The worst ending in the history of sports happened on January 4, 1981 on a frigid day in Cleveland, Ohio. This is an indisputable fact. The Cleveland Browns trailed the Oakland Raiders 14-12 with less than a minute remaining in the game. The Browns had the ball at the Oakland 13. See that number? Thirteen? Don’t tell me that the “13 is bad luck” concept is just a myth. Apollo 13. Friday the 13th. Ralph Branca wore 13. And the Browns had the ball on the Oakland 13.
I was 13 years old.
The wind-chill that day was minus-36, and Cleveland’s kicker Don Cockroft — who only that year had become the 10th player in NFL history to score 1,000 points in the NFL — had already missed two field goals and two extra points. Well, one of the extra points was blocked and the other was botched on the snap, but the point was that this was no day for kicking a football through uprights. This was a contributing reason why Cleveland Browns coach Sam Rutigliano decided on a pass play called “Red Right 88.”
Looking back, I think this fateful call was more about philosophy than anything else. You live by the pass, you die by the pass … that sort of thing. The Browns had become a team on the edge; they won and lost so many games with passes in the final minutes that they were called the Kardiac Kids. They were the first good Browns team in more than a decade, and they had Cleveland buzzing like no team I remember before or since. They inspired two songs that were played constantly on the radio in Cleveland, one a rather weird 12 Days of Christmas ripoff (“On the 12th day of Christmas Art Modell gave to me …”) and another based on the Kardiac Kids’ tendency to make every finish thrilling. I still remember the chorus:
They’re the Cleveland Browns
When they’re psyched up, there’s no getting them down.
Take your tranquilizers, pop your beer can lids.
It’s the Kardiac Kids.
Who says Cole Porter is dead? There was this powerful belief around Cleveland that the Browns were destined to win in the final seconds, always, and Rutigliano was the Vice President of the true believers. He called the Red Right 88 pass play because he was entirely certain that quarterback Brian Sipe (the league’s MVP) would throw the touchdown pass that would win the game in dramatic fashion. Well, maybe he wasn’t ENTIRELY sure. Maybe he was only 99.93% sure. As a bit of insurance, he did remind Sipe that if no one was open he should “throw the ball into Lake Erie.”
There were only two problems with Rutigliano’s advice. One, Sipe did not have a strong enough arm to throw the ball into Lake Erie … even if he was on a boat on the lake at the time. Sipe had serious trouble just throwing spirals. I say this with great love; Brian Sipe was my favorite football player. For a long time, my bank password was SIPE. But his arm was so weak that … well, I’ll put it this way. We used to have this older kid who lived on our street. Sometimes, he would play football with us; he would be be the quarterback for both teams. And he had me convinced at one point that he was getting a tryout to play with the Browns. I believed him completely. It was ridiculous. My father later asked me why I believed him. And I said: “Well, he does have a better arm than Brian Sipe.”
That’s one problem with Rutigliano’s “throw the ball into Lake Erie” charge. The second problem was that, well, you will notice that I called Rutigliano the VP of true believers? That’s because Sipe was President, CEO and Owner of the true believers. It was his extraordinary faith — in himself, in his teammates, in his weak arm, in what could be done in 90 seconds or less — that made the Cleveland Browns a playoff team in the first place. And it was his extraordinary faith that made it absolutely certain that Brian Sipe would see an open man, whether there was one or not.
And so Sipe threw the ball toward the blanketed Ozzie Newsome in the back of the end zone. The ball was intercepted by Mike Davis. The Browns lost the game. My childhood ended. The world’s supply of chocolate dried up. Saturday morning cartoons were outlawed. Ice cream was decreed to only come in vanilla except for people who liked vanilla in which case ice cream was also outlawed. Halloween changed its rules so that at each house people handed out homework instead of candy. Global warming started. Four banks collapsed. All the problems that face the world today, yes, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I tell you that they began in that moment when Brian Sipe threw the interception at the end of the game.
Now, I will grant that it is possible that you don’t not think Red Right 88 game is the worst ending in the history of sports. You are wrong, but you might not have been a 13-year-old Cleveland Browns fan when it happened. And so you might actually believe that the worst ending in the history of sports happened to your team, perhaps when you were at an impressionable age, perhaps when you had a lot of money on the game, perhaps when you felt the joy of victory torn away from you. This is the problem with coming up with the 32 worst endings in sports history. They are entirely subjective. All lists are subjective, but this is probably the most subjective one I have ever done.
Why is this even more subjective than, say, the 32 best Sports Illustrated covers or the 32 best sports calls or the 32 best running backs? Well, here’s why: If I was a 13-year-old Raiders fan in 1980, the Mike Davis interception might have been the BEST sports ending ever. When I put out a Twitterequest for worst endings, one of the top choices for worst sports ending was the Music City Miracle — you know, that moment when Tennessee beat Buffalo on a kick-return lateral in the final seconds. Well, yeah, it was unquestionably a kick-in-the-gut ending for Buffalo. But it’s also one of the happiest sports moments in the history of the state of Tennessee. So how do you decide?
I went with a couple of basic ground rules.
1. The ending should not be based on a sensational play made by someone. There are are no game-winning home runs in this — no Mitch Williams, no Donnie Moore, no Ralph Branca. There are also no last second shots. Michael Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo is one of the worst sports endings in my life, but I don’t think it qualifies. For an ending to be on the list, it needs to involve some horrible self-inflicted wound. Now, I realize that this is an ever-moving line. After all, this list was inspired by the remarkable ending of the Eagles-Giants game this week, and that involved a great return by Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson. But the entire Jackson sequence — from not being able to kick the ball out of bounds, to not coming close to tackling him — is so preposterously dumb that I think it still qualifies.
