My five worst personal sports losses

6 Jan

As I enter a long, cold, dark, unemployed January with just me, my computer, and eight different ways to brew coffee, to keep myself sane I’m going to try to occasionally write some shit about some things.

I’m a big sports fan, and I have been almost my entire life. Sometimes I’ve really enjoyed it, sometimes I’ve deeply regretted it, and most often it’s a fun enough way to kill time. But as a fan who has cared about something I have no control over way too much, some of the losses along the way have stung particularly hard. Here’s the five that have stung the most, with one entry per sport/level.

2006 NLCS: Cardinals defeat Mets

The 2006 Mets should have won the World Series. In my bones, I believe that if there are parallel realities, the 2006 Mets won the World Series in something like 65% of them. The 2015 Mets, who actually made the World Series, had a magical season, but wasn’t nearly as good a team as the 2006 edition. That World Series loss was hard, and would show up if I continued this list, but they were punching above their weight class. They should have won because their opponent was eminently beatable and because they held leads in most of the games, but they weren’t a team of destiny. The 2006 team was. Never as a sports fan have I felt more confident that my team was a winner from day one of a season. Thirteen different pitchers started games, but that somehow never impacted my confidence; it just added to the whole team of destiny thing. I was stunned, looking back now, to find that the team, which won 97 games, only had the run differential of a 91-71 team, because it just felt unbeatable in a way no other Met team I can remember has felt.

And it seemed that way into the start of the playoffs. They romped through the regular season and swept the Dodgers in the opening round, a little display of their powers.

And then, the fucking Cardinals, all 83-78 of them, came to town. The teams split the first two. The Cards won the fifth to put the Mets in a do-or-die sixth game, which they pulled out.

But then game 7. Oliver Perez pitched the game of his life, allowing just a single run in 6 innings, aided by possibly the most iconic catch in Mets history, aptly in a loss, by Endy Chavez, sprawling at maximum length to save a home run that would have given the Cards the edge.

Yadier Molina, because of course, Yadier Molina hit a two-run HR in the ninth off Aaron Heilman, because home teams were strictly banned from using their closers in tie games at that point. This was followed by the image frozen in the psyche of all Mets fans of Carlos Beltran taking a called strike three with two on in the bottom of the 9th.

It was a rough one, and maybe the only time in my history as a Met fan that the bad thing happened when I really thought the good thing was supposed to happen.

Contenders: 2015 World Series (discussed above)

2017 Australian Open: Roger Federer defeats Rafael Nadal

This is one item that most New York sports fans wouldn’t have on their list. Tennis is disproportionately meaningful to me. As I’ve gotten older, I’m not as often been as devastated by most sports as I used to be, but tennis remains a consistent exception to the rule, for a couple of reasons I think. First, while I root for a team in most sports, I root for an individual in tennis, Rafael Nadal. And every year he goes older and one year closer to retirement and an inability to win another grand slam. Expos and Whalers aside, most teams just don’t close up shop; if they go through a spiral, even a Knicks-long one, there’s still some undetermined future where the hope exists that they’ll have their parade. When Rafa retires, or has retirement foisted upon him, that’s it. His records are frozen, and while reputation can swing over the years, he’ll never have a chance to impact his again on the court. Second, while I root for the Mets with many of my friends, I root for Rafa alone. Nadal is probably my favorite athlete of all time, and I feel a more personal connection with him than with sports teams in which the athletes rotate fully every couple of years.

So that’s why tennis. Why this match? Roger Federal and Rafael Nadal had both gone the longest in their careers since winning a major. Federer hadn’t won one since Wimbledon in 2012 and Nadal hadn’t since the 2014 French. Both suffered injuries and other general career troubles in the intervening years while their junior Big Three rival Novak Djokovic dominated, leading fans to wonder if they would ever win a major again.

The grand slam count at the time was Federer 17, Nadal 14. It’s hard to quite explain how big a deal this is to non-tennis fans, but the grand slam counts of Fed, Rafa, and Novak are the markers by which men’s tennis has been tracked over the last decade and a half.

