Game 7: Indians fans endure World Series heartbreak, again

There is no shame in losing what might be remembered as the greatest baseball game of all time. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908 because they were deeper in their starting rotation and had better hitters in their lineup. They are worthy champions, and they had millions and millions of people rooting for them all across America.

But like other fans of the Cleveland Indians, I am crestfallen now. My team held a 3-1 lead in games and needed just one more victory for its first World Series title since 1948. Cleveland had two opportunities to celebrate a World Series crown on its home field for the first time since 1920. In those two games, the Indians never even held a lead; in fact, for most of the 19 innings played in Games 6 and 7, the home team trailed by multiple runs.

Yet in the bottom of the ninth inning, in one of those rare sporting events that transcend sports, all the Indians needed was one lousy run and they would have been champions.

If only.

Cubs 8, Indians 7. Just pressing the buttons to write those numbers hurts.

The Curse of the Billy Goat is over. The Curse of Rocky Colavito – or is it the Curse of Chief Wahoo? – lives on.

The last two times the Indians have played in a World Series, they lost Game 7 in extra innings. All other Major League Baseball franchises combined have seen their championship hopes die that particular way only twice. The Atlanta Braves lost 1-0 to the Minnesota Twins in the 10th inning of Game 7 in 1991, and the New York Giants lost 4-3 to the Washington Senators in the 12th inning of Game 7 in 1924. That’s it.

A handful of other ballclubs, most notably the 1986 Boston Red Sox and 2011 Texas Rangers, blew chances to win a World Series in extra innings in a Game 6. Cleveland, however, is plotting new courses on the choppy waters of postseason heartbreak. The Indians have played four games, one in 1997 and three in this Series, that would have clinched a world championship – and they lost all four. They have become baseball’s answer to the 1990s Buffalo Bills.

Even grown men struggle to cope with such a cruel fate. As Mike Hargrove, manager of the Indians team that lost to the Marlins in 11 after blowing a 2-1 lead in the ninth, told mlb.com columnist Tracy Ringolsby in the lead-up to this Series: “I had a guy ask me two months ago how long it took me to get over Game 7 and the way we lost it and I told him, ‘Well, just as soon as it happens, I’ll let you know.”

Mind you, the game to which Hargrove referred took place 19 years ago.

That’s what made this World Series so special. Both franchises were trying to exorcize the demons of their past. Both fan bases (including me) were haunted by memories of previous disappointments. Never before had a major sports championship been determined by two franchises that had gone a combined 176 years without one.

The end result was the most-watched baseball telecast of the Internet Age, a ballgame seen by multitudes who normally don’t pay much attention to America’s Pastime. An estimated television audience of 40.05 million tuned in, the most for baseball since 50.34 million viewers saw the Braves-Twins Game 7 of 1991. Wednesday’s overnight Nielsen rating was a whopping 25.2. Even the NBA Finals Game 7 this June drew just an 18.9.

And what a show those people saw. Books will be written about this game. Documentaries will be made about it. It had daring base-running, unexpected twists and turns, and the highest level of drama the game can offer. It was neither perfectly played – four errors, three by Chicago – nor perfectly managed – what was Joe Maddon thinking? Each team finished with more than 10 hits, and runs were scored in every inning but the second, seventh and ninth. This was one of those epic sporting events that will never be forgotten, and I feel honored to know that my team was a part of it.

The Indians brought further honor upon themselves by the way they persevered, in both this game and the postseason as a whole. They had the lowest payroll of the 10 teams in the playoff field, and their highest-paid player, star outfielder and former MVP candidate Michael Brantley, missed all but two weeks of the season. Injuries also shelved second and third starters Carlos Carrasco (for the entire postseason) and Danny Salazar (who could make only two cameo appearances in the Series). Yet the pitching staff somehow managed to dominate the Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays in the American League playoffs, then the Cubs for three victories, in an unlikely run to the brink of a championship. Before the World Series started, Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo announced on MLB Network that oddsmakers in Las Vegas had installed Cleveland as a 2-to-1 underdog. The Indians were short-handed, but they nearly pulled off what would have been a colossal upset.

As throngs of Clevelanders assembled on the plaza outside the ballpark, hoping for a celebration, the expectation was that for the Indians to win, pitching had to rule the day. Instead, the Chicago hitters did. Ace Corey Kluber and reliever Andrew Miller – whose postseason numbers prior to Wednesday ranked among the best ever – combined to give up six runs and 10 hits, three of them homers, over 6 1/3 innings. Even some of the outs they got were hit hard. After striking out eight batters in the first three innings of Game 1, Kluber, for the first time in his career, had an outing with no strikeouts at all. Against Kluber, Dexter Fowler became the first player to lead off Game 7 of a World Series with a home run. Against Miller, David Ross, at 39, became the oldest player ever to homer in a World Series Game 7.

But on a night when history was made several times over, Cleveland’s comeback was historic, too. With two Indians in scoring position in the fifth, Jason Kipnis hustled around the bases to score from second on a wild pitch, cutting the deficit to 5-3. It was just the third two-run wild pitch in postseason history – and the first since 1911.

Then there was Rajai Davis. Just as Carlton Fisk’s home run, in a losing cause in 1975, gave that great World Series its most enduring image, Davis’ two-run shot with two out in the eighth inning will be the most enduring image of this one. The speedy outfielder, who hadn’t gone deep in two months, jolted Cleveland into a sudden joyful frenzy by hitting the first tying home run in the eighth inning or later of a World Series Game 7.

If I ever get a chance to meet Rajai Davis, I want to thank him for giving me a thrill unlike any other I have experienced in more than 40 years as a sports fan. Cubs 6, Indians 6. Wow!

Now I was a true believer again, and much of the nation surely joined me in thinking that Cleveland was really going to win it all. Then, with a runner on third and two out in the top of the ninth, Fowler hit a grounder up the middle that looked eerily similar to Edgar Renteria’s single to center that decided Game 7 of the ’97 Series. Oh no, not again! Not this time. Shortstop Francisco Lindor made a dive, smothered the ball, and threw to first just in time to get Fowler.

The Indians had their best chance in the bottom of the ninth, when the top of the order came to bat against Aroldis Chapman. The fireballer from Cuba had just given up a home run for the first time since joining the Cubs in a trade in July, and he was worn out from being overused by Maddon over a three-game, four-day span. The second batter he would face, Kipnis, grew up a Cubs fan in the same suburban Chicago neighborhood as the infamous Steve Bartman. I thought about how jinxed the Cubs must be if the Indians’ second baseman were to win the Series with a walk-off shot for the ages. Davis’ tying blow and Lindor’s inning-ending play had me filled with hope, so much so that I wanted to believe I could make Kipnis hit a home run by the sheer force of my will. On the third pitch, when Kipnis made solid contact and pulled the ball, I exclaimed, “YES!” – only to see that the ball was a foul into the stands down the right-field line. Four pitches later, Kipnis struck out.

That’s as close as I’ve ever come to celebrating the Indians’ winning the World Series.

