that broke their hearts.
At least, those sports fans who enjoy games incorporating a best-of-seven round somewhere — baseball, hockey, basketball … There’s Game 5 do-or-die contests in baseball too, in the Division Series, but “Game 5” doesn’t quite come with the same gravitas. Game 7 is the ultimate. Six games played, three up and three down, and two undoubtedly tired teams must then fight one last time, winner take all. They are sports all wrapped up in one defining game: the highest highs, the lowest lows, the nail-biting and teeth-gnashing and incoherent joyful shouting and some of the most heart-racing seconds you will ever experience.
I’ve got plenty of Game 7 stories, having grown up a hockey fan. It’s where the awe and terror of those words was instilled in me, bound into my instincts. Say “Game 7” to those of us in the know and our hearts begin to pound and our hands start to sweat. They’re the scariest words in sports. Those nights are the best day of someone’s sporting life, and the worst day of someone else’s.
Last season was my first MLB playoffs, and we all know well what Game 7 broke many hearts (and buoyed up many others) then. If we’re going to be perfectly accurate, though, it was Game 6 that did the breaking; the next was just the cherry on top. It ensured that I’ll never be able to confidently say “Down to their last strike” about the Cardinals again—a valuable lesson that no game is ever certain, no lead protected, until the game is over. The Rangers had so many chances, were so close every time, and could never quite make it.
In 2004 my Calgary Flames played the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was down to the wire, as down as you could possibly get—Game 7 overtime, sudden death with an entire season on the line. The Flames led by a goal in the third as the clock wound down, already celebrating, no doubt … and with 5.7 seconds left on the clock (I’ll never forget that number, as long as I live) Matt Cooke flipped the puck past Miikka Kiprusoff. Tie game. The Canucks’ equivalent of “down to their last strike”.
I actually didn’t see the overtime at all. I was already in such a state — terror doesn’t begin to describe it — that I, and the rest of my family save my dad, went upstairs and tried to go to bed. I wasn’t asleep, of course, but I could hardly bear to even think about overtime.
Minutes after the OT period began, my father suddenly yelled fit to wake the neighbourhood and came thundering up the stairs. “THEY SCORED! THEY SCORED!” Mass pajamaed confusion ensued until it was finally determined that “they” in fact meant “we” and the Flames, for the first time in fifteen years, had won the series.
An incredibly magical run followed. The Flames, underdoggiest of underdogs, somehow managed to thrash the Detroit Red Wings in six games, and the San Jose Sharks in six again. Each series-winning goal, including the one against the Canucks, was scored by Martin Gelinas, the Eliminator, the saviour. And then came the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Flames, up three games to two, lost Game 6 in that series in part due to one of the most painful events I will probably ever experience in sports. The puck arguably crossed the goal line (off the stick of Martin Gelinas!!!); it was waved off, and no one protested. Not a single Flame. They lost in overtime, and lost Game 7, and lost the Stanley Cup. One win away, one goal away, and they just couldn’t do it.
The final Game 7 was the first (and so far only) time sports made me cry.
Every heartbreaker, though, every “we just ran out of gas,” is a “down to their last strike” comeback for someone else. The Cardinals over the Rangers was a marvel to anyone rooting for St. Louis. There’s the Diamondbacks beating the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th in the 2001 World Series. There’s the Marlins besting the Indians in 1997, or the Braves scoring three times in the 9th against the Pirates to win the 1992 NL pennant.
There’s entire series comebacks, too, like the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS or the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 1942 Stanley Cup, both teams going down 3-0 in the series and then winning four straight. Those are the ultimate in everything, in baffling elation for the winners, for absolute astonishment for the losers. “We were so close,” but so close guarantees nothing.
The San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals have met in Game 7 of the NLCS once before—1987 at Busch Stadium, the first Game 7 in NLCS history. The Cardinals won it 5-3.
Tonight, they meet at AT&T Park in San Francisco on the heels of two straight improbable Giants wins. Barry Zito, 7.2 innings, no runs. Ryan Vogelsong, 7 innings, one run. This is the madness of which playoff series are made.
I hope for one thing tonight: that the dogpile on the mound is orange and black and white. And I hope this isn’t the second time I cry at sports, but if it is, I hope it’s joy and exhilaration, not deflation. And I really hope that we never see the bottom of the ninth.
Addendum: It should be mentioned that my father, charged with the task of watching Calgary-Vancouver overtime on his own, was halfway through eating an orange when Gelinas scored.
A week or so later, when the Flames were in the middle of playing the Red Wings, we began to notice a weird smell in the vicinity of the living room. After some detective work it was discovered that there was a moulding orange situated behind the couch, presumably from jumping in the air and flailing in disbelief.
I’m usually not one for superstition, but there is an orange in my apartment tonight, ready for battle.