2. The ending must inspire some feeling of sheepishness in the victor. Don’t get me wrong: The feeling doesn’t have to be remorse or even sympathy. But in the very least there has to be some kind of “I cannot believe that we got away with that,” emotion. As a Cleveland Browns fan I pin the difference somewhere between The Fumble and The Drive.
— In The Fumble, the Browns were coming back against Denver, were about to tie the game, when Ernest Byner (who had been the team’s hero up to that point) fumbled the ball away (thanks in large part to a missed block by a receiver). That’s a terrible ending.
— In The Drive, Denver’s John Elway led his team 98 yards in the final minutes to tie the game against Cleveland, send it into overtime where the Broncos won (on a field goal I am still convinced missed wide left). That’s a great ending.
They both hurt — if anything Elway’s drive hurt more. But Elway’s drive was greatness. I can cry about it, scream about it, write angry songs about John Elway — and I have — but I know that’s not one of the worst endings in sports history. It is one of the best. I just happened to be on the wrong side of it.
Anyway, I try to maintain that spirit. Here are my 32 worst endings in sports:
* * *
Bonus: Strat-o-matic game between Packers and 49ers (1993).
My buddy, Chardon Jimmy, and I have had an almost 20-year argument about which one of us is the better coach. It’s one of those make believe arguments that doesn’t mean anything because, obviously, neither one of us is a coach, and neither one of us would be worth a damn as a coach. But it’s also the sort of argument that friends have, and we have attempted to settle our score with ferocious Strat-o-matic battles in baseball and football.
I won the most memorable of our baseball battles, a World Series between the late 1980s Red Sox and Reds. But he won the most memorable of our football battles, a game between the early 1990s Packers (coached by me) and the 49ers. I led by two late in the game when he drove his 49ers into long field goal range. With time running out and it being fourth down and long, he attempted the long field goal. And he missed. I had won. But there was a flag on the play — offsides on my team.
Offsides? On a field goal? Ludicrous. I screamed about the absurdity of this — “That would never happen!” — but rules are rules. He lined up for another long field. He kicked. It was no good. I had won.
Yeah, another penalty. Offsides. Again. I argued that this was, of course, impossible. There was no way this could happen. There was no way … but it did happen. The third kick was good. Chardon Jimmy won the game.
I fired my imaginary special teams coach the next day.
32. Dwayne Rudd’s Helmet Toss (2002)
There have been many, many awful endings to NFL regular season games. I include this on the list because I was there … and it was the craziest ending I ever saw. The Cleveland Browns were leading Kansas City 39-37 with 10 seconds left. Chiefs quarterback Trent Green dropped back, got in trouble, and just as he was about to be sacked by Rudd flipped the ball to offensive lineman John Tait. Rudd clearly thought he had gotten the sack and the game was over. He took off his helmet and threw it in the air in celebration. This, it turns out, was not an especially brilliant thing to do.
What Rudd did not know was that the ball was still live. Tait was running down the sideline. He plowed all the way to the Cleveland 26 with the ball as the clock expired. I cannot even imagine how many penalties were committed during that run, but the officials called only one: An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Rudd for taking off his helmet. The clock had run out, but because the game cannot end on a defensive penalty, the Chiefs were given the ball on the Cleveland 11. Morten Anderson promptly booted the short field goal for Kansas City, and the Browns lost the game.
31. T.J. Rubley (1995)
Rubley was the third-string quarterback for the Packers … and he was forced into action in a game against Minnesota when Brett Favre and Ty Detmer got hurt. The score was 24-24, the Packers were in position to try a long field late in the fourth quarter. On third and 1, Packers coach Mike Holmgren called for a quarterback sneak. Rubley, perhaps believing he saw an opening in Vikings defense and perhaps believing (rightfully so) that he would never get a chance like this again, audibled at the and line and changed the play to a rollout pass.
It goes without saying that he threw an interception, the Vikings ended up winning, and Rubley was released the next day.
30. Harvard beats Yale 29-29 (1968)
Harvard and Yale were both unbeaten, and Yale led 29-13 with less than a minute left. Yale was a huge favorite — the great Calvin Hill and Brian Dowling* leading the way — and had jumped to a 22-0 lead. Harvard kind of worked their way back to make it respectable.
*Dowling, you probably know, inspired the character B.D. in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip.
Then, in the final minute: Harvard, led by a backup quarterback named Frank Champi, scored a touchdown, and then got a ridiculously questionable pass interference call on their first attempt at the two-point conversion. The second attempt was good making the scored 29-21 with 42 seconds left.
Harvard then got the onside kick (Yale did not have an onside-kick coverage team — simply did not have one). They moved the ball down the field thanks in large part to a face mask penalty (the culprit, Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren, would admit in the wonderful documentary “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” that he was trying to hurt Champi).
On the last play of regulation, Champi threw a touchdown pass, and fans rushed the field. They were cleared, Harvard scored the two-point conversion, and yes, Harvard beat Yale 29-29.
29. Snake River Canyon (1974)
None of it ever made sense. We as kids were led to believe that Evel Knievel would attempt to jump the Grand Canyon on his motorcycle. Next thing we knew, he was actually jumping something called Snake River Canyon in some sort of steam powered rocket ship looking thing that was only a motorcycle by technicalities. He also didn’t make it. His parachute ejected too soon or something. We didn’t even know he was going to have a parachute.
