Every season has them, the rare moments when the numbers on the scoreboard seem to matter less. We're talking about the great moments that transcend baseball, the ones that pepper highlight reels for generations, more for their backstory and the impact they'll have on a player, a team, a community, going forward.
Those weren't in short supply in 2017, when powerful, inspirational stories were the talk of the league. June 12 in Pittsburgh wasn't just another game for the Pirates. It was the first start for Jameson Taillon since undergoing treatment for testicular cancer. Aug. 14 wasn't just Chad Bettis' first start of the year. Bettis also underwent treatment for testicular cancer, and that night marked the culmination of a triumphant comeback. Sept. 2 wasn't just another winning day for the eventual World Series champion Astros. It was the day they returned to Houston and helped lift the city from the hardships brought on by Hurricane Harvey.
All of these moments were bigger than baseball, and they used the game to tell us something larger about life. Now all are honored in the Esurance MLB Awards.
The Esurance MLB Awards annually honor MLB's greatest achievements as part of an industry-wide balloting process that includes five groups, each of which accounts for 20 percent of the overall vote: Media, front-office personnel, retired MLB players, fans at MLB.com and Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) members.
The MLB Awards are an all-inclusive program, encompassing the top players and performances from both the American and National Leagues from Opening Day through the end of the postseason.
Voting led off with seven categories (Personality of the Year; Best Defensive Player; Best Play, Offense; Best Play, Defense; Best Performance; Best Fan Catch; Best Player-Fan Interaction) on Sept. 18 at mlb.com/awards, serving as the grand entrance of a program that unveiled nominees for Best Call, TV/Radio; Best Major Leaguer, Postseason; and Best Postseason Moment following the Fall Classic's final out. The ninth inning of voting began around BBWAA Awards week, giving fans the opportunity to help determine the Best Major Leaguer, Pitcher, Rookie, Manager and Executive.
The Best Moment category centers around the inspirational individual journeys of two young righties, and the emotional upswing a team's success brought an entire city.
The 28-year old Bettis didn't know what remained of his career after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer last November. He underwent months of treatment to force the cancer into remission, missing all of Spring Training and the first four months of the season because of it. He returned to the mound in Colorado on Aug. 14 against the Braves, tossing seven scoreless innings in the Rockies' eventual 3-0 win that night.
"I was holding back tears until the start," Bettis said of his long, emotional road back to the mound. "Just so many emotions and I was trying to get them under control, but it was taking much longer than was expected. It was great."
Taillon's recovery was shorter, but his diagnosis was similar. Doctors caught the cancer early in Taillon, who at age 25 was in the middle of his second Major League season. He returned to the mound 20 days after undergoing surgery, admittedly leery that he was doing the right thing. But Taillon sought advice from Bettis, who encouraged him to go out and pitch. He earned the win after throwing five scoreless innings against Bettis' Rockies.
"I didn't want to make it some huge ordeal," Taillon said. "I just wanted to slide back in and start pitching again."
Taillon sought advice from Bettis, who just happened to be in the opposing dugout that night. Bettis encouraged him to go out and pitch. Taillon earned the win after throwing five scoreless innings, with Bettis looking on.
"When I finished my outing, I got to step back and enjoy the moment and realize that I was back," Taillon said. "It was special."
The Astros resolved to play not just for themselves, but for the entire city of Houston after the area was devastated by intense floodwaters in late August. The Astros were forced to move their next series to St. Petersburg, but once they returned home, they did so to a hero's welcome. Wearing "Houston Strong" emblems on their jerseys, the Astros swept a doubleheader against the Mets on their first day back at Minute Maid Park, starting an emotional weekend and, eventually, a redemptive championship run.
"You felt like you were carrying everybody in your heart on the field today," pitcher Joe Musgrove said.
That sentiment rang from all corners of the Astros' clubhouse, as many players had friends and family affected by the hurricane.
"We played pretty well and with high energy and a lot of emotion," manager A.J. Hinch said. "Couldn't have scripted a better day."
Astros president Reid Ryan expressed what most of the city of Houston felt: that the series was about much more than baseball.
"The series with the Mets was really an inflection point in the season for our team because it solidified the relationship our players had with the city," Ryan said. "A.J. [Hinch] going out and making the speech before the game, he spoke to what was on everybody's heart, both from a players' perspective and people in our community. I think it was the first step in the healing process that our city needed, and it gave us a lift all the way through the postseason. Our guys were playing for something greater than themselves all year. It showed in the way they never quit and never gave up, and it give people in our community the inspiration to do the very same."