Bobby Cox sits in the home dugout at Turner Field, arms folded across his belly like a slightly discontented Buddha. It is the bottom of the ninth and the good guys, as Skip Caray used to say, are down 3-2. The coach checks his scorecard, looks down the bench and calls for a pinch hitter.
It isn't a surprise call. At least it wouldn't have been, say, 48 hours before. Brooks Conrad, a 30-year-old career minor leaguer who finally made the big league roster in the spring, a scrapper that team captain Chipper Jones nicknamed Raw Dog, hit two pinch hit grand slam home runs in the regular season, heroics that made any number of highlight reels. Everybody knows what he can do in a pinch.
But everybody also knows what he also can do. Pressed into service as a starting infielder near the end of the season after injuries claimed both Chipper and Martin Prado, Conrad was defensively inconsistent and 24 hours earlier he had committed three errors at second base, the third a tailor-made double play ball that would have ended the inning and preserved a Braves lead.
The ball bounced between his legs into the outfield and thousands of Braves fans, myself included, sprang from their sofas, throwing our arms into the air and screaming, "I could have made that play!"
The Braves lost the game.
The next day, with sports writers from one end of the country to the other comparing Conrad to goats of championship series past, Bobby Cox made the decision to take Conrad out of the lineup for that night's game. But not as punishment, not as discipline, not as a show of authority. "I talked to Brooksy at length this morning, and he needs a day off," Cox told reporters. "He needs to get away from it for a day. ... This shouldn't happen to anybody in the game of baseball. But it's happened to [him]. I told him to hold his head high, and maybe pinch-hit and win a game for us."
So there we are, all of us, biting our nails, sitting on the edges of our seats, watching Number 26 walk toward the plate, wondering if Number 6 had pulled just one more bit of magic out of his baseball cap.
He didn't. Instead Conrad hit a fly ball to center field. And, two outs later, the season ended for the good guys.
I've been a fan for a long time. I remember a lot of big moments. Most of those moments play out in my memory to a soundtrack of loud cheers and enthusiastic broadcast calls. But none of them, not even Sid Bream sliding under the tag at home, will stay with me longer than that one quiet moment in Game 4 of the 2010 National League Division Series, a play that is recorded in the score book as simply F8.
It was, it dawned on me as I sat on the sofa and watched Conrad turn and trot slowly back toward the dugout, a moment of pure grace.
We Protestants talk a lot about grace. We've talked about it so much that we don't even have to define it anymore, we just use its tag line: unmerited favor. We've requisitioned it for use as a get-out-of-jail-free card. We call ourselves Christians and then sanitize what it means to be one since, as we so kindly explain to those who are less biblically literate, we no longer "live under the law."
I have to wonder, though, how many of us who claim to have experienced that grace are as quick to offer it as was the man in the dugout? How often have we given an opportunity to someone who didn't deserve it? How often have we offered a second chance to someone who bungled the first one? How often have we given more than has been asked?
In his post-game — actually post-career — interviews, Bobby Cox said he hadn't really thought about it being his last game. That it wasn't until the game was over, until the final out was made, until everybody started heading toward the locker room and the cheers of the fans called him out on the field for one final round of applause and a tipping of the hat by the opposing team that he realized he'd put on the uniform for the last time.
Poignant. Bittersweet. And, dusted with grace, amazing.