NEW YORK -- A telling scene played out around a small television set at a barbecue restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., this week during the final few innings of Giants-Reds Game 5.
There were maybe a dozen customers in the place, and virtually every single one of them was transfixed by the drama playing out 2,000 miles away at Great American Ballpark.
They were young and old, black and white, a sampling of the Bay Area's diversity. What they had in common was that they would not leave until Giants reliever Sergio Romo got those four final outs to send his team to the National League Championship Series. Whatever else was happening in their lives could wait.
There was a burst of cheering when Giants center fielder Angel Pagan made what might have been a game-saving catch in the eighth inning. In the ninth inning, there was mostly nervous silence, followed by another thunderclap of cheers at the end.
The following day, a talk-show host at KNBR -- the Giants' flagship station -- told listeners he'd spent the entire game on a treadmill to deal with the tension. He remembered that Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper confessed to throwing up before a World Series game in 2010.
There surely were similar emotions in St. Louis, Detroit, New York, Baltimore and other places these past few weeks as baseball delivered one of its greatest weeks. It was a continuation of the final two months of the regular season, when more than half the 30 teams remained in serious contention until the final weeks.
Just when it seemed like it couldn't get any better than watching the fight for those 10 playoff spots, it did.
In the best-of-five first round of the playoffs, every series went the distance. Of the 20 games, eight were decided by one run. Eight times, the deciding run was scored in the ninth inning or later.
We saw Justin Verlander and C.C. Sabathia at their very best. We saw the upstart A's and Orioles push favored teams to the brink.
The Giants rallied from an 0-2 deficit to eliminate the Reds in that Game 5. The Cardinals survived a pair of elimination games to oust the Nationals. In the final four games of the Yankees-Orioles series, New York outscored Baltimore by a grand total of 9-8.
Actually, this kind of thing has been going on for months. As Joe Girardi said, "The playoffs began early this year."
From Philadelphia to Southern California, baseball has given us a delicious buffet of close races, tight games and larger-than-life performances. And yes, some goats, too. There aren't many times when a sport provides such perfect theater.
At least half of baseball's 30 teams were in contention on September 1, and this was Bud Selig's relentless vision for the game when he took over as commissioner 20 years ago.
He knew that if baseball couldn't come up with a revenue system that gave every team a chance to compete, it was in trouble.
In the last 11 years, nine different clubs have won the World Series. Only the Cardinals and Red Sox have won more than once.
In that same time period, 13 clubs -- that's 43 percent -- have won at least one pennant. In just the last three seasons, half the clubs have made at least one playoff appearance. Going back to the last five seasons, 21 of 30 have been in at least one postseason series.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland shook his head with amazement last week in noting that the three American League division races were decided by a total of six games.
"That's unbelievable," he said. "I mean, it's mind-boggling to me. So I think that tells everybody how difficult it is to win."
For teams like the A's and Orioles, this season was a shot of confidence for all those young players going forward. They were part of something special, part of a season when there was very little difference between any of the 10 or 20 best teams.
Maybe that's the lesson of the four Division Series. Every season is a grind, and more than ever, the playoffs have become a game of surviving.
"Pretty amazing," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "This first round was probably as good as it gets. Probably as good of baseball as we have seen when you talk about eight teams playing."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.