22 October 2007

"Miracle" Rockies? Hold on a Second...

Given the extremely unlikely nature of the 2007 Colorado Rockies' run to the World Series, it seems only natural to ponder the significance of their place in baseball hsitory, and how this accomplishment ranks with some of the other unlikely events and streaks in the annals of baseball lore.

Your hero and mine, ESPN.com's Rob Neyer, has penned a brief column listing the top ten "miracles" in baseball history. It's a good list, full of great stories, but I have a few issues with the rankings themselves. Here's the list, with some brief descriptions of the miracles in question, and why I may not think they deserve so much credit.

10. Philadelphia A's, 1929 World Series (Scoring 10 runs to overcome an 8-run deficit in the 7th inning of Game 4)

Overcoming an 8-run deficit against any major league team, excepting perhaps the Devil Rays, is quite an accomplishment. It sure doesn't happen much. But it does happen, occasionally. I think it's hard for us to visualize how differently the game was played 80 years ago, though. Looking at the box score of that game, I see that Charlie Root, a 19-game winner for the Cubbies in 1929, started, but faltered in the 7th inning, giving up 6 runs. In today's world, the manager would bring in his LOOGy or a righty specialist or whatever, maybe even his #4 or #5 starter, if necessary, to squelch the rally. But in 1929, there were no LOOGys and the righties in the bullpen weren't there because they were especialy good at getting righties out in tough spots. They were in the bullpen because they were not especially good at getting batters out in general, and didn't have the stamina to last very long.

Cubs' manager Joe McCarthy, having won the NL Pennant handily with a 10.5 game lead over his clostest competition, had three very good starters and a fourth who was decent, but nobody great, and nobody in the bullpen was all that good either. Having seen Root falter, he could not use Guy Bush (who had pitched a complete game the day before) or Pat Malone (the next day's starter) so he went to his next best option, Art Nehf, a 36-year old lefty whose 8-5 record in '29 belied the 5.59 ERA he put up, which was every bit as bad as it appears, compared to the league's 4.62 ERA. Art Nehfer pitched in the majors again.

When that didn't work, he went with his #4 starter, Sherriff Blake, who gave up two more runs without getting an out. Finally, desperate, he turned to Malone anyway, who struck out two batters to get them out of the inning, and 37-year old Hal Carlson pitched a scoreless 9th, but the damage had been done. The A's had three future Hall of Famers right in the middle of their lineup: Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx, not to mention Mule Haas and Jimmie Dykes, each having a career year, and Bing Miller, who hit .331 that season.

So yeah, it was pretty amazing. But "Miraculous"? Not really.

9. 1986 New York Mets (Curse of the Bambino, Buckner, etc.)

Down 5-3 in the bottom of the 10th inning, with two out and nobody on base, and they win anyway. Forget the curse of the Bambino. This was the curse of John McNamara, who left his immobile starting first baseman in the game so he could celebrate when they won instead of bringing in a defensive replacement for the aging slugger with rickety piano legs connecting his hips and his feet. McNamara brough in Calvin Schiraldi, who was excellent in the regular season and got the Save in Game 1, to finish the Mets off in Game 6, but he took the loss. That's all well and good, but then McNamara brought him back in Game 7. And left him in nthere after he allowed a homer to Ray Knight. And a single to Lenny Dykstra. And a wild pitch. And another single, this one to light-hitting rafael Santana.

8. Kirk Gibson, 1988 World Series (The Hobbled, Heroic Homer in Game 1 off Eckersly)

Just for sheer drama, this has got to be one of the greatest moments in sports history, let alone baseball or playoff history. You know the story: Gibson, limping to the plate, hits a game-winning, 2-run, walk off homer against the Greatest Closer Ever. It's been parodied dozens of times, and in your head, even now, you can hear every little nuance of Jack Buck's harried cry, "I don't believe what I just saw!"

But The Eck, for all his flair, really wasn't all that much better than some of his contemporaries at the time. He went 4-2 and led the majors with 45 Saves, but that was only a few more than Jeff Reardon, who, along with Doug Jones, Lee Smith and even Mike Hennemann all had a lot of saves with as many or more innings and comparable or better ERA's to Eckersly's 2.35. Not to mention John Franco (39 Saves, 1.51 ERA), and Mark Davis (28 Saves, 2.01 ERA, 102 Strikeouts in 98 innings) in the NL.

The One-Inning Closer was kind of a new thing in 1988, and Eckersly was in his first full year in the role, and though a 14-year veteran, was playing in his first World Series. Gibson had faced him in the past, 37 times in fact, when he was in Detroit and Eck was with Boston, and had even homered off him once, back in 1982. We know that home run hitters can hit home runs even when their legs aren't working for them. Just look at the last couple years of Mark McGwire's career. He could hardly walk by then, much less run, but still hit homers all the time.

I don't mean to disparrage the accomplishment itself. It was still awesome. But it was just one at-bat, and if the Orel Hershiser and the rest of the Dodgers don't win that Series, suddenly, that homer in the first game doesn't mean so much. Let's keep it in perspective.

7. 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates (beating the Yankees despite being outscored, Maz's homer in Game 7)

It turns out that getting outscored in a World Series your team wins isn't that uncommon. With the small sample size, you can win a couple of blow-outs and lose some close games and the series could go either way, even if you do score more runs overall. It had just happened in 1959, 1957, 1940, 1931, and would happen again in 1962, 1964, and 1971, to name a few times. Of course, nobody was ever outscored by such a huge margin, but then you only get one win for a 12-0 blowout or a 1-0 pitching duel. Given 100 games to play, the 1960 Yankees probably beat the 1960 Pirates 60 times or more. It just happened that the first seven of those didn't exactly go the Yankees' way, you know?

