Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Top 10 Boston Sports Chokes

Congratulations to the Chicago Blackhawks, who won their 5th Stanley Cup last night: 1934, 1938, 1961, 2010 and 2013.

They led the Boston Bruins 3 games to 2, but trailed 2-1 with 1:16 left in regulation in Game 6 at TD Garden in Boston.  But Bryan Bickell scored, and then, just 17 seconds of ice time later, Dave Bolland scored the Cup-winning goal.

The Hawks are coached by Joel Quenneville.  After being an original 1982-83 member of the New Jersey Devils, he deserves these 2 Cups in 4 seasons.  Another former Devil, Johnny Oduya, provided one of the assists on Bolland's goal.

As for the Bruins... Ah, "Boston Strong" wasn't quite strong enough to beat "My Kind of Town."

Top 10 Boston Sports Chokes

10. June 24, 2013: Stanley Cup Finals, Game 6.  This one just happened, so, obviously, it hasn't stood the test of time.  However, as time goes by, and as Boston teams inevitably add to their litany of choking, this one may fall off the list.  After all, the Hawks were the best team in the NHL all season long.  Even if the Bruins had won, they still would have had to beat the Hawks in Chicago in Game 7.  Not impossible, but incredibly unlikely.

Granted, they won Game 6 at home and Game 7 on the road against the Vancouver Canucks in the 2011 Finals -- but that was against a Canadian team.  After the Montreal Canadiens won the Cup in Gary Bettman's first season as Commissioner, 1992-93, he has never let another Canadian team win: They're 0-5 in the Finals since (Vancouver 1994 & 2011, Calgary 2004, Edmonton 2006, Ottawa 2007, and all but Ottawa's 5-game exercise in stupidity look suspicious).  This time, however, both teams in the Finals were big-market U.S. teams: Whoever won would fit Bettman's demand that a big-market U.S. team win, and whoever lost would have been a team that had won the Cup within the last 3 years, so it wouldn't sting as much.  Bettman had no reason to fix this one.

9. August 23-October 2, 1974: American League Eastern Division.  This one tends to get forgotten, because it didn't occur in the postseason.  But the Red Sox led the New York Yankees by 7 games on August 23.  Being 7 up with 38 to go isn't a slam dunk (if you'll pardon me mixing my sports metaphors), but it seemed pretty likely that the Sox would win the AL East.

But then they went on an 8-game losing streak from August 30 to September 6.  And, at the same time, the Baltimore Orioles surged, to make it a 3-team race.  In the end, it was a 2-team race: The O's and the Yanks, and the O's took it by 2 games.

This one would probably be remembered a lot more if it had been the arch-enemy, the Yankees, who had beaten out the Sox.  But Sox fans don't hate the Orioles nearly as much -- mainly because, since O's fans also hate the Yankees, there's something of a kinship there.  Seeing the Yankees also blow a Division title they could well have won (they led by 2 1/2 games on September 15 and were only half a game out as late as September 29) surely helped heal Sox fans' wounds.  But 1974 did set the standard for the failures of '75, '77 and '78.

8. June 15-17, 2010: NBA Finals, Games 6-7.  Boston fans are used to chokes by the Red Sox, the Bruins, and the Patriots.  Not by the Celtics, whose 17 titles are the most in the NBA, and 3rd in all of North American sports, behind only the Yankees and the Canadiens.  But in 2010, they blew it, and against the closest (in terms of success, if not geography) thing they have to an arch-rival, the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Celtics, who had beaten the Lakers in the previous year's Finals -- leading Shaquille O'Neal to taunt ex-teammate Kobe Bryant with, "Kobe, tell me how my ass taste!" -- led 3 games to 2, and in all fairness Games 6 and 7 were in Los Angeles.  Game 6 was a blowout, the Lakers winning, 89-67.  But the Celtics had won Game 7s in Los Angeles in 1963 and 1969.  Then again, as Rick Pitino might have said, Bill Russell, Sam Jones and John Havlicek -- to say nothing of Larry Bird and his generation of Celtics -- were not walking through that door.  The Lakers won Game 7, 83-79, a close one, and Kobe was redeemed -- in the eyes of basketball fans, if not in the eyes of his wife, or women in general.