28. Chelsea v. Manchester United (2008)
This was the Champions League final, and it came down to penalty kicks where John Terry, Chelsea captain and soul, slipped and missed his kick. Chelsea lost, and this paragraph that appeared in The Sunday Times probably sums up the awfulness of it all (to a frightening extreme):
“Avram Grant, the Chelsea first-team coach, has a perspective on life because of the traumas his family suffered in the Holocaust, but even he was struggling to find the words to ease the pain of Terry, who was white with shock.”
27. Novotna-Graf (1993)
This was Wimbledon, 1993, and Jana Novotna led Steffi Gray 4-1 and 40-15 in the decisive set. On 40-30, she badly double faulted — the ball was probably five feet past the service line. She then horrendously missed a volley, sending it 10 feet past the baseline. She then lost the game.
And it went downhill from there. MIssed overheads. Double faults. Pure collapse. Graf won the next five games, and the enduring image is of Novotna crying on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent.
26. Royals vs. Indians, 2005
There have been many, many, many terrible endings of baseball games through the years, and I am under no illusion that this one is the worst. But it is the worst one I ever attended. It happened on August 9, 2005. The Royals had come into the game having lost 10 in a row. They would, before it was all done, lose 19 in a row.
But it also seemed certain that they would win this game — they went into the ninth leading Cleveland 7-2. There’s no point in going over it moment by moment, but just so you know, there was a double, another double, a single, a strikeout (one out), another double, a single and a groundout (two outs). The Royals still led 7-6 when the second out was recorded.
And then Jeff Liefer lofted a fly ball to left field where someone named Chip Ambres settled under it. With the ball in the air, the overwhelming feeling was: “Well, at least the Royals held on to win, but it sure wasn’t easy — it’s never easy with the Royals.” And then, of course, Ambres dropped the ball. The locally famous call on radio by Denny Matthews went like so: “Fly ball to left and … he dropped it. Yes he did.”
The Indians ended up scoring 11 runs in the ninth inning and they won the game 13-7.
25. Devon Loch (1956)
The horse — owned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother — was about 50 yards away from victory in the 1956 Grand National when suddenly, inexplicably, Devon Loch jumped up and then made a perfect slide — better even than the slide of Sid Bream. Devon Loch was passed and lost the race. Nobody has ever been able to fully explain what happened.
The biggest after-effect of the race is that the jockey, Dick Francis, went on to become one of the most successful mystery writers in the world. Many of his mysteries are based on horse racing. Dick Francis has said on many occasions that he still doesn’t know exactly what happened to Devon Loch that day.
24. Tate vs. Weaver (1980)
I remember this fight so vividly. My father is a huge boxing fan, and I was raised on boxing even more than baseball or football. I remember that for some reason we were all at my Grandmother’s house, and we were watching the fight on her television which had its own special talent for static. But we could see enough to know that Tate (who was heavyweight champion at the time) was ahead on points going into the 15th round. All he had to do was stay away from Weaver and he would retain the title. Not that this an easy thing to do but Tate did a particularly poor job of it. With 40 seconds left in the fight, Weaver landed a ferocious left hook.
And this is what I remember: Tate fell FORWARD. My father said, “Um, that’s it.” He was right. That was it. Tate was unconscious for several minutes. When I asked my Dad how he knew Tate wouldn’t get up, he told me something that for some reason I have never forgotten: “If you see someone fall face first, the fight’s over.”
23. Minnesota Vikings (1999)
The 1998 Vikings are one of the greatest offensive teams in NFL history. They had scored 30 or more points in 11 games (and they won all 11). They were prohibitive favorites to go the Super Bowl and, from there, probably win it. They had Randall Cunningham (who had a remarkable comeback season) and the rookie Randy Moss (who caught 17 touchdown passes) and the great Cris Carter (12 more touchdown catches) and an overwhelming running game with Robert Smith and Leroy Hoard (who combined for 15 touchdowns). Those Vikings were a machine.
In the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta, they had two horrible endings. The first came when kicker Gary Anderson — who literally had not missed a kick all year, he was 35 for 35 on field goals and had made all 59 extra points — missed a 38-yard field goal with about two minutes left. That was torturous enough.
But the real torture would come at the end of regulation when the Vikings got the ball back. They had it on their own 30 with about a half minute left and two timeouts. And that was when, impossibly, Denny Green decided to sit on the ball and wait for overtime. They had what might have been the greatest offense in NFL history at that point. The had two receivers who will be in the Hall of Fame. They needed to gain about 35 yards to have a viable shot at a field goal — and they had a kicker who had only missed one kick all year. And they had two timeouts.
He sat on the ball. The Vikings, of course, lost in overtime.
22. The Dean Smith Championships (1982 and 1993)
It is one of the quirks of sports that Dean Smith, one of the greatest coaches in sports history, won two national championships and both were marred by terrible endings. In the first — the freshman Michael Jordan made a jumper to give North Carolina a 63-62 lead over Georgetown with 17 seconds left. Georgetown moved the ball into the front court and then Fred Brown, thinking a teammate was next to him, flipped the ball instead to North Carolina’s James Worthy. The Tar Heels held on from there (though Worthy did miss both free throws).
In the second — North Carolina led Michigan 73-71 with 11 seconds left when Michigan’s star Chris Webber called a timeout that the Wolverines did not have. It also appeared the Webber walked, so you could make the argument that nothing good was going to come from that play. Still Dean Smith’s team appeared in 11 Final Fours, but they never could quite win a title without something weird happening at the end.
21. Hand ball (2010)
Ghana and Uruguay played a spirited game in the World Cup this year, and with the score tied in the final hectic seconds over overtime, Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan headed the ball toward the net and nobody was in position to stop it. Well, that’s not exactly right. Urugay’s Luis Suarez reached out with his hand and kept the ball from going in. This would have been fine had Suarez been Uruguay’s goal keeper. He was not.
The hand ball was punished as hand balls are punished. Ghana was granted a penalty kick. Suarez was given a red card (meaning he would have to miss the next match as well as the rest of this one). It is deservedly a stiff punishment, but in this case the punishment did not satisfy. Because Gyan missed his penalty kick. And Uruguay went on to win the match.
20. Punt Bama Punt (1972)
Alabama led Auburn 16-3 with about six minutes left in what is probably the most heated college football game in America. I mean, there’s nothing like Army-Navy, and nothing like Ohio State-Michigan either. But Auburn-Alabama touches on so many emotions that it’s hard to believe that the feelings are quite as raw in any other game.
In any case, Alabama led Auburn 16-3, when Auburn’s Bill Newton blocked Greg Gantt’s punt. Auburn’s David Langner scooped up the ball and ran it into the end zone to make it 16-10.
A few minutes later, as time was running out on the game, Gantt punted again … and almost impossibly Newton blocked it, Langner picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. Auburn won 17-16.
The legend is that after this game, Bear Bryant decided that he would never again recruit a kicker who took three steps to punt.
19. The Play (1982)
The interesting thing about this play is that the background music is almost always Cal announcer Joe Starkey. The Cal players rush through Stanford’s sad excuse for kick return coverage, then through the Stanford Band, and it always ends with Starkey shrieking: “The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!” Because of this, The Play has always been viewed as one of the sports greatest endings … and it is.
But, it’s also terrible ending — for Stanford this ending took a remarkable level of clumsiness and general incompetence. Every time you see a team try some last second multi-lateral play these days you come to realize just how bad kick coverage has to be for it to work. And then the band ran on the field? Bad ending.
It was also John Elway’s last regular season game — in fact Elway played a pivotal role in the game that has not been publicized enough in my mind. He led Stanford on what looked like a game-winning drive — he really started his legend here — but he called timeout with eight seconds left for Stanford to kick the go-ahead field goal. Had he waited four more seconds, Stanford would not even have had to kick off.
Elway carried the pain of that loss with him for a long time … and, unfortunately, took it out on my Cleveland Browns and numerous other teams in his career.
18. Bartman (2003)
OK, hear me out here because I don’t want this misunderstood: This horrible ending has nothing whatsoever to do with Steve Bartman. As I wrote at the time, he was simply doing what fans do, reaching out for a foul ball that was headed his way. No, the horrible ending is ALL about how the Cubs utterly collapsed at that point. They were leading Florida 3-0, Florida man on second, Mark Prior was throwing a three-hitter. The Cubs were five outs away from their first World Series appearance in almost 60 years.
And after Luis Castillo hit a foul ball that Bartman tried to catch, they folded. No other way to say it. Left fielder Moises Alou screamed at Bartman (it is still not entirely clear that Alou could have caught the ball; different replays suggest different things). Then Prior walked Castillo (with a wild pitch to boot moving Juan Pierre to third). Ivan Rodriguez singled, then Miguel Cabrera hit a double play grounder to short that Alex Gonzalez flat booted. That was followed by a Derrek Lee double that tied the game.
And that inspired Cubs manager Dusty Baker to bring in Kyle Farnsworth. That’s really all that needs to be said.
The Cubs gave up eight runs in the inning, and the next day, again at home, they lost 9-6 with Kerry Wood starting and Kyle Farnsworth playing a key role.
And you know who many people wanted to blame for this collapse? You know what name has endured from this fiasco? You know what I titled this section? That’s right: Steve Bartman somehow took the hits for the Cubs meltdown. They threw Kyle Farnsworth in the two decisive games, they had a shortstop boot the ball, they completely fell apart and people wanted to blame a longtime fan who reached for a foul ball? That’s the very definition of a bad ending.
17. Buckner (1986)
“There’s a little roller up along first … behind the bag … it gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight! And the Mets win it!”
16. Harvey Haddix (1959)
Pittsburgh’s Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings against Milwaukee, probably the greatest game ever pitched. Unfortunately for him, his team did not score any actual runs for him in those 12 innings. In the 13th, Pirate Don Hoak made an error to end the perfect game. After a sacrifice fly and an intentional walk, Joe Adcock hit a home run that ended everything. Adcock’s homer was nullified because Hank Aaron left the basepath. It was eventually called a double, and it was eventually determined that Milwaukee won the game 1-0.
Whatever the ruling, whatever the score, Haddix still ended up losing the longest-held perfect game in baseball history.
15. Hull in the crease (1999)
I like hockey very much, but I have to admit being a novice. I do not understand many of the subtleties of the sport, and because of this I have never known exactly what to make of Brett Hull’s skate being in the crease when he scored Dallas’ game-winner against the Buffalo Sabres in the third overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup. The in-the-crease rule was confusing enough that I have heard people explain exactly why Hull’s goal should have been disallowed and I have heard people explain exactly why Hull’s goal was rightfully left standing and both make sense to me. The rule has since been rescinded.
