The wonderful thing about writing on baseball is that a season can be summed up in a short poem or headline while a game - or inning for that matter - may be worthy of a thesis or symposium. Such is the case for the games in this, the third and final installment of the greatest chokes since divisional play commenced in 1969.
In my count there are nearly 20 games out of the many hundreds played in the baseball postseason since the beginning of the "playoffs" that can qualify as undeniable, certifiable chokes. Whittling the list down to five was not easy and I'm sure many will offer up other games as being worthy of this most dubious of honors. (I've actually cheated a bit - though there are only five slots, there are actually six games, due to extenuating circumstances).
The chokes in these games impacted their respective series greatly - with only one exception all of these games contributed to that team's eventual series defeat. Also, the most dramatic and infamous chokes are two-fold as there's the actual choke of the game, the on-field happenings and then there's the drama and hype surrounding the contest - quite simply the greater the drama, the more "significant" the choke.
CHOKES IN A POSTSEASON GAME
No. 5 - Arizona Diamondbacks, 2001 World Series, Games 4 and 5. OK, so this is where I've cheated. But these two games are of a pair. They are inextricably attached, linked to each other for eternity. These two contests almost operate outside the realm of choke or comeback and are more suitable to the twilight zone. But indeed, there was a choke.
When Bob Brenly summoned Byung-Hyun Kim from the bullpen to start the eighth inning in relief of Curt Schilling, who had pitched a gem of a game, it appeared hope was not an option for Yankee fans. And sure enough, the sidearm hurling Kim promptly struck out the side. After the Yankee relievers shut down Arizona in the top of the ninth, Kim again looked strong as he quickly retired the always-tough Derek Jeter. But then fan-favorite Paul O'Neill lined a single. After Bernie Williams fanned for the second out, Tino Martinez swung at the first pitch he was offered and drove it deep into the right center field bleachers to tie the game at 3-3.
Kim remained in the game and after Jeter battled through eight pitches, the superstar shortstop lifted pitch number 61 from Kim into the short porch down the right field line in the 10th inning to win Game 4.
Then it happened again. Kim was brought in to protect a two-run ninth inning lead the next night. Yankee catcher Jorge Posada started the inning with a double but then Kim seemed to relax and retired the next two batters before Scott Brosius came up to the plate. Brosius had been one of Kim's strikeout victims the previous night. But the second pitch was grooved on the inside part of the plate and Brosius lifted the ball to the left field stands. Simply, literally unbelievable.
I've often thought of that famous radio broadcast of Super Bowl XIII when Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith dropped a sure touchdown pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers, with the announcer uttering - "he's got to be the sickest man in America right now." It seemed almost unfair that Kim had to choke so dramatically, twice.
For Yankees fan the images of what transpired in those two successive games actually supersede - in fact overwhelm - the sobering reality that the Diamondbacks eventually won the series. For those two glorious Gotham nights in November, in a city aching for something transcendent in the midst of unbearable grief, baseball supplied the necessary tonic for the soul.
No. 4 - Boston Red Sox, 2003 ALCS, Game 7. Every baseball fan knows that any compilation of epic collapses or dramatic games will be populated with New England's favorite team - on both ends of the choke. And sure enough the Red Sox feature prominently on this list. For many Sox fans, this Game 7 hurt more than any of the other storied defeats in their proud history. Consider - Boston had climbed back from two runs down in the seventh inning in Game 6 to force the deciding contest.
Then on this fateful Thursday night the Red Sox jumped out to a 4-0 lead through four innings. And though they gave up two runs letting the Yankees cut the deficit to 4-2 in the seventh, Boston came back with an insurance run in the eighth, courtesy of a home run by then - and future - Yankee killer David Ortiz.
So things were looking bleak indeed as the Yankees came up to bat in the bottom of the eighth. But was there a foreshadowing in the previous inning? Was Pedro Martinez already tiring - after all Jason Giambi hit his second solo home run in the seventh and Martinez also yielded two other hits in that stanza and had reached the all-important 100 pitch count before coming out to start the eighth. He would throw 23 more.
Red Sox fans were most likely cursing at the screen and at Manager Grady Little before the implosion occurred. After all, this wasn't the Pedro of 1999. He had battled a few injuries by now and could not dominate late in games as he once had. Did Little suffer from too much emotion and empathy, desperately wanting to see Pedro finish the Yankees off? Whatever the case, we all know the result - successive hits by Jeter, Williams, Matsui and Posada along with remarkable pitching by Mariano Rivera and a knuckleball hit high and deep into the right field seats in the 11th inning ended the game, the series and Grady Little's tenure in Boston.
No. 3 - Chicago Cubs, 2003 NLCS, Game 6. The baseball purists - along with Yankee haters - were supposed to have the baseball gods restore order to their universe by having the Red Sox and Cubs meet in the 2003 World Series. But just as the Red Sox curse appeared to tighten its grip on New England following that crushing loss to the Yankees, Cubs fans too had to suffer through a longer than usual winter following their team's bizarre, nonsensical and brutal defeat at the hands of the Florida Marlins. Though the game ended as a rout, it was the most obvious choke of this bunch as frayed nerves were evident, nearly palpable through the TV screen.