7. May 10, 1979: Stanley Cup Semifinals, Game 7.  The Bruins led the Canadiens 3-1 at the Montreal Forum, but the Habs showed why they were 3-time defending World Champions, tying it up, and sending their home crowd into a French frenzy.  Rick Middleton gave the B's back the lead, but with just 2:34 to go, the Bruins went through a line change too slowly, and were penalized for having too many men on the ice.

Bruins coach Don Cherry said, "It was my fault." It was worse than that.  When ESPN Classic reran this game, which I saw on NBC when it first aired when I was 9 years old, I ran the videotape back to see just who was the man who shouldn't have been on the ice.  Checking the roster for uniform numbers and positions, I saw that the Bruins had 2 left wings.  (I'm sure there are some of you thinking, "Typical Massachusetts, right? Too much left wing.") The one who shouldn't have been out there was Number 17, Stan Jonathan -- whom Cherry would later choose as his favorite player among those he coached, because Jonathan was the best fighter he ever coached.  Poetic justice, indeed.

With 1:14 left in regulation, Guy Lafleur, the best player in the game at the time, took a pass from Jacques Lemaire -- who scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime against the Bruins to complete a 4-game sweep in 1977, and would later coach the Devils to their first Cup in 1995 -- and slammed it home, tying it up.  It took 9:33 of overtime before Yvon Lambert scored for the Habs, sending them into the Finals against the New York Rangers, who had already completed an epic Semifinal (no "conference finals/semis/quarters" back then) with the New York Islanders.  The Rangers won Game 1, but the Canadiens took the next 4 straight to make it 4 straight Cups.

The Bruins had also lost to the Canadiens in the Finals in 1977 and '78, and to the Philadelphia Flyers in '74. They would lose in the Finals to the Edmonton Oilers in 1988 and '90.  After the Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito Cups of 1970 and 1972, and the disastrous loss to the Canadiens in between, it would be 2011 before they won the Cup again: 39 years.

6. May 7-14, 2010: NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals, Games 4-7.  2010 was not a good year for Boston sports, especially in the spring.  Only 3 times has an NHL team led a Playoff series 3 games to 0 and blown it.  The most recent was in 2010, the Bruins against the Flyers.  The B's lost Game 4 in overtime, got shut out in Game 5 in Boston, lost 2-1 in Game 6 in Philly, and then lost 4-3 in Game 7 in Boston.  As in 1979, they lost partly because, once again, they got called for too many men on the ice.

They used their anger over this collapse to win the Cup the next season, so this one can be shrugged off.  And it's too recent to be a canker sore on the sports memory of New England like some of these others.  But it's still embarrassing, especially since it had only been 6 years since a Boston team did it to their most hated rivals in another sport.

5. February 3, 2008: Super Bowl XLII.  Losing a Super Bowl with 35 seconds to go is bad enough, as the New England Patriots did to the New York Giants, 17-14, as Eli Manning showed Tom Brady how to be an elite quarterback without Bill Belichick cheating for you.  But being 18-0, having a shot at the first undefeated season in the NFL in 35 years, having the first-ever 19-0 season (the 1972 Miami Dolphins were 17-0 after Super Bowl VII), and talking it up all season long, being favored by 12 points going into the game, and having the promotional books already printed by your local newspaper (The Boston Globe), and then blowing it? Truly worthy of a Globe column by Red Sox chronicler Dan Shaughnessy, who did not invent the concept of The Curse of the Bambino, but did popularize it.

The funny part is, after the Pats won their first Super Bowl, 6 years earlier, before the Red Sox started steroiding their way to wins over the Yankees, a celebration was held at City Hall across from Faneuil Hall, and a Patriot scrub (I don't remember his name, and you don't have to, either) held up the Vince Lombardi Trophy and started a "Yankees suck!" chant.  Afterward, Shaughnessy said, "I guarantee you, if the Giants win the Super Bowl, nobody's going to start a 'Boston sucks!' chant." Well, maybe if the Jets were to beat the Patriots in the Playoffs (which has since happened) and then go on to win the Super Bowl (which hasn't).  Instead, outside City Hall in Lower Manhattan, Giants/Yankees fans chanted, "Eighteen and one!"

