Baseball's biggest chokes
Mets join history's infamous list; Padres could be next
Posted: Monday October 1, 2007 2:33PM; Updated: Monday October 1, 2007 2:33PM
Up until Sunday there had been 11 seminal chokes in baseball history -- teams that managed to blow a pennant race or a playoff series in spite of enormous odds in their favor. While there is no definitive answer about when an ordinary late-season swoon ends and an extraordinary and catastrophic collapse begins, these 11 teams held unchallenged places on any such list. Six of the 11 teams endured their collapse during the regular season and five in the playoffs -- and one of them even managed to do a little bit of both. But all of them managed to bungle away at least a 95 percent chance at advancement, and in some cases the probability was higher than that.
What the math says: 25-to-1 against. The Phillies held a 6 1/2-game lead on the Cardinals with 13 to play; they were expected to win in excess of 96 percent of the time under these circumstances.
Aggravating circumstances: Gene Mauch running his pitching staff into the ground as the Phillies lost 10 in a row.
Mitigating circumstance: The Phillies had a much tougher schedule than Cardinals over the last two weeks of the season.
Aftermath: It had been 14 years since the Phillies had last won the pennant, and it would take another 12 years until they won their next one. Mauch managed to keep his job until 1968, only to re-appear on this list two decades later. Meanwhile, this was one of those bitter disappointments that tended to entrench the culture of booing in Philadelphia.
What the math says: 21-to-1 against. The Giants' playoff odds peaked at 95.46 percent on Sept. 18 with about 20 games left to play, at which time they had a 4 1/2-game lead on the Cubs.
Aggravating circumstances: Merkle's Boner -- On Sept. 23 reserve first baseman Fred Merkle headed to the clubhouse rather than touching second base on what appeared to be a game-winning hit for the Giants, creating a forceout at second after Johnny Evers made an appeal play. The game was declared a tie amid chaos at the Polo Grounds, and had to be replayed on Oct. 8 after the Giants finished the season a half-game back of the Cubs. The Giants, of course, lost that game.
Mitigating circumstances: Merkle was a 19-year-old rookie who was understandably distracted by the rough-and-tumble behavior of the crowd at the Polo Grounds. Moreover, the forceout rule was inconsistently enforced under these specific circumstances in 1908.
Aftermath: Merkle was such a nervous wreck that he lost 15 pounds as the Giants tried and failed to regain the momentum in the playoff chase, but manager John McGraw forgave him, and he played with the club until 1916.
What the math says: 28-to-1 against after games of Aug. 12. Even that late in the season the Red Sox led the Yankees by as many as nine games.
Aggravating circumstances: The Boston Massacre -- the Sox lost to the Yankees by a combined score of 42-9 over a four-day span in Fenway Park -- was the beginning of the end. Bucky Dent's home run was the end of the end.
Mitigating circumstance: The Red Sox had salvaged some dignity by winning eight straight to end the regular season and force the one-game playoff for which Dent would acquire eternal fame.
Aftermath: The first time that the Red Sox and Yankees had finished 1-2 in the standings since 1949, it marked a new escalation in the rivalry.
What the math says: 46-to-1 against. This one is tricky because it requires a combination of two events -- blowing a clinching game on the last strike and then blowing other opportunities to make the postseason. Neither of those events is all that unlikely in and of themselves, but when combined they become historically significant. The win probability for a home team (in this case the Brewers on Saturday) trailing by one run with two outs and a runner on second in the bottom of the ninth is 13.8 percent. Against Trevor Hoffman that probability is more like 11.0 percent. And against Hoffman with two strikes (and two balls), it's down to 10.2 percent. But even after the Padres lost, they were still on tap to reach the playoffs 79.7 percent of the time. The probability of their losing on Saturday combined with the probability of failing to salvage themselves later in the weekend is about 1.7 percent. All of this is assuming, of course, that the Padres don't right the ship against the Rockies today.
Aggravating circumstances: Gwynn Jr. getting the key hit on Saturday night. Bud Black tackling Milton Bradley. The Padres blowing a 3-0 lead on Sunday to a team that had nothing left to play for.
Mitigating circumstances: The Padres played reasonably good baseball throughout September (15-13) and had a couple of big comebacks of their own.
Aftermath: What must have been one of the most awkward dinners since Armin Meiwes at the Gwynn compound on Saturday night.