This Australian Open was a resurgence for the old hands, especially when the draw opened up after a stunning upset of Djokovic by near-nobody Denis Istomin in the 2nd round, Djoker’s earliest slam exit since 2008. Andy Murray, the top seed, lost in the fourth round. Despite Federer and Nadal being seeded only 9th and 17th respectively, seeds that still look like errors next to their names today, once they started winning, the momentum of their histories led what appeared to be an inevitable march to the final.

Circumstances of the tournament led to Federer getting two days off before the final, while Nadal just got one.

An all-time epic saw the competitors alternating sets, with Roger taking the first and third, and Rafa taking the fourth and fifth. The third was a smackdown, with Roger winning 6-1, but Rafa recharged and came back with plenty in his tank. And then, in the pivotal fifth set, Nadal broke Federer right away. All he had to do was maintain serve to claw to just one major behind Federer and become the first man in the Open Era to win each major twice. But he just couldn’t hold on. Federer broke not once but twice, and rounded out the fifth set for the win.

Instead of the major gap being 17-15, it was 18-14 instead.

Nadal’s streak without a slam continued, and it wasn’t entirely clear he’d ever win one again, and even if he did that he he’d have a long enough career left in him to made up the gap.

The surprisingly happy postscript is that Nadal went on to win both the French and US Opens that year, and has so far managed to play at a top level far longer than anyone might have guessed ten years ago. But this match still haunts me every time I think about it.

Contenders: 2012 Australian Open – Djokovic was absolutely dominating, having beaten Nadal in both the Wimbledon and US Open finals, definitively, and it looked like Nadal simply had no answer for Djokovic. It seemed, even though Nadal had won the last French, that he simply would never be able to beat Djokovic again. And then, he played Djokovic to his absolute limit in a nearly six hour final that convinced me of the impossibility of DV-ring tennis properly ever again, only to come up short again in an epic five-setter.

2018 Wimbledon semifinal – What ended up essentially being a de facto final, as happy-to-be-there South African Kevin Anderson prevailed against John Isner in an over six-hour semi, meaning that either Djokovic or Nadal, both better players on just about any day, anyway, would be much more well-rested. The match went past regulation, with a quickly-tiring Rafa blowing a chance to break Novak, leading to, as tennis often goes, himself being broken, and losing the final fifth set 10-8.

1994 NBA Finals: Rockets defeat Knicks

The ‘90s Knicks may be my favorite era team combination, as a fan. The ’06 Mets were the best team I rooted for, but the endings of ’07 and ’08 sort of spoiled the rest of the group’s runs. The current Mets, with their stellar starting pitching rotation also seemed primed for a potential go, but peaked too early in 2015 and haven’t reached those heights against since. The ‘90s Knicks though, ugly, defensive, brutes who would make exactly no sense in 2019, stuck more or less together for a few years, and contended every season by gritting it out and bringing everyone else down to their level. Patrick Ewing was the star, but Charles Oakley might have been the face for their brand of play, making his sole appearance on the NBA All-Defensive team in 1993-94.

In 1994, of course, their great nemesis Michael Jordan was absent from the league, the exact reason why, I’ll let you pick and choose. This was their best chance.

The Knicks didn’t make it easy, though, because they never did. They were not a dominant team. They beat the Nets 3-1, before prevailing in two brutal seven game series over the Bulls and Pacers. And then, in a battle of the two of the game’s best centers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, the Knicks went up three games to two over the Rockets and had two chances to close the thing out and win their first title in 20 years.

It was just too much to ask though. The Rockets won the last two, Olajuwon absolutely dominated Ewing and John Starks, the third member, with Ewing and Oakley, of the troika who most closely defined these teams, infamously went 2-18 in the final game.

I remember watching these games in my parents’ room by myself, willing the team on in a way that I think maybe I really believed worked back then. I had elaborate rituals that I am too cynical to have now.

This series remains the highlight of my Knick fandom.

Contenders: 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals – the series ended on Patrick Ewing’s missed finger-roll. I can still see it my head when the thought occurs.

