If you get the chance one day, get a ticket to the last game of the baseball season. Game 162. I've been to a couple, and it's a cool experience. The obvious draw might be when one of the teams is headed for the playoffs, but I have a special interest in when teams are playing in their last game when the postseason is not ahead of them.

In a practical sense, they have nothing to play for, but I appreciate seeing people compete even when they don't really have to. In 2015, I went to Miller Park with a friend from college to see the Cubs play their last game of the regular season against the Brewers. The Cubs had already locked up their spot in the wild card game and would go on to the NLCS that year, but the Brewers were over 30 games out of first place. They had lost three in a row before that game, and I don't think anyone would really have faulted them for phoning this one in. The Brewers ended up losing, but it was what they did after the game that has really stuck with me.

I recently read the poem "The Battle of Maldon" for the first time; it tells the story of a battle fought in August 991 between a group of mostly English farmers and raiding Vikings. The usual practice among the English back then was to gather up as much of their belongings as they could and flee to the woods while the Vikings raided what was left. That way, they wouldn't get killed or harmed. But at Maldon that August, this group of guys led by a man named Byrhtnoth meets the Vikings at the shore. For a while, they hold them off because the Vikings are semi-stranded on a patch of land with only a narrow causeway to get to the mainland.

But then Byrhtnoth does something strange. The best strategy would have been to keep the Vikings where they were because he and his men had a clear advantage, but instead, he invites them to the mainland to fight.

No one is sure why he did that, but historians have two main theories: Either he did it to stall the Vikings and keep them occupied rather than risk them heading for another spot on the coast and terrorizing other people, or he did it simply because he was fed up with running away. In either case, he and his men stood their ground knowing that they were going to die.

There was no guarantee of recognition or acknowledgment for what Byrhtnoth and his men did. It's not certain when the poem was written, but it's believed that it wasn't until several years after the battle took place. A few of the men ended up fleeing as the battle got worse, and it's hard to imagine that giving up and running wasn't on a lot of their minds.

One of my favorite scenes in the 1963 movie "The Great Escape" is near the end when Bartlett -- the ringleader of the group of British and American soldiers working together to escape a German POW camp -- has been recaptured and knows he is about to be shot in a field by German soldiers. He's asked by another prisoner if the whole effort to escape was worth it, knowing that he would only be caught again in the end. His response is that he had never been happier; having something to work for had given him life, even if he didn't end up escaping.

The part of that Cubs-Brewers game that I remember most clearly is watching the Milwaukee players after the last out. While the Cubs players were celebrating and high-fiving in the middle of the field, the Brewers went over to the stands near their dugout and some of them started taking off their jerseys and passing them out to fans in the seats. They could have ducked for the locker room and started packing to head home to families and the offseason, but they chose instead to give a few diehard fans a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Whether it was to save a few others in nearby villages or to show the Vikings that they wouldn't always run and hide, Byrhtnoth and his men fought for their people, not recognition. Bartlett, the character based on the real British soldier who orchestrated an escape from Stalag Luft in 1944, worked not for his own sake but for the few who might get away. That was worth it for him. At game 162, you might get to see a team playing for something that feels a little bigger than a win or a loss, like the fans who have toughed it out through a losing season.


Twitter @jwyllys

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