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The Diamondbacks’ Cowardly Stupidity, and Kirk Gibson’s Vigilante Justice

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Kirk Gibson rounds the bases after hitting a walk-off homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. (Getty Images)

Kirk Gibson rounds the bases after his homer won Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. (Getty Images)

There are probably more famous home runs than the one that ended Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, but you’d only need a few of the digits on Kirk Gibson’s celebratory raised fist to count them.

Gibson won the ’88 NL MVP – somehow – but his pinch-hit two-run homer off Dennis Eckersley, which came as he was battling injuries to his hamstring and knee along with a stomach virus, made him a legend.

It was a narrative that was easy to love. The limping, battered star, down to his last strike and his team’s last out, taking the future Hall of Fame closer deep on the biggest October stage possible. Couldn’t get any bigger. Couldn’t get any better. Gibson, for at least that one moment that’s etched above almost all others in baseball lore, was a superhero.

In 2014, he’s a jackass. Just one of a few at the head of the snake in what’s become a truly pathetic Diamondbacks organization.

The steely-eyed glare of revenge. (AZCentral.com)

The steely-eyed glare of revenge. (AZCentral.com)

Call Gibson what you want – a heel, a meathead, a Neanderthal. The most accurate descriptor is almost certainly vigilante, since there’s apparently one thing that matters to Ol’ Gibby and the despicable club for which he manages: doling out justice for perceived slights and following baseball’s idiotic, hilariously anachronistic code.

Let’s run down the crown jewel of Gibson’s buffoonery, an encyclopedia of acts which – unlike his iconic homer’s place in history – require each finger on both hands of every child in an above average-sized middle school to properly document.

The scene of his latest crime was Phoenix’s Chase Field, spread out over three days last weekend but all stemming from the bottom of the ninth inning Friday. The Pirates, trailing 4-1 through seven innings, scored three runs in the eight and five in the ninth, allowing manager Clint Hurdle to eschew using closer Mark Melancon in favor of human batting practice machine Ernesto Frieri.

Frieri, you must understand, has no idea where the ball is going when it leaves his hand. That’s what led to the Los Angeles Angels – owners of baseball’s second-best record – giving up on him and shipping him to Pittsburgh for fellow relief cast-off Jason Grilli just a month earlier despite his propensity for being able to strike people out. Problem is, if you’re not whiffing against Frieri, odds are you’re depositing a ball somewhere between the outfield fence and three zip codes away. As of this writing, there were 1,035 pitchers over the past three seasons to log at least 40 innings. And 1,034 of them gave up fewer homers per nine innings than Frieri’s 2.38 in 2014.

"You know that pitch you throw that always winds up in the seats? Don't throw that one." (AP)

“You know that pitch that always winds up in the seats? Don’t throw that one.” (AP)

So it came as no surprise that Frieri, trying to establish the inside part of the plate against Paul Goldschmidt – a man with more homers since the start of 2013 than any player in the National League – would wind up plunking Goldschmidt on his hand. Not intentional in the slightest, simply a guy who struggles with his control trying to back a very good power hitter off the plate a bit.

Gibson now makes his living sitting in the Diamondbacks’ dugout looking for people to fight, which is a pastime that looks more and more appealing with every mounting loss during a 162-game baseball season. And he wasn’t happy with Frieri, nor was first-base coach Dave McKay, who barked at Pirates catcher Russell Martin at the end of Pittsburgh’s 9-4 win as Martin tried to explain that the pitch lacked any sort of intent.

Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero was also enraged, but the one player on that side who seemed to have a good handle of the situation was the man who got hit. “The guy’s trying to get outs,” Goldschmidt said. “What do you want him to do, throw it down the middle? They pitch inside as a team. We do too. We want our pitchers to be able to pitch inside. Obviously you don’t want to see anyone get hurt.

“It’s part of the game, being hit. I’m going to stay positive and think it’ll be OK.”

Unfortunately for Goldschmidt, it wasn’t. Arizona found out Saturday that its first baseman, who finished second in last season’s NL MVP voting, had a broken bone and was out for the season.

“The guy’s trying to get outs,” Goldschmidt said. “What do you want him to do, throw it down the middle?”

