For all the polls that show how football is now America's most popular game, the Yankees-Red Sox showdown for the American League pennant is this year's sweet reminder that October baseball is the best game, the best theater in sports for moments to remember.
Unlike most other sports, the beauty of baseball is its one-on-one artistry -- the pitcher against the batter in October tension.
And last night, the Red Sox batters shelled the Yankee pitchers in Game 7, winning, 10-3, on four home runs (two by Johnny Damon, one each by David Ortiz and Mark Bellhorn) and righthander Derek Lowe's six innings of one-hit pitching. The night before, that solitary artistry was even more dramatically displayed as Curt Schilling, the Red Sox ace, flung his fastball on an ailing right ankle that had been sutured to support a dislocated tendon.
Whenever people think about Schilling in the years to come, that's the scene they will remember -- the smudge of blood on his white sock as much as the downward trajectory of his splitter for seven sturdy innings.
Only baseball supplies that stage -- the pitcher and the batter dueling 60 feet 6 inches apart. One with a baseball, the other with a bat. One knowing what type of pitch he's throwing, the other waiting or guessing.
Sometimes the batter wins, as Red Sox slugger David Ortiz did twice with his 12th-inning home run that won Game 4 and his broken-bat bloop single in the 14th inning that won Game 5. And sometimes all of a team's batters win, as the Yankees did in their 19-8 rout in Game 3.
Other times, the pitcher wins, as Schilling did. As Yankees righthander Jon Lieber did in Game 2 and as the Yankees' usually incomparable closer, Mariano Rivera, did in Game 1 after a five-hour flight from Panama, where that morning he had attended a funeral for two relatives.
In baseball's solitary artistry, somebody always wins, just as somebody always loses. That, along with the situation, creates the theater.
Solitary artistry is on display in other sports, notably boxing, golf, tennis, soccer, and most Olympic sports, but it's never quite so studied as it is in October baseball with the pitcher and the batter. When an October baseball game is still at stake in the late innings, teammates and spectators hold their breath on every pitch. And whenever the batter hits a long fly ball or even a short line drive, they hold their breath until it lands in the stands or in a glove.
In baseball, that solitary artistry is never obscured as it is in the assault of 22 football players, in the collisions battling for a rebound in basketball, or in a scramble near a hockey goaltender.
Baseball is often put down as boring and slow, nowhere near as fast or as crunching as the violence that the NFL or the colleges display. And on a Tuesday night in July, with virtually nothing at stake and with another game tomorrow in what for many major league teams can be a dreary 162-game schedule, baseball can be boring and slow.
On the mound, the pitcher shakes off the catcher's signs. The batter fouls off several pitches. The infielders and the outfielders stand as still as statues.
But when a baseball game means something special, the same elements that made it boring and slow in June make you hold your breath in October. For one of the teams in a Game 7 in October, there really is no tomorrow.
No clock is another reason for the beauty of baseball. Time never runs out, as it does in football or basketball or in regular-season hockey.
In the Super Bowl, the losing quarterback might lament, "We didn't lose, we just ran out of time." But in baseball, there is always time.
In the NBA Finals, the losing coach might lament, "If only we hadn't rushed that last shot." But in baseball, there is no need to rush anything.
In hockey, sudden-death overtime does exist in the Stanley Cup playoffs but only one team scores. In baseball's extra innings, both teams can score.
No matter what the sport, people are entitled to their personal memory of the best moment. But if it's a baseball moment, it invariably occurred in the October theater -- maybe Josh Beckett's shutout that won last year's World Series for the Marlins, or Aaron Boone's home run off Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield that put the Yankees into last year's World Series.
And with this year's World Series starting Saturday in Boston, the beauty of baseball in the October tension will provide another moment to remember. Count on it.