Moreover, Mazeroski's homer in the bottom of the 9th was unusual, but miraculous? I don't think so. He hit 19 homers just two years earlier, and hit 11 of them in 1960, some of them off of some pretty good pitchers: Johnny Podres, Don Drysdale, Stan Williams, Robin Roberts and Warren Spahn, to name a few, all of whom were better pitchers than Ralph Terry, at least in 1960. Sure, Mazeroski was known for his defense, and deservedly so, but the man could hit a little, too. Let's give the little guy some credit.

6. 1914 Boston "Miracle" Braves

This one deserves every bit as much acclaim as Rob has given it, and then some. The "Miracle" moniker doesn't even come close to describing their run, not just from 5th place in 1913 to first in the NL and a World Series sweep in 1914, but from last place on July 18th, 11 games out, to 10.5 games ahead by the end of the year. They went 61-16, winning more than 79% of their games for two and a half months, and then sweeping the best team in the AL, the Philadelphia Athletics, with five Hall of Famers on the roster. Now that's a Miracle.

5. 1978 New York Yankees (overcoming a 14-game deficit in mid-July, Bucky-effing-Dent)

This one, too deserves a lot of credit for the miraculous run the yankees made. They went 52-21 after July 19th to catch the Red Sox on the last day of the season, and then Dent hit that homer, which was something he did about once every 139 at-bats against right handed pitchers over the course of his career. Part of the Yankees' ability to get back into the race has to be attributed to Don Zimmer, who managed the Red Sox into the ground by never giving his starters a rest, but still, the Yanks had to win their games, too. I'd rank this one as the #2, instead of way down here at #5.

Granted, the fickle nature of baseball means that if the Yankees hadn't beaten the Dodgers in the World Series, Dent's homer might have fallen by the wayside, an interesting footnote in an ultimately unsuccessful campaign, like Randy Johnson's complete game in the 1995 AL West playoff, Jim Leyritz hitting that dramatic homer off Tim Belcher a few days later, or Al Leiter shutting out the Reds to win the 1999 NL Wild Card. Close, but no cigar.

4. 1951 New York Giants ("The Giants win the pennant!! The Giants win the pennant!!)

This was an even more incredible run, statistically speaking, than the Yankees in '78, going 37-7 to finish the season tied with Brooklyn, then beat them in the three-game playoff. As much as that call still gives me goosebumps any time I hear it, I lost a lot of respect for those Giants when I heard about their sign stealing scheme a few years ago, which made them all but impossible to beat at the Polo Grounds, where they wend 20-3 in that stretch. Of course, they were also 17-4 on the road during that time, so I don't think taht talent had nothing to do with it. It's just that it muddies the picture a bit. Plus, the Yankees beat them in the World Series, so heck with 'em.

3. 2007 Colorado Rockies (from 4th place with 2 weeks left, winning 21 of 22 to get into WS.)

The Rockies came back from being 4.5 games behind the Wild Card on September 16th, nobody thought they could make it into the playoffs, one idiot even wrote:

Incidentally, for you Rockies fans who think you can still make up that 4.5 game spread in the Wild Card race...think again. All 10 of your remaining games come against division rivals with winning records (LA, San Diego, and Arizona), and six of those 10 are on the road, where the Rox are 33-42. Not gonna happen.

Of course, the Rockies actually won 11 in a row, 13 out of 14 to finish their schedule, and then beat the Padres in a one game playoff. You've heard a lot about their winning 21 of 22, because of course they haven't lost a game since that one to Arizona almost a month ago, but this is the rub. That's the real difference between these Rockies and the '78 Yankees or the '51 Giants: Those teams needed to win all those games to stay alive. They were chasing another team, or teams, and needed to win all the games they did, every game, just to stay in the hunt. That was true of Colorado through the 14-1 part of their 22 games, but the next seven wins were just kind of a nice topping on the dessert. It was great that they swept Philly and the Snakes, but they could have gone 7-5 in those games instead of 7-0 and they'd be in exactly the same position they are now, without quite so much fanfare.

2. DiMaggio's 56 in '41 (The Hitting Streak)

This ought to be #1. It's statistically impossible, for cryin' out loud! What more could you want? The only one on the list that doesn't particularly have anything to do with the playoffs, but it was so amazing, and so unlikely that you'd have to call it a Miracle. If this wasn't, then nothing in sports ever is.

Amazingly, the voting on ESPN.com has Joltin' Joe's Streak ranked 5th, which as is usually the case with Internet voting, is largely due to the fact that the millions of 14-year old voters have no idea about the history of American baseball. That, and they haven't had a class in Statistics yet.

1. Boston Red Sox, 2004 ALCS (returning from 0-3 to beat Yankees and win WS.)

The Red Sox deserve their snaps for beating the Yankees, but it should be noted that the Yankees were already on their last legs after they won Game 3, 19 to 8. Kevin Brown, coming back from a self-inflicted broken hand, wasn't himself, and Javier Vazquez and Esteban Loaiza were stinking up the joint for months even before the playoffs, and the bullpen was being held together by Tanyon Sturtze, Felix Heredia and Paul Quantrill. Granted, nobody in baseball had ever come back from being down 0-3 to win a 7-game series, but it did happen in hockey a couple of times, I think, so it's not impossible.

I would bump this down to sixth, after DiMaggio, the Miracle Braves, the '78 Yankees, the 2007 Roockies, and the '51 Giants, in that order.

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