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Monday, October 6, 2003
The choke's on them

By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

The beautiful thing about tonight's Red Sox-A's Game 5 is this:

One team, more than likely, is going to choke.

That's sort of the dark underbelly of these sensational baseball playoffs, isn't it?

For every Mark Prior fastball, for every Roger Clemens calendar-stopper, for every uncanny Pudge Rodriguez 800-pound-gorilla imitation, there is always the other side of the story, the element of The Choke.

Barry Zito
Barry Zito has some bad history hanging over his head, too.
Or, if you prefer, The Gag.

Or the Spit-Up.

Or the Gack.

Or the Swallowing of the Bone, Wedged Horizontally in the Throat.

My money is on the A's winning Game 5. Barry Zito is too dominant, the A's have actually had a little bit of success against Pedro and, well, the other team is the Red Sox.

A loss would fit perfectly into New England's sense of foreboding this time of year: The Sox are doomed, finished, crushed, and it's only a few weeks 'til Halloween, when that O'Malley kid is sure to egg your house again.

But here's the thing: If the Red Sox do win, we have to reconfigure our historical perception about the A's. We have to start pondering the notion: A's as Chokers.

The same franchise that won three consecutive World Series from 1972-74, the same franchise that won three consecutive AL pennants from 1988-90, the same team that has thumbed its nose at the championship-free, senior-circuit club across the Bay for the last 35 years (A's: four World Series titles; Giants: zero) could suddenly throw down a little down payment on a four-bedroom, three-bath chateau in Chokeville.

If the A's lose tonight, they will have lost four first-round Division Series in four years, and will forever be known as the Moneyball Chokers, where being No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list means there still are times you have to say you're sorry.

(And you can't bitch about the small payroll, boys. The Florida Marlins, all $49 million of 'em, are in the NL Championship Series.)

It got me to thinking about the other ball franchises out there haunted by October gag jobs.

I arbitrarily drew a 30-year line of demarcation to parse out which teams have gasped, blue-faced, searching for the elusive Heimlich, in October, and which teams have felt the sweet sting of champagne on the eyeballs. Why 30 years? I'm 36, and I'll be damned if anybody in the Xbox generation who reads Page 2 is older than me. As such, I figure 30 years is a good line. After all, the Golden State Warriors won the 1974-75 NBA Championship, beating the Washington Bullets when I was 7 years old. I remember that well. Our neighborhood even had "Warriors Super Juice," which was cherry Kool-Aid, before every game; and even now, as the Warriors miss the playoffs year after year, their '75 NBA title means Warrior fans can't bitch too hard.

Like Bogie said to Bergman: We'll always have the Warriors Super Juice.

Anyway, in that 30-year era, the following teams have won World Series titles:

The Oakland A's. The Cincinnati Reds. The New York Yankees. The Pittsburgh Pirates. The Philadelphia Phillies. The Los Angeles Dodgers. The St. Louis Cardinals. The Baltimore Orioles. The Detroit Tigers. The Kansas City Royals. The New York Mets. The Minnesota Twins. The Toronto Blue Jays. The Atlanta Braves. The Florida Marlins. The Arizona Diamondbacks. And the Anaheim Angels.

Lance Berkman
Bursting their bubble: The Astros are close to joining The Club.
That means, in that same era, the following teams have not won World Series titles:

The San Francisco Giants. The San Diego Padres. The Colorado Rockies. The Chicago Cubs. The Houston Astros. The Milwaukee Brewers. The Montreal Expos. The Seattle Mariners. The Texas Rangers. The Chicago White Sox. The Cleveland Indians. The Boston Red Sox. And the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

From there, we can analyze the have-nots in this era of Nixon-to-Bush.

First off, some of those teams have to leave the stage right now, for lack of historical pedigree.

The Padres, Rockies, Astros, Brewers, Expos, Mariners, Rangers and Devil Rays? Gone. See ya. Your arguments carry no water. If your franchise didn't exist when the Bay of Pigs went down -- another great choke -- then you don't have enough pain to last with the heavyweights.

(Side note: A special nod to the Astros, who were born the year after the Bay of Pigs, and have never even won a post-season series. Ever. You guys are close to joining The Club.)

Now, about The Club ...

We are left with the following five franchises where fans gather 'round the tavern and say, "Remember the last time we won a World Series?" only to be followed by a long silence and, eventually, someone saying, "Uh, no." In inverse order of pain:

5. The Giants
They last won it in 1954, when Alvin Dark hit .417 in the Series, Dusty Rhodes hit a couple of home runs and Toots Shor served the drinks -- stiff -- in Manhattan. Since then, they made failed October bids in 1962, 1971, 1987, 1989, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2003 -- when J.T. Snow's attempt to channel Hacksaw Reynolds failed to rattle Pudge's molars.

Pain Factor on Scale of 1 to 10: 7.5, with extra points for losing to the A's in the '89 Series.

4. The Indians
They last won it in 1948, when the factories of Cleveland still belched out paychecks along with pollution. Since then, they've failed in October in 1954, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2001. Six tries since '95, and bupkes? Ouch. Hey, at least Art Modell never packed up and left town with the original Browns. Right?

Pain Factor, on Scale of 1 to 10: 8, with extra points for putting their huevos in Josa Mesa's basket in 1997.

3. The White Sox
They last won it in 1917, when Woodrow Wilson was fending off allegations that he groped every woman he met. No, wait. That's Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. Never mind. Since then, the Sox have died in October in 1919, 1959, 1983, 1993 and 2000. Ultimate sad fact about the White Sox: They've even thrown a Series since they won one!

Pain Factor, on Scale of 1 to 10: 9, with extra points for losing Harry Caray to the Cubs.

2. The Cubs
They last won it in 1908, when the idea of Wrigley Field was hooted down at Planning Commission meetings for fear of the detrimental effect it would have on horse-and-buggy traffic on the North Side. Since then, the Cubs have curled up on the October stage in 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938, 1945, 1984, 1989 and 1998. Idle thought: How tragic is your franchise when you lose the World Series the same year the stock market crash starts the Depression?

Pain Factor, on Scale of 1 to 10: 9. Yes, a tie with the White Sox. In fact, if I had any sense, I'd rank the White Sox ahead of the Cubs on the Pain Factor, since Wrigley denizens have always counterbalanced the Cubs' failure with phenomenal amounts of booze and frivolity in one of America's great neighborhoods. Sox fans? They can't even get a cab to come to Comiskey to pick 'em up.

Normar Garciaparra
Is he yawning or gasping for air?
1. The Red Sox
They last won it in 1918, a fact that many Yankees fans probably do not know. Since then, they've died horrific, over-the-top stage deaths in October, performances that toss understatement to the wind, in a manner not unlike Al Pacino's screen performances in his later years. The years: 1946, 1967, 1975, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1995, 1998 and 1999.

Pain Factor, on a Scale of 1 to 10: 10.
I hate to feed into the Red Sox fans' near-insane penchant for self-bemoaning, but Christ on a bike, they've lost World Series Game 7s four times, another fact Yankees fans may not know about their AL East rivals.

Say, did somebody say the Red Sox play an elimination game tonight?

Why, I might just tune in. Somebody might choke.

You never know.

Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes every Monday for Page 2.