That diagnosis, however, had nothing to do with what happened Saturday. Ol’ Gibby and his dunce of a boss, general manager Kevin Towers, believe in an eye for an eye. “You hit our best guy, we hit yours!” “Baseball’s code must be upheld!” Whether Goldschmidt grew a sixth finger from Frieri’s stinger or had his entire left arm explode into a million pieces, the response was going to be the same.

Why do we know this for certain? Only because Towers said EXACTLY that in October.

“Not that I don’t take any of our guys from a lesser standpoint, but if Goldy’s getting hit, it’s an eye for an eye, somebody’s going down or somebody’s going to get jackknifed.”

"Sure, I'll admit that I condone violence. How many quotes do you need?" (Getty)

“Sure, I’ll admit that I condone violence. How many quotes do you need?” (Getty)

So we have a general manager of a Major League Baseball team on record that his entire organizational philosophy stems around retaliation, and he may intend to do so by luring them into a large vehicle with an attached trailer.

Only in this case, that retaliation didn’t happen right away. Reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen walked in the first inning Saturday, grounded out in the third, had an infield single in the sixth and another in the eighth before stepping to the plate in the ninth with the Pirates up 5-1. Gibson was long gone by this point, ejected after the second inning for excessively disputing a replay review. But hitting the showers early never is a reason for a manager to not convey his message. He wanted to avenge Goldschmidt.

And he did in the most cowardly way possible. Rather than going after McCutchen in the first inning of a scoreless game – which still would have been knuckleheadness of the highest order, but at least in line with baseball’s idiotic “code” – the Diamondbacks hit him down four runs in the ninth, with the game all but settled, and on a 2-0 pitch. McCutchen had a good idea when he stepped in earlier that he might wear one, but there’s no bracing for a beanball to the back after seeing two balls away from the strike zone.

That looks like it may hurt. (AZCentral.com)

That looks like it may hurt. (AZCentral.com)

“It got away,” was Gibson’s retort from the clubhouse afterward, three words that might as well wind up in quotes on his tombstone. They’re the same ones he said when Ian Kennedy nearly decapitated Yasiel Puig and Zack Greinke last June, moments that made the Dodgers’ decision to jump in the Chase Field pool to celebrate their NL West title that September even sweeter.

They’re the same words Gibson muttered on May 17, the date he chose to have reliever Evan Marshall throw at Ryan Braun. Sure, two Diamondbacks had been hit earlier by Kyle Lohse, but Gibson also happened to be wildly critical of Braun’s two positive PED tests, the first of which – surprise! – was revealed shortly after the Brewers knocked the Diamondbacks out in a 2011 division series. So Braun got hit in a game Arizona led by two runs in the 7th inning and, just like with the McCutchen incident, the HBP loaded the bases. Who needs the intentional walk when you can bean someone with a baseball at 95 mph?!? That one, of course, became even more moronic when Jonathan Lucroy hit a grand slam on the very next pitch.

But Braun and McCutchen aren’t the only superstars to have felt the Diamondbacks’ petulant wrath. In March, Rockies minor leaguer Tommy Kahnle hit Mark Trumbo in the back with a fastball during a spring training game. For anyone to think this was intentional would be absurd for exactly two reasons: 1) Kahnle was trying to make the major league club, which you generally don’t do by hitting folks, and 2) Trumbo makes an out more than 70 percent of the time, making him, in theory, an easy out to get.

No matter. The Diamondbacks weren’t going to take it. Wade Miley responded by throwing at the perpetually injured Troy Tulowitzki, hitting him in the calf.

Lest you think Arizona’s culture of horseshit is limited to Gibson and Towers, one of baseball’s legendary managers is here to assure you that’s not the case. Tony La Russa, who has the title of chief baseball officer for the NL’s 13th-best team, came to his club’s defense Tuesday in the most asinine way possible: by condemning the inside pitch.