A sporting event of this magnitude can inspire people to seek divine intervention to influence the outcome. I must admit that prior to Game 7, I myself said a prayer for the Indians to win. However, I’m pretty sure that more people around the world were praying for the Cubs than for the Indians. I also remembered that years ago, a highlight show featuring the Cubs on a hot streak included a call by the legendary Harry Caray during which he announced on the air, “The Good Lord wants the Cubs to win.”

The way the game ended, it sure seemed that way.

In the eighth, Cleveland had strung together an infield single by Jose Ramirez, an RBI double by Brandon Guyer, and Davis’ heroic drive inside the left-field foul pole – all with two out. It appeared unlikely that the Cubs could recover from such a devastating collapse. Then, just as the Indians were seizing the momentum and electrifying their ballpark with positive energy, the rains came. After the final out in the bottom of the ninth, the suspense was suspended for 17 minutes, enough time for the Cubs to regain control of their emotions.

“I really feel like in some ways that rain delay was kind of divine intervention,” Chicago general manager Jed Hoyer said afterward. “The game was going really fast for us at that point. Dexter had just missed winning the game for us (in the ninth) – Lindor made a heck of a play. And to get that little break right there, it helped us a lot.”

Chapman, for one, was in tears, but the Chicago players, led by outfielder Jason Heyward, encouraged and supported one another during a brief clubhouse meeting. When play resumed, five of the first six batters reached base. The Cubs scored two runs in the 10th inning; the Indians, just one. Two days later, Chicago celebrated with a parade that had been nearly 11 decades in the making.

Ever since June, when the Cavaliers won the NBA crown to end the city’s 52-year sports-championship drought, my wife had been encouraging me by saying, “This is the year of Cleveland.” She turned out to be half-right. This was the year for Cleveland to be part of two unforgettable, historic championship series in which the winner came back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit to achieve something that hadn’t been done in a long, long time.

For the city in northeast Ohio that was once an industrial juggernaut, the wait for a World Series championship is now at 68 years and counting. That’s as long as the New York Rangers’ 1940-1994 Stanley Cup drought, with the entire lifespan of an adolescent added on. Perhaps if the Indians replace their Chief Wahoo logo, which some find offensive, they will replace the Cubs as the most popular sentimental favorite in all of sports.

I still have faith that the “Believeland Windians” will someday win the World Series. But as Cubs fans could tell me, there’s no guarantee I’ll live long enough to witness it.

Sources: deadline.com, FOX Sports, mlb.com.

Filed November 4, 2016

Game 6: Cubs’ rout pushes Fall Classic to winner-take-all finale

Following are my thoughts as I watched the Indians fail to seal their first World Series championship since 1948:

Pregame – In order to appreciate where the Indians are, let’s look back at how far they have come. In the 68 seasons they have played since their previous title (this year being the 68th), the Indians finished first nine times and finished last seven times; they endured 36 losing seasons compared to just 30 winning ones; they wound up with a .500 record twice, but lost 100 games in a season four times. Cleveland was spared from a fifth such dubious distinction in 1969, when a postponed game was never made up; the Indians placed dead last in their division that year with 99 defeats.

And how could I forget 1987? Coming off a winning record in ’86, Cleveland hoodwinked some people into thinking it was actually a contending team. Sports Illustrated, whose staff at the time featured the distinguished baseball writer Peter Gammons, put the smiling faces of star sluggers Joe Carter and Cory Snyder on the cover of its season preview issue. “Believe it! Cleveland is the best team in the American League,” the magazine’s cover proclaimed. The Indians lost 101 games that year – ample evidence that the SI cover jinx really does exist.

The Indians went four full decades (1955 to 1994) without making the playoffs. Cleveland likely would have been a division winner or wild-card team in ’94, but – just the Indians’ luck – that was the year the entire postseason was wiped out so that the millionaire owners and millionaire players could waste everyone’s time by arguing over money.

* * *

The late 1990s and early 2000s could have been the golden era of Cleveland Indians baseball, except for two small problems. One, Cleveland never won a World Series despite six division crowns and two American League pennants in a seven-year span. Two, those Indians had too many prickly personalities. There was Albert Belle, with his violent temper and corked bat. There was Eddie Murray, who refused to talk to reporters … just because. There was Manny Ramirez, a great hitter whose entire career is considered clouded by his positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs. The Cleveland teams of that era even had John Rocker for a while. How could I root for John Rocker?

This season, there doesn’t seem to be a bad apple in the bunch. From manager Terry Francona on down, this is an easy group of guys to root for. Unlike baseball champions of the 1970s, when the Oakland A’s and “Bronx Zoo” Yankees proved that teammates who don’t get along can still win, the 2016 Indians show a genuine respect for one another.

* * *

On July 7, 2008, less than a year after losing Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, the Indians traded 2007 Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia for four prospects. On July 29, 2009, the Indians traded 2008 Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee for four more prospects. Of the eight players Cleveland acquired in those trades, the only two who panned out were outfielder Michael Brantley and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco, neither of whom has played this postseason because of injuries. Brantley hardly played at all this year, and the absence of Carrasco and Danny Salazar – its Nos. 2 and 3 starters – makes Cleveland’s pitching dominance in these playoffs all the more remarkable. Trevor Bauer, the losing pitcher in two of his team’s World Series defeats, was the Indians’ fifth starter when all five were available.

Working at a newspaper in the New York area, I edited stories about the 2009 World Series in which Sabathia’s Yankees defeated Lee’s Philadelphia Phillies. This year, Cleveland won the American League pennant for the sixth time in the franchise’s 115-year history – or just once more than the Yankees did in the six-year span from 1996 to 2001.

First inning – What a terrible start! I felt good to see Game 2 hitting hero Kyle Schwarber swing at the first pitch and ground out to the right side for the second out. But then Kris Bryant belted a no-doubt shot to left – his second homer in as many games – and Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist followed with well-struck singles to put runners at the corners. A fly ball to right-center could have ended the inning, but rookie Tyler Naquin and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall miscommunicated, allowing the ball to drop for a disastrous two-run double. In the Indians’ first 13 postseason games combined, they allowed three first-inning runs. They matched that crooked number tonight. The home fans suddenly have glum looks on their faces, and I have a sick feeling in my gut. Cubs 3, Indians 0.

Second inning – Josh Tomlin retires Chicago in order. In the bottom half, Fox Sports shows 95-year-old Eddie Robinson, who is in attendance. Robinson is the last surviving member of the Indians’ 1948 championship team, and the 11th-oldest former major-leaguer overall. Jake Arrieta is pitching so well for the Cubs, I’m already thinking Cleveland will need a late-inning rally against Chicago’s bullpen to avoid a Game 7.

Third inning – Chisenhall and Naquin again fail to work together on a fly ball, but this time Chisenhall makes the catch. Otherwise, this inning is a replay of the first – only worse. Following a walk to Schwarber, Rizzo and Zobrist again smack singles, which give Chicago bases loaded with one out. That is enough for Tomlin, who is replaced by Dan Otero. Otero’s first batter – kid star shortstop Addison Russell – crushes a grand slam to center, and it is time to start planning for a Game 7 tomorrow night. Cubs 7, Indians 0.

