Monday, April 20, 2009

When the Loser Wins - The Silver Paradox

Last summer, for the second year in a row, my roommate Kyle organized a 3-on-3 basketball tournament. It was held in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and featured ten teams composed of his friends and acquaintances. The year before, one team ("Sausage Turmoil") had far surpassed their contemporaries in skill and athleticism, and stormed unimpeded to the championship. They were back for a title defense. My roommate's crew, "Team Hammer," also returned. The third squad of interest, for our purposes, featured three of my friends from south Brooklyn. They called themselves "Team Simko," and before the tourney a trash-talking war developed between their ranks and Team Hammer.

The day of the tournament, Team Simko showed up relatively hung over and struggled through the round-robin segment. They finished third in their group of five, losing to Team Hammer along the way. In the elimination round, they squeaked by the 2-seed from the other bracket, 11-8. Hammer easily won their quarterfinal game, and the re-match was set.

A fairly large crowd had gathered at this point, attracted by the fanfare of the tournament and the promise of a barbecue afterward. The group's attention was squarely focused on Court One. In the first semi, Sausage Turmoil (the defending champion, still undefeated and unchallenged) coasted to a 15-6 win. But the real story was the second semi-final, and everyone knew it. To add controversy to the mix, Kyle recruited a very good player to Team Hammer as a replacement for a very mediocre player who left under a mysterious cloud. Augmenting the advantage, the spectators were almost exclusively Kyle's friends. They didn't know anyone from Team Simko, and were openly rooting for a Team Hammer-Sausage Turmoil final. I should mention that two weeks earlier, I'd badly sprained my ankle and could only watch from the sidelines. My voice was the only support Team Simko would receive throughout the game. Let's be absolutely clear: it really, really didn't seem like the boys from South Brooklyn had a chance in hell.

Team Hammer took the early lead, and a repeat of their earlier victory looked inevitable. Then, unbelievably, Simko caught fire. And when I say that, I do not mean it lightly. Collectively, the three of them played a brand of efficient basketball well beyond their abilities, and reached an athletic nirvana they may never attain again. My friend Nate, who shoots from the side of his head with a two-handed motion resembling a child trying to throw a shot put, could not miss from three. He's actually a good shooter, but the odd motion ensures that every made three seems like a complete fluke. During one tight stretch near the end, he hit three in a row. I watched my roommate's frustration mount, and pretty soon the improbable Simko run had gathered too much momentum to halt. When the dust had settled and the nightmare ended, a totally silent crowd had watched their friends lose by a score of 15-9.

Kyle did not take it well. For about the next half hour, he paced by himself and stewed. Team Simko celebrated amid a hostile crowd. And throughout the next year, whenever they got drunk together, they sent my roommate a text that said "15-9." When we played pick-up that summer, they all wore white t-shirts with the infamous score written on the back in black magic marker, along with various other references to the game. It became a running taunt that continues to the present and will not end unless Kyle beats them in this year's tournament.

Needless to say, it was the most memorable part of the day. Here's the epilogue: in the championship, Sausage Turmoil annihilated Simko. They repeated as champions, and it was not a difficult feat. But by that time, a certain energy had already been spent among the players and the crowd. Because of the massive build-up of the second semi-final, and the unlikely development of its story-line, the stakes of the game far exceeded anything that could be drummed up for the title match. The tournament had blown its collective load. The fact that Sausage Turmoil won didn't seem to matter. And now, a year later, time has confirmed that Simko's win was the signature moment of the day. 15-9 is the score that sticks in the mind, for better or worse.

Which leads me, at long last, to the point of today's post. There's a unique phenomenon in sports that only surfaces on extraordinary occasions; sometimes, the team or individual that ultimately loses has an earlier incident so resonant, and so singular, that it becomes the highlight of the competition. It's a rare occurence. Sports are inherently competitive, and competition is designed to yield a champion. The very structure of a game exists to make us remember the winner. But it will happen, once or twice in a blue moon, that a loser's feat claims the foremost spot in our memory. Call it the Silver Paradox- when second place is the first winner.

Here now, in no particular order, are Four Silver Paradox Moments (That Don't Involve My Friends- I Promise). Keep in mind that I'm shooting from the hip here, and I'm sure I've left out some glaring examples. If you think of any, let me know.

The Shot Heard Round The World - 1951

After trailing the Brooklyn Dodgers by 13 1/2 games late in the season, the New York (baseball) Giants won 37 of their last 44 games, including their last 7, to complete an amazing comeback and finish the regular season in a dead heat with their crosstown rivals. Back then, each league had only one division, so the winner would go directly to the World Series. When divisions are tied today, a one-game playoff decides which team is bound for the postseason, but in 1951 the rules mandated a best-of-three series. The teams split the first two, and in game 3 at the Polo Grounds, Brooklyn took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth.

A rally against the Dodgers' tiring pitcher, Don Newcombe, led to baserunners on second and third and a 4-2 score. Bobby Thomson stepped to the plate, and Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen brought Ralph Branca in for relief. After a first-pitch strike, Branca threw a high, inside fastball that was meant to set up a curve. But the pitch wasn't high or inside enough, apparently, because Bobby Thomson laced it into left field, where it cleared the fence by mere feet. The Giants won the pennant, 5-4.

Other fun facts:

*Dressen, the Dodger manager, won a coin toss and decided to cede homefield advantage in the 3-game playoff. His absurd reasoning was that if they won their home game (game 1), they'd only need to take one of two on the road...ignoring the fact that if they lost their home game, which they did, the Giants would only need to win one of two at home.

