The baseball regular season is a very predictable thing, in the sense that a team travels around from city to city, plays 2 or 3 or sometimes 4 games in one place, and then moves on to the next city. Aside from three days off in July for the All-Star break, a few Mondays or Thursdays here and there, and the occasional rainout, there isn’t much to interrupt that over the course of six months during a year.
Sometimes, there’s a tie at the end of 162 games. And baseball can’t abide ties, so something has to be done to break the tie. That’s where Game 163–the odd duck of all baseball games–comes in.
The three major sports leagues in the U.S.A. all do things a little bit different. Football is a one-off every week, where one team travels to another city and plays a game. There is no follow-up, it’s just one and done. A visiting player may get a chance to play another game in that city, if they survive in the league long enough, but it’s very likely that the game is a one-time thing for them (“That time I played in Cleveland,” for example). The playoffs are the same way: One game and out. On to the next city, if you win, or done for the season, if you don’t.
Basketball does it a bit differently. They use a traveling around model, like the NFL does, but they return to the same city a couple of times during the regular season. An NBA player gets to play in Cleveland, or Atlanta, or San Antonio at least a couple different times in a season, for each season that they’re in the NBA. And the playoffs are a series of games, so that each individual game counts for something, and there isn’t a “win or go home” situation unless there’s a Game seven.
Baseball does it a different way. Since the team plays games almost every day, they don’t travel to a city just to play one game and then move on. Rather, they play, as mentioned before, anywhere from 2 to 4 games games in the same place. There’s talk in baseball of a team “winning the series” during the regular season, but over the course of 162 games, no three- or four-game series can mean too much. And the playoffs are when “winning the series” matters, but baseball players are conditioned to play games in a series, anyway.
But a tie after 162 games means that all bets are off. It means that one team will travel to another city to play a single game, like the NFL and NBA regular seasons, and that the winner of that game gets to keep playing, while the loser is done for the year. There’s no other situation like that in baseball. That’s what makes it so special.
I was lucky enough to go to a Game 163 once. In 1998, the Cubs and the Giants finished the season tied for the Wild Card (which was still a relatively new thing back then), and so a one-game playoff was held at Wrigley Field. Sammy Sosa got another game to try to catch Mark McGwire in home runs. He needed four, but didn’t hit any. Scottie Pippen threw out the first pitch. The Bulls were still the kings of Chicago sports, even after the Jordan era had come to a premature end. Bill Murray sang “Take me out to the Ballgame” with a passion that probably hasn’t been seen from any of the singers since then. And my wife and I had been to the doctor that day, where we heard our daughter’s heartbeat for the first time. It was a special day all the way around.
And the Cubs won the game, too. A jouneyman player named Gary Gaetti hit a flyball to the outfield that somehow made it into the bleachers, and the park exploded in a way I had never seen before, and doubt I’ll ever see again. The Giants had a rally going in the ninth inning, and I ran out of room on my scorecard for all the pitchers that were brought in to try to end it for the Cubs, but the late Rod Beck came in and got it done. Mayhem ensued, because the 1990s were a very bad decade for the Cubs, and making it to the playoffs, by the slimmest of margins, was cause for a wild celebration.
The team played the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs, and was swept in three games (it was a best-of-three back then, instead of best-of-five as it is now). So we all got worked into a frenzy, only to be let down at the end. It made Game 163 seem like a very hollow victory.
The next summer, after my daughter had been born and my wife and I drove east to introduce her to family in New York, we drove past Yankee Stadium. Even from the highway, I could see the ring around the top of the Stadium that read “26 World Championships,” which included the World Series win from the previous season. So the Cubs’ fans like myself, who got so worked up over winning a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, seemed kind of silly in the face of all the Yankees’ success.
The game itself was a great experience, the way any single, win-or-go-home playoff game is supposed to be. And I would have much rather won the game than lost it that night. But it left me–and I would imagine many others–feeling unfulfilled, especially in light of how the playoffs turned out. The team wasn’t able to build on that success in the next year, either. Sammy kept on hitting his home runs, but it would be several more disappointing seasons until the Cubs made the playoffs again.
Thinking back on that game, with the dozen or so years of life experience that have followed since then, I understand that a triumph one day doesn’t mean anything in the days that follow it. The Braves were a better team than the Cubs were (they won the World Series the year after that one, I believe) and they sure showed it.
The Tribune company owned the Cubs for two decades, but they never brought the team to the level that the Yankees were at. The Ricketts family hasn’t shown much so far, but they’re still cleaning up the mess of a franchise that the Cubs were back then. They’re going in a new direction now, and I’m hoping that the fleeting celebration of the 1998 Wild Card playoff game pales in comparison to what happens when the Cubs finally do, as Eddie Vedder once predicted, “go all the way.”