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Growing up in Marion, Ohio, Judson Webb was a pretty decent American Legion outfielder, good enough that in 1953 he fielded an offer of $90 a month to play Class D ball. But he had another option. "My mother talked me into going to college," says Webb, who's now a philosophy professor at Boston University, where he gets paid to mull over the multiplicity of life's roads not taken. Webb's own fate is a mere byway in the maze of paths that vein the Rand McNally of sports. Much more momentous turns in sports history have involved decisions--apparently incidental at the time, but fateful in the long run--not unlike the one Webb made with a nudge from Mom.
Professional cogitators like Webb consider these what-ifs to be eminently ponderable. (They are guided by fellow philosopher Yogi Berra, who said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it.") Webb will explain to you, as he routinely does to his introductory philosophy students, that the alternative fates that sports fans so longingly entertain go by a name. Philosophers call them "counterfactual conditionals," and they crop up most often in history and sports, with no example (at least in urban legend) richer in both than that of onetime pitcher Fidel Castro (reputedly turns down $5,000 signing bonus from New York Giants; goes on to lead Cuban Revolution). "Every time you leave a ball game, half the fans are muttering about factuals, the other half about counterfactuals," says Webb, who frequently dips into sports for examples to pose to his students.
Webb says this in his office on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue, which virtually overlooks the Citgo sign outside that crazy-quilt, Frazee-guilt intersection of roads taken and not taken that we know as Fenway Park. Midwesterner though he may be, Webb has adopted the home team--and yes, he counts himself among those many Red Sox fans who, until two months ago, could get so hung up in What Might Have Been that they never reached Wait Till Next Year.
With Webb as our muse, we fired up the Way-Back Machine to revisit moments in sports at which some path fatefully divided. We focused not on horrific interventions, like the 1993 knife thrust of Gunther Parche, the unemployed German lathe operator and Steffi Graf obsessive who sidelined Monica Seles for 27 months, thereby redirecting the course of women's tennis for years; or the cocaine overdose that killed Len Bias hours after the Boston Celtics had made him the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA draft. Nor were we interested in heat-of-the-contest what-ifs--e.g., what if Carl Erskine, the other pitcher the Brooklyn Dodgers had up and throwing one early fall day in 1951, hadn't bounced a curve in the bullpen dirt, leading the Dodgers' brain trust to bring in Ralph Branca, whom the New York Giants' Bobby Thomson had worn out all season? Sometimes that butterfly flapping its wings in Borneo will set off a chain of events that pushes a field goal wide, and there's not a damn thing Scott Norwood can do about it.
No, we preferred examples of how events played out as a result of some choice made by a human being acting of free will in the normal course of life. Sometimes these decisions determined one's own destiny. ( John Wooden never builds the UCLA basketball dynasty if not for a freak of the weather.) Sometimes the decisions had their primary impact on the destiny of someone else. (A statue of a man named Walt Kiesling should forever grace the promenade of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.) In one instance we highlight the consequence of a standoff reached by two stubborn parties. ( Roger Clemens, meet the New York Mets.) But all these historical crossroads share one thing: Every one has an engrossing backstory. So read 'em and weep. Or cheer, if fate treated your town or team or hero kindly.
Coach, Philadelphia Eagles
ROAD NOT TAKEN As David Maraniss recounts in When Pride Still Mattered, after the 1957 season the Eagles sacked coach Hugh Devore, who had presided over two straight losing seasons, and approached Lombardi, then the New York Giants' offensive coordinator. NFL commissioner Bert Bell (whose office was in the Philly suburbs) called the Lombardi house on the Jersey Shore one Saturday morning to talk up the Eagles, interrupting a cribbage game between Lombardi and his wife, Marie. Giants then vice president Wellington Mara, in a call of his own minutes later, countered that the Eagles' ownership was a snare of squabbling partners who would leave Lombardi powerless and frustrated.
ROAD TAKEN Marie sent her husband out of their house to the Catholic church at which he was a regular communicant. "Don't pray," she told him. "Think!" Lombardi decided to stay in part because the Giants agreed to match the Eagles' $22,500 salary offer and hike his life insurance policy. In January 1959, though, Lombardi took his first head-coaching job, with the Green Bay Packers, who in decisive contrast to the Eagles offered him general manager duties too. The Eagles wound up hiring Buck Shaw, who in 1960 led them to a 17--13 NFL-title-game victory over Lombardi's Pack. But within two seasons Philadelphia slipped back into ineptitude, and Green Bay went on to dominate the league.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD As Maraniss notes, Marie Lombardi had always supported her husband in his efforts to better himself professionally. But with the Packers' offer on the table, Marie drew Mara aside during a dinner at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to urge him to do everything he could to keep her husband in New York. "I didn't," recalled Mara. "I said, 'Marie, I think Green Bay is the place for him.'"