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“Of all the words of tongue and pen
“The saddest are these: It might have been”
– Felix Unger, 1972
– John Greenleaf Whittier, 1856
For sports fans, the simpler lament is this: “What if?”
What-ifs dominate the conversation around water coolers, along saloon tables, in text threads. Sports fans love talking about the championships their teams have won; they live to bewail the titles that were stolen, taken or simply denied through a cruel series of incidents and accidents and plain rotten luck.
The Astros’ appearance at Yankee Stadium this week for the first time since it was revealed they were — cough, cough — aided and abetted in winning the 2017 ALCS in seven memorable games from the Yankees was merely the most recent bewilderment to befall our baseball teams. It is a fairly tortured list.
What if those ’17 games were played on the up-and-up? It is a fair and eternal question, and the best (or, depending on your perspective) worst kind of what-if: We don’t know that it would’ve played out as we suspect it would’ve played out. But good luck selling us that any of these wouldn’t have each ended somewhere close to happily ever after.
What if …
The Astros hadn’t cheated in 2017?
For the record, they insist they didn’t cheat in the ’17 postseason. I will pause as you guffaw at that. Look: The Yankees still took a 3-2 lead back to Houston for Game 6, and were stopped as much by the 1-2-3 pitching punch of Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. in those final two games — scoring one run, total — as anything.
But when you start sliding doors, you invite everything inside. So it is worth remembering that the Yankees got brilliant pitching themselves in Games 1 and 2 of the series, but still lost matching 2-1 games, including Game 2 when Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa reached Aroldis Chapman and his 102-mph kerosene for ninth-inning hits.
The Yankees had bunted on Curt Schilling in 2004?
You can legit drive yourself batty going down the rabbit hole of the ’04 ALCS. What if Jorge Posada’s throw in the ninth inning of Game 4 is a millimeter quicker? What if Joe Torre summons Mariano Rivera earlier than he did in Game 5? What if the umps — pre-replay — don’t overturn two separate calls in Game 6 that benefitted the Sox (most notably the Alex Rodriguez Slap Play)?
But the question that remains unanswered all these years later is: Why not make Schilling and his fixed-with-tape-and-staples ankle work a little bit in Game 6? Why not bunt a few times, make Schilling uncomfortable? Maybe Schilling shakes that off and still gives us The Bloody Sock Masterpiece. But maybe it wrecks him; the Yankees did tattoo him for six runs in three innings in Game 1, after all.
Duaner Sanchez hadn’t gotten hungry in Miami in 2006?
The ’06 Mets were as complete an edition as that team has fielded since 1986. They were rolling through the regular season. Then Sanchez, who’d been virtually unhittable as Billy Wagner’s primary setup man, got a jones for Dominican food early in the morning of July 30, his taxi was hit by a drunk driver, he separated his shoulder and was lost for the year.
As damaging as losing Sanchez was what the Mets did to compensate: They traded solid, steady right fielder Xavier Nady to Pittsburgh for bullpen help (Roberto Hernandez and Oliver Perez). The Mets missed Nady badly in the postseason, never more than when Shawn Green misplayed a key fly ball into a triple in Game 2 of the NLCS, which immediately turned the whole series upside down.
Buck Showalter knew what Mariano Rivera really was?
The 1995 ALDS was thrilling from start to finish but it ended with both Showalter and Don Mattingly (playing his last game) in tears. Rivera, who often pitched multiple innings in that his rookie year, was lifted in the 10th inning of a 4-4 Game 5 after facing but four hitters. The Yanks took a 5-4 lead in the top of the 11th and Showalter didn’t trust John Wetteland so he had to stay with Jack McDowell, a starter who’d relieved Rivera. Surely if Showalter knew what Rivera would become — virtually untouchable in October — McDowell never would’ve been summoned and allowed to surrender the two runs that clinched the Seattle comeback in the bottom of the 11th.
Bobby Murcer hadn’t tried to be a peacemaker?
The Yankees stole New York back from the Mets all across 1974, and on Sept. 29, they landed in Milwaukee a half-game out of first place with two games left, on the verge of breaking a 10-year playoff drought. But at the Pfister Hotel, backup catchers Bill Sudakis and Rick Dempsey got into a fight, Murcer tried to break it up and got a broken finger instead. Murcer had endured a difficult season, but was still the heart of the team; the Yankees never did catch the Orioles. A few weeks later he was traded to San Francisco.
Yogi Berra hadn’t listened to Tom Seaver?
This one’s a subset of the greatest Mets what-if of all: What if Gil Hodges hadn’t died at 48 on Easter Sunday 1972?
The Mets were set: Up 3-2 in the 1973 World Series, flying back to Oakland, and Yogi was planning on starting George Stone (12-3 that year) with Seaver ready on full rest to pitch Game 7 if needed. But some time during the flight, Seaver talked Yogi into giving him the ball in Game 6 on three days’ rest. How do you say no to The Franchise? (Spoiler alert: Gil would’ve found a way.) Seaver pitched fine in Game 6, but wasn’t his dominant self and the Mets lost, 3-1. Then Jon Matlack was flattened in Game 7. The Miracle Mets would have only one title to show for an amazin’ era.
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