SAN FRANCISCO — Something pretty damn amazing, over the bounding main and the bounding bay, happened Wednesday.
A remarkable comeback was completed with the conclusion of the America's Cup finals, sailing's three-week-long Super Bowl. The Oracle Team USA boat owned by Bay Area billionaire Larry Ellison did something unprecedented in an unprecedented best-of-17 series that actually went 19 races and ended in a defeat of Emirates Team New Zealand.
Improbable is not an adequate word to describe the result, really. Back on September 19 when Team USA scored a rare victory to pull back within 8-2 on the scoreboard, at least one observer asserted that there was still no way the Oracle boat would win because the USA comeback effort was totally, utterly doomed.
Who was that observer? Uh, that was me. I'll eat my crow down at Fisherman's Wharf with some stuffed crabmeat, please.
The sailing community, meanwhile, will recite this story over drinks for years to come. After falling so far behind, USA skipper Jimmy Spithill seemed sunk. But he and his crew leveraged some strategic mid-regatta craft adjustments into eight straight victories and blitzed their way past a clearly stunned New Zealand skipper Dean Barker and his men.
"It's very hard to describe," Barker said moments after being swamped, when asked about his emotions. "It's really very frustrating. You think back two weeks ... the gains Oracle Team USA made were just phenomenal."
On the pier, with a crowd so thick that officials had to close access and turn away more spectators, Spithill crowed: "Did you guys enjoy that? We dug ourselves a big hole. But we came together as a team."
Some will say that by winning, Ellison simply proved that his wallet can buy another championship. This is not an inaccurate statement. Ellison spent more than $100 million of his private fortune on the America's Cup campaign, more than New Zealand is believed to have spent, even with a government subsidy.
Still, sailors must sail the equipment properly and make the proper strategic moves. And after Team USA was penalized two races before the event's start on September 7 because of rules violations at a previous regatta, Spithill's margin for error was even thinner.
That was true right to the end. Wednesday's winner-take-all race included a heart-in-throat moment shortly after the start when the Oracle boat hit some sort of liquid speed bump. The catamaran's front end dipped into the water for an instant and caused a big splash that caused gasps on shore. Spithill quickly regained control and plowed ahead, taking the lead on leg three of the race and pulling away.
"Just wanted to make it exciting for you guys," he said later.
I'm not a fan of hyperbole. But I think it's safe to say that this was the greatest comeback in the history of sports. No other competition at this level has a best-of-17 format. That's why it is difficult to compare Oracle Team USA's achievement to anything else. No baseball team has ever trailed in a World Series by seven games because if you fall behind by four games, you lose. In the World Cup of soccer, you can't lose eight games and stick around. Just getting a high-tech boat to hold together properly for eight races with no breakdowns is difficult.
That's why I was so positive that Oracle Team USA's keel was cooked. But sports is sports. And Wednesday's riveting, decisive race finally brought the America's Cup into the public consciousness in a way that Ellison envisioned when he decided to hold the event here in Northern California. But it took us almost three months to reach that position. There were major slip-ups early on with the preliminary eliminations, when promises weren't met and the racing was either nonexistent or noncompetitive.
There were also weird unforced errors by the organizers, including the decision to erect bleachers at Marina Green and sell seats to a public that could watch the event free from better nearby vantage points in their fold-up beach chairs. And there were plenty of non-sailing fans who wondered why a USA boat had only one American crew member. But it was all part of Ellison's plan to put together the globe's best sailors on his craft. If NBA owner Mark Cuban can hire a German basketball MVP to help win a championship, I suppose Ellison can do the same. Spithill, an Australian, was clearly the right call to operate the wheel.
Needless to say, if the sailing had been as spectacular throughout the summer as it was the last two weeks, Bay Area fans would have glommed onto the event in greater numbers. As it was, until the last few days, interest in the event seemed to fall off the farther you traveled from the San Francisco waterfront. The local sailing community was energized. But the general audience was hard to capture.
In fact, the City of San Francisco will still likely be on the hook for millions when the ledger is tallied — and may need to spend millions more if it wants to host the event again in a few years. But you'd figure the crowds will be larger next time, yes. We sailing experts on Pier 27/29 will surely be back. This was quite a show.
Just as we predicted, all along.