Dishonorable Mention.  February 6, 2012: Super Bowl XLVI.  This time, the Pats came in 15-3 rather than 18-0, and were favored by only 2 1/2 points.  The final was 21-17 Giants, scoring the winning touchdown with 2:49 left.  Not as bad, you say? How about this: The Pats led 17-9 with 4:37 left in the 3rd quarter.  If one is worthy of a Super Bowl win, one does not simply blow an 8-point 2nd-half lead in the Super Bowl.  It is folly.

4. July 20-October 2, 1978: American League Eastern Division, regular season and Playoff.  That this is only #4 on the list shows just how bad Boston's sports history can be.

As late as July 8, the Red Sox led the AL East by 10 games.  As late as July 20, they were 14 games ahead of the Yankees.  But injuries caught up with the Sox, and by July 27, they were just 4 1/2 games ahead.  A 2-game sweep of the Yankees on August 2 & 3 put them back up by 6, and they were 9 up on August 13.  But the Yankees slowly chipped away, until a 4-game series -- which was supposed to be 3, but a rainout on the 4th of July forced a postponement -- began on September 7.  It became known as the Boston Massacre: The Yankees won 15-3, 13-2, 7-0 and 7-4, and tied the Sox for first.

Another series the next weekend put the Yankees up by 3 1/2, but the Sox salvaged the Sunday game, and won their last 8 to forge a tie with the Yankees, resulting in a single-game Playoff.  No Wild Cards back then.  The game was played on a beautiful fall afternoon at Fenway Park, and the Sox were up 2-0 with 2 outs in the top of the 7th.  Then, well, Bucky Dent.  Or, as the Globe put it, "Destiny 5, Red Sox 4." This became the choke by which all other Boston chokes have been measured.

3. October 16, 2003: AL Championship Series, Game 7.  The Sox led 4-0.  They led 5-2 with 5 outs to go.  Then manager Grady Little forgot that the one supposedly great pitcher ever who should have had a pitch count, Pedro Martinez, was over it.  He allowed a double to Derek Jeter, and a single to Bernie Williams.  5-3.  Little went out to the mound, with the next 2 hitters being Hideki Matsui (lefty) and Jorge Posada (switch-hitter but noticeably weaker from the right side).  Lefty Alan Embree was ready to come out of the pen, and had pitched 6 2/3 innings in the postseason thus far, all of them scoreless, 4 hits, no walks.  A no-brainer.

And Little left Pedro in.  Hideki Matsui hit a ground-rule double.  Now, Little has to take Pedro out, right? Bring in Embree, turn Posada around to his weaker side? Nope, Little sits on his ass and lets Pedro face Posada.  (What happened between the two of them in Game 3 is, for the purpose of this post, irrelevant.) And Jorge doubled home the tying runs.  Three innings later, Aaron Blessed Boone.  The Yankees won the Pennant, and The Curse of the Bambino struck for one last time.

The next year, everything changed.  But since we now know the Red Sox were up to their necks in steroids -- or would have been, if the steroids hadn't left them with no necks -- that Yankee "choke" doesn't measure up to any of these.  It ain't a choke if the other team cheats.  (And I don't want to hear that the Yankees were "cheating" in 2003.  It's comparing jaywalking to first-degree murder.)

2. September 1-28, 2011: AL East.  As late as September 1, with 26 games to go, the Red Sox were in first place.  With the Wild Card in place, they had a 99 percent chance of at least making the Playoffs.  All they had to do, as it turned out, was win just 8 of their last 27 -- not even 1 out of every 3.  Just 8 out of 27.