Fourth inning – Just like when Arrieta pitched in Game 2, Kipnis doubles for Cleveland’s first hit and comes around to score the Tribe’s first run. Mike Napoli’s RBI single is followed by a hit batter and a walk, and with the bases loaded and two out, I’m dreaming big about how great it would be to come back from a seven-run deficit to clinch a championship. But Naquin, who is having a miserable night, looks overmatched as he strikes out to end the inning. Cubs 7, Indians 1.

Fifth inning – Salazar pitches his second straight scoreless inning. In the home half, Kipnis continues to swing a hot bat. He homers to left, an opposite-field shot. Cubs 7, Indians 2.

Sixth inning – Arrieta is removed after 5 2/3, as Chicago manager Joe Maddon replaces him with Mike Montgomery. But who else does Maddon trust out of the bullpen?

Seventh inning – Zach McAllister gives up two singles to start the frame but gets two fly balls and a grounder to wriggle out of the jam. In the bottom half, Maddon gives the ball to closer Aroldis Chapman with two on and two out. It is a surprise, given that Chapman just went 2 2/3 innings in Game 5. Here, the first batter he faces, Francisco Lindor, hits a grounder to first base and nearly beats Chapman to the bag. On replay, Lindor is called out to end the threat, but Chapman is slightly hobbled after his foot lands awkwardly on the base.

Eighth inning – Russell has six RBI, as he was the statistical beneficiary of the game-turning misplayed fly in the first that was scored a two-run double. He made the last out in the seventh, on a hard-hit grounder to third. One thing that worries me is that the Cubs’ young hitters – Russell, Bryant (4 for 5) and Rizzo – along with the veteran Zobrist, are all swinging the bat well and making good contact.

Ninth inning – Rizzo belts a two-run homer to cap a huge night for the heart of the Cubs’ order. With the seven-run difference restored, Maddon removes Chapman after his 62nd pitch over a two-game span. An RBI hit by Roberto Perez brings home the final run. Cubs 9, Indians 3.

Posted November 1, 2016

Sources: baseball-reference.com, Cleveland Indians Media Guide (2002), Fox Sports, mlb.com.

At Wrigley Field, Indians spoil Chicago’s party to set up one of their own

The fans in the outdoor Midwestern baseball stadium could barely believe their eyes as they watched the games unfold. Their favorite team had not won the World Series since long before they were born, but now it was playing like a champion on the sport’s biggest stage. The faithful, too excited to remain seated, shouted and leaped and hugged each other with glee, as the ballplayers they identified as their own hit superbly in the clutch while frustrating the opposing batters with one masterful pitching performance after another.

This doesn’t describe the crowds who paid thousands of dollars to watch the Cubs’ three World Series games at Wrigley Field over the weekend. No, these were the crowds who paid a whole lot less than that to attend viewing parties at Progressive Field in Cleveland, where they looked up at the giant video screen atop the left-field stands and saw the Tribe take two of the three games in Chicago. It is now possible – even probable – for the Indians to win the World Series at home for the first time since 1920, when their opponent was called the Brooklyn Robins. It would be only the third championship for a franchise whose history dates all the way back to 1901. That’s two years before the first World Series was even played.

A total of 67,218 attended the watch parties at the Indians’ home park for Games 3, 4 and 5, the team said. Some paid as little as $5 for the privilege, and the proceeds will go to various charities.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, throngs were following the action not only inside the Friendly Confines but outside it. Streets in the Wrigleyville neighborhood were closed to vehicular traffic, and with extra commuter trains put into service on the CTA Red Line, city officials were urging fans to take mass transit. Those who didn’t must have walked a long way to get back to their cars, considering that Wrigley – built in 1914 – doesn’t have its own parking lot. With the Cubs in their first Series since the year World War II ended, the Windy City has gone a little bonkers. If Cleveland had swept all three games at Wrigley, even I, an Indians fan, would have felt sorry for the thousands upon thousands who crammed into and around the ancient ballpark with the ivy-covered outfield walls.

The Series is drawing huge television audiences, too: 18.5 million viewers on average through the first five games, according to Variety. The preliminary Nielsen numbers for Game 5 were 25 percent better than in 2015, despite the fact that last year’s Game 5 was an elimination game for the New York Mets. Sunday night’s game also drew a whole lot more (21.54 million versus 17.21 million) than the simultaneous Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles matchup – even though the football game was a battle for first place that went to overtime.

Here’s a recap of what all those baseball watchers saw:

Game 3 – Indians 1, Cubs 0: As if winning a championship weren’t enough to earn a place in my sports fan’s heart forever, these Indians are just plain easy to like. Take, for example, Josh Tomlin, who was moved up to No. 2 in the rotation only because of injuries to two other starters.

Of all the players on the team, Tomlin might have drawn the toughest assignment, facing major-league earned-run average leader Kyle Hendricks with the series tied 1-1. But the Indians’ right-hander outpitched his more accomplished opponent, throwing 4 2/3 innings of shutout ball to help Cleveland retake the series lead. And from his wheelchair, in the “Not-So-Friendly” Confines, surrounded by mobs of Cubs crazies eager to see his son lose, Jerry Tomlin saw Josh pitch in person for the first time since being paralyzed from the chest down in August because of a rare blood-vessel issue near his spinal cord. “It was probably one of the more emotional starts I’ve ever had in my entire life,” said Tomlin, who turned 32 on October 19. “ … I did the best I could for him.”

Tomlin gave up 36 home runs this season, but only one since September 1, a span of eight starts. Teams scoring first have won 14 straight games in these playoffs, and Cleveland set a record by pitching its fifth shutout of this postseason. The Indians also became the first club to post two shutouts in a World Series since the 1966 Baltimore Orioles.

Game 3 marked the first time in World Series history that two starting pitchers went less than five innings even though neither had given up a run. And through three games, the Cubs are hitting just .154 with runners on base.

Game 4 – Indians 7, Cubs 2: Before Carlos Santana went deep, the last player to hit a World Series home run at Wrigley Field was Hank Greenberg in 1945 – and the last first baseman to hit one was Lou Gehrig in 1932. More important than its historical value, however, was its timing: Santana’s leadoff shot hushed the crowd, moments after the Cubs had taken the lead for only the second time in the series. John Lackey, despite all his experience under postseason pressure, could not get past one batter without relinquishing the advantage.

Amazing. As soon as the riled-up Wrigley faithful have something to boost their hopes – a first-inning lead, and some hits against 2014 Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber – the Indians jump ahead in their very next at-bat. Kluber, pulling one foul by a few feet with two out and two on, almost got a hit down the third-base line. The Cubs might have preferred that to what did happen. On a 3-2 pitch, he barely got his bat on the ball and pushed a bouncer toward third. Kris Bryant charged in and threw on the run. Not only did Kluber beat the throw, but it was too wide for first baseman Anthony Rizzo to hold it. With runners going on the pitch, Lonnie Chisenhall was able to score the go-ahead run from second easily. The throwing error was the second of the inning for Bryant, the young star expected to win the National League MVP award.

All the breaks seem to be going the Indians’ way now. After the umpire’s call on a close 2-2 pitch goes against Lackey, Francisco Lindor lashes a single to center to drive home Jason Kipnis, making the score 3-1. This was after Kipnis’ double to open the third, the second straight inning the Indians led off with an extra-base hit to right field.

In the sixth, the Indians scored another tack-on run off reliever Mike Montgomery, even though they didn’t look smooth doing it. Lindor walked on a 3-2 pitch. Santana hit a comebacker that took the glove off the pitcher’s hand. Montgomery retrieved it but, off balance, threw wildly to first. Santana foolishly made a turn, and both he and first baseman Rizzo ended up flopping around in the dirt as Santana nearly got caught off the bag. Rather than sacrifice, Jose Ramirez hit what could have been a double-play ball; Ramirez beat the relay, so it wound up being a productive out. With runners on the corners, Chisenhall also failed to put a bunt down, and Lindor was nearly caught off the bag at third when the safety squeeze was not executed. Then Chisenhall hit a sacrifice fly to center and the run wound up scoring anyway.

Now Cleveland was ahead 4-1, and three runs seemed like an impossible mountain to climb against Kluber. In a span covering the fifth and sixth innings, the overanxious Cubs swung at 11 of 12 pitches. That exercise in futility helped Kluber become the first pitcher to start and win Games 1 and 4 of a World Series since Jose Rijo of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990. The Indians’ ace went six innings, striking out six and walking one to continue what has been a dominant October. Kluber’s 0.89 ERA is the second-best playoff mark in baseball history among pitchers with at least 30 innings in one postseason.

Kipnis made the night seem too good to be true from a Cleveland standpoint when he drilled a three-run shot in the seventh. The last player to hit a three-run homer in a Series game at Wrigley had been Babe Ruth – his famous “called shot,” in 1932. As a kid, Kipnis had been a Cubs fan; he is from the suburb of Northbrook, Ill., where one of his neighbors was another Cubs fan who made the home fans unhappy during a postseason game at Wrigley Field: Steve Bartman.

Though Cleveland’s 7-1 lead made his presence seem hardly necessary, Andrew Miller did enter the game. He set a record for most strikeouts by a relief pitcher in a single postseason, but also gave up Dexter Fowler’s solo shot in the eighth. That whimper of protest – the Cubs’ first home run of the series – ensured that Miller’s ERA for these playoffs will not be 0.00.

Game 5 – Cubs 3, Indians 2: When Ramirez opened the scoring with a solo home run in the second inning, I remarked that these games in Chicago were beyond my wildest dreams. The Cubs rebounded soon thereafter, however, and just like Cleveland in the 1995 World Series against Atlanta, they won Game 5 to avoid the ignominy of having their opponent clinch the championship as their disappointed home fans watched in horror.

The Indians made Chicago sweat, though. The Cubs scored all three of their runs in the third inning, posting another succession of zeroes the rest of the way. In what some observers perceived as a panic move, Chicago manager Joe Maddon inserted closer Aroldis Chapman with one out in the seventh inning. The left-hander from Cuba whose fastball consistently exceeds 100 mph did the job, but the Indians will have two more chances to clinch the series – in Cleveland.

Posted October 31, 2016

Sources: The Associated Press, Cleveland Indians Media Guide (2002), Cleveland.com (Plain Dealer website), espn.com, Fox Sports, mlb.com, Chicago Tribune.

Game 2: Of all opponents, why did it have to be the Cubs?

The Indians’ 5-1 loss to the Cubs Wednesday night was more lopsided than the score indicates. Chicago had nine hits and drew eight walks, but mercifully left 13 runners on base. Jake Arrieta took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, when Jason Kipnis doubled and scored to ruin both the no-no bid and the shutout. By then, the Cubs were already ahead by five runs. Defense and base running, normally both strengths, deserted the Indians; second baseman Kipnis committed two errors (the first errors made by an Indians position player this October) and Francisco Lindor was caught stealing to snuff out a scoring opportunity. In dealing former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona his first loss in 10 career World Series games as manager, the Cubs were never in danger of losing the lead after scoring a run in their very first at-bat.

Shivering in the damp 43-degree chill, waiting for a reason to hope during a 4-hour, 4-minute game whose outcome was determined in the early innings, Indians fans at Progressive Field had little to cheer.

Yet cheers could be heard anyway. “Let’s go Cubs! Let’s go Cubs!” A large number of Cubs fans – way too many for my liking – had invaded the Indians’ home ballpark. When the Indians last played in the World Series in 1997, the nation responded with a collective yawn, but the people who attended the three games in Cleveland were almost all rooting for the Indians. This time, the nation is paying much more attention – overnight TV ratings are up about one-third over last year’s figures – but the Indians’ home-field advantage has been compromised by the widespread popularity of their opponent.

This happened in Los Angeles, too, where Cubs fans could be heard in full throat during the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers. The Cubs indeed have a national following. But in Cleveland at least, the noisy support for the visiting team could not be attributed solely to the legions who root for the Cubs even though they live outside Chicagoland.

According to reports, the demand for tickets at Wrigley Field is so high that only the well-heeled can afford them. So rather than take out a loan to pay $4,000 or $5,000 per seat, some Cubs fans have decided that the only affordable way to see their team play in its first World Series since 1945 is to make it a road trip. Prices at the Indians’ park are high, too, but earlier this week, a spokesperson for StubHub put the average price of tickets for Game 1 there at a much less outrageous $1,000. Cameron Popp of StubHub also told The Associated Press that about 25 percent of the tickets sold on the website for Game 1 were paid for with credit cards associated with Illinois ZIP codes.

Against any other opponent, I’d be happy to see the Cubs win a World Series game for the first time since the year World War II ended. I’d also be happy to hear about the zeal that motivated more than 2.6 million people – about the same number as the population of Chicago – to sign up for a drawing for a chance to buy one of the few thousand tickets the Cubs were selling themselves. And Cubs fans are reporting a unique kinship with Indians fans, a mutual respect between two fan bases that have waited a combined 176 years for a championship.

But if the Cubs do win the Series as prognosticators predict they will, it will be at my favorite team’s expense. Talk about bittersweet.

Posted October 27, 2016

Sources: ABC News, The Associated Press, Fox Sports, mlb.com

Game 1: Indians’ dominant pitching is forgotten World Series story

In any other year, the biggest story of the World Series would be the dominance of the Cleveland Indians’ pitching staff.

But this isn’t a typical World Series. This World Series is about history, because both teams are making it. It’s about the fans, most of whom have been waiting a lifetime to see their team win a title. Most of all, it’s about the Chicago Cubs – who are in the World Series for the first time since 1945, are trying to become champions for the first time since 1908, and are the only team in all of sports that might be a more lovable underdog than the Indians.

On what will be remembered as the greatest sports night the city of Cleveland has ever had, the Cavaliers received their championship rings, raised their championship banner to the Quicken Loans Arena rafters, and routed the New York Knicks to open the 2016-17 NBA regular season. Meanwhile, right next door at Progressive Field, Corey Kluber mowed down the mighty Cubs for a 6-0 victory to open the 2016 World Series.

