Red Sox: 'The Greatest Choke in Baseball History'
If Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, wasn’t the greatest day of action, improbable results, thrills and disappointments in the history of Major League Baseball, I challenge anyone to name the day that tops it.
It is doubtful that the Red Sox Nation will recover for some time.
New Englanders may have been deceived into believing the Curse of the Bambino had dissipated in 2004 when the Red Sox rallied from 0-3 to beat the hated New York Yankees in the America League Championship Series and then went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
That was the Red Sox’s first Series triumph in 86 years.
Then the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series in another sweep of the Colorado Rockies. Surely they had shaken their years of getting close only to blow the big prize, as the Red Sox did in 1978 and 1986.
But in the most horrific September collapse in MLB history, these Red Sox gave away a sure postseason berth, and did it in heart-wrenching fashion. Ending an unstoppable slide, these Sox lost in the bottom of the last inning of the last game of the regular season with their very best relief pitcher in history, Jonathan Papelbon, throwing bullets at the lowly Baltimore Orioles.
He led by a run, had two out and nobody on base, and still lost the game by giving up two straight doubles and a winning single, a soft liner that should have been caught in left field by Carl Crawford.
The disgruntled Red Sox slumped into their locker room at Camden Yard in Baltimore, there to watch as the final nail was driven into their coffin when Evan Longoria hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 12th inning to beat the Yanks, 8-7. This sent the wild card Tampa Bay Rays and not the once high and mighty Red Sox to the playoffs.
Tampa trailed, 7-0, after seven innings but rallied for six runs in the eighth and a two-out homer in the ninth to tie. The odds against that happening to the Yankees was probably around 1,000 to 1.
This Red Sox debacle and Rays’ glorious triumph came about less than a half hour after the Atlanta Braves allowed the National League East champion Philadelphia Phillies to come from behind and beat them in the 13th inning. Thus the St. Louis Cardinals won the National League wild card spot instead of the Braves, who had just completed a record NL September collapse.
The Red Sox history of failure in the clutch has been deeply imbedded in the New England psyche since 1920, when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. It is such that little can ease the sorrow and tears that will ruin life for months in snowy and cold New England.
There was quite a bit of anger among Bostonians as sports writers and fans expressed their resentment over their beloved Red Sox’s failure to perform.
Dan Schaughnessy wrote in The Boston Globe, “The greatest choke in baseball history.” He added, “The earth opened up and swallowed the Sox and their fans.”
Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox last winter after nine years of success with Tampa Bay, ended a very mediocre season by failing to dive and catch Robert Andino’s liner that became the game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth at Baltimore.
One Red Sox fan, quite bitter over Crawford’s efforts all year, said, “They should fire anyone who was involved in getting Crawford here — the general manager, the manager and even the cab driver who drove him from Logan Airport to Fenway Park.”
The Red Sox decided not to pick up the option on their manager’s contract last week, thus firing Terry Francona, who managed the team for the last eight seasons. There is no word on the fate of the taxi driver.
There was a more quiet and sad surrender to the inevitable just 60 years ago when the Brooklyn Dodgers suffered one of the most famous “collapses” in MLB history. Brooklyn fans were used to saying, “Wait till next year.” They accepted it without rancor and continued to love “Dem Bums of Flatbush.”
The 1951 Dodgers, who held a 13.5-game lead over the second-place New York Giants midway through a doubleheader on Aug. 11, eventually lost to the Giants in a three-game playoff. That was when Bobby Thomson hit the three-run walk-off homer to win the third game and get the New York Giants into the World Series against the Yankees.
Other late-season failures when the only postseason play was the World Series include manager John McGraw’s 1914 New York Giants, who were in first place, 15 games in front of the last place Boston Braves on July 4. Those Braves went on to catch the Giants, win the NL pennant and earn the nickname of “The Miracle Braves.”
The 1938 Pittsburgh Pirates under manager Pie Traynor held a seven-game lead over the second-place Chicago Cubs on Sept. 1. The Pirates gave it all away and the Cubs took first place and the NL pennant when they swept the Pirates in a three-game series at Wrigley Field, Sept. 27-29.
The New York team known as “The Amazin’ Mets” caught the Chicago Cubs in 1969 after the Cubs, managed by Leo Durocher, led the New Yorkers by 9.5 games on August 14. The Cubs lost 14 of their last 20 games as the Mets easily won the NL pennant and then won the World Series.
Manager Gene Mauch’s 1964 Philadelphia Phillies held a 6.5-game lead over the Cardinals and Reds with 12 games to go in September but lost 10 games in a row to finish second, a game behind the Cards, who then beat the Yanks in the Series.
Since pre-World Series playoffs began in 1976 and then the wild card was added in 1995, the 1978 Boston Red Sox, 1987 Toronto Blue Jays, 1995 California Angels, 2007 New York Mets and 2009 Detroit Tigers have blown substantial advantages they held for playoff spots.
But these Boston Red Sox topped all of the above this season by blowing the biggest September lead for a playoff spot in the history of MLB. And they completed their disintegration only a few minutes after the Braves set the MLB record for the biggest September collapse in history.
Starting with the first World Series in 1903, MLB teams have competed in postseason play for 107 years. There was no World Series in 1904 and 1994.
Although the Phillies ran away with the NL East Division title this year, the second-place Atlanta Braves were sitting pretty for the wild card spot with an 8.5-game lead over the Cardinals on Sept. 6. But the Braves were 7-15 from that point on as the Cards kept winning so that the Braves set the mark losing the largest September lead for any postseason playoff spot.
That ignominious record stood for about 25 minutes before the Red Sox lost to the Orioles and Tampa Bay beat the Yanks on that greatest day in baseball history.
Boston led the AL East most of the second half of this season and was in first place on Sept. 1. The Yanks moved into first the next day. But as late as Sept. 4, the Red Sox held a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay in the run for the AL wild card.
No matter what the reasons — injuries, too many errors, failure to hit in the clutch, managing mistakes, pitching letdowns, etc. — the Red Sox imploded last month with a 7-20 won-lost mark for September. That is the first time any Red Sox team in the 111-year history of the franchise lost 20 games in September.
And one must remember the miserable start to the Red Sox’s 2011 season when they lost their first six games. It was duly noted back in April that no team in MLB history lost its first five games of a season and reached that year’s World Series.
Unfortunately, the Red Sox continued this custom. There only consolation is that the “Evil Empire” Yankees quickly joined them in the black hole of despair.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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