The Lightning Strike That Rewired My Brain
2:40 PM EST on December 22, 2021
Welcome to Infinite Replay, a recurring feature about the plays we can’t stop seeing over and over and over again.
Here's what remember: I was at a Rockies game with my brother and my aunt. It was 1996, I was 8 years old, and the Rockies were getting the shit kicked out of them. And then the skies opened up, and it started to rain, and it just kept raining. We waited out the delay for what must have been more than two hours, because when the game eventually restarted, with a light rain still falling and thunder still rumbling, the stadium was almost empty. It was late enough and wet enough that the ushers didn't even look our way when we claimed a new set of seats right behind home plate. And from there is where we saw it all happen.
The Rockies started hitting and scoring runs. I don't remember exactly how many runners crossed the plate in which inning, but I remember feeling like I was watching something impossible happen. The Rockies had been down by seven, or 10, or maybe even 11 runs when the game went into a delay, and now I was sitting there, just a few feet from the batter's box, watching that deficit disappear into a storm. And then the big thing happened: The Rockies' power-hitting third baseman, Vinny Castilla, stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. I remember him swinging the bat, and the crack of bat meeting ball filling the cavernous stadium. But what I really remember, what still replays in my mind and makes this memory not so much about a cherished sports memory but a miracle, was the flash of light. You see, right as Castilla made contact, a huge arc of lightning split the sky, and the whole scene—the lightning hitting like a jump scare, the sound of the bat providing its own thunder, the ball sailing into the black night—was too much for my little brain to deal with. I freaked out. I remember screaming in the rain and knowing, immediately, that I'd never forget this moment.
I've described this grand slam many times over the years, usually as an answer to someone's question about the best sporting event I ever attended in person. Every time I do, it feels like I am telling a tall tale, and over the years I even began to doubt the veracity of the story myself. I was just a kid when I attended this game, after all, and memories tend to take on more mythic qualities as time passes. Did I really witness an 11-run comeback? Did I really sit through a multi-hour rain delay? Did lightning really strike at the precise moment that Castilla clobbered that baseball?
I knew these questions would be fairly easy to answer, and yet I always stopped myself from seeking any clarity on what had actually happened that night. I didn't want to lose my warm memory to the cold facts of reality, and I didn't want to have to find another story to tell whenever I wanted to talk about the best game I ever saw. But this year, finally, I decided to find out just how much of my memory of that game was accurate.
The Denver Post archives didn't offer me much confirmation that this game had even happened at all, let alone how I remembered it, which had me worried. But then I stumbled upon an AP writeup of a Padres-Rockies game that occurred on July 12, 1996. This was the game I remembered, and the AP's story confirmed many of the details from my memory: There had been two rain delays that lasted more than two hours combined, the Padres had been leading 9-2 after the sixth inning, and the Rockies had won the game 13-12 thanks to an 11-run seventh inning in which Castilla had clubbed a grand slam. Crucially, there was lightning:
With lightning crackling around Denver on Friday night, Vinny Castilla hit a grand slam that capped the Rockies’ 11-run seventh inning and gave Colorado a 13-12 victory over the San Diego Padres in a game that lasted 5 hours, 34 minutes from first pitch to last.
``It reminded you of `The Natural’ a little bit, with some lightning over the left-field wall and a lot of things happening,″ said Rockies manager Don Baylor, who should be used to strange happenings at Coors Field by now.AP
The rush of vindication I felt upon reading those paragraphs was soon replaced by annoyance at the relatively vague description of events. "With lightning crackling around Denver" and "some lightning over the left-field wall" both leave a lot of room for interpretation. I couldn't understand how anyone who saw what I saw, a natural wonder so awe-inspiring and well-timed that it was hard not to think of it as an omen from the gods themselves, could describe the situation so passively. How did Mike Flam of the Associated Press write this story without dedicating several paragraphs to the description of the lightning? How did Don Baylor manage to talk about what he had seen without weeping over the beauty of existence?
These questions raised a grim possibility that I had not previously considered: What if everyone had indeed seen what I remembered seeing, but it just hadn't been that cool or remarkable? I tried to think back on the moment Castilla connected with the ball again, seeing it not from my own eyes but from an objective point of view within the stadium. From there, it was easy to see the moment for what it likely was: a guy hitting a grand slam in the seventh inning of an eventful but ultimately meaningless regular-season baseball game, in front of an exhausted and sodden crowd numbering no more than a few thousand people. Oh, and was there maybe some lightning out there in the sky? Who cares, this game has been going on for five hours already and everyone just wants to go home. Eventually, I was able to track down video of the grand slam (thanks to Dan McQuade), and was shocked at how ordinary it seemed:
But no, fuck that. I will not accept that version of events. Because what makes sports such a powerful engine of emotion and memory aren't the bare facts of what happened on the field, but the conditions under which a given person absorbed those facts. On that night in 1996, I was an 8-year-old boy for whom the world was still bursting with novel and formative experiences. When you're that age, there's nothing more exciting than the moments in which you are allowed to push through the previously established boundaries of your life. The same goes for any sports fan. There's nothing quite like witnessing your first triple-overtime game, or your team's first playoff victory, or a favorite player rising to a new level of stardom. It's the delirium, sudden and unstoppable, produced by these moments that makes them stick. Before that night, I had never stuck out multiple rain delays. I had never sat behind home plate. I had never seen an 11-run rally. I had certainly never stayed up that late past my bedtime.
So of course the grand slam and the lightning and the rain and the sound of the bat hitting the ball all melded together to create a moment that I couldn't interpret as anything other than true magic, because by the time it all happened I had already been living through a series of new, magical experiences. It's entirely possible that nobody else in the stadium that night saw it like I saw it, or remembers it like I remember it. But that's how it's supposed to be. At their best, sports grant us memories that could not ever be anyone else's.