In some ways the teams that collapse are remembered just as much as the teams that win. The ’51 Brooklyn Dodgers go hand-in-hand with the New York Giants who famously vanquished them. The ’78 Boston Red Sox are forever linked with the New York Yankees of that fateful – or thrilling depending on your perspective – summer.
These are the teams that “choked.” But is that fair? Do baseball teams choke when they blow big leads or is it more complicated than that?
This past June the Texas Rangers held a 13-game lead over the Oakland A’s. The Rangers were two-time defending AL Champs and favored to win the flag again. The A’s were, well… they were the A’s. Low-budget, small-market, under-manned, out-matched, you pick the derogatory adjective.
But then the Rangers fell apart, and on Wednesday they were beaten by Oakland and lost the AL West title. Forced to play as a wild card. Oh the humanity!
But did the Rangers choke or did the A’s just beat them? For every team that falls apart, there’s a team that goes on a rampage, reeling off wins like Charlie Sheen sucks down cigarettes and Tiger blood.
The young A’s won close to 70% of their games over the last three months of the season, a torrid pace. The Rangers still won more than 90 games and are in the post-season. They didn’t choke – they were stalked and defeated. The A’s became just the third team in baseball history to finish in first place while spending just one day in first by themselves. They join the ’51 Giants and the 2006 Twins with that perfect “better late than never” timing.
What about the ’78 Red Sox, everyone’s favorite “choke” team? After holding a 14-game margin over New York as late as July 19, the BoSox did slump in July but still played close to .500 ball that month and went 19-10 in August. The Yanks were simply red-hot: going 39-14 to catch Boston on September 10. But many people forget that the Sox won 12 of 14 and eight in a row to force the one-game playoff for the AL East title. Is that the stuff of chokers?
Another candidate for worst chokers of all-time are the ’64 Philadelphia Phillies, who squandered a 6 1/2 game lead with two weeks left, watching almost helplessly as the St. Louis Cardinals snagged the NL Pennant. Manager Gene Mauch grasped for straws as the season slipped away, essentially running out his two best starting pitchers in more than half of his last 10 games. If any team seemed to choke it was the Phils.
“It was there for us,” Mauch said. “But we couldn’t finish the deal.”
Even so, the Cardinals won 9 of their last 11, and tore it up to the tune of 28-11 in the last six weeks of the season. They took the pennant as much as the Phillies blew it.
Last season, not one, but two teams fell apart in September and failed to make the playoffs. The Red Sox became the first team to have a nine-game lead in September only to lose it and fail to make the post-season. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves lost a firm hold on the wild card in the NL, losing on the final day of the season. In both cases, however, as we’ve seen in the previous examples, there were hot teams chasing them.
Of course none of that makes the Rangers feel any better. But they do still get to play in the post-season, which is more than the ’51 Dodgers had.
“The finality of that game was what was so hard to handle,” said Brooklyn pitcher Carl Erskine.
The Rangers have to play a must-win game in 24 hours. They don’t have time to worry about the finality of losing Game #162 and the division. But some will still call them chokers for blowing that big division lead.