"You can only throw the ball between my left hand and my right hand." (AZCentral.com)

“You can only throw the ball between my left hand and my right hand.” (AZCentral.com)

La Russa points to the fact that the Pirates have hit more batters than anyone in the majors, which deserves a bit of context. Nearly a third of those 61 have come from sinker-baller Charlie Morton, and a majority of Morton’s have come on a curveball that can seemingly dip and dive like an errant John Daly drive upon leaving his hand. I can assure you that Charlie Morton is not throwing at people, and that Charlie Morton is not hurting the folks he hits with a curve that average 78 mph.

(This is not to say the Pirates are completely above throwing at people. Justin Wilson was rightfully ejected after hitting Dodgers shortstop Justin Turner on July 22, one inning after Jamey Wright plunked McCutchen in the shoulder. It was stupid, Hurdle also got tossed, and Adrian Gonzalez hit a two-run homer immediately after. Winning the game > machismo, always and forever.)

But not 24 hours after La Russa railed on throwing high and inside, his GM immediately contradicted him. “If you don’t pitch inside effectively, you’re going to have poor results,” Towers told 98.7 FM in Phoenix while also claiming that the Diamondbacks “are not a dirty organization at all.”

He wasn’t done spewing stupidity.

“With social media and what happens nowadays – 20 years ago, this wouldn’t be a story,” he said. “Now, it blows like wildfire and it goes crazy.

“But I think the one thing we all need to remember is baseball is a dangerous game. I think a lot of people think it’s vanilla. I mean, the game can be very dangerous and I think we need to remind ourselves that guys are throwing the ball 95 and 96 miles per hour across the plate and guys are leaning over the plate, guys are going to get hit and it can be very, very dangerous.”

It’s a story because the coverage of the sport that has made you a very rich man is now vast enough that dolts like yourself have to be held accountable, Kev. Baseball is a petting zoo compared to the shark tanks of terror known as football and hockey, where concussions are happening at a far-too frequent rate due to nothing more than simply playing the game. No one is getting a serious injury in baseball by just stepping into the batter’s box unless the guy in charge of throwing the baseball is told to use it as a weapon.

The coda to all of this, of course, is that McCutchen exited Sunday’s game with an injury that on Tuesday was revealed to be an avulsion fracture of the 11th rib. And guess where the 11th rib just so happens to be located?

rib cage

cutch

It’s unclear how long McCutchen will miss and how much the Pirates’ playoff chances may suffer as a result, but that’s not the point here. It doesn’t matter if he was perfectly fine even after being pegged in the back due to a sick need to stick to a ridiculously antiquated code.

What’s perfectly clear is that Gibson, Towers and La Russa can’t be allowed to continue playing Batman to police what they believe is a rogues gallery of pitchers, managers and superstars whom they feel must pay for their “misdeeds.” Let Major League Baseball play the role of judge, jury and executioner in meting out punishment.

It can start by hitting everyone associated with the Diamondbacks’ clown show as hard as they chose to hit McCutchen.

Eye for an eye.

Optimism: The Unlikely Tale of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates

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It's about time PNC Park has something to get excited about. (USA Today Sports)

It’s about time PNC Park has something to get excited about. (USA Today Sports)

“Are you starting to get excited about the Pirates?”

That question started coming, from various friends, family and co-workers, in early June. I wasn’t surprised, because I’d heard it before.

At the 2011 All-Star break, the Pirates were 47-43, a game out of first place in the NL Central. Was I excited? Sure. When your team hasn’t been relevant since before the Internet was a thing, you tend to get fired up just by looking in a newspaper and seeing “Pittsburgh” in the standings agate anywhere above last place.

At the 2012 All-Star break, the Pirates were 48-37, a game ahead of Cincinnati atop the division. Was I excited? Sure. When your team has the worst second-half winning percentage in the National League the year before, collapsing in its attempt to be relevant for the first time since before the Internet was a thing, and then picks itself up off the mat the next year, you tend to get enthused.

So here we are, just days removed from the 2013 All-Star break. The Pirates are 57-39, two games back of St. Louis in the Central. But the Cardinals are the only team they’re trailing. They have the second-best record in the NL – and the third-best in baseball – despite having a pitching staff that’s used 11 starters and a lineup that has more terrifying hazards than your average Links golf course.

