BY MAJOR league standards, 6-foot, 200-pound Eric Bruntlett is one of the little people. The Philadelphia Phillies utilityman had just six postseason at bats for the World Series champions; smart fans took them as opportunities to run to the beer stand so they'd be back in their seats when Ryan Howard came up. Bruntlett is the type who spends his career hopping from position to position, subbing into games after schoolkids have gone to bed and seldom seeing his name in the next day's headlines. The role pays well—Bruntlett just signed an $800,000 contract for 2009—but not that well. It's important, but not that important.
Bruntlett is one of the sports world's interchangeable parts, a bit player usually long forgotten when the Big Moments are preserved for history. Yet in 2008 Bruntlett was a master of the Little Moment, a one-man tipping point who kept tilting the Phils toward their first championship in 28 years. Would the Phillies have won it all without him? Maybe. Maybe not. As anyone who has obsessed over a past mistake or been forced to sit through the films Sliding Doors and Serendipity knows, respooling the thread of history can be a maddening exercise.
What's not debatable is that the moments of 2008 worth remembering—the championships, the awards, the inspiring wins and spirit-crushing losses—were made possible by minor players and quirky plays that were almost immediately lost to history. Odes were written to various teams of the century, and statues will be built of their MVPs. But as the year closes, unfamous men should also be praised. Fleeting moments should be frozen. The stories behind the stories of the year should be remembered.
In Bruntlett's case those include a crucial late-August game against the Mets, when he capped a seven-run comeback with a two-out, game-tying double in the bottom of the ninth. (Philly won in 13 innings, hastening the Mets' annual collapse from playoff contention.) There he was again in Game 3 of the World Series, leading off the bottom of the ninth of a tie game by getting plunked by a pitch; he eventually came around to score the winning run to put the Tampa Bay Rays in a 2--1 Series hole. Four days later, Bruntlett did it again: He scored the Series-clinching run as a pinch runner for lead-legged star Pat Burrell.
Call Bruntlett a historical fleet-of-footnote. Others made their marks in less heroic fashion. The Boston Celtics owe their NBA title to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, yes—but also to center Kendrick Perkins, who unwittingly sparked a record 24-point comeback against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals by leaving with an injured shoulder. Perkins's third-quarter departure forced coach Doc Rivers to go with an undersized lineup of guards and forwards that outscored the Lakers 49--23. Afterward, with L.A. facing a 3--1 deficit it wouldn't overcome, coach Phil Jackson admitted, "Their shooting lineup changed the course of the game."
Nor was it through sheer driving prowess that NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson sealed his 2008 Sprint Cup championship. On Lap 174 of the October event at Talladega, the fourth race of the Chase, rival Carl Edwards triggered a massive wreck that claimed the cars of fellow Chase contenders Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Johnson was running with the pack that crashed, but he somehow drifted through the smoke without a scratch. He finished the race in ninth place, giving himself an insurmountable points lead in the Chase. "This is like a win for me," Johnson said. "When I saw how many of the Chase guys got collected in that accident, I was like, Wow, this is my day."
That is most definitely not what Texas safety Blake Gideon was thinking after the Longhorns' Nov. 1 loss to Texas Tech. With less than a minute left, undefeated Texas was clinging to a 33--32 lead, but Tech was driving. With 15 seconds to go, a pass by Red Raiders QB Graham Harrell was deflected; the ball helicoptered softly toward Gideon for an easy, game-sealing interception.
Except Gideon dropped the ball. At that moment it felt like an unfortunate miscue, nothing more. But on the next play Harrell hit Michael Crabtree with a TD pass that won the game—and rocked the entire college football landscape. The Longhorns' loss cost them an undefeated season and a shot at the national title. They ended up third in the BCS rankings; instead of playing in the championship game on Jan. 8, they'll face Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 5.
That one pass may also have damaged the Heisman hopes of Texas QB Colt McCoy, who minutes before Gideon's drop had directed an 80-yard drive to give the Longhorns the lead. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford was a worthy winner over McCoy, the runner-up. But had Texas beaten Tech, it would have been difficult for Heisman voters to look beyond the leader of the undefeated, No. 1 team in the nation.
Not to get too Biblical with a man named Gideon, but if the safety is feeling low this bowl season, he can always turn to the wisdom of Samuel. Former New England Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel no doubt understands what Gideon is going through. The moments that historians will remember from the New York Giants' stunning Super Bowl upset are David Tyree's improbable last-drive catch or Eli Manning's last-minute touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress.
But bitter New Englanders recall that a play before Tyree's acrobatics, Samuel let an interception slip through his hands. It would have sewn up the game and a perfect 19--0 season for the Patriots; 18--1 doesn't have the same ring, yet Samuel kept his gaffe in perspective. "Life goes on, you know? You have to move forward," he said in August, after signing a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. "Nine times out of 10 I never miss that play, but one play doesn't make a game."
Maybe not, but this year proved that one little play, and one minor player, can change history.
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Let's praise unfamous men and remember the stories behind THE STORIES OF THE YEAR.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER