Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

Professionals and Paranoia in Kansas City

In Baseball, Football, Kansas City on August 4, 2011 at 2:27 PM

Last week in Kansas City two different players left two different teams. Neither of the players chose to leave.

The first was Brian Waters, five-time Pro Bowl guard for the Kansas City Chiefs and 2009 Walter Payton Man of the Year in the NFL. One of the first orders of business the Chiefs took when the lockout ended was to release Waters. There had been some minor rumblings about this possibility during the off-season, so it was not entirely a surprise, given that Waters is 34 years old. But Waters was also a member of the executive committee of the NFL Players Association, and people in Kansas City immediately began to speculate about whether his union activities played a part in his release. (Aside from his role in the NFLPA, Waters has also been known to be generally outspoken during his career and not one to shy away from giving the media a good quote.)

The second player was a Kansas City Royal that few people outside of KC have heard of unless they are die hard baseball fans. Mike Aviles is a 30-year-old utility second baseman with a solid bat but below-average defensive skills. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox one day after making comments to the Kansas City Star expressing his unhappiness at being largely relegated to AAA this year. As with Waters, the speculation immediately began about whether it was his mouth that got him moved.

It seems unlikely that the Royals would engineer a trade in one day all because of a quote given to the local paper. Word is that the trade had been in the works for weeks. And Waters was no doubt nearing the end of his career. But that didn’t stop fans from wondering whether one or both of them were whacked. Some of this suspicion is part of the age-old battle between players and their front offices. But Kansas Citians have their own reasons to be a bit paranoid about the motives of their two major sports franchises.

Both the Chiefs and the Royals are run by general managers who made their names elsewhere. Chiefs GM Scott Pioli is the former vice president of player personnel for the New England Patriots; and the Royals’ GM is Dayton Moore, formerly an assistant GM of the Atlanta Braves. Both men were brought to Kansas City to replicate their former success, and both men have created organizations that put a premium on silence. The first anyone heard about either Waters or Aviles being finished in KC was when the teams announced their decisions in press releases.

Pioli is famous for saying and revealing as little as possible. And Moore is infamous for being thin-skinned when it comes to criticism. (“Classic Dayton Moore. The absolute first rumor of an Aviles trade came when the Royals’ official Twitter feed announced the deal.” This was the tweet from Kansas native and Baseball Prospectus co-founder Rany Jazayerli immediately after Aviles was traded. Jazayerli knows about Dayton Moore, because a couple of years ago he wrote a blog post that was critical of a Royals athletic trainer, which led to the Royals denying Jazayerli access to Royals players and management as punishment.)

Kansas City fans, for now, are willing to put up with the mafioso attitudes of their two major sports franchises. In some ways, it is a natural fit as midwesterners usually prefer their sports teams to be no-nonsense. In the KC area, this most clearly plays itself out with University of Kansas basketball, where the overwhelmingly white, suburban fan base is forced to reconcile itself to teams made up largely of black kids from the East Coast. Trash talking before games is an inevitable controversy in Kansas.

Fans of both teams are also desperate for a championship—or even any type of a significant post-season game. So they are willing to put up with front offices who exhibit a creepy bureaucratic efficiency as long as it results in the type of success that Pioli and Moore experienced with their previous teams. The good news is that both franchises do appear to be on the upswing, even though they are each a year or two away from being likely post-season threats.

So even though it is possible that neither Waters nor Avila were ousted for the nefarious reasons that swirled around Kansas City talk radio and the sports blogosphere last week, the suspicions were not unwarranted. Conspiracy theories are most fertile in closed societies, and in Kansas City both the Chiefs and the Royals have created a corporate breeding ground for paranoia. It may all pay off if the teams are able to contend for championships. But if they don’t, Kansas City will be left with dual legacies of controlling, humorless organizations. Not only will they not have won, but they will have refused to have a little bit of fun along the way. There’s nothing tragic about not winning, but there is something pathetic about refusing to have a little bit of fun along the way.

Perfecting the Big Question: The First Game

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Houston, Loyalty, New York, Perfecting the Big Question, Seattle, Wrestling on July 29, 2011 at 12:03 PM

With a varied list of contributors to Perfecting the Upset, we decided it made sense to start a series of articles where we’d throw out a question to the crew and see how they stand.  This week, we ask:

What was the first game you ever attended?

(Don’t forget to check out our Allegiances table to know our loyalties.)

Rahat Ahmed
The first professional game I attended soon became part of one of my first memorable heartbreaks: Game 6 of the 1992-93 Western Conference finals between the Houston Rockets and the Seattle SuperSonics.  My uncle surprised me with tickets, which led to me frantically printing out “banners” on our old dot matrix to cheer on Olajuwon and crew. (They were terrible, but an eleven year old has to make do with the technology he has access to.)  The first five games of the series had been decided by an average of 14.4 points, all won by the team at home.  Game 5, in fact, ended in a 25 slaughter by the Shawn Kemp-led Sonics.

The game was tight through half-time until Kenny “The Jet” Smith took it upon himself and ripped the Sonics 36-15 in the third quarter with his 13-for-16 shooting.  We won 103-90.  But the real memory of that series remains in two parts: The first was Game 7, which ended in a 3 point loss at Seattle in overtime.  It was the only game in the series that went down to the wire, where The Jet had a chance to clinch it at the end of regulation but failed.  We lost 103-100 because we simply couldn’t stop Sam Perkins.  Brutal.

But what I’ve never forgotten was outside the series, and why I’ve come to hate David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs so much: Game 82 of the regular season was against them. We won the game outright during regulation, but Hugh Evans decided to count a tip-in at the buzzer that was clearly too late.  It was enough to send the game to overtime and help the Spurs eek out a 119-117 victory.  Most importantly?  It gave Seattle home court advantage against us, even though we both ended the season with the same record.  And considering we were 2-6 against them over the past two seasons due to our inability to contain Kemp, Payton and Perkins, we could have used that.  (Perkins, especially, was one of the few players in the league who gave Olajuwon problems due to his range and height.)

We know that one decision in the regular season doesn’t lead to your final seeding, but I’ve never been able to forget about it.  My first experience at The Summit remains blood-stained by Robinson and Evan and kept us from having a go at Jordan.

Nick Britton
I assume that the first sporting event I went to was a minor league baseball game but I don’t remember anything about it. And when I was a young’un I saw the Washington Bullets a couple of times and the Washington Capitals once. That’s all I remember.

The first game for which I remember any details was a Seattle Mariners/Baltimore Orioles game on June 6, 1993 at Camden Yards in Baltimore. The stadium was only about a year old then. I remember this game for a couple of reasons: One, my dad had procured access to the Tyson Chicken corporate luxury box, so I got to watch the game in style; and two, there was a giant brawl in the middle of the game.

The fight I remember well but the people involved faded from my memory over the past 18 years until a friend of mine found the box score for me. I knew Harold Reyonlds, Mike Mussina and Norm Charlton were involved and that Lou Piniella got thrown out for a temper tantrum. It was an epic fight by baseball standards, and it started as baseball fights usually do: Team A’s pitcher throws at or hits Team B’s batter and then Team B’s pitcher retaliates shortly thereafter. In this case, Chris Bosio of the M’s went headhunting and Mike Mussina of the O’s nailed some dude I’ve never heard of. Fight!

What I remember most was how the fight never seemed to end. Usually, these things end quickly and everyone’s standing around. The guys from the bullpen run in just to get some cardio in. But this fight just kept going on and on. The pile kept moving around the infield like those cups in that cup game they always throw up on the video board. Fights were breaking out all over the place. McNulty and Bunk tried to break things up until the umpires stopped them (the police did try to intervene). Apparently, Ripken was at the bottom of that mess. Everyone in the stadium was standing up just in awe of a real, honest-to-god fight on the baseball diamond. I was pretty sure it was the greatest thing I’d seen in my 14 years of life so far.

The end result: Chris Bosio broke his collarbone for the second time that season. Two guys on the O’s got all bloodied up. Norm Charlton threw some punches. Eight players were ejected, including Piniella (shocker).

I only knew who won thanks to the box score. But two teams brawling out all over the diamond, that’s the kind of thing that sticks with you. The only equivalent would be Pedro Martinez throwing Don Zimmer to the ground like a bag of flour. But I wasn’t there for that.

Oh, and Cal Ripken? Ripken lived to see another day (or so).

Andrew Feingold
Technically, the first game I ever went to was Rockets vs. Knicks at Madison Square Garden on December 3, 1983, when my mom was pregnant with me. When I was old enough to hear this story, I instantly became a Knicks fan. During the 1983-84 season, the Knicks finished 47-35 and lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Celtics. As a Knicks fan, this was just the beginning of losing series to playoff rivals. Hubie Brown was the coach of the team at the time, and to this day he remains one of my favorite announcers to hear on the radio.

C.D. Hale
Survivor Series ’94. San Antonio. Freeman Coliseum. I was 12, and our poor asses smuggled food in from the outside, a pseudo-white trash family of four taking in the ‘rasslin for the night. Couldn’t have enjoyed it more, particularly when Undertaker extracted revenge by defeating Yokozuna in a casket match. The special enforcer for that main event match? A Mr. Chuck Norris, the man who doesn’t read books, but rather, stares them down until he gets the information he wants.

Sean Koo
In September ’94, my dad took my brother and me to our first Buccaneers game. It was at the Old Sombrero against the New Orleans Saints, and little did I know that this would be the start of my hatred of the ‘Aints. In the midst of the Bucs’ thirteen year run of losing seasons, Sam Wyche was trying to put a consistent winner out on the field, but even his Super Bowl resume couldn’t get it done in Tampa. In a game that you could call a “defensive showdown” or an “offensive letdown,” the Bucs lost to the Saints 9-7. It would be a couple of more games until I saw my first win, and years until my first winning season, but being in the stadium for the first time and taking in the experience in all of its smash-mouth-football glory had me hooked. Buccaneer football at the Old or New Sombrero was the only way to go.

Sreesha Vaman
My first sporting event was a Capitals regular season game against the Minnesota North Stars in 1987, but it wasn’t the first one I was supposed to go to.

On November 1, 1985, my Capitals hosted an early-season home game against the New York Islanders—those New York Islanders, who had won four straight Stanley Cups and came one win away from a fifth.  Bossy.  Trottier.  Smith.  Potvin.  Gillies.  LaFontaine.  Two Sutters.  Tonelli.  A stacked line-up, one of the greatest teams ever assembled in the NHL.

So needless to say I was excited for weeks when my friend told me that his dad got four tickets to the game from work, and I was getting the fourth ticket.

The day before the game, I stayed out playing night roller hockey with my friends in the cold Indian summer air wearing a t-shirt and shorts… and got sick.  I could barely move the next morning.  I skipped school, slept as much as I could, but couldn’t convince my mom I was healthy enough to go to the game.

The 4pm vomiting didn’t help my cause.

At 5pm I succumbed, and another friend went to the game.  I watched the Caps beat the Isles, 5-3, on television.  My friend’s dad brought me a Capitals team calendar, which was the promotion that night.

Missing that game was a source of inspiration from then on, though: I watched every minute of every Capitals game on TV (unless I went to the game in person) from that year until I went to college outside of the DC area 12 years later.

In my junior and senior year, there was some home tape-delaying involved since I was working, playing club hockey, and, for a little bit, entertaining a girlfriend who wasn’t a sports fan; go figure—but I made it happen.

Still, I wondered how great it would have been to see my Caps perfect the upset (pun intended!) against the vaunted 1980s Islanders.

I still am jealous to this day.

The Seattle Mariners: A Sinking Ship that Was Already Sunk

In Baseball, Seattle, Sport on July 28, 2011 at 2:46 PM

Prior to yesterday’s 9-2 rout of the New York Yankees, my beloved Seattle Mariners made headlines for all the wrong reasons as they dropped a club record 17 straight games.

Just a few weeks ago, the M’s record sat at 43-43, only 2.5 games back of 1st place in the AL West. Seventeen straight losses (and 1 win!) later, the season is essentially over. The question seemingly on everyone’s minds is, “How did it all go so wrong, so fast?” The problem though, is that the question exhibits a general lack of understanding regarding the state of the team. (Grab your forks and knives, folks. Pancho is about to dish out a healthy serving of perspective.)

Last season, the Mariners had a historically poor offense, batting .236 for the season and scoring a paltry 513 runs, both numbers by far the worst in the majors. That team lost 101 games. This season has actually been statistically worse than that: A team batting average of .224, and 336 runs scored through July 27, 2011. Again, both categories rank dead last in the majors by a considerable margin.

Coming off the 101-loss season, the M’s were picked to again finish in the basement of the AL West by most experts. So, why is it suddenly a surprise to everyone that the Mariners are where they are in the standings? On July 27, 2010, Seattle was 39-62. A year later, with a worse offense, this team is 44-60. The record is exactly where it should be.

I’m a believer that the 162-game regular season does the best job of crowning division champions in any sport. Because there are so many games, the law of averages tends to even things out to where they should be statistically. The statistics should then, in turn, translate directly to the standings. The fact that this team was .500 only a few weeks ago was a statistical anomaly. The losing streak was the statistical Mother Nature’s way settings things straight again. The losses should’ve been there all along. It’s just really unfortunate (and newsworthy) when they all happen in a row like that. Really, the only difference from a year ago is that we already knew last season was over in May. I appreciate that this team was able to stay in the race into the summer months this year. Was it blind ambition? Foolish hope? Perhaps. But when the only direction to go is up, any and every small positive thing can be built upon.

You're Our Only Hope, Dustin Ackley

As for me, I’ve taken much from this season and learned a lot about the state of the franchise going forward. I’ll take Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda against any 1-2 pitching duo in baseball for the next five years. Dustin Ackley has lived up to the hype of being the #2 overall draft pick two years ago, and he’s now the object of my current mancrush. I’m also a big fan of slugger Carlos Peguero, who was recently sent back down to AAA. He has no plate discipline, but he sure can mash the living hell out of the ball. Once he figures it out, you can pencil him in for 30+ home runs a season. There are also other prospects (Beavan, Carp, Seager, just to name a few) who look the part of being positive contributors in the future.

On the negative side, the M’s should bench, trade, or release the overpaid veteran bats who can’t hit. It makes no sense to pay $9 million a year for a third baseman with no power to hit .180. It also makes no sense to keep starting an outfielder who is hitting .190. Don’t care if he’s supposedly the best defensive centerfielder in the game. There’s a perfect role for him based on his production: Late-inning defensive replacement.

These are very trying times for this lifelong Mariners fan. It’s never fun when your team is in the dumps. There are two months left in the season, and I really hope that the M’s use this time to call up more prospects and give them all a shot. At this point of another lost season, the thing that keeps me coming back is the hope of a promising future, patiently waiting to be realized. More foolish hope? Perhaps. But there’s only one way to find out: Play ball. Go M’s!

Perfecting the Top 10: Superstars in Surprising Places

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Perfecting the Top 10 on July 25, 2011 at 7:00 AM

For many of us, the off-season and the trade deadlines can be a time as exciting as the season itself. You can find yourself in agony when a favorite departs or on the other side of the fence when a fresh face or seasoned veteran makes their way onto your club.  And with today’s salary cap limitations, fire sales and trades in the name of “rebuilding,” cornerstone members of franchises often find themselves in jerseys different than the one they’ll be remembered for. While most of these are forgotten over time, here are the most random (and jarring) ones over the last few decades until LeBron ultimately ends his career in Minnesota.

10. Wade Boggs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Boggs is a member of the 3,000 hit club, and he did it while wearing one of the ugliest uniforms in sports history. After a long run in Boston and a World Series for the Yankees, Boggs signed on with Tampa Bay in 1998. The Hall of Famer spent the last two seasons of his career in the basement of the AL East after years of sitting on top of it.

9. Thurman Thomas, Miami Dolphins

After being cut by the Buffalo Bills in 2000, Thomas signed on with the Miami Dolphins as a backup to Lamar Smith (and probably because Florida is a retiree paradise). The future Hall of Famer saw action sparingly before an injury ended his career twelve year career.

8. Mike Piazza, Florida Marlins

One of the greatest offensive catchers of all-time, the one time Dodger bat boy was traded by L.A. to the Florida Marlins in 1998 for exactly a week. He was nothing more than a poker chip to the Marlins to purge contracts from their World Series team the year before. The twelve-time All-Star managed to play a whole five games before being flipped to the New York Mets where he spent the next seven seasons of his career.

7. Karl Malone, Los Angeles Lakers

The definition of a ring chase: Karl Malone spent eighteen of his nineteen years with the Utah Jazz and John Stockton perfecting the pick and roll. After Stockton’s retirement in 2003, Malone, at the age of 40, decided to move out further west to the Lakers for one last attempt at the NBA Finals. Things didn’t go as planned as the Lakers ran into a staunch Pistons team who caused The Mailman to retire with many accolades, but no championship.

6. Wayne Gretzky, St. Louis Blues

“The Great One” to some will always be seen as an Oiler while many will reference him as a King. While he did spend the end of his career in New York, his brief stint alongside Brett Hull for the St. Louis Blues is often forgotten. Acquired for their playoff run in 1996, he departed the following off-season.

5. Eddie George, Dallas Cowboys

Forgot this ever happened even though it wasn’t all that long ago. Eight years after being drafted by the Oilers and then moving with them to Tennessee, George made his way back to Texas as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. From there, he pretty much did nothing until hanging it up. Playing in only 13 games for Dallas, he managed just over ten yards per game.

4. Hakeem Olajuwon, Toronto Raptors

The Dream was Houston. He spent his college years a Cougar and led the Rockets to two championships over his seventeen years with the franchise. However, after the 2000-01 season, Olajuwon and the Rockets could not settle on a contract for the fading superstar and traded him north to the Raptors. He retired after the season, but he got to hang out on Toronto’s bench for half of it.

3. Emmitt Smith, Arizona Cardinals

As odd as it was to see Eddie George in Cowboy blue, it was even more awkward to see the NFL’s all-time leading rusher not in it. Determined his career wasn’t over, Smith made his way to the Cardinals after the 2002 season and spent his last 2 years in the backfield of some really bad teams. Thankfully, Emmitt retired as a Cowboy after signing a one-day contract worth zero dollars.

2. Joe Montana, Kansas City Chiefs

Still remember the Sports Illustrated cover with Montana, his ring and the title Kansas City, Here I Come. After 13 seasons in San Francisco, the Hall of Fame quarterback was traded to the Chiefs who he took to the playoffs both years before retiring. Regardless of this success, the guy who threw that pass will always be remembered in red and gold.

1. Michael Jordan, Washington Wizards

This one is easy. Michael Jordan is a Chicago Bull. While his numbers were decent, the Wizards weren’t and his tenure there just didn’t feel right.

Disagree on the order?  Have we left out some obvious choices?  Let us know in the comments!

Perfecting the Big Question: Most Heartbreaking Moment

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Loyalty, Perfecting the Big Question on July 21, 2011 at 12:00 PM

With a varied list of contributors to Perfecting the Upset, we decided it made sense to start a series of articles where we’d throw out a question to the crew and see how they stand.  To start off, what better than to answer a question that most of us try to avoid thinking about:

What is your most heartbreaking moment in sports history?

(Don’t forget to check out our Allegiances table to know our loyalties.)

Rahat Ahmed
Super Bowl XXXIV, January 30, 2000

And that’s how the heart breaks: With the final play of the most important game. With the legitimacy and lore of Earl Campbell, George Blanda and Warren Moon on the line with six seconds left.  With the Tennessee Titans trailing “The Greatest Show on Turf” by a touchdown.  This was it:

Dyson comes in motion, now resettles. McNair drops, throws right side for Dyson. He dives for the end zone!

He didn’t make it.

He came up one yard short. The Rams win by a yard.

The Titans announcers became quiet.  All of us who had stayed loyal to the Oilers after they left town stood still, mouths agape, in shock and dismay.  After avenging the Frank Reich comeback from 1993 with the Music City Miracle, we thought we were predestined to win it all, but Kurt Warner and crew had other plans.  An incredible game, a grand-standing finale for bystanders, forever etched in the annals of Super Bowl history as one of its most fantastic finishes.  But for us, it was nothing short of devastation.  Losing isn’t the end of the world, but when it happens by inches, the pain learns to linger on a lot longer.

Shaughn Balezentes
ALDS Game 3, October 13, 2001

You guys already know the play. Terrence Long doubles down the right field line. Jeremy Giambi tries to score from first. The right fielder makes an errant throw to the cut-off man. Every time I see the replay, I remember the few seconds where it looked like Giambi was going to score the tying run. Those few seconds were an eternity. In those seconds I thought, “This is it! This game is ours!” Then Derek Jeter sprints into the play and casually flips the ball to Jorge Posada.

I’ve never been humbled so instantly.

The real problem with “The Flip” wasn’t so much that the A’s lost that game. I always hear Yankee fans talk about “The Flip” as if it was limited to that specific game. Yankee fans are fucking idiots. “The Flip” forced a Game 4. In Game 4 Jermaine Dye fouled a ball of his shin so hard his bone shattered like plate glass in a Michael Bay film; he’d never be the same hitter again. We lost the series in Game 5. If we had won Game 3, there’s no doubt in my mind that Oakland carries the momentum of a Yankee sweep and wins the World Series. If we win the World Series, maybe Jason doesn’t run to New York that offseason. Maybe we’re able to extend Johnny Damon. We had the pitching. We had the hitting. Maybe we become the most dominant team of the decade.

Of course I’ll never know how it could have been. That’s the tragedy of “The Flip.”

Fuck Derek Jeter.

Rob Boylan
Champions League Final, May 17, 2006

Arsenal versus Barcelona in the Champions League Final at the Stade de France. The most bittersweet moment of my life. What an amazing run up to the final from an Arsenal point of view, though. It was one that saw Henry score a brilliant goal at the Bernabeu (that later featured in the shitfest Goal 2) in a 1-0 aggregate win over Real Madrid, and after the most perfect Arsenal goal ever against Juventus at Hughbury—Pires stripping the ball from former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira, shunting it up to Henry, who pushed it on to future captain Cesc Fabregas who pushed the ball low past Juve keeper Gianluigi Buffon—to the last minute penalty save by Jens Lehman against Riquelme at Villareal that I could not physically bring myself to watch, all while setting the record for most consecutive clean sheets (10) and the record for longest time between goals allowed (995 minutes).

The week of the final started in scandal when the original match ref was pictured wearing a Barcelona shirt in a Norwegian paper, and things only went downhill from there. Despite already being despised by the club’s fans, Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell found themselves in the starting XI, where we featured our regular Champions League formation that season, the thoroughly non-Arsenal 4-5-1.

In the 18th minute, Arsenal’s world collapsed when Eto’o went through on goal and was tugged on my Arsenal keeper Jens Lehman, who was red carded for his effort, the goal Giuly scored on the loose ball disallowed. It was the second season in a row an Arsenal player had seen red in a final, after Jose Reyes was shown two yellows in the FA Cup final against Manchester United.

Both teams and both sets of fans, I think, would have preferred Lehmann stay on and the goal stand. Things got ugly from there and had ramifications beyond the match itself. Robert Pires was subbed off to bring on substitute keeped Manuel Almunia, and this was one of the reasons Pires left Arsenal for Villareal. Arsenal drew blood first, in a terribly uncomfortable way, when Emmanuel Eboue dove to get a free kick, which led to a Sol Campbell goal. It was wiped out in the second half when, despite Deco’s consistent diving in the box, it was Henrik Larsson who made all the difference. Eto’o scored in a goal I swear was offside (have not watched it again), and then Beletti scored the winner in a shot that Almunia should have had. Beyond this point is not a blur so much as a blank.

I’ve seen the match only once, live as it happened, and have never been able to watch it since. I had to close my eyes during the opening credits to the 2007 Champion’s League, where they showed that rotten bunch of bastards lifting the cup even. The team that got us to the final was not allowed to play in manager Arsene Wenger’s last ditch attempt to keep both wantaway players, Cole and Campbell, at the club — an effort which failed. Eboue was named defensive player of the tournament, but that was hardly a consolation for the Arsenal fans who have seen nothing but disappointment in the league and Cups since.

Nick Britton
World Series Game 7, October 27, 1991

Being a Braves fan in the 80s kind of sucked. They were decent in the early 80s, winning the West Division in 1982 behind Dale Murphy. But it was all downhill from there. The 1990 record: 65-97. In 1991, though, it seemed a bit different. At the halfway point, they were a game under .500. And then they began dominating the West and ended up a game up on the Dodgers for the pennant. The seven game series against the Pirates was a good one and had Drabek not injured himself, we might not be talking about the 1991 Series today. But the Braves won and soon found themselves in the ever-depressing Metrodome for Game 1 of the World Series. This was heaven for me: My favorite team in the World Series. I was the happiest fourteen year old in the world. Some funny stuff happened in that series: Kent Hrbek, the bastard, pulling Ron Gant off first base; Rick Aguilera pinch hitting; Mark Lemke being called a “World Series hero.” By the time Game 6 rolled around, Atlanta was up 3-2, and I was pumped. The pain began in the 11th inning, seeing Kirby Puckett pumping his fists after his game-winning home run. That stands out as the iconic video clip from the 1991 World Series, but Game 7 was the game that mattered.

Here we were: Hometown hero Jack Morris versus John Smoltz, riding high on a brilliant postseason (and pitching against his boyhood idol). And it was truly an epic game. Morris and Smoltz tossed shutouts for eight innings, before Smoltz was removed for Mike Stanton in the eighth and then Alejandro Peña in the ninth. Lonnie Smith was fooled by Greg Gagne and Chuck Knoblauch fake double play, and he only made it to third on Terry Pendleton’s double. He should have scored. And I remember feeling bad, like that was the play that would spell the end of this magical season. And it was. With runners on second and third and no one out, Ron Gant grounded out and Sid Bream grounded into a 3-2-3 double play.  The game goes scoreless in the 9th and the Braves do nothing in the top of the 10th, everything went the Twins’ way. Dan Gladden stretched a single into a double. Knoblauch sacrificed him over to third. Peña then intentionally walked both Puckett and Hrbek to load the bases. Gene Larkin hobbled up to the plate and promptly drove one to deep left-center. I remember the feeling, hearing, “The Twins are going to win the World Series!” over the television, but still hoping Brian Hunter would somehow catch the ball (not that it mattered; there was only one out). I can’t even remember how I felt, but I knew that I’d invested way too much in this season for it to end the way it did. I was convinced after the game I’d never see the Braves in the World Series again.

I was wrong of course, there was more heartbreak left to come, but nothing quite like this Game 7.

Andrew Feingold
NBA Finals Game 6, June, 19, 1994

The New York Knicks had two chances to win the 1994 NBA Finals. It would have made it their first title since 1973 and third overall in team history. They lost Game 6 86-84, in a game where John Starks scored 27 points. Game 7 was a lot different, Starks shot 2-18 from the field including 0-11 from downtown. He missed all 10 of shots in the fourth quarter as the Knicks lost the game 90-84 and the Finals as well. Ewing shot 42% from the field and was only 3-of-6 from the foul line. Hakeem averaged 25 points in Games 6 and 7, becoming the nemesis. What would have happened if the Dream didn’t block Starks as he shot at the last second in Game 6?

Bradley Freedman
Regular Season, August 4, 2007

On July 31, 2007, Kyle Davies was traded to the Kansas City Royals from the Atlanta Braves.  On August 4 at Old Yankee Stadium, Davies gave up Alex Rodriguez’s 500th career home run in his first start as a Royal. I was there, sitting in the right field stands, not too far from the Bleacher Creatures. (The Creatures are perfectly nice to Royals fans because the Royals pose no actual threat.) From the time I first moved to New York I had been to Yankee Stadium every year when the Royals came into town. I never once saw them win.

When A-Rod hit his homer I thought, “Welcome to the Royals, Kyle Davies.” Or was it actually the other way around? “Hey, Royals: Welcome to Kyle Davies.” In the four years since, he has remained in the Royals’ starting rotation and amassed a statistical record that has legitimate baseball analysts suggesting he may be the worst starting pitcher in baseball history.

In sports, there is one kind of heartbreak that happens when your team comes close to achieving greatness and then it all falls apart. But this was the other kind of heartbreak. It happens when your team is so far from any hint of postseason and has been falling apart for so long that every game feels the same. But then sometimes out of nowhere the team will find a way to fall apart in a slightly different way, because even a slug must occasionally make a left turn. And that different way of failing reminds you how far from glory the team really is.

This wasn’t a communal heartbreak. It was mine alone. It was mine because I was there. Because I had been there the summer before, and the summer before that watching the Royals lose. There is no shame in giving up a homer to A-Rod. But after years of coming to the Bronx with my fellow KC transplants (most of whom had already abandoned the worn-off novelty of Yankee Stadium) I knew my annual visits to Yankee Stadium were over. Welcome to the Royals, Kyle Davis–this is what we do. We are the set-up men for the glory of other teams. Welcome to Kyle Davies, Royals–he’s gonna fit in just fine. We are the guys you catch a glimpse of on SportsCenter, standing with our hands on our hips as the other team’s fans scream with delight. It was that screaming, more than anything, that was the breaking point. As the crowd around me roared I felt embarrassed not by the Yankees, but by the Royals. There were better things to do in New York than watch Kansas City baseball.

C.D. Hale
Western Conference Semifinals Game 5, May 13, 2004

Two words: Point 4. Yep, Derek Fisher did it again, serving up a steaming pile of NBA lore to help set my Spurs’ quest for another NBA championship off-kilter with his off-balance buzzer-beater. Not only that, but it was the Lakers doing the derailing. I’ve never fully gotten over that one, even if the Spurs would later claim two more titles.

Sean Koo
NFC Championship, January 23, 2000

In Kurt Warner’s coming out party, the Rams blazed through the regular season and playoffs with “The Greatest Show on Turf” until they hit a brick wall playing against the Bucs’ dominant defense. We held the Rams to five points throughout most of the game, and we seemed to have an answer for everything they threw at us. Even after the Rams scored the only touchdown of the game—a thirty yard strike to Ricky Proehl over Brian Kelly—I felt like we had enough to strike back and take the lead for good. Behind rookie Shaun King, the Bucs actually moved down the field in convincing fashion, but in the final moments a completed pass to Bert Emanual that would have put us at the Ram’s 22 yard line was overturned because the ball touched the ground despite the receiver maintaining possession. We lost the call, the game, and our ticket to the Super Bowl. Afterward, the NFL clarified the rules to basically say the Bucs were robbed. That was a slap in the face to go with the heartache of watching the Rams later win the Super Bowl.

Masahito Ogasawara
Western Conference Finals, May 29, 1997

As a die-hard Rockets fan, it has to be Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals. First, it was against the Utah Jazz, and every Rockets fan can tell you the pure hatred we all have for the Jazz (although, Rahat with his article may say otherwise these days). Second, I had such high expectations that season, with us having three future hall of famers in Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley. At minimum, I expected to see us in the Finals, hoping to play and beat the Jordan-led Bulls, so people could finally shut up about the Rockets’ two championships being won during “Jordan-less” seasons.

Well, the Bulls did their part by winning the Eastern Conference Finals on May 28, the day before Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. I won’t recap the whole game, but the Rockets were basically up by 10 points in the final minute, and everyone pretty much thought it was over. Then in the last moments of the game, John Stockton throws up a 35 footer at the buzzer into the basket with Barkley on him to send the Jazz to the Finals. While most people may remember that year because of the Bulls winning the Finals and Jordan’s “flu game” in Utah, I will unfortunately always remember this game for the wrongest of reasons.

Sreesha Vaman
Olympics Hockey Gold Medal Game, February 28, 2010

We were the upstart Americans, thirsting for payback from losing the 2002 medal to Canada.  We had defeated Cocky Canada in the round robin, sheer determination triumphing over superior skill.  When Zach Parise scored with 28 seconds left to send the game into overtime, I thought the tide had finally turned the USA’s way.  We believed.  We prayed.  We hoped.  And we cried when Sidney Crosby snuck one in past Ryan Miller to give Canada the gold.  It figures that it would be Crosby, who had a terrible Olympics but was lauded as a “hero” because of that one goal, and who has all the skill in the world but has as much personality as a dry piece of stale bread that’s been sitting in the cold toaster oven for six hours.  The one bright spot was how much support the U.S. team got: The TV ratings were the second-highest of any genre all year behind the Super Bowl, and the topic dominated talk shows—I distinctly remember Craig Ferguson shaking his fist at the camera and vowing to win gold in 2014.

Now it’s your turn: What is your most heartbreaking moment in sports?  Leave a comment and let us know.

Dear Baseball: We Can Still Be Friends

In Atlanta, Baseball, Loyalty on July 18, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Baseball and I, we met at Parker Field in Richmond, Virginia in September of ’83. It was a hot, humid night. A thunderstorm loomed in the west, just above the stadium lights.

Alright, most of that isn’t true. I do know that we met at Parker Field, but I have no idea when it was. I don’t even remember Parker Field. It was torn down in 1984 when I was 6, and I’m not that good at remembering things anyhow. Parker Field was the home of the Richmond Braves, Atlanta’s top farm team. Its replacement, The Diamond, opened in 1985 and is still there today. The R-Braves are not.

Since Richmond was the final stop for kids on their way to Atlanta, I saw some great players: Glavine in ’87, Smoltz in ’88, Justice in ’89, Chipper in ’93. I’d later see these same kids on TBS every night. It never really seemed like I had a choice: The Atlanta Braves became my favorite team. By the time I’d moved on from tee ball, I had Dale Murphy posters plastered on my wall. I was mimicking Ozzie Virgil’s catching stance. I was convinced Zane Smith was the best pitcher ever. Remember, though, the Braves sucked for most of the 80s. They were horrible.  Really, truly horrible. My friend Jason always made fun of the Braves. And he was a freaking Blue Jays fan.

And then ’91 happened. That’s when baseball and I really hit it off. That’s when we took our relationship to the next level.

(To this day, I hate Kent Hrbek. I still check and see if the Giants or Reds lost, even though it’s been almost 20 years since they were in the NL West together. I’d put Mark Lemke in the Hall of Fame. I think Terry Pendleton deserved that MVP.)

Baseball and I spent a lot of time together in those days. Baseball cards provided me the first opportunity to refine my obsessive organizational skills. I watched Baseball Tonight religiously. Every year in early July, I’d plan out All-Star Game night: The right TV angle, the best position on the couch, dinner, the dessert. I could tell you every team’s opening day lineup. I created each All-Star team in Baseball Stars (SHEFLD of the ‘92 National League team was an absolute monster). I’d watch the Cubs on WGN in the afternoon and then the Braves at night on TBS.

But somewhere along the line, at some point in our relationship, things began to change.

It had nothing to do with The Strike. Strikes happen. It had nothing to do with The Steroids. I would have probably done steroids if I played pro baseball.  And it had nothing to do with The All-Star Game Determines the Home Team in the World Series. Oh, I know it’s really stupid, but it’s a small blip on the radar. None of those really pushed baseball and I apart.

There were some little things I started to notice, little pet peeves that I thought our love could overcome. At times, ESPN’s coverage of baseball (everything, really) stumbled into yellow journalism. Joe Morgan, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver made watching baseball almost unbearable.  The lack of any sort of competitive balance went from annoying to bothersome to deplorable in a matter of years. The Hall of Fame voting. TBS dropping regular coverage of the Braves. I was sure we could weather those storms.

See, I never wanted to admit that I saw the end coming. But my eyes began wandering a bit. I mean, have you seen hockey in HD? I began thinking about others more, thinking about spending more time with football. But I always came back to baseball. This distance between us, it grew in the tiniest of increments, and then one day, I woke up and those little increments had become one giant gulf.

I didn’t seem to know baseball anymore. I couldn’t tell you many opening day lineups. I didn’t know where some free agents had gone. (Jeff Francoeur is on the Royals now? And he was on the Rangers last year?) I can’t tell you the Braves’ 25-man roster right now. I’ve even skipped World Series games. I admit there were World Series games where I didn’t see a single pitch. I saw my friends spending more and more time with baseball and began to feel guilty (yes, I’m talking about you, Wells).

And there was that day, the day when I learned something about baseball that I couldn’t fully live with. On the surface, it didn’t seem like a big deal. But it felt like a big deal: That seedy underbelly of your family-friendly, hometown Minor League Baseball. The way small cities and communities are cowed into giving up the farm for a team that was once the pride of another community. The way these small baseball teams could hold towns hostage. They tell me that, after all, baseball is a business. But that doesn’t really make it any less ugly.

Remember Richmond, where baseball and I met? Allow me to digress. Those very same R-Braves, they moved to Richmond in 1966, the same year the big league Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. For the next 43 seasons, the R-Braves were Atlanta’s top minor league team. Freaking Dusty Baker played for the R-Braves, that’s how long they’d been around.

The R-Braves were owned by their parent club in Atlanta. They’d seen The Diamond and they knew it was a pit. A giant, sterile, concrete pit. It was old and dated before the first pitch. They came to town, and they told the Richmond, “We want a new stadium. Richmond should build us a new stadium.” (Not an exact quote.)

The “…or else” is always understood. When minor league team owners get antsy for a new stadium, they make a trip down to your City Hall, schedule a couple of lunch meetings with your Elected Officials. There is always another city who will build a state-of-the-art, shiny new stadium. And the Richmond VIPs made the decision (or non-decision) to take some time and explore their options. In the end, though, the R-Braves became the Gwinnett Braves after the 2008 season. Go find Gwinnett on a map.

(Postscript: A year later, Richmond got an Eastern League franchise affiliated with… wait for it… the San Francisco Giants.)

Richmonders had been going to R-Braves games for 43 years. LBJ was still President. Richmond was a stalwart of the International League, a five-time champion. But Gwinnett County was willing to put their taxpayers on the hook for a stadium that won’t be paid off until 2038. The taxpayers pay for the facility and its maintenance, the team keeps ticket and concessions revenue.

It’s a good business model for the team. It sucks for everyone else. Head up north and ask Edmonton about Nolan Ryan moving the city’s team to Round Rock, Texas. Ask Ottawa about the Lynx. Next year, ask Yakima, Washington and Kinston, North Carolina. Hell, go ask the fine people of Portland, Oregon: They’ve made getting screwed by baseball franchises into an art form.

I’ll paraphrase Henry Hill from Goodfellas for the kids: Screw you, pay me.

So, what does all of this have to do with me and baseball? We all grow up and with age comes a little perspective. A reshuffling of priorities. Perhaps a little touch of cynicism. I wasn’t too old to love baseball, I just didn’t love it the same way. I could no longer buy into the idea that baseball should be as loyal to its fans as its fans are to it. The fans always lose that fight. And that’s when baseball and I went down to the courthouse and filed. Irreconcilable differences.

My baseball cards, they’re in a box in the basement. I don’t get (that) mad anymore when I think about how Dale Murphy isn’t in the Hall of Fame. I own a Minnesota Twins t-shirt. And I’ve been known to wear it.

Some days I do miss what baseball and I had. And don’t misunderstand me, baseball and I still talk. Some nights the wife and the kid, we all get together and spend some time with baseball, watching the Braves when they’re on. We watch Dan Uggla ground into double plays and Derek Lowe throw his 88 mph fastball and I think back to the Braves of the 1980s. I follow Dale Murphy’s Twitter feed. I’m counting down the days until I can play catch with my son.

Baseball and I, we still have those memories. A Sunday game at Camden Yards. That 1995 World Series. McGwire’s home run (despite all that came later). Miserably hot Spring Training games in Arizona. And I still plan on creating new memories with baseball: There are many more stadiums to visit, many more teams to see. And I’ll always love the game’s history: The cowboy days of the 1800s, the turn of the century chaos, etc.

But our relationship, it’ll never be the same as it was.

Perfecting the Top 10: Most Intimidating Athletes

In Baseball, Basketball, Boxing, Football, Hockey, MMA, Perfecting the Top 10, Wrestling on July 16, 2011 at 2:42 PM

Certain people draw plenty of attention when they speak. James Harrison, with his guns, brash attitude and status as one of the NFL’s top defensive players, is one of those people. Needless to say, Harrison had the nation’s attention with his recent comments regarding league commissioner Roger Goodell (crook, devil, puppet, dictator—the latter two of which I’m not sure can coexist, but I digress), as well as verbal digs against teammates and opponents alike.

What made Harrison’s comments so noteworthy—aside from their inflammatory nature—was the person from which they were spewing forth. Point being, Harrison (to quote Kevin from The Office) is a “Grade-A-Badass.” Herein lies a question: What other athletes currently share Harrison’s standing as legitimately frightening individuals, people with whom kicking up dust might not be the best idea? Let’s find out.

Note: These rankings are not based on an athlete’s ability in their sport, but rather, their sheer “fear factor.”

10. Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens: Yeah, Ray has lost a step. In fact, he’s probably only the third or fourth best player on his own defense at this point. That said, if it goes down, give me someone such as Ray-Ray, a wily vet with a noted mean streak, a ripped physique, unmatched intensity and an innate leadership quality. Plus, tell me this doesn’t frighten you just a bit.

9. Zdeno Chara, Defenseman, Boston Bruins: I don’t pretend to know much about hockey, but I do know that anytime a guy has to meet with police regarding an on-ice hit, this person gets a one-way ticket to this list, no questions asked.

8. Clay Matthews, Linebacker, Green Bay Packers. The hair doesn’t hurt matters; neither does unmatched ability to get to quarterbacks and dispatch them with extreme prejudice.

7. Manny Pacquiao, Boxer/Politician: The reasoning for this is simple … boxing is a sport in which success is measured by one’s ability to pummel his opponent into submission with his fists. No one in the world does this better than “Pac-Man.” Let’s move on.

6. The Undertaker, Professional Wrestler/Dead Man: Think it’s fake, huh? Try telling that to this 7-foot, 300-plus-pound Houstonian behemoth who, by the way, also trains in mixed martial arts. Plus, his 19-0 record at WrestleMania is professional wrestling’s 56-game hitting streak.

5. Kobe Bryant, Guard, Los Angeles Lakers: He’s not intimidating in terms of pure physical force, but Bryant’s intensity, work ethic and will to prevail on the court are second only to one Michael Jordan. Personally, that frightens me, if only because it indicates that Kobe is the type to sneak a shiv into a fists-only streetfight.

4. Albert Pujols, First Baseman, St. Louis Cardinals: By all accounts a good guy on and off the diamond, Pujols nonetheless looks like the meanest bouncer at the bar, the guy who spent all day working out in the hopes of inciting a riot later that night. His muscles have muscles. Hell, Brad Lidge never fully recovered from his brush with Big Albert.

3. Brock Lesnar, UFC Heavyweight/Ill-Tempered Minnesotan: No, Brock Lesnar is not an elite UFC competitor, at least not on par with the Anderson Silvas of the cage fighting world. That said, look at this man. Dude looks like he was manufactured in a lab. Hell, I’d go so far as to call Lesnar our nation’s 21st Century Ivan Drago.

2. Ron Artest (aka Metta World Peace), Forward/Resident Lunatic, Los Angeles Lakers:  The eyes don’t lie. Whether it’s that formerly-crazy girlfriend who alleges to have changed her ways, or a former bleacher-rushing Indiana Pacers forward who alleges to have done the same, the eyes don’t lie. And the eyes tell me, for all Artest’s on- and off-court improvements, there’s a tinge of crazy that has yet to be exterminated. And that sliver of crazy, no matter how small, is more than enough reason to vault near the top of this list.

1. James Harrison, Linebacker/Gun Enthusiast/Disgruntled NFL Employee, Pittsburgh Steelers: Easy call. Harrison is a 6-foot, 250-pound, mean-spirited, hard-hitting, gun-toting madman. A former Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison’s bone-crushing hits, their ensuring fines and his subsequent NFL blasts, are the stuff of legend. Tack on fellow Steeler defenders like Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, LaMarr Woodley, and Troy Polamalu, and it’s no wonder Carson Palmer can’t wait to exit the AFC North.

A Japanese Tornado in the History of Baseball

In Baseball, Japan, Los Angeles on July 12, 2011 at 7:00 AM

With the abundance of Japanese baseball players in the Majors these days, it’s not difficult for any average baseball fan to name one of them. Ichiro? Sure, who hasn’t heard the perennial All-Star’s name?  Hideki Matsui? Come on, he’s Godzilla. How about Daisuke Matsuzaka? The Red Sox Nation will laugh at you for not knowing that one. The list goes on and on with the likes of Hideki Irabu, whom George Steinbrenner once called a “fat toad,” while Mets fans might recall Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Kaz Matsui, both of whom made their presence known more with their dyed hair and bright-colored wristbands than their play on the field. But if you asked me the same question, I only have one answer: Hideo Nomo.  The one who started it all.

Nomo Mania began in the 1995 season, when he splashed onto the Major League scene with the Los Angeles Dodgers, seemingly out of nowhere, after a bitter contract dispute with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Pacific League in Japan. Mesmerizing crowds and bewildering opposing batters at every ballpark with his never-before-seen “tornado” windup style, he finished the season with an impressive résumé, leading the league in strikeouts, a 13-6 record and a 2.54 ERA.  And let’s not forget he was the starting pitcher for the National League in the All-Star Game. His performance was even more impressive the following season, going 16-11 and capping the year off with a no-hitter at Denver’s Coors Field, the hitter’s paradise. All these numbers, however, don’t begin to tell the story of Nomo, whose legacy, while paling in comparison to that of Jackie Robinson, warrants a discussion as a future Hall of Fame member for his contributions to the game of baseball as a whole.

The challenges he faced in paving the way for other Japanese players to come to the Majors cannot be understated. If you think the 24/7 media scrutiny Ichiro, Matsui or Dice-K have received in their time here is bad, Nomo’s plight makes them look like spoiled children on My Super Sweet 16. A Japanese baseball player playing outside of Japan at that time was not only unprecedented, but also seen as a bit of an insult in the eyes of many Japanese, many of whom lived and died by baseball.  They sincerely believed that the Japanese brand of baseball was the best in the world. I viewed Nomo’s move to the States in the same way other Japanese did. I came to the States from Japan in the summer of 1994, shortly before Nomo. As an obsessed baseball fan growing up in Tokyo, idolizing the likes of Nomo, it was even more difficult for me to see him abandon not only his team, but also his country.  In Japan, where loyalty is of the utmost importance, Nomo’s decision was a slap in the face. The reaction to Nomo’s defection to the Majors was in stark contrast to the fanfare and celebration that preceded the departures of Ichiro, Matusi and Daisuke. His every move, on and off the field, was questioned and dissected, partially because some Japanese, even those in the media, wanted to see him fail. But this attitude from his countrymen made his accomplishments in the majors, including throwing no-hitters in both the National and American Leagues (one of only five pitchers in the history of the MLB to accomplish this feat), even more impressive. Ichiro, Matsui and Daisuke came to the majors with the entirety of Japan backing them and cheering them on to succeed. Not Nomo. Ichiro, Matsui and Daisuke came over having multiple destination options and double-digit million dollar contracts. Not Nomo. Ichiro, Matsui and Daisuke had the option to always go back to Japan if things didn’t go so well stateside without receiving a ton of criticism because their failures would have been characterized as “difference in style of play between Japan and America.” Not Nomo. He didn’t have the luxury of being able to go back home. He put everything on the line in coming to the Majors. He had no choice but to succeed.

Nomo’s legacy lies beyond the precedents he set for his fellow countrymen dreaming to play in the Majors.  Were it not for his successful career, we wouldn’t be seeing the Yankees play their opener in Tokyo. The so called “posting system” that enabled Matsui and Daisuke to make their move to the Majors would have never been implemented and without Nomo, the World Baseball Classic might not have been established. And we can’t overlook that Nomo brought many baseball fans, who were still upset about the 1994-95 baseball strike, back to the ballparks with his tornado delivery. His style and success helped renew interest in the sport that America calls its favorite pastime.

While we can’t give Nomo all the credit for the globalization of baseball in the last decade, the success that he enjoyed encouraged 42 other Japanese players to successfully make their way to the Majors since then.  This alone speaks volumes. Sure, Ichiro might have ended up playing in the Majors anyway, but perhaps not as early as 2001.  And Nomo’s success certainly influenced general managers across the MLB to look outside of the U.S. to not only Japan, but other Asian countries as well. The infusion of Latin and Asian players into the Majors in the last 15 years, along with the additional revenue the MLB has generated with its globalization initiatives, must, at least in part, be credited to him.

With all of these accomplishments, is there room for him in the Baseball Hall of Fame?  Not just for his impressive statistics, but for the legacy he left behind? Even when he retired and moved back to Japan, where he was hired to be the Orix Buffaloes’ manager, his desire to implement the American/MLB style of practice and conditioning was unwelcome, and he was eventually let go. It’s truly a shame that someone who has set so many records in Japanese baseball history has yet to be inducted into even the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.  In fact, there is still a debate around whether he will ever be inducted because of Japan’s grudge over his defection to the Majors 16 years ago.  So tell me, America, for a man who left his home and country and changed the MLB both with how he played and for those that followed him, can we and our Hall of Fame give this guy the love that he deserves?


Perfecting the Top 10: Championship Upsets of the 21st Century

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Golf, Perfecting the Top 10, Soccer, Tennis on July 9, 2011 at 12:00 PM

In discussing who we are here at Perfecting the Upset, we argue that, “Everyone believes in miracles whether they admit it or not.  And for a sports fan, miracles happen when someone pulls off the perfect upset: That team nobody saw coming against the team who we thought would take it all.” But there’s an additional curl in this fabric that can make some victories considerably more satisfying because of their rarity: Upsets in championships.  In order for this to happen, there has to be perfect harmony in the cosmos.  Not only does David have to first make his way through the rubble, but he also needs Goliath to be waiting at the end of the tunnel.  There are some quite unfortunate cases where, if Goliath was waiting, the story could have been sweeter.  After all, Portsmouth winning the FA Cup in 2008 sounds like a story to tell until you remember they defeated a team from a lower division (Cardiff City) in the finals.

So, what better way to continue our Perfecting the Top 10 series than to count down the ten most memorable championship upsets of the 21st century?  In coming up with the list, more popular leagues were given greater weight.  They had to be head-to-head matchups, not just against the field.  Attention was given to genuine upsets, not those simply perceived as such by the sensationalist media (such as a formidable Diamondbacks team defeating an equally-talented Yankees team).  And finally, additional credence was given to teams with legacy: It’s one thing defeating the flavour-of-the-year, but it’s another to defeat a Goliath packing a dynasty in his holster.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48 – Oakland Raiders 21 (Super Bowl XXXVII) »  At age 37, Rich Gannon threw for 4,689 yards, won the league MVP and took the Raiders to their first Super Bowl since 1983.  The oddsmakers favored their top-rated offense by 4 against Jon Gruden’s top-rated defense, but by the time the third quarter ended, it was obvious that defense did, in fact, win championships.  Gruden had gotten revenge against his previous team, and the Al Davis affliction in sunny California continued to persist.

9. Florida Gators 41 – Ohio State Buckeyes 14 (2007 BCS National Championship Game) »  Troy Smith, Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez made the Buckeyes look invincible throughout the season (which included a 24-7 dismantling of defending champions from the University of Texas).  Aside from a late game comeback by rival Michigan, Ohio State was never in danger of losing a game.  This was supposed to be one of the most lopsided deciding bowl games ever.  But Chris Leak, Percy Harvin and some fellow named Tim Tebow had other ideas.  After the Buckeyes returned the initial kickoff, Harvin matched—and it was a cakewalk for the remainder.  It was lopsided, alright, just on the other side.

8. Florida Marlins 4 – New York Yankees 2 (2003 World Series) »  Money doesn’t always make you happy, and money definitely can’t buy you championships.  The Marlins shocked the Yankees (and their $110 million difference in payroll) by riding Josh Beckett to the glory land for the second time in seven years.  Along the way, though, they had some extra help from a Cubs fan whose memorabilia-hogging instincts kept the grand prize away for his cursed team.

7. Greece 1 – Portugal 0 (Euro 2004) »  Greece’s improbable run at Euro 2004 was capped with a second defeat of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Portuguese squad, headlined by Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, who failed to avenge their opening day loss.  Along the way, they also beat France and England.  It’s possible to pad this further, but seriously, there shouldn’t be any other data necessary: Greece won Euro 2004 by defeating three powerhouses four times total.  That’s the math, and that’s pretty amazing.

6. Maria Sharapova (6-1, 6-4) over Serena Williams (2004 Wimbledon) »  Out of nowhere, 13th seeded, 17-year-old Sharapova beats two-time defending champion and #1 seed Williams in straight sets.  This was a passing of the torch, of sorts, not unlike Federer beating Sampras in 2001.  Of course, Serena continued her dominance for a while longer, but she’ll never forget the spark she provided to Sharapova’s career at Centre Court.

5. Y.E. Yang (-8) over Tiger Woods (-5) (2009 PGA Championship) »  Golf isn’t a head-to-head sport, but when you take into effect that Yang and Woods were paired up for the final round at the Hazeltine National Golf Club, you can imagine how intense it must have been throughout the day.  Tiger entered the day with a 2 shot lead before ending the day +3, in the process witnessing the first Asian-born player to win a major on the PGA tour.  This was all the more impressive as Yang didn’t start playing golf until age 19.  The maturing prodigy was defeated by the budding late-bloomer.

4. Texas 41 – USC 38 (2006 Rose Bowl/BCS National Championship Game) »  Matt Leinart this.  Reggie Bush that.  For all the hype the media loves to generate, there’s probably no doubt amongst college football fanatics that this Trojans team was one of the greatest to ever play.  But there was one man who, frankly, didn’t give a damn: Vince Young.  He had put in the single greatest individual performance I’ve ever witnessed by the time he crossed into the endzone on 4th and 2.  While the awe and magic of a game like this may never again be repeated, Young’s lesson in media-founded histrionics will always be remembered.

3. Patriots 20 – Rams 17 (Super Bowl XXXVI) »  September 11 made New York City a solemn place to live.  But for some reason, it felt as if supporting these mediocre “Patriots” would make us all happier.  So, we did.  Against “the Greatest Show on Turf.”  Little did we know that we’d witness the genesis of one of the most hated dynasties in sports history, and that of a man who would end up marrying the world’s highest-paid supermodel and have hair softer than Justin Bieber.

