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Friday, February 14, 2003
Updated: December 29, 10:08 AM ET
The List: Most painful heartbreakers

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Let's face it. We give it up. We give it all up for our favorite teams and players. We put so much into it. Most of the time, we get something back. A victory over a hated rival. A Hall of Fame induction.

Sometimes we even get a championship, all gift-wrapped and everything, and it goes down better than Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

But just like every other love, so much of the time, we're left heartbroken. So just to bring you down from that chocolate high, we recall the most heartbreaking moments in sports history. We've left out most of the tragic deaths (all but two). Heartbreaking just isn't word enough for those.

So we'll quote J. Geils, then get on with it:

You just can't win,
And so it goes,
Till the day you die,
This thing they call love,
It's gonna make you cry,
I've had the blues,
The reds and the pinks,
One thing for sure,
Love stinks.

1. Black Sox throw 1919 World Series
"It ain't true, is it?" said a boy to Joe Jackson outside the courthouse.

"Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is," Jackson replied.

"Well, I'd never have thought it."

Bill Buckner
Two runs up, two outs, no runners on base ... and then came the tears.

2. So close, and yet so far away
The ball goes between Bill Buckner's legs. You've heard about it and seen it a thousand times. It's one of those rare sports moments when something was "over" before it was actually over. The fat lady sang, even though the Mets and Red Sox still had to play Game 7.

After the 1986 Series, Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote about the real heartbreak, that which had nothing to do with Buckner, really ...

"The lesson is the same for every generation of Boston fans. Because the Red Sox try so hard and come so close and always fail at the very last, because they truly suffer for their sins and would never forget them even if they were given that privilege, only one response to the team is allowed.

"You must ignore the cold fall mist on your hair. You must concentrate very hard. You must think of nothing. You must forget. Then, come spring, you must forgive them again. And, although it does not seem possible, love them -- as you would blood kin -- just a little more."

3. Dodgers and Giants leave New York
The Giants played their last game in the Polo Grounds on Sept. 29, 1957. After fans ripped up the field and took away just about everything they could carry, a few diehards remained outside the clubhouse long after the game ended.

They sang a ditty to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell."

We hate to see you go,
We hate to see you go,
We hope to hell you never come back --
We hate to see you go.

Dodgers fans didn't get a chance to say goodbye. Though their move was expected, there was still some hope when they played their final home game of 1957 at Ebbets Field on Sept. 24. Only 6,702 fans saw Brooklyn beat Pittsburgh 2-0, as Gil Hodges drove in the final run at the ballpark. It wasn't until after the season -- Oct. 8, 1957 -- that Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley announced the team would move to Los Angeles.

Just two years after Next Year finally came to Brooklyn, them Bums was gone, and gone for good.

And soon their great ballpark was history, too. "When they tore down Ebbets Field, they tore down a little piece of me," said Dodgers great Duke Snider.

4. Lou Gehrig says goodbye
Yankee Stadium, July 4, 1939:

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Wayne Gretzky
There has never been a trade as shocking as the one which sent Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton to L.A.

"I have been in ballparks for 17 years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

"Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? ...

"So I close in saying that I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for."

A scene pumped up by Hollywood's melodrama machine? No.

"I saw strong men weep this afternoon, expressionless umpires swallow hard, and emotion pump the hearts and glaze the eyes of 61,000 baseball fans in Yankee Stadium," wrote Shirley Povich of the Washington Post. "Yes, and hard-boiled news photographers clicked their shutters with fingers that trembled a bit ... the first 100 years of baseball saw nothing quite like it."

5. Slip out the back, Jack
Johnny Unitas. Gino Marchetti. Art Donovan. Raymond Berry. Jim Parker. Lenny Moore. Buddy Young. Gene (Big Daddy) Lipscomb. Bubba Smith. The great 1958 championship game. History meant nothing to Colts owner Robert Irsay. He betrayed Baltimore under cover of darkness, loading up 15 moving trucks on the night of March 29, 1984, and moving the team to Indianapolis.

"I'm glad to see him go," said Unitas, giving angry voice to the broken hearts of the spurned, "but I hate to see us lose the franchise. But we really lost it 12 years ago, when he bought the Colts. He's flown all over the country trying to sell the team. It's been a slap in the face to the governor, the mayor and the people of Baltimore."