All I do know is that Buffalo fans have had it rough. Scott Norwood. Hull in the crease. The Music City Miracle. I don’t include all these on the list because the list can’t be 500 items long but I can say this: Buffalo, I feel your pain.
14. Ruffian vs. Foolish Pleasure (1975)
It was a match race in those days when there was a real “Battle of the Sexes” vibe in the air. Ruffian was a filly who had won all 10 of her races and just about every major stakes race for fillies in 1974 and 1975. Foolish Pleasure had won the Kentucky Derby. The race drew quite a lot of attention just two years after Billie Jean King had beaten Bobby Riggs in the original sports battle of the sexes.
In the match race, with Ruffian ahead by a half length, she broke two bones in her right foreleg. She kept on running. She was operated on immediately after the race — for three hours they tried to save her — but as they expected the cast did not hold as Ruffian tried to kick it off in the paddock. She was euthanized shortly thereafter.
13. Daytona 500 (2001)
It’s not really right to put tragedy on a list that is mostly supposed to spark fun feelings. But the Daytona 500 where Dale Earnhardt crashed and died simply is one of the worst endings in sports history.
We go to games, to races, to events to make us feel good about life. When something awful happens — when Ruffian breaks down in a match race or Barbaro breaks down at the Preakness or someone gets paralyzed during a football game or there’s some horrible crash at an auto race — the pain strikes twice as hard. I remember the horrible pain we all felt after the Challenger crash … I think the death of Dale Earnhardt was a similar thing. The point was to be inspired. And the result, instead, was horror.
12. “What a stupid I am.” (1968)
Roberto De Vicenzo and Bob Goalby were tied at the end of the 1968 Masters and should have played in a playoff. But Di Vicenzo’s playing partner, Tommy Aaron, marked a par for Roberto on the 17th hole when he had actually scored a birdie. By rules of golf, if you sign a card that has a score HIGHER THAN YOUR OWN, that is officially your score. You know how golf loves its rules. And so, officially, Di Vicenzo finished a shot back, and the playoff never happened.
The interesting thing about this was the aftermath. Goalby has always seemed bitter that his victory on ’68 was tainted by the scoring error. He has spoken about it grumpily … or not at all. Di Vicenzo, meanwhile, has always taken his own defeat with grace. “What a stupid I am,” he famously said after the scoring error was revealed to him. And he refuses to blame Aaron for the honest mistake.*
*Though it’s not on the list, I think this entry also includes a little sympathy for poor Dustin Johnson, who seemed to qualify for the playoff in this year’s PGA Championship but officially finished two shots back because he grounded his club in a “bunker” that looked nothing at all like a bunker. Golf does love its rules.
11. Red Right 88 (1981)
10. “God bless those kids, I’m sick, I’m gonna throw up” (1994)
John Tyler High led 41-17 with just over four minutes left. Plano East came all the way back to take the lead. John Tyler won on a kickoff return. There will never be anything quite like it. And there is absolutely nothing I can say about this game that isn’t better put in this video.
9. The Slide (1992)
I was actually here, Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, covering it for The Augusta Chronicle. And what I remember most is how dead it was in Atlanta going into the ninth inning. The Pittsburgh Pirates led the Braves 2-0 going into that ninth. As crazy as it may sound now, the Pirates were absolutely going to the World Series. Doug Drabek had been masterful for eight innings, he had allowed only five hits going into the ninth. The Braves were finished.
Terry Pendleton led off the inning with a double, and that did get the crowd stirred up a bit. But the crowd didn’t really get going until the next batter, David Justice, hit a ground ball to second base. Pittsburgh’s Jose Lind booted it. That, I think, is when Braves fans started to believe that they might win the game. Drabek walked Sid Bream to load the bases. When he did it, the name “Sid Bream” did not carry the power of memory that it carries now. At that point, he was just an impossibly slow first baseman.
Stan Belinda came in for Pittsburgh. He allowed a sac fly to Ron Gant, and then he walked Damon Berryhill to load them up once more. Brian Hunter was sent in to pinch hit, and he popped out to shortstop. Two outs. Bases loaded. Pittsburgh leading 2-1. Crowd doing that tomahawk chop like crazy.
And pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera — who should never have to buy a beer in Atlanta ever — hit a line drive single over shortstop Jay Bell. Justice scored easily. And the Braves sent Sid Bream home. Bream really was impossibly slow. And he also had some sort of leg injury. But I doubt he ever ran faster. As Jim Rome has made a living out of saying, Barry Bonds threw the ball “from deep short.” But somehow Bream was able to slide under the tag, sending the Braves to the World Series, sending Barry Bonds to San Francisco, and sending the Pirates into a fog of 18 consecutive losing seasons.
8. The Miracle at the New Meadowlands (2010)
Well, there’s really nothing more to say about this. The Eagles were down 31-10 with about eight minutes left. That’s when Michael Vick when Michael Vick on them. The score was tied in the final seconds. The Giants, hoping to settle for overtime, decided to punt with 14 seconds left. Giants coach Tom Coughlin told his punter, Matt Dodge, to absolutely kick the ball out of bounds. Dodge, it turns out, could not do that. Punters often say kicking the ball out of bounds is harder than you think.
His kick ended up going down the middle to DeSean Jackson who fumbled it, picked it up, and then ran more or less untouched for the game winning touchdown. He ended the touchdown with a little flourish, running along the end zone line as if to not only kick the Giants fans in the gut but also make sure he was wearing his steel toe boots. Coughlin was seen tearing into Dodge, who has played nicely as the scapegoat though the Giants clock management in the finals minutes was stupefying (they once were totally unprepared for an onside kick) and it wouldn’t have hurt if somebody had actually come close to tackling Jackson.
