By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff
No doubt about it -- we're in the midst of some wicked good division and wild-card races right now. If you haven't been paying attention, the BoSox are nipping at the heels of the Yankees in the AL East, Chicago, Minnesota, and Kansas City are fighting a battle of the mediocres in the AL Central, and Seattle's just two games behind Oakland in the AL West. Over in the NL Central, 1½ games separates first-place Houston from third-place St. Louis. And the wild cards? It'll probably be either the Red Sox or the Mariners in the AL, but in the NL, your guess is as good as mine -- just four games separate the top contenders.
About three weeks to go, and there's a whole lotta shakin' going on, and before it's all over, this season could possibly edge its way onto our list of the 10 greatest pennant races of all time.
1. 1978 AL East: Bucky Dent's 15 minutes
You know the story: Bucky Dent's three-run homer off Mike Torrez won the game for the Yankees. But nobody knew what would happen as Phil Rizzuto pattered away in the fourth inning (from "O Holy Cow!: The Selected verse of Phil Rizzuto"):
One ball two strikes on Nettles,
2. 1967 AL: Red Sox triumph in four-team race
On Sept. 26, after Luis Tiant of the Indians beat the Red Sox, it looked like this:
It came down to the final two games of the season, and the Red Sox beat the Twins twice in a two-game series, clinching the pennant. Yaz went 10-for-13 to close out his great Triple Crown season, and the Sox, with a 92-70 mark, won the flag with the lowest winning percentage ever at that point. But it was a far cry from ninth place, where Boston had finished in 1966, and a long time coming, too -- it had been 21 years since the Red Sox had won their last AL flag.
3. 1993: The last great pennant race
Slowly, the Braves closed the gap. Slowly, because the Giants were still winning. On Aug. 15, the Giants, with the best record in baseball, led by 7½. By Sept. 1, the lead had dwindled to 4½. By Sept. 8, the lead was down to 2. At Candlestick, the Giants lost, and lost, and lost again, and when San Fran looked up a week later, they trailed the Braves by 3½ games. The Giants had been in first place for 123 days before the Braves took over. Said Giants first baseman Todd Benzinger, "It seems strange. We've been chased relentlessly, and now we're the chasers."
The Giants didn't give up. They won 14 of their next 16 and the two teams began the last day of the season with identical 103-58 records. The Braves beat the Rockies 5-3, then waited, as did about 10,000 fans who stayed in Fulton County Stadium to watch the Giants-Dodgers contest on the stadium's big video screen. Three hours after their victory, the Braves stood in center field, doing the chop, as the Dodgers polished off the Giants 12-1.
"This whole town seemed on the verge of having a nervous breakdown at the thought of coming so far, then coming up short," wrote Thomas Boswell in the Washington Post. "Why else would thousands of people sit in a ballpark for three hours and watch a TV screen 600 feet away? Were all their TV sets at home broken? Did somebody close every bar in town? Maybe the Braves fans just needed to band together and convince each other that the boogie man wasn't going to get them again -- not like the other times."
4. 1908: Cubs, Pirates, Giants, and Merkle's Boner
The New York Times reported on the Giants' loss the next day:
"The close race for the pennant carried the deciding game of yesterday beyond the length of the season because of the decision making a tie of a game which would have been won from the Chicago team by the New Yorks but for the error of judgment of First Baseman Merkle, who destroyed a run by failing to run to second base on another player's safe hit. New Yorkers felt that their team was entitled to the pennant and had won it, but they were game enough to view with keen sporting spirit the contest which resulted yesterday and confident enough to believe that they would win up to the minute the last out was made.
"There is no record of a sporting event that stirred New York as did the game of yesterday. No crowd so big ever was moved to a field of contest as was moved yesterday. Perhaps in the history of a great city, since the days of Rome and its arena contests, has a people been pitched to such a key of excitement, as was New York 'fandom' yesterday."
In 1 hour and 40 minutes, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown beat Christy Mathewson; the Cubs won the flag and the World Series.
5. 1962: The Giants and Dodgers in a Classic
The Giants won the first game at Candlestick, and lost the second at Chavez Ravine, 8-7, running through a record-tying eight pitchers in nine innings. In the rubber game, the Dodgers led 4-2 going into the ninth, but the Giants scored four on four walks, two singles, and an error to win the pennant.
Dodgers fans knew their team had blown it big time. "Andy Williams, normally a mild-mannered singer, was so angry he kicked in the side of his new foreign sports car," reported the Associated Press.
Wally Schirra, who orbited the earth a triumphant six times in his Mercury capsule that day, ended his great flight upset about only one thing: he'd asked for the score of the game while in orbit, but never got it. On the other hand, folks watching the game on NBC were updated with a bulletin that Schirra's flight was safely completed just as Maury Wills threatened to steal second.
6. 1949: Bronx, Brooklyn capture flags on last day of season
Meanwhile, in the NL the Cards and Dodgers had been locked in a tight race all year. On July 1, Brooklyn held a 1-game lead over St. Louis. On Aug. 1, St. Louis held a ½-game lead over Brooklyn. Throughout most of September, the Cards held a slim lead, but Brooklyn finally moved into first place with just two games left to play. On the final day, the Cardinals won and the Dodgers won a 10-inning thriller in Philly. The Sym Phony Band, the Section 8 Club, and 25,000 other Dodger fans greeted the Bums at Penn Station that night. Preacher Roe was the first off the train. "The crowd went shrill," wrote Murray Schumach in the New York Times. "Those who had guessed wrong about the track on which the train would arrive stampeded to the scene, waving pennants, wearing blue baseball caps with the letter 'B.'"
7. 1934: "Is Brooklyn still in the league?" Damn right
In the meantime, the Giants faltered. The previous winter, Giants player-manager Bill Terry had been asked, at a small press conference, about the prospect of various NL clubs. A New York Times reporter asked, "What about the Dodgers, Bill?" Terry replied, "Is Brooklyn still in the league?" The Dodgers got their revenge in September by sweeping the Giants in their season-ending series. The Cards didn't move into first place until Brooklyn's Van Lingle Mungo shut down the Giants at the Polo Grounds on the second-to-last day of the season.
8. 1956: "Is this a nation of kids, or what?"
The pennant race inspired William Saroyan to write a wonderful essay for Sports Illustrated, just before the second consecutive Yankees-Dodgers World Series:
"More Americans put their spare (and purest?) caring into baseball than into anything else I can think of -- and most of them put at least a little of it there. Most of them know the game is going on all the time, like the tides, and suspect there's a reason, or at least wonder about it. What is all the fuss about the whole year, and all the excitement every October? Is this a nation of kids, or what?"
The best place to find a TV in New York that day was at a bar, and, as was customary, taverns took advantage of strong demand for views of the screen by shutting off the taps and selling only bottled beer, which commanded, at 35 cents, a higher profit margin. Presumably, at 3:58 p.m., when Bobby Thomson ended it all, the taps flowed again.
And the city buzzed, with so many telephone calls placed after the end of the game that the Manhattan and Brooklyn phone system was overloaded from 4 to 4:25 p.m., due to "the sudden mass surge of baseball enthusiasts to discuss the ball game and its outcome with friends."
10. 1948: Cleveland rocks
Also receiving votes:
1908 AL: Tigers win three-team battle by half-game