My last post on Igawa got me thinking about some of the mental aspects of the game. Baseball has such a ridiculously rich history, that comparable instances to the following are undoubtedly numerous. However, these are some of the most well known. These four events all are very famous for the torment they caused to their team, and for many are remembered as the exact reasons for a major loss of a game, or chance at the WS. However, contrary to popular belief, all of these events have something else in common.
They were not single handedly responsible for anything. They were not events that literally put the nail in the coffin. What they were, were shifts in mental momentum that drastically changed how a team ended up playing.
In no particular order
1. Fred Merkle’s Bonehead Play – 1908
On September 23, 1908 (CRAZY ’08!), The Cubs and Giants faced each other in a close game. In the bottom of the 9th, 2 outs, score tied 1-1, young Fred Merkle came to the plate with a runner on first. He had a base hit, and advanced the go ahead to third. The next batter had a hit as well, and drove in the winning run. As was common of the times, the fans, thinking the game was over, poured onto the field. Merkle, in an attempt to get to the clubhouse and out of the intense crowd, never ran to second base, instead running to the clubhouse and into history.
Cubs second baseman, in a crafty yet smart move, noticed Merkle’s failure to touch second. Grabbing the game ball, he ran over and touched second base. He then proceeded to convince the umpire to call Merkle on a force out, and the Giants run was eventually taken away. As it was dark, the game was left a tie.
Fast forwarding to October, the Giants and Cubs have ironically finished at a tie for first in the NL. On October 8th they play their tiebreaker, and the Giants lose the pennant.
The game that is known as Merkle’s Boner would have placed the Giants in first place. However, they still played in the tiebreaker, and had every opportunity to win it for the pennant.
2. Bucky Dent’s Homerun, 1978
At one time in 1978, the RedSox had as much as a 14 game lead over the Yankees. By September the Yankees were able to come back (the Boston Massacre) and lead the BoSox by 3.5 games. The RedSox however, were not deterred, and won 12 of their next 14 to force a one game playoff.
The Yankees faced 16 game winner Mike Torrez, and fell behind two runs to none early in the game from a Yaz homer and a run scoring single by Jim Rice. But in the seventh inning with Chambliss and White on base, Bucky Dent, who hit about 40 homers in 12 years, knocked one over the Green Monster to take a 3-2 lead. However, in the 8th, Yaz and Lynn knocked in two runs to bring the game to 5-4. In the ninth though, Gossage was able to get Yaz to pop out to Graig Nettles with the tying and go ahead run on base. BoSox lose, 5-4.
The Sox were ahead early, and stayed ahead for a good while. Dent’s homerun only put the Yanks up by 1, and was in the seventh inning. Plenty of time to still win.
3. Bill Buckner’s Ground Ball, 1986
Once again, the BoSox find themselves in a bit of heartbreak. On October 25, 1986, the BoSox faced the Mets in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. They led the best of seven 3 games to 2, and had a two run lead in the tenth inning. Oh yes, they also had two outs. So, this was it! This was for the World Series! However, to Boston’s dismay, the Mets were able to come back 5-4 with four basehits off of Stanley. Then the great Mookie Wilson stepped into the batter box. Stanley throws a pitch pretty much at Wilson’s feet, and Geddie misses the block. Mets tie the game, 5-5. Mookie then proceeds to hack a ground ball down the first base line, and Billy Buck misses the ball between his legs. Mets win, 6-5, forcing a game seven. By the way, the BoSox lose game seven.
Regardless of that, the truth is that the Sox physically had every opportunity to win game seven, but were mentally defeated the night before. That doesn’t take away the chance to win game seven though.
4. Steve Bartman Gets a Foul Ball, 2003
On October 14th, the Cubs were in the eight inning of NLCS game 6 against the Marlins, five outs from the World Series. So far, the Cubs led 3-0, and Mark Prior was pitching a three hit shoutout. With one out, Luis Castillo came to the plate, and hit a pop up foul out to the left field wall. Moises Alou chased after it for a catch, and came close. Fan Steve Bartman, following the ball and not the play, reached out and ruined Alou’s catch. Alou was heated and was seen yelling at Bartman, and the Cub’s attempted to get an interference call. Umpire Mike Everitt didn’t concur, and no call was made. Finding himself with a new shot hope, Castillo draws a walk. The rest of the inning is a Cubs disaster, as the Marlins proceed to score 8 runs, 6 of them unearned. Finally getting out of the inning, the Cubs do not produce any offense, and are forced into a Game 7. Just like many of the other stories, the Cubs have every opportunity to still reach the Fall Classic, yet do not.
What is the moral?
These are all stories where teams had specific moments, tipping points, that changed the momentum and moral of the team so much, that they were mentally defeated at that play. Yet, at the same time, while fans continue to remember these moments as the end of the road, in reality they were not. Fred Merkle didn’t lose the tiebreaker for the Giants, Bucky Dent didn’t hit a walkoff homerun, Bill Buckner didn’t miss the final out of the last game in the Series, and Steve Bartman simply caught a foul ball. None of those events can be held single handedly responsible for the proceeding poor play. One out cannot lose two games, but a pyschologically defeated team can.