So it goes. Miracles are often inspired by the incompetence of others.
7. The Imperfect Game (2010)
Armando Galarraga got 27 outs in a row against Cleveland, a perfect game. Unfortunately for him and for baseball, the 27th man was called safe at first base by a soon-to-be-sick umpire named Jim Joyce.
While the ending was as unfulfilling as any in sports history, there was joy in the aftermath as Joyce took full responsibility for his blunder and Galarraga shrugged it off and offered the classic line: “Nobody’s perfect.”
6. Greg Norman at Augusta (1996)
When Greg Norman played the Masters in 1996, I was a columnist for an afternoon paper, The Cincinnati Post. This only matters because we did not have a Sunday paper. This had a positive and negative effect. The negative effect is easy: I couldn’t write live about Saturday events, and you might know that Saturday is kind of a key day in sports. I couldn’t write live on Ohio State-Michigan or on big Kentucky basketball games or on important baseball games played on Saturdays. There were no blogs then either.
The positive is easy too: I couldn’t write about Saturday events. So when I went to various sporting events Saturday was, in a sense, a forced day off. We would call them Boast Saturdays (Boast for Post — long story) and we would enjoy watching our fellow writers working on NFL preview stories or deadline college football games and shrug. Sorry. Can’t write.
But I was so inspired by Greg Norman’s first three days at the Masters that, essentially, I reached the person who ran the Scripps Howard News wire (the Post was owned by Scripps Howard) and asked for a chance to write. I didn’t even care if anyone ran it. I just thought I had something to say.
Permission was granted — funny, nobody ever turns down requests to do more work — and I wrote an entire column about how they should shut down the Masters, not even bother to play on Sunday because Norman (who was ahead by five shots) had already won the thing. The rest, I wrote, was guaranteed to be anticlimax.
So, yeah, I was an itty-bitty bit off there. Norman’s ludicrous collapse (combined with Nick Faldo’s masterful 67) turned Augusta Sunday into a very lush psychiatrist’s couch. Even Faldo clearly felt bad for the guy. Norman came into the press tent afterward and, with great class, went through his emotions. He had wanted very badly to win a Masters. He never did.
5. The Fifth Down (1990)
Colorado was playing at Missouri, and the Buffaloes were very much in the mix for the mythical national championship.* Missouri led 31-27 with little time remaining. Colorado went on a spirited drive. With less than a minute left, the Buffaloes moved the ball just short of the goal line. Colorado tight end Jon Bowman caught a pass and probably would have scored except he slipped on the horrendous “Omniturf.” The television announcer for the Big 8 game of the week at that moment said “This turf is an embarrassment.” More on that in a second.
*They had the good sense in those days of calling it a “mythical” national championship.
OK. So, you have the setup. Quarterback Charles Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock. That’s one down. But something weird happened on the field, something hard to quite pick up. Maybe the scoreboard didn’t change. All we know for sure is that on the next play, the announcer on the broadcast said: “Second down … excuse me … first down and goal to go.” The dye was cast.
Colorado’s Eric Bienemy then took a handoff and powered into the line but was stopped just short of the goal line. That’s two downs. Colorado called timeout. There were 18 seconds left. It should have been third down and goal to go.
Here’s something interesting about the fifth down game that I never knew before because I had never before seen the TV broadcast: I had always been led to believe that the down marker was wrong on the field. But the announcers during the timeout had a weird back and forth that leads me to believe that they actually had it RIGHT on the field. See what you can make out of this:
Announcer 1: And I think the chains are wrong on the field. I think now it’s second down. They had second before, I believe it’s second and goal now.
Announcer 2: I was a little confused by that also.
Announcer 1: They threw the pass down there to stop the clock.
Announcer 2: That’s right. You’re right.
Announcer 1: So now it’s third down.
Yeah, I know, it’s confusing. But the takeaway seems to be that the announcers in the booth were completely crossed up on the down — and what they said here suggested they actually might have had it right on the field, at least at one point. But then, during that timeout, the cameras caught Colorado coach Bill McCartney arguing about something with the officials. It’s certainly possible that this was the point when the officials changed their mind about the down.
Then, what should have been third down, Bienemy rushed up the middle, leaped, but he was stuffed short of the goal line. And this was when some weird stuff started happening. The officials tried to unpile players but it was slow going and so they actually stopped the clock. I understand that the referee has the power to stop the clock if he feels like players are purposely trying to slow down the game — and I do think Missouri’s players were trying to do that — but it’s still something you almost never see. They stopped the clock, and players unpiled, and Colorado was given enough time to setup.
That was followed by something even stranger: Announcer No. 1 actually suggested that Johnson spike the ball. He had only seconds early said that he KNEW the correct down (“So now it’s third down”) but he still suggested in the heat of the moment that Colorado should spike the ball. And Johnson did just that. He rushed up to the line, spiked the ball to stop the clock with just two seconds left. Of course, that’s four downs. And that’s all a team is supposed to get.
The crowd booed … I’m not sure how many were booing because Colorado was about to get a fifth down and how many were booing because the official stopped the clock. I do know this, the announcers — after GETTING THE DOWN RIGHT during the timeout — never once mentioned that Colorado was getting a fifth down. It’s like everyone in the place was under some sort of Harry Potter spell or something.