But this whole second-half swoon wasn’t exclusive to 2011. The 2012 Bucs’ high-water mark was 63-47, on August 8. From there? 16-36, the worst record in the National League, and one that prevented them from the club’s first .500 finish since 1992.

So as we sit here, on July 22, with the Pirates three games into a critical 15-game stretch that includes 12 against Cincinnati, Washington and St. Louis – the very clubs they’re chasing or trying to run from. Am I still optimistic?

You’re damn right I am.

The Pedro Alvarez mantra: See ball. Hit ball far. Or strike out. (AP)

The Pedro Alvarez mantra: See ball. Hit ball far. Or strike out. (AP)

That’s a far cry from how I would have described my general mindset about this team as recently as 365 days ago. For years, it was all too easy to climb all over every aspect of the organization, from the ownership (downtrodden under Kevin McClatchy) to the general managers (Dave Littlefield’s incompetence deserves its own museum) to the leaders on the field (was John Russell a real person?) to the players (J.J. Furmaniak, Chance Sanford, Steve Bieser, John Raynor and Dusty Brown aren’t insurance salesmen. They all had at least a venti double latte with the Pirates, though they were probably selling insurance within 48 hours of their last miserable at-bats in Pittsburgh.).

That’s not to say this current bunch isn’t without its offensive warts. There’s a .310 on-base percentage that’s 23rd in baseball, a 25.0 percent swing-and-miss rate that’s only better than two teams, and a .225 average with runners in scoring position that’s dead last. And oh, by the way, have you met Brandon Inge, Clint Barmes, Josh Harrison and Michael McKenry? That’s essentially 80 percent of the team’s bench, and they each have an OPS about the size of a slightly overweight NFL offensive lineman.

I’ve been hesitant to write a column about this team, impressive as it’s played, but even if there’s a third straight collapse in the Pirates’ future, it’s hard NOT to be positive at this point about the organization’s future. Andrew McCutchen is under team control through 2018 at less than $10 million a year over the life of the deal, which was completed prior to his MVP-caliber 2012 season. Imagine if a movie studio had been able to lock up Jennifer Lawrence for the next half-decade prior to The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook being released. That’s essentially what the Pirates have in McCutchen.

McCutchen is the star, but the major league cast around him – barren as recently as the beginning of last season – is on a serious upswing. Pedro Alvarez still strikes out a ton, but he’s homering once every 13 or so at-bats. That’s better than everyone but Chris Davis, Raul Ibanez and Miguel Cabrera, and by Pirates standards, puts him in Ralph Kiner/Willie Stargell territory. He’s still under team control through 2016. Gerrit Cole, the top pick in the 2011 draft, is seven starts into his career, and while there’s much to work on, he possesses a 100 mph fastball – something few, if any, Pirates pitchers ever have. Get that secondary stuff working and he’s a No. 1 starter. Starling Marte, thought of by plenty of high-profile baseball people as someone whose plate discipline would prevent him from ever being more than a modest contributor, has 38 extra-base hits, has stolen 28 bases and is one of the better defensive outfielders in baseball.

The Pirates are spending money on right fielders only to keep the seat warm for Gregory Polanco. (Pittsburgh Sports Report)

The Pirates are spending money on right fielders only to keep the seat warm for Gregory Polanco. (Pittsburgh Sports Report)

More help is on the way. The Pirates’ farm system, ranked 21st by ESPN’s Keith Law as recently as 2011, was called the best in the majors in early June by a longtime scout speaking with Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan. Depending on whose rankings you go by these days, Pittsburgh now has as many as four of baseball’s top 50 prospects – with its two top-15 picks in the first round of this year’s draft (Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire) yet to be factored in. The two best, right-hander Jameson Taillon and right fielder Gregory Polanco, are top-20 prospects in the entire minor leagues and could be calling PNC Park home by next summer.

“It’s the Pirates,” a longtime scout told Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan of baseball’s best farm system. “And I’m not sure it’s close.”

Barring some massive mismanagement and/or horrendous luck – both of which are unfortunately second-nature to this organization – the Pirates should be well-positioned to contend for the rest of this decade.