Kluber set a World Series record by striking out eight batters – of a possible nine – in the first three innings. He left the game to an appreciative ovation after one batter in the seventh, having allowed just four hits and no walks against nine strikeouts.

The shutout was the Indians’ fourth in these playoffs – an astonishing total, considering Cleveland has played just nine postseason games, winning eight of them. Three of those shutouts have come with Kluber starting, but the Indians also blanked the Toronto Blue Jays in the pennant clincher with Ryan Merritt throwing 4 1/3 innings in just his second major-league start.

In 80 postseason innings, Cleveland has allowed a “crooked number” – more than one run in an inning – just once, and its airtight defense has committed just one error. When catcher Roberto Perez launched a three-run homer in the eighth against the Cubs, it marked the first time the Indians have scored after the sixth inning of any game this postseason. Their bullpen has been posting zero after zero, so they haven’t needed any late-inning rallies to move three victories away from their first World Series championship since 1948.

The winner of Game 1 has won the World Series 12 of the last 13 years. And the team with home-field advantage has won 24 of the last 30 World Series. Both trends bode well for Cleveland.

The only drawback for Cleveland in Game 1 was that Andrew Miller, MVP of the American League Championship Series, looked human. Miller took the mound with a man on and nobody out in the seventh, having struck out 21 of the 41 batters he had faced this October. But protecting a three-run lead in his two innings of work, Miller issued two walks and needed 46 pitches, a total he had not reached in any relief appearance since 2011. The lopsided game’s high point of drama came when Miller escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the seventh.

Posted October 26, 2016

Sources: Fox Sports, mlb.com, si.com, sportsonearth.com

Indians or Cubs will reward their fans for keeping the faith

 

For many baseball fans, this is the week they thought might never come. I know, because I’m one of them.

I am a fan of the Cleveland Indians. In 1995, my team won 100 games and lost just 44 in a regular season that started two weeks late because of the two-year strike. That Indians team was being compared to some of the greatest teams in baseball history as the World Series against the Atlanta Braves got underway. But how can a team rank with the greatest ever if it doesn’t even win the championship? The Hall of Fame Atlanta pitching trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz lost every other World Series they played – all four of them – but they were at their best against the Tribe. The Braves won the Series in six games.

As disappointing as 1995 was, it paled in comparison to what happened two years later. In my 40-plus years as a sports fan, no defeat was ever as painful as Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. It was played on a Sunday night, and I waited impatiently in the afternoon and evening for the football games to end so that baseball could take center stage. When it did, the Tribe turned my frayed nerve endings into high hopes by taking a two-run lead over the Florida Marlins in the third inning. Cleveland entered the bottom of the ninth still leading 2-1. After winning just 86 games in a mediocre regular season, the 1997 Indians were on the verge of capping a magical October by taking Games 6 and 7 on the road, in Miami, for what would have been the city’s first championship in a major professional sport since the Browns took the NFL crown in 1964. Bob Costas, calling play-by-play for NBC, reminded viewers that the Indians had not won the World Series since 1948. Now they were just three outs away.

Closer Jose Mesa got only two of them before Florida tied the score, so the game went into extra innings. In the 11th, Indians second baseman Tony Fernandez, whose resume was dotted with multiple Gold Glove Awards for fielding excellence, made an error on a ground ball, turning what could have been an inning-ending double play into deep trouble. As the long struggle passed the four-hour mark, the Marlins had runners on first and third. With two out, Edgar Renteria brought home the deciding run with a single up the middle – a result that left me crying in my wife’s arms, the only time in my adult life that I shed a tear because of the outcome of a sporting event. And I remember pondering this painful question: Will I live long enough to see the Indians get this close to winning it all ever again?

Losses like that leave scars on a sports fan’s soul. “Wait till next year” is the fan’s lament.

But it turns out that 2016 is “next year,” for tonight, Cleveland is the host city for Game 1 of the World Series for the first time in the 115-year history of the city’s American League franchise. And less than an hour before first pitch, in a basketball arena right next door, the Cavaliers raised a banner in recognition of their NBA title in June. Yes, after 52 years and 147 consecutive sports seasons without a championship, Cleveland now stands just four victories away from championships in consecutive sports seasons. Because LeBron James’ Cavs have rewarded “Believeland” for keeping the faith, the Indians’ home crowds for this World Series will bring with them an optimism and expectation of success that they did not have in 1995 and ’97.

Against any other opponent, the Indians would be America’s sentimental favorite. But against the Chicago Cubs, they are the less darling underdog in a historic matchup of franchises that have been synonymous with that word for generations.

Only two organizations in the four major team sports of North America have championship droughts longer than the Indians’ 68 years. However, the fan base of one, the NFL’s Cardinals, doesn’t really belong in this conversation because the Cards have been a football vagabond since winning their most recent title in 1947, moving from Chicago to St. Louis in 1960 and to their current home in Arizona in 1988. No, the only fan base that has been waiting longer for a title than Indians fans is the Cubs fans — who have not seen their team win it all since 1908.

The last time the Indians won the World Series, many American families had not yet purchased their first television sets. The last time the Cubs won the World Series, the first Model T Fords were rolling off the assembly line. To root for these teams, patience is more than a virtue – it’s a necessity.

Patience isn’t the only thing the current generation of Indians fans has in common with the current generation of Cubs fans. Both have had their hearts broken by the same franchise, the same common enemy – the Florida Marlins.

When Cleveland lost to Florida in 1997, it all seemed so unfair. The Marlins were an expansion franchise in only their fifth season, and I was convinced that many of the spectators in attendance for those World Series games in Miami were there on a lark. Unlike Indians fans, Marlins fans had not yet paid their dues, not yet experienced disappointment. In fact, 1997 was the first time Florida had qualified for the playoffs. Worse, Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga (citing financial reasons, of course) began dissembling his team of stars even before the champagne stains had been removed from the clubhouse carpet. Predictably, the Marlins soon fell to the bottom of the standings.

The only other time the Marlins reached the postseason was 2003 – the year they broke the Cubs’ hearts. Chicago’s epic collapse in Games 6 and 7 of the National League Championship Series came after a fan seated in the front row infamously caught a foul ball, preventing Cubs left fielder Moises Alou from reaching into the stands to record an important out in the eighth inning of Game 6. Alou was livid, and the rest of the Cubs – as if following his lead – collectively lost their poise soon thereafter. Florida went on to win another championship.

ABC News reported tonight that World Series ticket prices are at record levels — $3,900 for the games at Wrigley Field. The Cubs, considered the best team in baseball all season long, posted 103 victories over the regular schedule and are heavily favored. If they prevail in four or five games to end the Series in front of their home crowd, it’s a safe bet that every single person in the Wrigley Field stands will be seeing the Cubs win a championship for the first time in his or her lifetime. But if the Indians can pull off the upset, many of their fans likewise will get to celebrate a championship they have waited a lifetime to enjoy.