1996 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final: Kentucky defeats Syracuse

This one doesn’t really fit the rubric of the rest of these, because Syracuse, which lost to Kentucky, was a classic happy-to-be-there team, and I should have been simply happy they were there, as I believe I mostly would have been now. Kentucky was considered one of the best college teams of all time and was a huge favorite, and Syracuse only losing by 9 was actually a valiant effort. The thing is, I was an impressionable kid at the time, who didn’t really understand that they should have been happy to be there, and that I should have been content with a close loss to an unstoppable juggernaut. I thought, well, there’s a chance to win the whole shebang, and you can’t afford to miss those opportunities when they come. Unlike many of my sports teams, that opportunity would actually come a few years later, but that’s for another list. I watched this in my den, running outside and playing on my backyard hoop by myself during commercials and halftime to contain my anxiety and try to generate a little good luck. I remember walking to middle school the next day surrounded by an aura of sadness and disappointment, all over something I couldn’t have done anything about. Fucking sports.

Contender: 1995 Syracuse – Arkansas second round NCAA tournament – this was only a second round game, but Syracuse lost on a Chris Webber-esque timeout call. Up 1, Orange star Lawrence Moten called a timeout when ‘Cuse didn’t have any, Arkansas tied the game and sent it to OT, where they would win. Not as important a game, obviously, but a brutal way to lose, and I was young and excited and devastated.

2000 NFL Wild Card Round – Titans defeat the Bills

I say that I’m a Bills fan now, when asked where my NFL allegiance lies, but I’m not really. I more or less stopped watched the NFL a few seasons ago, and when I watched what should have been considered a brutal playoff loss to the Texans with friends over the weekend, I felt nothing and tried to recall how a younger me would have felt. Because I was a big Bills fan in the ‘90s especially, and through at least to the mid-00s, where even though I was still watching football regularly enough, the Bills had gotten so spectacularly mediocre-to-bad that it was hard to care a whit about them one way or the other.

I loved this team though once. Doug Flutie was the best thing to happen to these late ’90s Bills, after the glory days were over, and he created excitement every game. I felt entirely betrayed when head coach Wade Phillips, whose name still instinctively provokes bad feelings all these years later, decided to start Rob Johnson, the team’s free agent pickup who had started the season 1-3 before being replaced by Flutie, in the wild card game. Johnson had the quintessential QB look, but he didn’t have the game to back it up, and never would. That probably cost the Bills the game right there.

But even with Johnson, the Bills had a 16-15 lead with 16 seconds left, when, if you know anything about football, the play they call the Music City Miracle took place. On the kickoff return, Frank Wychek threw a lateral pass to Kevin Dyson who ran it the length of the field for a game-winning touchdown.

Game over, season over, my fandom of the Bills more or less over.

I clung to the conclusion that Wychek’s toss was a forward lateral for years though I didn’t then, and still don’t now have any actual idea if it was.

The Number Twos: Ritchie Valens – “Donna”

17 Jan

“Donna” by Richie Valens hit #2 on February 23, 1959.

Ah, yes. The other Richie Valens song. It’s easy (for me at least) to forget just how young Richie Valens was when he perished in a plane crash on The Day the Music Died. On February 3, 1959, Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper were killed when their plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa. Valens eventually won a coin toss with guitarist Tommy Allsup, a member of Holly’s band, for a spot on the plane.

Valens was all of 17 years old, two months shy of his 18th birthday. He released just three singles in his short career. “La Bamba,” which would go on to be his signature song, was released as the B side to “Donna” and would only reach #22. It would hit #1 almost 30 years later when covered by Los Lobos for the Ritchie Valens biopic of the same name starring Lou Diamond Philips in 1987.

“Donna” was thus Valens’ biggest hit, at #3, when Valens died in February 1959, and moved up one more spot after the tragedy.

“Donna” is a teenage love ballad, refreshingly for once actually sung by a teen, to Valens’ high-school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig.

The song is affecting, far more so than its immediate predecessor at #2, teenage love ballad “16 Candles” by The Crests which thanks to its proximity and similar subject matter provides a natural comparison. While the Crests presumably still hold the favor of their sweetheart, Valens pines for his lost love, the titular Donna, who wanders where she has gone, and what he’ll do by himself, all alone, now.