But a lot that’s supposed to go right tends to go wrong in baseball. Contention, even in the days of two wild-card teams, isn’t guaranteed – even if you build what on paper looks like the best team the Miami Marlins don’t want to pay for or feature Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton on the marquee.

So why can’t 2013 be the year the Pirates not only wipe out their streak of losing seasons but also make the playoffs? Here are four reasons why they will.

1.) They can essentially get away with being the Colorado Rockies

But the Rockies are nothing more than an afterthought in the NL playoff race, you’re saying. They’re 48-51, basically the definition of mediocrity. The Rockies have a winning percentage of .485. Let’s say the Pirates, clearly a better team than Colorado, win at a .485 clip the rest of the way even after playing essentially .600 baseball through nearly 100 games. That still puts them at 89 wins. In seven of the last eight seasons – 2010 is the exception – 89 wins would have been enough to earn the Pirates a playoff spot in the NL, assuming we were operating under a two wild-card format.

2.) Their schedule is quite manageable

The Pirates have 66 games left. Forty of those are against teams below .500. The Reds have 35 left against losing clubs, the Cardinals 31. If Pittsburgh wants to have a shot at catching (presumably) St. Louis for the division, though, it will almost certainly need to have a lead by the time the teams’ season series ends Sept. 8. The Cardinals’ last NINETEEN GAMES are against teams currently sporting losing records. Their slate for the next six weeks is brutal.

But really, if the Pirates are going to have a shot at the division, it’ll be because they beat St. Louis head to head. Starting Monday, 14 of the Bucs’ next 39 games are against the Cardinals.

Jeff Locke's season has been a bit hard to explain. (USA Today Sports)

Jeff Locke’s season has been a bit hard to explain. (USA Today Sports)

3.) Regression? How about progression?

Anytime you hear most folks talk about the Pirates’ stunning first half, you’re reminded how ripe they are for regression. Example No. 1: “Jeff Locke cannot possibly continue to pitch this well.” Absolutely true. His .226 opponents’ batting average on balls in play is on pace to be the NL’s lowest since Tom Browning and Pascual Perez – in 1988. Example No. 2: “The bullpen can’t keep up their good fortune when it comes to stranding runners.” Almost certainly true as well. Pirates pitchers are allowing only 19.6 of inherited runners to score, a figure that would be baseball’s third-best since that data started being collected in 1974. Locke is not Clayton Kershaw, and the Pirates’ bullpen is not the infallible group it’s almost always been through 96 games.

But Locke also doesn’t suck, despite some opinions to the contrary. What if he’s Ted Lilly, who had similar SO/9, BB/9 and swing-and-miss percentages during some of his prime years – which, by the way, were pretty good? I’ll take that as the presumed third starter on a potential playoff team.

The bullpen’s BABIP is .255, easily the best in the league, but why can’t this team be the 2012 A’s, who led the league with a .253 BABIP? Oakland rode a talented but journeyman closer (Grant Balfour, not unlike Jason Grilli) and a stud setup guy (Ryan Cook, not unlike Mark Melancon) to a 94-68 record and a division title.

What did the A’s hit last year? .238, behind the Pirates’ .243 average so far in 2013. That bunch did hit .265 with runners in scoring position, which has a lot more to do with luck than being clutch when you’re talking about teams that are virtually the same otherwise. I’m 99% sure the Pirates are going to finish the year hitting better than .225 with runners in scoring position, but if they don’t? The 2011 Rays hit .224 with men on second and third, and they made the playoffs.

And this is as good of a reason as any as to why the Pirates might even have a decent shot to catch the Cardinals. St. Louis is hitting .338 (!!!) with runners in scoring position. Baseball’s previous best team in such situations hit .311. It’s a full FIFTY points higher than the next-best team in 2013. What are the Cardinals hitting when there’s either a man on first or the bases are empty? .256!

If you’re not fully satisfied with “clutch” being little more than a fluke, maybe a little late-game info will help. There’s a close-and-late stat that’s defined as at-bats that occur in the seventh inning or later in a game tied, within one run or with the tying run on base, at bat or on deck. The Pirates’ .260 close-and-late average is baseball’s sixth-best. The Cards’ .230 average is 21st. St. Louis is a better offensive team than Pittsburgh – no argument here. But the extent to which the Cardinals’ ability to come through in key situations is being vastly overblown, and that gap figures to be considerably closer 10 weeks from now. Possibly thanks, in some part to ….

