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IN A GAME FOR THE AGES, 'GOAT' LABEL IS INDELIBLE

It figures. In the end, the World Series that had been held up as an example of everything that is wrong with baseball became a reminder of all that is right with the game.

Just a few days ago, this was being called one of the worst Series of all time. Then, on Sunday night, it produced one of the most compelling seventh games in history, a game to savor for all time.

"That's baseball," Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove said. "That's what the game is all about. If you enjoy baseball, you had to enjoy this series."

Florida's 3-2, 11-inning comeback victory had South Florida dancing into the wee morning hours. It had historians scurrying to the record books to confirm that the Marlins had been the first team to come from behind in the ninth inning of a seventh game to win.

The Series had been criticized for an absence of close games and late-inning drama. But Game Seven made up for it. It proved once again that baseball is an endlessly unpredictable and wonderful game.

It can also be a cruel and unmerciful game, one that turns an athlete from a hero to a goat in an instant.

Tony Fernandez, Cleveland's 35-year-old second baseman, had been experiencing a terrific postseason. His 10th-inning home run against the Orioles had won the deciding game of the American League Championship Series.

Fernandez was two outs from being the star of the game Sunday. His two-run single in the third inning had given the Indians an early lead, and they took a 2-1 edge into the last of the ninth.

But the Marlins tied the game in the ninth on a sacrifice fly by a little-known second baseman from Notre Dame named Craig Counsell. And it set the stage for Fernandez's fateful play two innings later.

Florida's Bobby Bonilla was at first base with one out. Counsell stepped to the plate, with the Pro Player Stadium clock reading exactly midnight. On an 0-2 pitch from Charles Nagy, he bounced an innocuous-looking grounder between second and first.

Fernandez moved to field the ball, but Bonilla stopped and seemed to momentarily screen him. Fernandez hesitated and lunged, too late, as the ball rolled under his glove into right field.

Moments later, Edgar Renteria stroked a single to center field, scoring the winning run and touching off a wild celebration in the ballpark and in the streets of South Florida.

"I don't want to make any excuses," Fernandez said afterward in a hushed Indians locker room. "It happens. Maybe God lets me experience bad things because he knows I can handle it."

Fernandez, who led the Blue Jays with nine RBIs in the 1993 Series, wouldn't say if the ball had taken a funny hop. He said he was worried about cutting down the lead runner and missed the ball. He said he deserved the error.

"You can go all the way from the top to the bottom," he said. "But that's life. That's why you have to live one day at a time and just be thankful to God that you made it this far. I think it's an honor to be playing in the seventh game of the World Series."

It was an honor to be part of this one, which was easily the most well-played of the Series. At last, the teams engaged in a tense, low-scoring battle, the excitement building with every at-bat, every pitch.

Cleveland's 21-year-old rookie, Jaret Wright, was magnificent. It was every kid's dream, pitching the seventh game of a World Series, and he showed the poise and command of a Jack Morris, Bob Gibson or Whitey Ford.

Al Leiter, Florida's erratic left-hander, turned in the Marlins' most effective starting effort of the series, giving up just two runs in six innings and keeping his team in it.

The relievers followed suit, setting the stage for the ninth inning against Jose Mesa. With runners at the corners and one out, Counsell hit a bullet to deep right for a game-tying sacrifice fly.

Somehow, these obscure middle infielders always seem to pop up in big Series moments.

It seems a little unfair, but when a championship is decided by such a narrow margin, someone often has to serve the role of goat.

Lonnie Smith is remembered for a base-running gaffe in Minnesota's 1-0 win in the seventh game in 1991. Everyone remembers Johnny Pesky holding the ball while Enos Slaughter dashed home in 1946, and, of course, the Bill Buckner play in 1986.

Now we add the name of Fernandez, a former Gold Glove shortstop, to the list. Moments after Counsell scored the winning run, Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel walked over to Fernandez. He put his arm around him and whispered in his ear.

"I just said, 'It was a pleasure for me to play with a guy like you'," Vizquel said. "He has two of the best hands I've ever seen in baseball."

Sadly, he will be remembered forever for a muggy night in Florida in late October, when he couldn't get those two hands on the ball.

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