Valens’ voice doesn’t have nearly the sheer strength of Johnny Maestro’s (of the Crests), but the combination of the sweeter, reedier voice, and bare instrumentation makes the tenor of the lyrics come through much stronger.

The “Oh Donna”s, four of which both start and end the song are my favorite part, where Valens’ holds out the “oh” for just the perfect amount of time, about two seconds a piece, so simply, but conveying his feelings of love and longing towards Donna in just those two works, before any other lyrics arrive.

Rating: 7.5 – Valens’ yearning comes off as heartfelt, bringing me into the song emotionally.

What was #1? Lloyd Price – “Stagger Lee”

Was #2 better than #1? Yes.

The Number Twos: The Crests – “16 Candles”

14 Jan

The Crests’ “16 Candles” hit #2 on the chart on February 9, 1959.

The song may be most recognizable for having given the name to John Hughes’ seminal Sixteen Candles in 1984 (we’re way farther from the movie now (35 years) than the movie from the song (25 years) which is somewhat depressing).

The Crests were a group that hung around, with a whole lot of minor hits, throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s, a couple of top 20s, and one really big hit, “16 Candles.”

Wikipedia claims The Crests were the first interracial doo-wop group, and while that would be hard to verify, they’re certainly the first successful one, with thee African-American members, one Puerto Rican, and one Italian. One of those African-American members was Luther Vandross’ sister, Patricia, who left before “16 Candles” was recorded. The Italian member was Johnny Maestro who had the lead on “16 Candles” and would go on to have a #3 hit with “Worst That Could Happen” in the late ’60s.

The song seems to be credited as “Sixteen Candles” some places and I have no idea what explains the disagreement.

The “Happy Birthday Baby” introduction is far and away the most well-remembered and memorable part of the song. Maestro’s voice is sweet and mellifluous; carrying relatively mundane lyrics. The song is a paeon to a girl upon her 16th birthday; she is the singer’s “teenage queen,” and the “prettiest, loveliest, girl” he’s ever seen. Really deep stuff. Everything is pretty generic doo-wop, and nothing stands out sans the intro. There are the requisite back up singers, but they don’t really add a lot to this song, as it’s all Maestro’s show. The title is also better than the song.

Rating: 5 – It’s not actively bad, it’s just thoroughly meh, and pretty much unmemorable outside of the “Happy Birthday Baby” which is easily worth a full point. I really would like a song built around the “Happy Birthday Baby” segment. Some producer, get on it.

What was #1? Lloyd Price – “Stagger Lee”

Was #2 better than #1?

The Number Twos: Bill Parsons – “The All American Boy”

11 Jan

“The All American Boy” by Bill Parsons (well, not really but we’ll get to that in a moment) hit #2 on February 2, 1959

Okay this is a strange one and I swear I’ll soon get to the point where I’ll stop going back to the first #2 here in comparison but indulge me one last time as we start hitting every archetype for the type of artists we’ll see here.

First, Bobby Day, a very famous mostly one-hit wonder. Second, Everly Brothers, a very famous duo with many hits. Third, Connie Francis, a very famous pre-Beatles singer who is largely forgotten. Fourth, Bill Parsons, a man without even a wikipedia entry. Huh?

Well, the thing is Bill Parsons didn’t actually sing or play on the song at all. The only reason he’s credited is due to a mix-up by the record label. Bobby Bare, who has a fair-sized wikipedia and a long track record in the ’60s and ’70s as a successful country musician, actually wrote and recorded the song. Parsons and Bare together recorded some music, with Parsons on one side of the record, and Bare on the other.

As Bare told Billboard magazine: “Bill had just gotten out of the Army. He had a thing he wanted to record. So, we went down to King Studio in Cincinnati, and I played bass on his thing. We had about fifteen minutes. I said ‘Let me put down this thing I’ve been working on.’ So, I did.” 

