Game 163: 10 Years Later
We’re approaching the 10-year anniversary of when Minnesota was, quite honestly, the center of the professional sports world.
On September 27, 2009, the original ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ happened when Brett Favre hit Greg Lewis for a ridiculous 32-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone with two seconds left as the Minnesota Vikings topped the San Francisco 49ers 27-24.
On October 4, 2009, the Minnesota Twins topped the Kansas City Royals 13-4 to tie the Detroit Tigers atop the American League Central Division and force a one-game playoff for the right to make the postseason.
The very next day, October 5, 2009, Favre and the Vikings took down his old team the Green Bay Packers 30-23 on Monday Night Football. And that leads us all to the culmination of that period: Tuesday, October 6, 2009.
The Minnesota Twins would host the Detroit Tigers at the Metrodome. The winner would clinch the division title and make the playoffs. The loser’s season would be over. By its technical name, it was the 2009 American League Central Division tiebreaker. But Twins fans know it by a much simpler title:
And I was there.
As someone who loves a good sports story, the 2009 Minnesota Twins fit the bill perfectly. At the beginning of September, they were well out of the playoff race. On September 13, 2009, they were 70-72, 5.5 games back of the division lead with just 20 games to play. They also found out the very next day that they were going to have to play the rest of the season without one of their best players in first baseman and former MVP Justin Morneau, who suffered a lower back injury. They somehow strung together 16 wins in their final 20 games of the regular season to force the one-game tiebreaker.
This was also the final season of the Metrodome – one of the most beloved (if you’re a Minnesota sports fan) or reviled (if you’re anything BUT a Minnesota sports fan) buildings in America. One of the last true ‘multi-purpose’ stadiums, the Dome was the home of both the Twins and Vikings and that makes a huge impact on Game 163 (more on that later).
The Dome was a relic in 2009. In 1982, when it first opened, it was the wave of the future: one size-fits-all, indoors, climate-controlled, cookie-cutter circle of land that would save the city of Minneapolis millions of dollars by having multiple teams play there. But even in the 1990s, it was outdated. The Twins were always a threat to move to another city until 2006 when legislation was passed to build a new stadium. Target Field would be ready in 2010. But there was business to take care of first.
The Extra Day
Normally, tiebreaker games are played the day after the 162-game regular season ends. But the Dome was busy on October 5 for a very good reason: Monday Night Football. Brett Favre, who improbably signed with the Vikings in August after a legendary career with the Green Bay Packers, would lead his new team to a victory over his old team at the Metrodome. Who knew the NFL’s schedule, formalized back in April, and the Twins going on a hot streak in September would collide into a serendipitous scheduling conflict? The extra day gave the Twins the ability to start their ace at the time, Scott Baker. All he had to do was perform.
After the Twins forced the one-game tiebreaker, I immediately went online for tickets. I happened to be visiting home for the weekend in Minnesota and had the next two days off from my old job. I waited in an online waiting room for nearly five hours until finally coming away with three tickets in the upper deck near the left-field foul ball pole. I went with my 16-year-old younger brother and my dad, knowing I would see one of two things: either the last baseball game ever played at the Metrodome – or the Twins clinch a spot in the postseason.
I had no clue how the game would play out, I just knew I would be there, experiencing the Metrodome the way it was meant to be: with 55,000 screaming fans waving the ubiquitous white towels known as Homer Hankies.
For television purposes, the game was broadcast on TBS with a start time of 4 PM. It was a weird time to start a baseball game – and it felt that way walking up the Metrodome. It was a cold, rainy and gray afternoon, a nondescript backdrop for what had become a non-descript building. As we all got ‘vacuum-sucked’ into the air-pressurized Metrodome, it felt like you were entering a time capsule. Once you got onto those concourses, there were no windows to inform you of what was happening in the outside world. For the next couple of hours (and then some), this was what mattered and nothing else.
As it turns out, the extra day did not help Twins starter Scott Baker. The Tigers scored the first three runs of the game, capped by a Miguel Cabrera home run in the 3rd inning. The Twins got one back in the bottom half of the inning and then cut the lead to 3-2 in the 6th on a towering home run by Jason Kubel. The bottom of the 7th inning is when this game went from being simply fun to something… more.
Orlando Cabrera, a midseason acquisition from the Oakland Athletics, hit a two-run homer that just barely cleared the outfield fence and gave the Twins a 4-3 lead. They’d surrender it right back in the top of the 8th and the game would be tied going to the 9th inning.
Twins closer Joe Nathan had usually been reliable, but he put runners on 1st and 3rd with nobody out in the top of the 9th. I felt sick to my stomach up in left field, thinking the Tigers were going to score and win. But somehow Joe got one of baseball’s best hitters, Placido Polanco, to strike out looking. And then, Magglio Ordonez, a ‘Twins killer’ for most of his career who always came up with a clutch hit, hit a scorching liner….
…A liner that was caught on the fly by Orlando Cabrera at shortstop. He then fired back to first (and replacement first baseman Michael Cuddyer) to try and nail one of the fastest guys in baseball, Curtis Granderson, for an inning-ending double play. I still remember the first base umpire, in what seemed like slow-motion, pumping his fist forward, then backward. He was out. The inning was over. The disaster was averted.