*Jackie Robinson ran in from the outfield after Thomson's home run to make sure he touched every base.

*Newcombe had tried to take himself out of the game before the 9th started, but Jackie Robinson convinced him to stay in. Branca, who Dressen sent in for the immortal at-bat, had given up several home runs to Thomson that year, including one that cost the Dodgers game 1 of the same playoff.

*Willie Mays was on deck when Thomson hit his blast.

*The New York Daily News published the 'Shot Heard Round the World' headline the next day.

The epilogue that nobody remembers:

In the World Series, a third New York team triumphed- the mighty Yankees beat the Giants in 6 games.

McEnroe defeats Borg in the 4th set tiebreaker, 18-16 - 1980

In the 1980 Wimbledon Men's Championship, Swedish master Bjorn Borg was vying for his fifth straight title. Standing in his path was John McEnroe, the young American hot-head who had just begun to revolutionize tennis. The final was the most-anticipated tennis match in years, and marked the high point of their great rivalry. McEnroe came out firing, winning the first set 6-1. Borg rallied to win the next two, and the two men fought their way to a 4th set tiebreaker. After a match of exciting, back-and-forth play, the tiebreak exceeded any and all expectations. In case you're new to tennis, tiebreakers are played to 7 points, win by 2. This one went to 18. Borg saved six set points; McEnroe saved five match points. To this day, it's still considered the greatest set in professional tennis history. When Borg finally missed an easy forehand, McEnroe won 18-16, forcing a fifth set. "I knew I had won the match," he said later. "I knew it."

The epilogue that nobody remembers:

He hadn't. In the deciding set, Borg won 8-6 for his fifth straight Wimbledon title.

Video of Borg's 8 match points:

Constantino Rocca at the British Open - 1995

Playing on Scotland's legendary Old Course at St. Andrews for the British Open, "reformed" alcoholic golfer John Daly somehow managed to silence his personal demons for a weekend and take a 1-shot lead into the clubhouse on Sunday. Italian Constantino Rocca, playing in the last group, needed a birdie on the difficult par-4 18th to tie. His drive came up short, and he hit a miserable chip shot to leave himself sixty feet for the chance at a playoff. And then this happened (video starts with the chip. The putt is at the 3-minute mark, but the entire thing is worth watching to see Daly's interaction with his wife beforehand. Unfortunately, this clip doesn't include a reaction shot of Daly, but you can see that here at the 1:52 mark):


The epilogue that nobody remembers:

Rocca the Choker lived up to his nickname in the 4-hole playoff, and Daly played solid golf to win the Open. Later, his life got really, really bad.

The Yanks Hit Two Game-Saving Home Runs in the World Series - 2001

Unlike the other moments, this one came in the media-saturated era, so it needs less explanation. 9/11 had just happened in September, and New York was reeling. As much as sports can have significance against the backdrop of that kind of tragedy, these games meant a lot. After a mediocre season that saw the Yanks make the playoffs by virtue of being the best team in a bad division, they snuck by Oakland in the Divisional Round on a divine defensive play by Derek Jeter. In the ALCS, they needed only six games to beat a Seattle Mariners team with one of the best records in baseball history. That set up the World Series match with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The D-Backs, behind Schilling and Randy Johnson, won the first two at home. Roger Clemens pitched one of the few good playoff games of his life to give the Yanks a win in game 3. Then came the fireworks, of which there will be no video since MLB does not allow such impudence.

In game 4, down 3-1 with two outs in the bottom of the 9th, Tino Martinez drilled a home run to right field off cursed D-Backs reliever Byung-Hyun Kim. The stadium went apeshit, and discovered new decibel levels when Derek Jeter became Mr. November with a walk-off home run in the 10th (the clock had passed midnight, making the date November 1st).

In game 5, again down two in the bottom of the 9th, it was Scott Brosius' turn to hit a two-out, game-tying home run (again, off Kim). Mayhem ruled in Yankee Stadium. Soriano hit a game-winning single in the 12th, and the Yanks took a 3-2 series lead. I can still remember where I was for both games (college dorm room, freshman year), and they're easily in my top 5 sports moments of all time.

The epilogue that nobody remembers except Yankee fans and everyone who hates us:

The D-Backs won game 6, and our most reliable clutch performer, Mariano Rivera, blew a lead in the ninth of game 7. Luis Gonzalez broke my heart with the winning hit. As I stared dumbfounded at the tv, a stream of Red Sox fans streaked through the hallway of my dorm, celebrating like they'd just won their first World Series since 1918.


  1. for the record, after losing the first game of the rematch by the ironic but totally appropriate score of 15-9, we won the next two games and took the three-game series.
    a proud team simko member

  2. if you're going to talk about your friends in your blogs- by all means its a great way to personalize the story, you should give them some background info, other than an occasional name. If we know Kyle, say you tell us how sore of a loser he is, it's funnier for the reader- "haha, I can definitely see my friend Pat acting the same way"

  3. Hey Anonymous. 15-9, dog.

    We are not polite.

  4. Funny you missed a BIG one, and I'd say more people forget this than forgot the DBacks won the WS (considering everyone who saw those two games also saw the last two as it was one of the greatest WS ever).

    2003 ALCS - Yankees over Red Sox in extra inning game 7 with Aaron Boone's HR.

    The Epilogue No One Remembers:

    The Marlins defeated the Yankees for their 2nd title in 7 seasons.