“That same day, they wanted to make a copy of it.,” Bare continued “The guy who was paying for it went to a company there to get an acetate made. It was Fraternity Records. When they heard the two records. They asked who was singing, and the guy told him Bill Parsons – which it was on the back side of that record. So, they put it out with his name on it. It scared him to death. He didn’t even know the song.”

It was Bare’s first success, but claimed by Parsons, who would lip-sync the song on television while Bare was in the army.

I can only imagine what would happen had this deception come more recently, though, I suppose we have the Milli Vanill situation for that in another 30 years.

Now, for the song itself. “All American Boy” is a spoken word story loosely based off the tale of Elvis Presley about a boy who learns to play guitar and rises to fame.

Bare begins by letting the audience know that, like him, they too can be an All American Boy (presumably the men, anyway) if they buy a guitar and follow these steps.

In fact, only a year ago, Bare explains he bought a guitar, learned to play, Johnny B. Goode, for example, only to irritate his dad, who told him that if he kept up with the racket, he’d have to leave. He moved to Memphis, played his tunes, and attracted the attention of a talent agent, who said he could make this All American Boy a star. He became that star, getting all the girls, driving a big car, only to be called to service by the army.

There’s a jazzy little ’50s early rock tune playing in the background but the song largely rises and falls on vocal performance, which at least juices the relative most out of a song that’s just okay. His enthusiasm seems sort of by-the-numbers though, there’s nothing approaching real passion or emotion.

Rating: 5 – It’s fine. There are plenty of spoken word tracks I adore. The story because the All American Boy mix up is a sight better than the song itself.

What was #1? The Platters – ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”

Was the #2 better than #1? No.

The Number Twos: Connie Francis – “My Happiness”

10 Jan

We enter the year of 1959. The first #2 single was a single still relatively well-known today, the second a band relatively well-known today. Our third is a pre-Beatles superstar who I doubt all by the biggest music fans of the era under 60 recognize or could possibly name a song by.

Connie Francis had 14 Hot 100 era top 10s, including two #1s. Growing up Italian in Newark, New Jersey, she also became fluent in Yiddish growing up in a Jewish area. She tried her hand as a recording artist in the mid-50s without success and was considering a scholarship to NYU when she finally broke through. She was a big star from 1957-1962, slotting in nicely in the first period of the Hot 100.

“My Happiness” is a pop standard dating back to the mid-19th century. The most famous version to date had been published in 1948, with lyrics by Betty Peterson Blanco. Francis’s version hit #2 on January 19, 1959.

The Jon and Sondra Steele rendition of “My Happiness” had been Francis’ favorite song when she was 8, and she cut the track in November 1958 at age 20.

A sad, slowed down, ballad of longing, “My Happiness” begins with Francis’s voice followed by a light, casual drumbeat. The song enjoys the backing of an orchestra which goes somewhat underused but pipe in after each line of each verse, most notably with trumpet. The titular happiness is her love, who she longs to be with over four verses and one non-verse (I’m not sure if it’s technically a chorus or a bridge, or if these terms even make sense with this song structure).

The percussions really buildings into that chorus, which, following the first two verses, is the dramatic peak of the song, where Francis’s longing is felt at its strongest, letting her show off her vocal chops on “But I’ll hold you again / There’ll be no blue memories then” before she descends to the final two verses, which display a relative lack of intensity.

Rating: 6

I was prepared to issue a lower rating; the song isn’t particularly exciting and passion-stirring in any facet, lyrically, or musically, or vocally, but after listening to it several times in a row and finding I actually liked it more and not less, I decided to bump it up a little. It’s hardly a great, but the whole, with the light orchestration, the sweet vocals, the simple lyrics, is greater than the sum of its parts.

What was #1? The Platters – “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”

Was #2 better than #1? Yes.

The Number Twos: The Everly Brothers – “Problems”

9 Jan

“Problems” by the Everly Brothers hit #2 on December 15, 1958.