2. Giants 17 – Patriots 14 (Super Bowl XLII) »  18-1.

1. Detroit Pistons 4 – Los Angeles Lakers 1 (2004 NBA Finals) »  Many would contest that the Giants’ defeat of the previously undefeated Patriots should be #1.  But I can’t help but argue for these pesky, blue-collar boys from Detroit.  Not only did the Pistons embody everything the Motor City stood for, they outright dominated a stacked team filled with four future Hall-of-Famers.  Keeping the Lakers to 68 points in a game?  That’s a team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.  Yet they never broke 100 points.  Winning one game is great.  But winning a championship in this commanding a fashion as an underdog?  Incredible. Keeping someone from perfect once has some luck involved.  But keeping a great team from reaching its ultimate goal over a seven-game series?  That’s the kind of perseverance and teamwork that makes us believe that miracles are possible.

Championship Upsets of the 21st Century

Love and Bruises: The Curse of the Mets

In Baseball, New York on July 7, 2011 at 10:00 AM

I’ll never forget that night. Thursday, October 19, 2006. I’ll never forget the pitch. A knee buckling, filthy 12-6 curveball that seemed to just drop off the face of the earth. With just a single pitch, not only was our season over, it felt like someone had sucked the living soul out of my body. I felt empty and lifeless. Standing in that raucous bar, I was absolutely stunned. That feeling quickly gave way to anger and frustration. This was our season! We were destined to go all the way. In many aspects, it was the best New York Mets team that I had ever seen, even better than 2000. The 2006 Mets were the perfect blend of youth and experience, clutch hitting, pitching and defense. However, as many can attest, such is the curse of being a Mets fan. Heartbreak is almost a prerequisite, a sort of “hazing” if you will, that one must endure to enter the brotherhood of bleeding blue and orange.  Though we’ve been crushed by the reality of missed opportunities and unfulfilled expectations, with sick perversion we look forward to next April every year. Things are going to be different this season. I know it. And so, I curse the day I became a Mets fan.

To be honest, I can’t pinpoint a single game or moment that made me a Mets fan. Growing up in Long Island, long summer days were spent playing baseball and home run derby at the park. We’d emulate our favorite players’ batting stances and pitching motions. In particular, I was infamous for my Jeff Innis sidearm delivery impression, and my Daryl Strawberry silky smooth swing was uncanny.  My father was particularly enamored with the ‘86 Mets. He loved Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter. We spent many hazy summer nights watching the Mets on TV after he’d get home from work. I loved it when he told me stories of that season, and how the they were unlike any other team he’d ever watched. Shea Stadium in nearby Flushing was a mere 30 minute drive from home, so we’d go to at least one game a season. Combine all the aforementioned factors, and unfortunately, a Mets fan was born.

There are a few distinct moments that have truly defined what it is to be a Mets fan. Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series (NLCS) at Shea Stadium is one of them. The season itself was refreshing, to say the least. Promising young manager Willie Randolph had the team playing loose and fun baseball, culminating in a 97-65 record and a NL East title in only his second season as skipper.  We swept the Dodgers in the Divisional Series (NLDS), so optimism and expectations were at an all-time high. As the underdog St. Louis Cardinals rolled into town, it was hard not to think that this was our year.  A great series ensued, and it ultimately came down to a final Game 7 at Shea Stadium for the right to advance to the biggest stage. As a baseball fan, this was one of the best games I’ve ever watched. As a Mets fan, this was by far the most soul crushing and painful game to date. The very definition of what it means to be a Mets fan can be epitomized by this Game 7.  A 1-1 game in the top of the sixth inning, Scott Rolen crushed an Ollie Perez pitch into deep left field.  My heart sank. I’ve heard that sound before; it was the sound of a baseball leaving the stadium. I was right: The ball flew high into the crisp late autumn night. Then a moment of brilliance ensued. Endy Chavez scaled the wall and made a brilliant snow-cone catch and had the wits to double up Jim Edmonds at first.


Perez deals. Fastball, hit in the air to left field… that’s deep. Back goes Chavez, back near the wall… leaping… and… he made the catch! He took a home run away from Rolen! Trying to get back to first, Edmonds; he’s doubled off! And the inning is over! Endy Chavez saved the day! He reached high over the left field wall, right in front of the Mets’ visitor’s bullpen and pulled back a two-run homer. He went to the apex of his leap and caught it in the webbing of his glove… with his elbow up above the fence. A miraculous play, by Endy Chavez, and then Edmonds is doubled off first and Oliver Perez escapes the sixth inning. The play of the year, the play… maybe… of the franchise’s history for Endy Chavez! The inning is over!”

—Gary Cohen, WFAN, October 19, 2006


Amazing. The single greatest defensive play I’ve ever witnessed couldn’t have come at a more clutch time. The Amazin’s were back, and we had life. Hope. But you know how this story goes. This is the Mets we’re talking about. You know, the same ol’ Mets that build up your dreams of something grand only to have the carpet pulled from underneath and expose you to the harsh reality of, well, being a Mets fan. And suddenly, we started playing like the same ol’ Mets. With the pressure mounting, bases loaded and only one out in the bottom half of the same inning, we would fail to drive in a run, with our hero Endy Chavez getting the last out. You could almost feel the once rowdy Shea Stadium deflate. The Cardinals would go on to take a 3-1 lead in the top of the ninth courtesy of a 2-run home run by Yadier Molina. The task was daunting: 3 outs and 3 runs to win, to break the curse.  The bottom of the ninth inning started with promise as Valentin and Chavez both singled off Cardinals rookie closer Adam Wainwright. It pains me to type his name. The decibel level at the bar had reached a dangerous level. Let’s go Mets! Even though Wainwright would retire the next two Mets batters, Paul Lo Duca’s patient approach led to a walk that loaded the bases.  The stage was set.

There are few better moments in all of sports better than waiting for a crucial pitch to be delivered late in October. If the Mets were to break the curse of being the Mets, this was the perfect moment. There was no one I’d rather have up at the plate than the next batter, Carlos Beltran. 41 homeruns, 116 RBI, All-Star, Gold Glove winner, Silver Slugger winner. This was why the Mets shelled out the big bucks for the quiet centerfielder.  First pitch, strike 1. Second pitch, strike 2. I looked at my best friend and fellow Mets fan. No words were needed. As I took a deep gulp and tried to compose myself for what was to follow, an undeniably ominous feeling crept through my bones. Ya gotta believe, they say. Wainwright would pause at the top of the mound for what seemed like an eternity. He then delivered one of the filthiest, nastiest curveballs I’ve ever seen. As the ball dropped 12-6 on the outside corner of the plate and into the catcher’s mitt, Beltran still had his bat on his shoulders. I knew my dreams were shattered. Our clean-up hitter, our big home run man, our hope to break this curse, didn’t even swing the bat. It was all over. I stood stoically as some Yankees fans came over to offer a kind word. It’s hard to recall what they said exactly because the whole bar had become eerily silent, and everything around me had become a blur.  Absolutely gutted. Then rage. He didn’t even swing the bat! Just like that, one pitch and order in the universe was restored. The Mets disappointed yet again.

As crushed as I was, the next April I was once again full of optimism and hope.  And of course, it was no different this past spring.  Being a Mets fan is somewhat of a sick addiction.  Bleeding blue and orange means having to deal with Tom Glavine (who was never a true Met) give up 7 runs in the first inning of a must-win game during the historic 2007 collapse.  It means having the same thing happen again against the same team the following season. It means having to deal with Bobby Bonilla, Kaz Matsui and Roger Cedeno.  It means being second best no matter how well you play to a more polished big brother in pin-stripes. But even though I curse the day I became a Mets fan, I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are a proud and persevering bunch, and we will always look forward to April with dreams (delusions) of a World Series.