And there was yet MORE controversy. On fifth down, Johnson ran right, tried to get into the end zone, and based on the rather flimsy replays available it seems that he may not have made it. There was no definitive replay, but all the replays certainly SUGGESTED that he did not make it. But the officials ruled it a touchdown. And so THAT became the immediate controversy rather than the officials blowing the fifth down.
I don’t think it’s possible for officials to do worse than this bunch did. They gave Colorado an extra down. They stopped the clock bizarrely as it was about to expire. They ruled a touchdown when it probably was not one. I tend to believe that mistakes are generally honest because incompetence is a big part of who we are … but if anyone ever reported that these officials were under some sort of orders to help Colorado win, I cannot say I’d be surprised.
A couple of other things have long bothered me about this play. When Colorado had called timeout they had to KNOW it was third down. So why did they call a running play up the middle when they had no timeouts left? If the officials had not stopped the clock, Colorado would have run out of time before running another play even GRANTING them a fifth down. So that was an impossibly dumb call on Colorado’s part.
Two … I never understood why Missouri didn’t make a bigger deal of it at the time. I mean, you would have expected that they all would have jumped up and down in victory, sent the offense on the field, the whole bit … at least make the officials aware that there was a controversy. But they never did, which indicates to me that they weren’t sure what down it was either.
Colorado went on to win that mythical national championship, at least according to the AP voters. And when McCartney was asked if he planned to do the honorable thing and forfeit the game, he said no. Why? “Because the field was lousy,” he said.
4. The Fumble (1988)
Poor Ernest Byner. Every time that something bad happens to Cleveland — even something that has nothing whatsoever to do with football such as LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach or the Indians losing a game in heartbreaking fashion or someone doing a story about unemployment in Northeast Ohio — people will show him fumbling at the end of the AFC Championship Game.
Byner absolutely does not deserve to be scapegoated for that game. The Browns were completely out of the game, at one point falling behind 21-3. And Byner brought them back. He led the team in rushing and receiving, willed his way to 187 total yards and two touchdowns, brought the Browns all the way. And he looked as if he was going to cap it off with a game-tying score with 1:12 left. On television, it was not immediately noticeable that the ball had been knocked out by Denver’s Jermiah Castille. It was plenty clear on replay after replay after replay after replay.
Byner was everything that a football fan loves. He was an overachiever — he had been a 10th round draft pick out of East Carolina. He made his bones on special teams. He succeeded without great speed or great power; he was only about 5-foot-10. The fumble tore him apart. He played one more year in Cleveland, but it was no good — though there had been a close relationship between him and the city, though the most knowledgeable fans understood that the Browns would not even have been IN the game without Byner, well, to much had happened. He was moved to Washington after a year. He ran for 1,000-plus yards his first two seasons there, and in the second the Redskins won the Super Bowl.
3. The Miracle at the Meadowlands (1978)
You certainly know what happened. The Giants had intercepted a pass that put the game away in the final minute. They led 17-12. On first down, the Giants ran the ball. On second down, quarterback Joe Pisarcik kneeled on it. The Eagles were out of timeouts, there was nothing they could do but watch the clock drain away. The Giants had to only run one more play. You know the game was over because on television they were going through the credits — “We thank our producer, Bob Rowe, our director, Jim Silman, and our CBS crew.” As a kid I always hated when they did that. I never wanted to the games to end.
The Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson — yes, Bob Gibson — called a running play for convoluted reasons that even 30-plus years later don’t quite add up. Apparently, he was worried that if Pisarcik tried to kneel again, the Eagles would try to rough up the Giants offensive linemen, start a fight, which could cause injury or (worse) stop the clock and give the Eagles the ball back. He called the safest running play in his playbook, 65-Power Up. The idea was simply to turn, hand the ball to fullback Larry Czonka, and end this crazy game.
Well, Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik took the snap, seemed to have trouble handling it, turned to hand it off to Czonka, and, well, you know what happened. Czonka kind of collided with the ball, it bounced free, and it then bounced up right into the arms of Herm Edwards, who scooped it up and ran for the game-winning touchdown. So many things had to happen, not the least of which was the ball popping right up to Edwards — had he simply fallen on the ball, the Giants probably still would have won.
The next day, Bob Gibson was fired. He opened a bait shop in Florida. He has never spoken publicly about the play.
2. Jean Van de Velde (1999)
This was my first British Open and I have to tell you … it could not have been more boring. The tournament was played at Carnoustie — I went because that was where Tom Watson had won his first British Open, and he suggested to me that he had the game to make another run (he did have the game … but his amazing British Open run wouldn’t happen for another decade). But Watson was dreadful. Well, it fit. Everyone was dreadful.
Someone named Rod Pampling was leading after Day 1 — he had managed even par.
Someone named Jean Van de Velde was leading after Day 2 — he was one over par.
That someone named Jean Van de Velde had a five shot lead after Day 3. It could not have been more boring.
And Sunday played out just as boring — Van de Velde played well enough that had a three shot lead going into the 18th hole. A double bogey and he won. He could hit nothing but putters and make double bogey (he really could — later he tried it just for fun and got his double bogey). Instead, he whacked his driver to the dismay of anyone with a working brain and the ball sailed way right into the rough.