Between now and then, all will watch with sweaty palms as their ballclubs meet to decide whose curse is worse – the Curse of the Billy Goat, or the Curse of Rocky Colavito. Part of the lore of baseball is the idea that an animal’s visit to Wrigley Field doomed the Cubs to years of losing, or that an unpopular general manager’s foolish trade of the promising and popular Colavito helped turn the Tribe into a “Major League” laughingstock. Fans – the word is short for “fanatics” – believe in such things. And in this World Series, the fans will share center stage with the players. During the television broadcasts, the Fox cameras will frequently pan the crowds to capture the anxiety or joy etched on the spectators’ faces. Their enduring hope, their eternal optimism, their ability to persevere through last-place seasons and mediocre seasons and fired managers and front-office ineptitude and postseason heartbreak – all will be ingredients in this compelling drama.

Regardless of which team wins the trophy, one fan base will experience unprecedented euphoria, while the other will be forced to endure a cruel disappointment – again.

Posted October 25, 2016

Print sources: Cleveland Indians Media Guide (2002); Our Tribe: A Baseball Memoir, by Terry Pluto, Simon & Schuster (1999).
Other sources: ESPN, Fox Sports, mlb.com, MLB Network, TBS Sports.

Failing to honor Larry Doby on Jackie’s day is an injustice

Larry Doby was given less than 24 hours’ notice that he would be the one to break the color barrier in the American League. On the morning of July 5, 1947, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck announced at a press conference that he had purchased Doby’s contract from the Newark (N.J.) Eagles, and Doby made his major-league debut as a pinch hitter that very same day. He struck out — as he did many times that first season, when he was ill-prepared by Veeck and, at 23, too young and inexperienced to make the giant leap from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball.

“Doby survived against far greater odds and obstacles than those facing Jackie Robinson,” Terry Pluto wrote in his book Our Tribe. “Most of us don’t know that. Most of us just know that Larry Doby was the second African-American to play major-league baseball. Because he was second, it was supposed to be easier.”

As they remained for most of the sport’s history, the National League and American League were separate entities in 1947. The two leagues operated independently, with different schedules, different ballparks and different sets of franchises; they did not face each other on the field in regular-season games. So when Doby made his debut 11 weeks after Robinson had made his, he gained the same distinction Robinson had. Each was the only black ballplayer in his league.

In the 81 days that passed between Robinson’s first major-league game on April 15 and Doby’s first on July 5, America did not miraculously forget how to hate a man because of the color of his skin. The Ku Klux Klan wielded just as much evil influence in the spring as it did in the summer. Rest rooms marked with signs that said “colored” in April still carried those same humiliating signs in July. More than once, Doby has wondered why people thought breaking the color barrier was easier for him than it had been for Robinson. “What would have changed?” Doby has often asked. “I signed 11 weeks after Jackie did with Brooklyn. We still have problems with race today; why would it have been different in 1947?”

Yet tonight, as MLB pauses for its annual tribute to Robinson, the trials that Doby endured and the legacy he left on the sport are seemingly forgotten. Every player in the majors, regardless of league, honors the anniversary of Robinson’s Dodgers debut by wearing Jackie’s number 42. No player — not even on the Cleveland Indians — wears Doby’s number 14.

This clumsy oversight, amid an otherwise well-presented commemoration of a historic milestone, heaps more injustice on the courageous fight against injustice that it attempts to celebrate.

Commissioner Bud Selig established “Jackie Robinson Day” in 1997, when he marked the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s rookie season by announcing that every MLB team would retire Robinson’s number in his honor. At the time, Doby was still waiting to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He finally got the call from Cooperstown the following year — another stark contrast to Robinson, who was enshrined in his first year of eligibility.

In an interview with Bob Costas that aired on MLB Network this morning, Don Newcombe recalled that not long before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died, he told Newcombe that the trails blazed by Robinson, Brooklyn teammates Newcombe and Roy Campanella, and Doby had made King’s role in the civil rights movement a bit easier to play. That’s right — none other than Martin Luther King appreciated what Doby did in his league as much as what the three Dodgers pioneers did in theirs.

So why is it so easy for the baseball world to forget this guy?

“Our society likes to focus on who’s first,” Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan wrote in tribute after Doby’s death in 2003. ” … I had numerous conversations with Larry over the years, … and he told me he went through exactly what Jackie went through, and maybe worse.”

After Doby played his final game, in 1959, he faded into the background. Little was heard from him until 1975, when Doby again had the misfortune of being second to a Hall of Famer named Robinson. Again it was the Indians who broke a color barrier, when they chose Frank Robinson to become the first African-American manager of a major-league team. Veeck, again, made Doby the second, when he named Doby to replace Bob Lemon as manager of the Chicago White Sox during the 1978 season.

The Ken Burns documentary “Jackie Robinson,” which aired this week on PBS, offers other reasons why history has accorded Robinson so much greater stature than Doby. When Robinson’s career as a baseball player ended, his second career as a civil rights crusader began. In retirement, he wrote strongly worded columns in newspapers, made eloquent speeches on behalf of presidential candidates, and marched alongside Martin Luther King. His greatest contributions to the nation are not as an athlete but as a powerful voice for desegregation, freedom, fairness, equal opportunity and human dignity.

Outside the sports arena, Jackie Robinson’s legacy stands apart. But Doby was vitally important to the cause of racial integration in professional baseball. And in terms of on-the-field achievement, he and Robinson had comparable careers.

Robinson finished with a higher batting average (.311 to .283), but Doby hit at least 20 home runs in eight straight seasons. Robinson, who never hit 20 home runs in a season, led the National League in stolen bases twice and in batting average once. Doby led the American League in homers twice and in RBI once.

Consider also that Doby put up his numbers despite a boss who didn’t set him up to succeed the way Branch Rickey did for Robinson. For Jackie’s first spring training in Florida in 1946, he could rely on support from black sportswriter Wendell Smith, whom Rickey had hired for that purpose, and Rachel Robinson, the only wife Rickey allowed to accompany the team to camp. That season, playing in more open-minded Montreal, where a woman graciously welcomed Rachel into her home, Robinson led the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals farm team to a league championship. With anticipation of Robinson’s promotion to the majors growing, Rickey moved the Dodgers’ 1947 training site from the segregated South to Cuba, where black and white players were already competing side by side.

Rickey was a deeply religious man who approached breaking the color barrier with the zeal of an abolitionist. He made Robinson’s success his personal mission, grooming him and counseling him for two years before Jackie’s first day in the majors. Veeck, on the other hand, was a showman, known for his creative promotional gimmicks. Some perceived the signing of Doby as nothing more than a publicity stunt designed to boost attendance at 80,000-seat Cleveland Stadium. And until the day he signed, Doby and Veeck had never met.

“Bill Veeck had good intentions. … But his planning stunk,” Pluto wrote in Our Tribe. “That is the real story behind the Indians and the signing of Larry Doby. It never should have worked.”

When Doby arrived in Chicago for his debut against the White Sox at Comiskey Park, he was not permitted to check in with the rest of the Indians at the Hotel Del Prado; instead, he stayed at a hotel whose location was described as “in the heart of Chicago’s Negro Belt.” He struck out six times in his first 13 plate appearances and finished his rookie half-season with only 32 at-bats in 29 games. Doby’s rare playing time came mostly as a pinch hitter or pinch runner. While Robinson was capping his rookie year by helping Brooklyn win the National League pennant, Doby was spending much of August and September sitting on the loneliest end of the Cleveland bench.