The Cubs were ahead three games to one in the series and they headed back to Wrigley needing only one victory in order to reach the World Series for the first time since 1945. On the mound in Game 6 was 23-year-old phenom Mark Prior. The imposing right-hander had stymied the Marlins through the first seven innings, allowing only three hits while his teammates had supplied him a 3-0 advantage.
In the eighth, Prior retired the first batter before allowing a double by the speedy Juan Pierre. Up to the plate came Luis Castillo and into history stepped Steve Bartman. The lifelong Cubs fan - and unfairly labeled goat - reached for a foul ball struck by Castillo, interfering with Moises Alou's path to the ball. Alou's reaction was one of anger and seemed disproportionate at the time - it's almost as if Alou sensed the change in karma.
Prior then started choking on his own, ending up walking Castillo and then throwing a wild pitch. Then came the mistake that truly cost the game for the Cubs. After Ivan Rodriguez singled to score the first Marlin run, Miguel Cabrera hit what appeared to be a relatively simple double-play ball, but shortstop Alex Gonzalez misplayed it and the drubbing commenced. Eight runs in total.
The Cubs could not mentally recover the next night. Prior is out of baseball for all practical purposes. But Kerry Wood does have a shot at redemption this month as the Cubs are - do I dare say it? - the overwhelming favorites to reach the World Series for the first time in a century.
No. 2 - California Angels, 1986 ALCS, Game 5. As stated earlier, the Red Sox have been on both sides of the choke. And most prominent of their miracle victories is without question their triumph in this incredible playoff battle. Down three games to one in the series and facing elimination on the road, the Red Sox came to bat in the ninth inning staring at a 5-2 deficit.
With one out and Bill Buckner on first base, Don Baylor hit a home run to deep left field off Mike Witt to bring the Sox to within one. But after Witt got Dwight Evans to pop out to third base, the Angels were only one out away from their first World Series appearance. Witt was then taken out of the game for Gary Lucas to pitch to Sox catcher Rich Gedman. Lucas proceeds to hit Gedman on the first pitch to award him first base. The choke was on.
Donnie Moore, a reliable reliever for the Angels, was summoned to close the game. Boston center fielder Dave Henderson battled Moore through six pitches and on the seventh he made history when he homered deep to left field. All of a sudden, remarkably, the Red Sox had the lead, the momentum and apparently the Series. To their credit, the Angels fought back in the bottom of the inning, scoring a run to tie the game. But they also had the bases loaded with only one out and failed to score one more run to win the series in that moment. Moore stayed in the game and yielded the winning run in the 11th.
Moore should never have been blamed for this loss. He was rushed into the game after Witt gave up the home run and Lucas hit Gedman. They often say baseball is just a game but it's obviously not to some of the well compensated athletes who entertain us. Moore was a man who battled numerous demons and mental illness and this loss was one of a series of incidents, both personal and professional, which sped the gifted pitcher to his tragic end. Moore committed suicide in July of 1989. Any sports fan with a shred of compassion must ponder what would have been had Moore not blown that lead in 1986.
No. 1. Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Series, Game 6. This game has been so discussed and dissected and grieved over that there really is little else to add to its legacy. As we all know by now it wasn't Bill Buckner's fault. Not even close.
He's probably fourth or fifth on the list of goats for Red Sox fans. The game was, for all practical purposes, over before the ball went between his legs. The wild pitch from Bob Stanley - the first pitch he threw upon relieving Calvin Schiraldi - to Mookie Wilson tied the game. And does anyone think with that momentum that the Mets would ever lose even if Buckner had made the play? There are some who think that the speedy Wilson may have even beaten the throw to first. But just think of the chances - with two outs, two strikes and nobody on base the Mets managed to string together three singles and then were gifted the wild pitch and the Buckner error.
John McNamara is vilified for leaving Buckner in the game at a time when defensive substitutions are routinely made. But did he also make a mistake by not taking Schiraldi out earlier? Schiraldi had given up the tying run in the bottom of the eighth after all. And he threw 40 pitches before the 10th inning even started. Yet McNamara gets none of the grief that Grady Little had to live through in similar circumstances in 2003.
Vin Scully's wonderful, understated - yet excited - call of the final moments along with the shaking TV camera images are sealed in all baseball fans' memories.
HONORABLE MENTION: San Francisco Giants, 2002 World Series, Game 6. This game surely merits mention with the Giants, up 3-2 in the series against the Angels and starving for their first title since 1954, blowing a five-run lead in the seventh inning, losing 6-5. Manager Dusty Baker's removal of starter Russ Ortiz after less than 100 pitches is the key moment in this game.
Wednesday - The top five postseason series chokes.
Tuesday - The top five regular-season chokes.