6. Gretzky traded from Edmonton
Only 27, at the peak of his career, Canada's beloved one, Edmonton's son, The Great One, exited for L.A. He cried at the press conference, and there was a sense of shock and disbelief throughout Canada that's hard for those of us south of the border to imagine.

Upon hearing of the trade on Aug. 10, 1988, Parliament member Nelson Riis said the Canadian government should intervene: "Wayne Gretzky is a national symbol, like the beaver," he said.

"[Some] great warriors stayed 'home' until the end," wrote George Vecsey in the New York Times. "Stan Musial. Ted Williams. Joe DiMaggio. Brooks Robinson. Walter Payton. Maurice Richard. Bill Russell. And none of them -- none -- ever meant quite as much to one sport, to one town, as Wayne Gretzky meant to Edmonton."

7. She only knew one way -- her way
She was the best filly there ever was, and she never, in her 13 months of racing, saw another horse in front of her. When Ruffian took to Belmont in a much-anticipated, nationally televised match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure on July 6, 1975, it was much more than a horse race -- it was both a battle of the sexes and a true test to see who was the best thoroughbred.

Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure broke fast, going through a quarter in 22 and 3/5. Then, shortly after, with Ruffian leading by about a half length, came the sickening sound -- "like a dry stick snapping," said Foolish Pleasure's jockey, Braulio Baeza. In front of 50,754 at Belmont and another 18 million watching on TV, she'd shattered two bones in her right foreleg.

A team of vets operated for hours on the filly, trying in vain to save her. When Ruffian awoke from the difficult operation with a cast on her leg, she thrashed uncontrollably and had to be euthanized. She was buried on the Belmont infield.

"Hard-hearted Manhattan went to sleep with tears trickling down her pillow," said the next day's Chicago Tribune. "And when she awakened, her nightmare had become reality. Ruffian, thoroughbred racing's black beauty, was part of the past."

Ruffian had pushed her natural speed to the literal breaking point. "I haven't been around a horse before or since with that sense of purpose," said Dr. Jim Prendergast, one of the vets who had operated on her. "She only knew one way -- her way -- and that was her undoing. There's the old cliché, 'speed kills.' Speed killed Ruffian."

8. Feelin' the Brooklyn Blues
Heartbreakers usually have two sides. Heads you win: Joyous Bobby Thomson. Ecstatic Giants fans. "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"

Tails you lose. Red Smith told it: "Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen."

9. Art Modell betrays Cleveland
The fans didn't leave after the Browns' last game in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium in 1995, sticking around to pay tribute to the players. The players gave it right back, personally visiting the Dawg Pound and uttering truths. "These fans, you could feel it from their souls," said linebacker Carl Banks. "You could really feel the energies coming out of the stands. It wasn't your regular 'Let's-go-team' energies. This was some deep-down stuff."

Deep down, for sure. Six weeks earlier, the move to Baltimore was almost, but not quite, a done deal. May as well have been: "This is more like a funeral than a football game," said one fan early in November. "I sat in my office with a 12-pack of beer last night and cried. I really did. I cried."

10. Barry Sanders' quiet, unexplained departure
You know the feeling. Everything's going great. Things have never been better between the two of you. Then, without explanation, with a deafening silence, it's over. You're left angry, confused, hurt.

That's what happened when Barry Sanders broke up with the Lions and their fans on July 28, 1999. Sanders, only 31, about to break Walter Payton's career rushing record, able, if willing, to leave it so far in the dust that nobody would ever catch up.

"Never in my life have I felt so betrayed as by the announcement that Barry Sanders would retire," wrote one fan in a letter to the Detroit Free Press. "Through good years and bad, I watched and cheered him on. I've been there for him; now why won't he be there for me?"

Also receiving tears:
  • Super Bowl XXV. Scott Norwood. Wide right.
  • Tom Seaver traded from Mets to Reds, 1977
  • Padres deny Cubs (1984 NLCS, SD rallies from 2-0 deficit to win pennant, 3 games to 2)
  • Magic Johnson announces he is HIV positive (1991)
  • Nebraska fails on two-point conversion to win national title against Miami (1984)
  • One strike from the World Series, Donnie Moore and the Angels fall to the Red Sox in the 1986 ALCS playoffs
  • Jose Mesa (with help from Tony Fernandez) blows bottom-of-ninth lead in Game 7 of the '97 World Series for Cleveland
  • Jim Brown retires at the top of his game
  • Roger Clemens leaves Boston for Toronto