That winter, Doby played professional basketball, in a league that was a forerunner to the NBA. But he also read how-to manuals on playing the outfield, having been advised by coach Bill McKechnie that a switch of positions would improve his chances. Doby had been a middle infielder for Newark, but the Indians already had All-Stars at both shortstop and second base. One of them was shortstop Lou Boudreau, who doubled as the team’s manager. At preseason camp, Boudreau vowed to “keep Doby only if I feel quite sure that he can play regularly. I won’t have him sitting on the bench all year like he did last.”

Rather than staying with his teammates during camp, Doby lived with a local black family two miles from the ballpark because the Santa Rita Hotel in Tucson, Ariz. — to Veeck’s surprise — turned out to be segregated. Doby was not expected to make the major-league roster out of spring training in 1948. Some wondered if he had what it took to ever make the majors at all. But he stunned his own team by earning a start in right field on opening day.

On the first Sunday of the season, Doby struck out five times. As an outfielder he was a neophyte, and it showed. On July 28, a routine fly ball hit Doby on the head, and the two runs that scored on the error cost Cleveland the game. “It is difficult for a major-league outfielder to suffer a greater blow to his pride than to be hit in the head by a fly ball,” Boudreau wrote. “He might easily have cracked there and never been good again.”

Instead, Doby emerged as a star during a memorable four-team pennant race. In August, he went on a 21-game hitting streak. And over a four-day period in September, Doby belted two game-winning homers, one a grand slam and the other a ninth-inning shot. In the playoff game against the Boston Red Sox that determined the pennant, his two doubles helped the Indians win the tiebreaker 8-3. Doby capped his ascendancy in the Indians’ 4-games-to-2 victory over the Boston Braves, batting .318 for the series, including a 425-foot blast that decided Game 4.

Doby became the first African-American to lead his team to a World Series championship. His star rose so high that after the season, the Sporting News published an editorial that included this piece of unsolicited advice: “Today, Doby occupies the position that just a year ago was filled by Robinson. Doby … must realize that now he is the major-league bellwether of the Negro race.”

Last year, a statue of Doby was finally erected outside the Indians’ ballpark. With the Mets opening a series in Cleveland tonight, TV announcer Gary Cohen mentioned Doby in the opening of the broadcast, which included a shot of that statue in the cutaway before a commercial. Such acknowledgement, however, does not happen nearly enough. And the Indians — if not all eight franchises that played in the American League in 1947 — should be wearing Doby’s number 14 on “Jackie Robinson Day.”

Over the years, one man has been revered as a trailblazer much more than the other — even though they blazed essentially the same trail.

“What I remember most about Larry is this: He didn’t get the credit he should have gotten, but he never expressed animosity about it,” wrote Morgan, a former baseball commentator for ESPN. “He was never jealous of the adulation that Jackie received.”

Posted April 15, 2016

Bibliography

Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, by Jules Tygiel, Oxford University Press (1983).

Our Tribe: A Baseball Memoir, by Terry Pluto, Simon & Schuster (1999).

Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and the Cuban League, by Cesar Brioso, University Press of Florida (2015).

Tribute by Joe Morgan published on ESPN Classic website as sidebar to Larry Doby obituary by The Associated Press , June 26, 2003.

Video sources cited in text.

 

Islanders return from All-Star break, for better or worse

As the New York Islanders get back to work after the All-Star break, hosting the Minnesota Wild at Barclays Center tonight, I must admit I’m worried about them. With a difficult schedule ahead — 18 of their next 28 games are on the road — the possibility of another second-half swoon is quite realistic. The Islanders limped to the finish line last spring, and it cost them home-ice advantage in the first round of the postseason against Washington. The disappointment of that Game 7 loss still stings Islander fans, who have been waiting since 1993 to see their team win a playoff series.

Through 47 games, the Islanders have 56 points and stand third in the Metropolitan Division (25-16-6). Through 47 games last season, they had 65 points and led the division (32-14-1). One of the most glaring differences has been their overtime record — 5-6 so far this season, but 11-1 at this point last season. The Isles have not found the new 3-on-3 format to their liking, losing three of the five games settled in that fashion. All-Star captain John Tavares, who scored four OT winners last season, has none this season.

So perhaps the Islanders’ lofty standing in the first half of 2014-15 was inflated a bit by their prowess in 4-on-4 overtimes and shootouts. That prowess was no help at all to them in the playoffs, and it showed.

That said, there is much to like about the 2015-16 Islanders:

Penalty killing — The Isles are No. 2 in the league when short-handed, killing off 87.2 percent, including a string of 42 in a row. This is a vast improvement from the start of last season, when they were struggling to implement new assistant coach Greg Cronin’s penalty kill. Now Cronin is in his second year, and his methods have become second nature to the penalty killers. There’s been another key, too. …

Goaltending — The save percentages while on the PK for Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss rank the Islanders’ goalies among the NHL’s best. Halak seemed to tire toward the end of last season, when neither Chad Johnson nor Michal Neuvirth proved a reliable backup. This season, both goalies have been outstanding, so Halak has a better chance of entering the postseason fully energized. Then again, the Isles might also make a playoff run with the No. 2 guy between the pipes, simply because Greiss has been of equal quality.

Other positives — Brock Nelson has emerged as a goal scorer with a team-high 19, just one less than his career high. Frans Nielsen is one of the NHL’s top two-way forwards, and Cal Clutterbuck has scored 10 goals as a fourth-line center/penalty killer. The Isles also have been better finishers, pulling games out in the third period instead of blowing late leads and relying on their OT dramatics to bail them out.

So, what’s not to like about the 2015-16 Islanders? Plenty:

Lamp lighters lacking — Anders Lee, a 25-goal scorer last season, has just six goals this season. Ryan Strome, thought to be another of the Islanders’ rising stars, was demoted to the AHL for a time because he was so ineffective. But the biggest disappointment has been Tavares. After finishing second in the league with 86 points last year, when he was edged out for the Art Ross Trophy on the season’s final day, Tavares has been nowhere near that point-a-game pace. He has managed just 34 points in 44 games, and his minus-5 rating indicates he has been on the ice for too many even-strength goals.

Putt-putt power play — The Islanders didn’t score a single power-play goal in last spring’s seven-game playoff loss, and their inability to score with the man-advantage has carried over to this season. They rank in the bottom half of the league — 19th — with a 17.5 percent power-play success rate.

Division doldrums — The Islanders are just 5-11-2 against their rivals in the Metropolitan Division, and stand just one point ahead of fourth-place Pittsburgh as the schedule resumes. They could fall out of a playoff position very easily, and will need a strong finish to make the tournament for a second straight year.

Posted February 2, 2016

Sources: Associated Press; ESPN; hockeyDB.com; lighthousehockey.com; Newsday; NHL.com.

Familiar ending to season not the one Jets fans had in mind

Todd Bowles could not keep the streak going after all.