If Bobby Day was a well-connected largely one-hit wonder, The Everly Brothers were one of the monsters of pre-Beatles rock-and-roll. While much of what we think of as early rock comes from a blues background, The Everlys, Don and Phil, were country-tinged, and indeed sit in the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have two pre-Hot 100 #1s, “Wake Up Little Susie,” and “All I Have to Do is Dream,” one Hot 100 #1, “Cathy’s Clown,” and two other pre-Hot 100 #2s, “Bird Dog” and “Bye Bye Love,” but this is the only time we’ll be seeing them here.

“Problems” was written by the married duo of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who between the two of them, wrote a number of the Everly Brothers’ biggest hits, as well as “Rocky Top” and “Love Hurts.”

The sweet harmonies which mark the Everlys work more generally are apparent here.

A number of simple guitar flourishes between lines really make the song and its shortness keeps it in and out before it’s possible to get tired of.

It’s halfway between country and rock, and the lyrical content fits right in with the country genre. All of the singer’s problems (including with his car, and in class, so likely he’s a teenager) are caused by his inability to know whether his love is true, presumably whether his girl is cheating on him.

The lyrics don’t feel trite despite their simplicity (the word “problems” is repeated 17 times in under two minutes) probably because of the universality and the similar simplicity of the musicality that accompanies them.

“Problems” is sweet and heartfelt, which allows us both to relate to the singer but also consider the problems in their relative teenage context which keeps the song from being too much of a downer. His problems are with his car and teacher, so hopefully he’ll get over it in a couple of weeks.

Rating: 8

I did not know this song particularly well and was impressed though not terribly surprised considering the quality of the rest of the Everly Brothers output. The song is a triumph of simplicity and hits exactly the right amount of melancholy.

What was #1? “To Know Him, is to Love Him” – The Teddy Bears

Was the #2 better? Yes.


The Number Twos: Bobby Day – “Rockin’ Robin”

8 Jan

Let’s get started.

There are only two #2s in the year of the very first Hot 100, 1958, but thankfully for our purposes, while there will surely be some duds, and many, many long forgotten songs, the first ever #2 is a solid if not spectacular classic still remembered quite well today.

That #2 is, of course, Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin,” which reached the marker on October 13, 1958.


“Rockin’ Robin” was Day’s only solo hit, though he had his hand in a number of other successful record ventures. As leader of the Hollywood Flames, he sang #11 hit “Buzz-Buzz-Buzz,” and he wrote “Little Bird Pretty One,” which would become a #6 hit for Thurston Harris and most notable “Over and Over” which would be the Dave Clark Five’s lone chart-topping single in the U.S.

The lively, mid-tempo, early-rock-and-roll jam evokes memories of being in a Johnny Rockets, or presumably, in an actual ’50s malt shop with your best girl. The tune’s most distinguishable element is its “Tweedle-lee-deedle-lee-dee” vocals and similar variants which open the song and back the refrain. The lyrics are impressively literal, being about a robin that is making rock-and-roll music with its tweets, inspiring different birds from all up and down the block to cheer it on and join in. It’s short, sweet, and upbeat and makes you want to dance at the hop in a way that adults might not quite get, but which avoids challenging their social mores in any meaningful way. It has the sound, but more importantly the recognizability to instantly confer a sense of the late ‘50s in a movie or TV program.

The song is best associated in recent pop culture with the scene in The Office in which Andy Bernard’s phone, which rings to a self-made a capella version of “Rockin’ Robin” is hidden in the ceiling by Jim, leading Andy to punch a wall and go on to anger management. Watching in hindsight though, it’s perplexing that there are no consequences for Jim for taking someone else’s phone and putting it in the ceiling, which seems wildly unprofessional.


Rating: 7.5

I started with 1-10 rating system and already broke the rules with decimals, but so be it. The hardest song to judge is the first because it sets the standard. And “Rockin’ Robin” is certainly a standard. It’s so solid I could set my watch by it. It’s reliable, rollicking, and a very sound tune, but doesn’t rise above that. It wouldn’t get me excited to hear it come on a jukebox. I reserve the right to rejigger the entire rating system later but for now here we are.

What was #1? “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwards

Was the #2 better? Yes.

We’ll be hearing from this song again, confirming that it’s an apt choice as the first ever Hot 100 #2, but that’s for another day.