That image will forever be seared in my brain, the in and out motion of the umpire’s fist, the sheer joy that overcame every Twin on the field knowing they averted catastrophe, seeing Joe Nathan nearly blow out his arm pumping his fist coming off the mound, Orlando Cabrera running like a madman to the dugout full of adrenaline.
It was at that moment, that no matter what happened the rest of the game, I felt like I was witnessing history, something that may never be seen again. To this day, it’s hard to describe, but it was one of those things where I just knew we were watching something epic, something that meant more than what was happening on the field.
But alas, the game wasn’t over.
The 10th Inning
After a scoreless 9th, the Tigers scored a run in the top of the 10th. The Twins would need to score at least one in the bottom of the 10th to keep the game and their season alive. It was looking dire once again.
Michael Cuddyer led off the bottom of the inning and hit a shallow flyball to left. The white ball must’ve gotten lost in the white roof of the Metrodome because what should’ve been the first out of the inning turned into a misplay that rolled all the way to the wall. Cuddyer ended up on 3rd with a leadoff triple and momentum was back on their side. After a groundout and a walk, there were runners on 1st and 3rd with one out and journeyman Matt Tolbert at the plate.
Tolbert was not exactly the man Twins fans wanted up at the plate. He was in the starting lineup only due to the myriad of injuries the team had suffered and had little to no power at the dish. Any groundball could turn into a season-ending double play.
On an 0-2 pitch, he hit a high chopper over the mound. I distinctly remember screaming “Noooo!” from my seats, imagining the double play that was about to happen and the season that was about to end. Instead, somehow, someway, the ball squirted through the middle of the infield for a base hit, Cuddyer scored from 3rd and the Twins and Tigers were tied at 5.
The next batter was fan-favorite Nick Punto, who hit a ball sharply to left field. Unfortunately, the ball was caught and Alexi Casilla, who represented the potential game-winning run, was tagged out at the plate after getting a late start on the break. We were heading to the 11th, still tied. Nothing happened, though, until the 12th.
The 12th Inning
The Tigers loaded the bases with one out and the Twins on their 8th pitcher, Bobby Keppel. A pitch to Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge appeared to hit his jersey, which would’ve meant an automatic pass to first base and another run-scoring. But the home plate umpire missed it and the Twins somehow got out of that inning unscathed. Time after time, the Twins had dodged bullets. You almost wondered how much more they could handle.
A single by Carlos Gomez led off the bottom of the 12th. He advanced to 2nd on a groundout and a few batters later, Alexi Casilla, the man whose baserunning blunder cost the Twins just two innings earlier, hit a chopper through the right side of the infield. Gomez raced around 3rd and halfway home, the entire Twins dugout followed his path. They knew what was happening. Gomez slid headfirst into home, leaped into the air and slammed his batting helmet on the ground. The Twins won 6-5 and the euphoria in that building still gives me goosebumps to this day! U2’s Beautiful Day blared from the speakers and my dad, brother and I high-fived random strangers. The Twins made the playoffs, the Metrodome worked its magic one more time and the season was still alive.
The official time of the game was four hours and 37 minutes. I felt like I spent an entire day inside the Metrodome. After the celebration, everyone made their way outside. The dreary, gray afternoon had turned into a chilly, night. It felt like it was 3 AM, but the reality is we were just shy of 9 PM. I could’ve gone to bed right then and there, I was just emotionally and physically exhausted.
The Twins would end up getting swept by the hated New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. But honestly that’s not important.
In the years since that game, I’ve come to realize it’s the greatest sporting event I’ve ever seen in person. What I witnessed was Minnesota’s final victory in the Metrodome. I saw it with my dad, my brother and 55,000 other passionate people who just wanted to see something special. Mission accomplished.
I wasn’t the only one who thought that the game was special. The rest of the world did as well.
Since it was technically an extension of the regular season, Sports Illustrated named it the best regular-season game of the decade. MLB Network ranked it #16 on the list of the greatest games in the history of baseball. Just think about that. In the 100+ year history of Major League Baseball, what I saw was one of the times the sport was at its best.
The twists and turns were unreal. Bobby Keppel was credited with the win for the Twins – and he never pitched another MLB game. Alexi Casilla was a light-hitting infielder who was off the team a few years later. The Metrodome would become a Vikings-only facility until it was demolished for a new stadium in 2014. The imagery, the people, the shared experience is what makes Game 163 memorable.
Game 163 is a microcosm of why we love sports. You never know when something amazing might unfold right in front of your eyes! It could be a random week two football game, a Wednesday night in the middle of January or a winner-take-all game where the stakes couldn’t be higher. Sports provides the opportunity for drama, both in real-time and in real life. There’s an authenticity that you can’t replicate anywhere else and it can give you the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But the ability to feel those emotions is the essence of why games like this matter.
As a wedding gift several years ago, one of my groomsmen bought me an old Metrodome section light. It now hangs in my basement and serves as a reminder of what that building meant to me and other Minnesota sports fans. It was more than just where the Twins and Vikings played; it was an escape into another world where anything was possible.
Earlier in this blog, I called the Metrodome a time capsule. And now, ten years later, the memories have been dug up for reflection. It’ll probably be another ten years or so before the outside world commemorates this game again. But for me, whenever I’m at a sporting event as a fan or a broadcaster, I think about Game 163 and how you just never know when you might see something that changes your life.
I hope everyone can find their own Game 163.