The three previous head coaches of the New York Jets — Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan — had led them to the playoffs in his first season. On Sunday, all Bowles had to do to repeat that feat was defeat the Buffalo Bills in the final game of the regular season at windy, snowy Buffalo. But he could not do it, as Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three fourth-quarter interceptions — including one in the end zone with the Jets in position to take the lead with a field goal. Final score: Ryan’s Bills 22, Bowles’ Jets 17.

And with the Steelers beating the last-place Browns in Cleveland, Pittsburgh claimed the final wild-card spot in the AFC instead of the Jets. Both teams finished 10-6, but the Steelers owned the tiebreaker.

So it was that Bowles repeated the disappointing endings authored by two other first-year coaches in recent Jets history. Like Bowles on Sunday, Bill Parcells in 1997 and Al Groh in 2000 missed out on the playoffs by losing in heartbreaking fashion on the road in the season’s final game.

The 1997 Jets could have earned a wild-card spot by defeating Detroit in the Pontiac Silverdome. But an ill-advised halfback-option pass was intercepted in the end zone to kill one of the few promising drives the Jets could muster, and Barry Sanders broke loose for 184 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Sanders (2,053) became just the third player in NFL history to run for 2,000 yards in a season. Final score: Lions 13, Jets 10. And the Miami Dolphins, who like the Jets finished 9-7, sneaked into the playoffs.

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens are remembered as one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history, but in the season finale on Christmas Eve, Vinny Testaverde led the Jets up and down the field against them. With a playoff berth at stake, New York led 14-0 after one quarter. The Jets dominated statistically — 22-5 in first downs, 473-78 in passing yardage, 91-55 in offensive plays — but three return touchdowns resulted in a defeat that defied explanation. Jermaine Lewis ran back not one but two punts for scores in the second half, but the return that turned the game around came with just seven seconds left in the first. The Jets were driving, seemingly assured of going into halftime with the lead, when Chris McAlister intercepted a pass and returned it 98 yards to put the Ravens ahead by six. They never trailed again. Final score: Ravens 34, Jets 20.

It was Groh’s last game as an NFL head coach. Later that week, he stunned the Jets by resigning from his post after just one season to take over the football program at the University of Virginia.

Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Posted January 3, 2016

Why all but one ‘Hail Mary’ pass should be renamed a ‘Big Ben’

It’s the play football teams try when there’s time on the clock only for one last, desperate heave. Two or more receivers line up on the same side of the formation, all of them run for the goal line, and the quarterback hopes his pass reaches the end zone. A receiver can produce the winning touchdown either one of two ways — by leaping above the crowd to grab the jump ball, or by tipping the pass like a volleyball so that a teammate can catch it.

That’s what Green Bay star Aaron Rodgers was hoping for Thursday night in Detroit. The Lions appeared to have the game won, only to have it extended by a facemask penalty as the Ford Field clock struck 0:00. Since a game cannot end on a foul by the defense, quarterback Rodgers, given a reprieve, launched a high rainbow that traveled 70 yards in the air. With players from both teams gathering behind him in the end zone, tight end Richard Rodgers positioned himself in front of the crowd and jumped high to complete a 61-yard scoring play. In the most stunning finish of the NFL season, the Packers turned a 20-0 third-quarter deficit into a 27-23 triumph.

The play was described on Twitter and other media as a “Hail Mary” pass, but “Big Ben” would be more historically accurate.

On November 12, 1978, the Atlanta Falcons put the play on the football map when they became the first NFL team to win a game with it. Before 1978, the tactic hadn’t been tried because the rules didn’t allow it. In fact, that was the main reason for the controversy surrounding the famous “Immaculate Reception” play of 1972. The only way that pass could be legal would be if it ricocheted off Oakland defender Jack Tatum, not Pittsburgh running back John Fuqua, before Franco Harris caught it off his shoe tops to complete perhaps the most unlikely scoring play in football history. Under a gray December sky and with no stripes on the ball to contrast with Fuqua’s black jersey, video technology of the time could not definitively show whether the ball deflected from Fuqua directly to teammate Harris. Such a deflection — from one offensive player to another without a defensive player touching the ball in between — would have been illegal then.

Among several rules changes introduced for the 1978 NFL season — the first with a 16-game schedule — was the freedom for one eligible receiver to tip the ball directly to another. So Falcons coach Leeman Bennett took advantage of the opportunity to dream up a play called “Big Ben,” named after the clock tower in London (Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t even born yet). At New Orleans in Week 11, the Falcons tried “Big Ben” at the end of each half — and it worked both times. But when they ran it to the left just before halftime, the officials ruled that the tipped pass had struck the turf before wide receiver Alfred Jackson caught it for an apparent touchdown. Replays showed that the call was incorrect, but the NFL had not yet embraced replay as an officiating tool. So the call on the field stood and was looming large when, trailing the Saints by four in the last half-minute, Atlanta dialed up “Big Ben” again, this time to the right.

From his own 43-yard line, quarterback Steve Bartkowski heaved the ball down the right sideline. A group of six players were waiting around the Saints’ 10 when the throw finally descended from the Superdome ceiling.

“My job is to tip the ball up and keep it alive,” Falcons receiver Wallace Francis said. Francis, who became an ordained minister after his playing career, did just that. Thanks to his volleyball move, the Falcons still had a prayer.

“I follow right behind the crowd to get it when somebody tips it,” Jackson said. The play went down as a 57-yard pass from Bartkowski to Jackson that gave the Falcons a 20-17 victory.

After the game, Bennett said, “We practiced that play all week.” The assembled reporters laughed, not realizing the coach was serious. Before long, everybody knew.

Somehow, though, “Big Ben” never caught on as the term describing this tactic of last resort. The idea of prayer replaced the idea of beating the clock, and “Hail Mary” pushed “Big Ben” out of the football lexicon.

But anyone who has seen footage of Roger Staubach’s “Hail Mary Pass” to Drew Pearson (and at this point, who hasn’t?) knows that it was a much different type of play. Restricted by the same rules that clouded the “Immaculate Reception” in controversy, Pearson made his memorable 50-yard touchdown catch in the 1975 playoffs while going one-on-one with Minnesota Vikings cornerback Nate Wright. The two were running side by side. There was no crowd waiting for the ball to come down, and in no way did the play resemble volleyball.

Perhaps it was because Staubach was one of the game’s most popular players and his Dallas Cowboys one of its most popular teams. Perhaps it was because Staubach, good Catholic that he is, told reporters after the game that he just threw the ball to Drew and said a Hail Mary. Or perhaps it was because there is simply too much religiosity in football.

Whatever the reason, “Hail Mary” pass has become a generic term, rather than a reference to a specific play in NFL history. And the contributions of the 1978 Atlanta Falcons — who used “Big Ben” as a springboard to their first playoff berth in franchise history, and dealt Saints quarterback Archie Manning (below) a crushing defeat — are largely forgotten.

Sources: Ambassadors for Christ International USA; NFL.com; NFL Films; pro-football-reference.com; “1978 Wrap-up: A Wild and Crazy Season,” by John Jeansonne, Football Digest, April 1979, pages 78-85.

Posted November 12, 2015, and updated December 4, 2015