Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Five all-time pennant race blunders
By Jonah Keri Special to Page 2
If by this time next week the Padres aren't preparing for their first-round playoff series, count Sunday, Sept. 23, as one of the weirdest and most costly days in pennant race history. That day, the Pads fell victim to, not one, but two absurd, painful injuries.
If the Padres collapse, we won't forget the Milton Bradley episode for a long, long time.
First, Milton Bradley and Mike Cameron collided in the outfield. Bradley ended up stepping on Cameron's fingers. The result? A torn ulnar collateral ligament in Cameron's thumb, knocking him out for the rest of the regular season.
A little later, Bradley suffered an even uglier, stranger injury -- one that's been well-documented by now. Feeling he was being baited by umpire Mike Winters, Bradley lunged at the first-base ump. While being held back from charging at Winters, Bradley crumpled to the turf, having suffered a season-ending torn ACL. Three days later, the Padres are hanging on for dear life in the wild-card race, forced to rely on a patchwork outfield.
The dual injuries got me thinking about other surreal incidents that played big roles in deciding pennant races. I'm not talking about a dramatic play like Bucky Dent's famous 1978 homer, your average horrendous collapse like the '87 Blue Jays, or a run-of-the-mill pennant-losing loss like Salomon Torres getting torched in the final game of the 1993 season. These have to be Bradley-esque: huge blunders, one-in-a-million plays, unforgettable weirdness.
With a big assist from two of the sharpest baseball historians I know -- ESPN's own Rob Neyer and Baseball Prospectus' Steven Goldman -- we went way back in the vault to pull out five season-turning plays:
1904: Chesbro's Wet One
In the first-ever pennant race between New York (then the Highlanders) and Boston (then the Americans), the season came down to the final day, with a doubleheader between the two teams at New York's Hilltop Park. The Highlanders needed a sweep to advance to the World Series. Their 41-game winner and staff ace Jack Chesbro started Game 1. Tied 2-2 in the ninth inning, Boston got a runner to third base with two outs. Needing one strike to get out of the inning, Chesbro -- one of the greatest spitballers who ever played -- threw a wild one past catcher Red Kleinow. Boston scored the go-ahead run, then held on to win the game and the AL flag. It would be 17 more years before New York won its first pennant.
1908: Merkle's Boner
This one's the most famous of all goofs. On Sept. 23, 1908, 19-year-old Giants infielder Fred Merkle came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game against the Cubs. Merkle singled, moving teammate Moose McCormick to third base. The next batter, Al Bridwell, also singled, scoring McCormick and presumably ending the game, as fans streamed onto the field in celebration. Thinking the game was over, Merkle returned to the dugout, not bothering to touch second base. Remembering a little-known rule, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers retrieved a ball and touched second base, prompting the umpire to rule Merkle out on a force play. The winning run was wiped away, making it a tie game again. Since play couldn't resume with fans all over the field, the game was declared an official tie. The Cubs would go on to beat the Giants on the final day of the season, giving them the pennant they never would've had if not for Merkle's epic mistake. (If this happened today, ESPN would make the Michael Vick story look tame by comparison, John Kruk's head would explode, and Merkle would be declared almost as big a choker as A-Rod.)
1920: Black Sox Busted
The White Sox's loss to the Reds in the 1919 World Series spread suspicion that several of the team's players had been paid to take a dive. Though rumors of the fix hung over the team throughout the 1920 season, the White Sox stayed in contention all year. It wasn't until September 1920 when a grand jury was convened to investigate. Two players, Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson, confessed. With the final series of the season about to start, the White Sox trailed the Indians by just half a game in the AL race. But on the eve of that final series, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey suspended the players implicated in the scandal. With a depleted roster, the White Sox lost two out of three games to the St. Louis Browns. Those two losses cost them the pennant, as they finished two games behind the Indians.
1950: The Abrams Report: Should've Held Him Up
In another race that came down to the last day of the season, the Dodgers took on the Phillies, needing a win to force a playoff. In the ninth inning, with the score tied 1-1, the Dodgers had Cal Abrams on second base. Duke Snider lined a sharp single to center field. Abrams was one of the Dodgers' slowest players (12 stolen bases in his eight-year career). Meanwhile, Phillies center fielder Richie Ashburn was a future Hall of Famer and one of the best defensive players in major league history. But third base coach Milt Stock waved Abrams home anyway, and Ashburn happily gunned him out. The throw preserved the 1-1 tie, allowing the Phillies' Dick Sisler to hit a three-run homer in the 10th to win the game and clinch the pennant. Everyone -- Dodgers fans, Ashburn, Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts and many others -- agreed that Abrams shouldn't have been waved home. Years later, it would be revealed that Milt Stock was actually Wendell Kim's illegitimate grandpa.
1964: Phillies' Pennant Stolen Away
The '64 Phillies are remembered for engineering what may have been the biggest collapse in sports history. Up 6½ games with 12 left to play, the Phils dropped 10 in a row and lost the pennant by one game. But the collapse could've been avoided, if not for two plays. The first of the Phillies' 10 straight losses came against the Reds. In the sixth inning of that game, rookie third baseman Chico Ruiz stole home. That would prove to be the only run of the game, as Philadelphia lost 1-0. Pretty bad. But a whole lot worse when you consider what happened two days earlier. That day, the Phillies battled the Dodgers in a five-hour, 13-minute marathon. The score stayed tied until the bottom of the 16th. With runners on second and third and two outs, the Phillies brought in seldom-used reliever Morrie Steevens to try and escape the jam. Seeing an opportunity, Willie Davis took off -- and stole home. Final score: 4-3 Dodgers. Had the Phillies not lost those two games, they'd have held on to win the pennant.
Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can contact him here.