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.

One Response to “My five worst personal sports losses”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. My four best personal sports victories | Television, the Drug of the Nation - February 21, 2020

    […] unlike in my worst losses column, not all of my teams have sports victories worth celebrating here, so we have four proper entries, […]

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