Only he caught the strangest sort of bad break — when he got there, he saw that he had a PERFECT LIE. Why was this bad break? Because the lie was so good that it inspired Van de Velde to go for the green. Had it been in the rough he might have tried to chop the ball back into play, limped up to the flag and left with the Claret Jug. Instead, he went for the great shot — like Billy Conn, he went for the knockout — and he hit it into grandstand, where it bounced back into thick rough. He then hit the ball out of the rough into Barry Burn, the water that runs in front of the green. Van de Velde took off his socks and shoes, rolled up his pants, leading the BBC announcer to say something like: “This poor man has lost his mind.”
Eventually he decided not to try and hit the ball out of the water. He chipped into the bunker, then pitched to seven feet and then, in what can only be attributed to muscle memory, he made the putt for the triple bogey that at least got him in the playoff. Of course he wasn’t going to win the thing — and he didn’t. But it has always amazed me that after all that, he still made that triple-bogey putt. And it was the most painful ending I’ve ever watched in sports.
Van de Velde became a media star afterward. He was impossibly funny as he went over his round. “I talk about everything except 18, OK?” he asked as he walked into his press conference. Then he talked about 18 and pain and how life goes on.
1. U.S.-Soviet Olympic basketball game (1972)
I own a video called “Boxing’s Greatest Knockouts.” Unfortunately, I no longer own a VCR so I cannot watch it, which is a shame because I love the video. It isn’t so much that I love the knockouts themselves — I love the commentary. Boxing legend Archie Moore was one of the commentators and so was Emmanuel Stewart, the longtime trainer. One of the fights they showed was the classic Archie Moore-Yvon Durrelle fight. In that one Moore was knocked down four times before coming back to defeat Durrelle, a Canadian champion who spent his real life catching lobsters.
On the video, they showed Moore go down again and again (“He hit hard,” was Moore’s classic explanation). And then when they were discussing the fight, Stewart said something like this: “You know, it’s funny, I always remembered you going down MORE than four times. I thought you went down like seven or eight.”
What does this have to do with the U.S.-Soviet Union Olympic basketball game? Well, it seems to me that few people remember it exactly right; it has grown in memory. Three inbounds plays has turned in five or six in memory. An errant horn has turned sinister. It seems to me that the 1972 game was grotesque on its own merits, it doesn’t need embellishment. But the memory can’t help but embellish.
Here’s what happened: Doug Collins stole the ball in the final seconds with the United States trailing the Soviets by a point. The U.S. had never lost an Olympic basketball game. They were 63-0. Collins was fouled and stepped to the line with three seconds left to shoot what have since been called the two most important free throws in American basketball history. He made the first. And then, as he started to shoot the second, the horn went off. This has since been used by some as proof that there was a concerted effort to throw off Collins and hurt the American team, but there’s another possibility. Immediately after Collins free throw, the Soviet coach Vladimir Kondrashin complained that he had called a timeout that had not been granted. It’s at least possible — and, in fact, sounds more realistic — that the horn was an attempt to get the attention of the referees.
Collins made the free throw anyway. The U.S. led 49-48.
The international rules forbid the Soviets from calling timeout AFTER Collins free throw so they were forced to take the ball out of bounds. So the Soviets had no choice but to pass the ball inbounds. It was dribbled to halfcourt, a setup for a desperation shot, when the clock was stopped with 1 second left. Why was the clock stopped? Well, there was a ruckus at the scorer’s table (over Kondrashin’s insistence that he had called timeout). The Soviet team had pilled on the court in protest. The U.S. contingency has long felt like a technical foul should have been called there because a Soviet assistant coach had run to the scorer’s table to argue about the non timeout. And the Russian contingency has long felt like no technical should have been called because the officials at the scorer’s table were well aware that they had messed up not granting the Soviets the timeout in the first place.
Whoever is right or wrong, there was a long delay, and the Soviets were able to confer about a play — in effect, they got the timeout they wanted. The referee rather oddly decided to put three seconds back on the clock and give the Soviets the ball out of bounds. It is not clear that this was within his power as a referee. Whether or not the timeout was missed, the clock HAD started again, and there is no loophole in the international rules that allows an assistant coach to charge the scorer’s table or a team to spill on the court effectively without consequence. One referee, in fact, fought against putting time back on the clock, but he was overruled. The referees blew it. But they were about to make it worse.
They set everyone up again out of bounds. But this time, they put the ball in play before the scorer’s table was ready. The clock was not set at 3 seconds. The U.S. camera was focused on the scoreboard clock (which showed 50 seconds) and not on play. The ball was suddenly inbounded, and Sergei Belov fired a full-length court pass … but the horn sounded after only one second. It would later be explained that the horn was not to signify the end of the game but was instead an effort by the scorers table to get the attention of the referees to say that they were not ready.
Of course, it SOUNDED like the game-ending horn and people swarmed the court and the U.S. team celebrated in triumph. There is no question whatsoever that if the ruling was to put three seconds back on the clock that the horn had sounded way too early.
And so, the referees cleared the court and reset everything — the Soviets got the ball out of bounds with three seconds left. To say the U.S. team was angry would be an enormous understatement. They considered walking off the court. They would later vote to not take their silver medal (for insight on that, please read Gary Smith’s classic piece). But in the moment, perhaps fearing a forfeit, they lined up for the final play.
Tom McMillen was hounding the inbounds passer and an official yelled at him, causing McMillen to back away even though there was no rule about such things in international play (the official has said, unconvincingly, that he did not tell McMillen to back away). Ivan Edeshko (with an open lane now) threw a full-length pass to Aleksandr Belov, who caught the ball and made the layup that led the Soviets to victory, the first U.S. loss in Olympic history, and the worst ending in sports history.