They won 7 of their last 27.  That's losing 20 of 27.  That included 6 out of 7 against the team that was chasing them for the Wild Card, the Tampa Bay Rays.  That the Yankees went on a tear and won the AL East was, for once, irrelevant: The Sox had proven, in 2003, '04, '05 and '09 that they could make the Playoffs even when the Yanks won the Division.  But the Rays surged as well, including sweeping the Yankees in the last 3 games.  For once, the Yankees screwed the Red Sox by losing.

Dishonorable Mention. October 1-2, 1949: American League (old single-division format).  On July 4, the Sox split a doubleheader with the Yankees, completing a run of 5 losses in 6 games against the Bronx Bombers, and were 12 games back.  The Sox surged, and the Yanks' injuries caught up with him -- almost the opposite of what ended up happening in 1978.  On September 25, the Sox caught the Yankees.  On September 30, they were 1 game up with 2 to go.  Those 2 were at Yankee Stadium: If the Sox won either, they would have won the Pennant.  The Yankees had to take both.

On the Saturday, the Sox blew a 4-0 lead and lost, 5-4.  On the Sunday, the Sox were only 1-0 down in the  top of the 8th, when Joe McCarthy, previously the Yanks' great manager, pinch-hit for pitcher Ellis Kinder in a bid to get the all-important run he needed to at least keep the game alive.  It didn't work.  Then the Yanks made it 5-1 in the bottom of the inning.  But the Sox mounted a comeback in the 9th, making it 5-3, and had the tying runs on, before the Yanks got out of it.

How do you top blowing a 99-1 chance of making the Playoffs? By blowing a 320-1 chance of winning the World Series.

1. October 25-26, 1986: World Series Games 6 and 7.  Oddly, the biggest Boston choke ever did come in baseball, and it did come against New York -- but the Mets, not the Yankees.  The Sox led Game 6, 5-3 in the bottom of the 10th.  There were 13 separate pitches that could have ended the game in victory and a World Championship for the Sox.  The words "CONGRATULATIONS BOSTON RED SOX 1986 WORLD CHAMPIONS" were already on the Shea Stadium scoreboard.  In the Sox locker room, the champagne was on ice and in the room, the lockers were covered with plastic sheeting to protect their contents from the sprayed champagne, and Commissioner Peter Ueberroth was in the room with the Commissioner's Trophy, ready to present it to Sox owner Jean Yawkey.  For NBC, Bob Costas was all ready to interview Mrs. Yawkey, and anyone else, to discuss the team's first title in 68 years.

Shaughnessy, doing research for his book The Curse of the Bambino, asked someone to calculate the odds of the Sox going from that point, 1 pitch away from winning the World Series with a 2-run lead, and, even if they blew it, Game 7 still to win.  The answer he got: 320-1.  In other words, the Sox could have played nearly 2 full regular seasons' worth of games (162 in Year 1, and 157 in Year 2), and won them all, before losing one.  (Yeah, I know, it doesn't work that way.  But it does provide some illustration as to how bad this was.)

I don't need to rehash it, partly because the story is familiar, and partly because I hate the Mets.  (As much as I hate the Red Sox? Really, it depends upon the day.) But the Mets got a run back, and Costas, connected with the NBC control truck outside the stadium, says into his microphone, "What do I do if the Mets come back to tie this? Or win it?" In his earpiece, he hears, "You get the hell out of there, as quickly as you can."

What gets forgotten is that the Sox led Game 7, on the road, 3-0 in the bottom of the 6th.  They could have won the thing anyway.  Even as late as the bottom of the 8th, they were only down 6-5.  It was still possible.  As with the Chicago Cubs in the 2003 National League Championship Series, after the Steve Bartman Play in Game 6, they could have won Game 7 and made the Game 6 calamity just a rather embarrassing footnote.  But they didn't.

The most shocking thing of all is that this is no longer the greatest choke in World Series history.  In 1986, the Red Sox blew a 2-run lead in the 10th inning of Game 6 and lost that and Game 7.  In 2011, against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Texas Rangers blew a 2-run lead in the 9th inning of Game 6, and another in the 10th, before losing that game and Game 7.  So if the 2004 postseason didn't get the 1986 Red Sox off the hook, then 2011 World Series sure did.

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