4.) A move or moves that could be made

We’re just over a week away from the trading deadline, and Neal Huntington almost certainly figures to upgrade the Pirates’ offense in some way. Right field is the biggest need, as the Pirates’ .656 OPS from that position is worse than anyone’s but Houston. (St. Louis leads the majors with a .914 OPS from right.)

Brandon Inge in spring training, perfecting the look Pirate fans would share during every Inge plate appearance. (USA Today Sports)

Brandon Inge in spring training, perfecting the look Pirate fans would share during every Inge plate appearance. (USA Today Sports)

Huntington probably isn’t going to make a big splash – he isn’t getting Giancarlo Stanton, and potential best-case-scenario Alex Rios likely is only a modest upgrade –

but the trickle-down effect could be significant. This team, as constructed on July 22, has a bench that features Inge, Harrison, McKenry, Travis Snider and whichever part of the Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez/Jose Tabata 1B/RF platoon isn’t playing.

A month from now, there’s a possibility only Jones/Sanchez/Tabata are even on the roster. Tony Sanchez could replace McKenry as the backup catcher. Inge and Harrison will be long gone. Snider might be dead weight once a trade is made. Clint Barmes will be back there. Strengthening the bench, for a team that plans on being involved in quite a few one-run games, is of paramount importance.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Will this fist pump be happening in October? (AP)

Will this fist pump be happening in October? (AP)

Now, a one-tiered rebuttal for why this team will not make the playoffs.

1.) OHMYGODTHELASTTWENTYYEARSTHISTEAMISCURSED!&*!&#

There’s a long, long LONG way to go. Maybe the regression will outweigh the progression. Maybe Alvarez goes in a two-month slump. Maybe McCutchen’s second-half tear never quite materializes. Maybe people will be reflecting on the season in October, thinking “Grilli and Melancon were All-Stars?!?” Maybe Huntington fails to provide an upgrade at the deadline, or god forbid, ships out Taillon or Polanco for a two-month rental.

That’s a lot of maybes. But there are 66 games to go. That’s a number that’s usually meant good things for this city.

Lost in Translation: A List of Devastating Defeats

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Does this man look happy to you? I didn't think so. (AP)

Does this man look happy to you? I didn’t think so. (AP)

I give myself 60 minutes.

That’s it. One hour.

Thirty-six hundred seconds to think about what I just witnessed, overanalyzing every missed shot, every turnover, every bad substitution, every foul ball that should have been fair, every wide open receiver the quarterback didn’t see, every penalty that could have been called.

When you’re young, watching one of your favorite teams lose is devastating. You think they blew their only chance, that they’ll never come so close again, that your world is crumbling because you don’t know sports are nothing more than a distraction – a really, really great distraction – and you live and die a little with every big game.

Maybe it’s the same when you’re older. You think they blew their last chance, that they’ll never come so close again. Red Sox fans went through went through a Halley’s Comet-plus-10-year drought without a championship. Cubs fans are on their 27th presidential term without a World Series winner. There are now TEENAGERS born in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first year of existence who are wondering if their team will ever as much as hold a lead in a playoff game.

No one ever runs down the hard parts of being a fan when you become one. You don’t recognize sports disappointment exists until it rises up and socks you in the face like an Evgeni Malkin slap shot. Unless you were a fan of the 1960s Celtics, the UCLA basketball teams of the 60s and 70s or the Lakers in the 80s, your season is ending in disappointment far more often than not.

This all comes to mind because of last night’s fantastic, pulse-pounding Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

As a Cavs fan, but more specifically as a human being, I was rooting for San Antonio to not only close out Miami, but to do it in the most devastating way possible. So much so that it felt like the Spurs were MY team. I’m over LeBron James pulling the rip-cord on Cleveland by now, but that doesn’t make me feel any less anguish when the Heat win.

Even Eva shed a tear for Tony after last night's Spurs collapse. (AP)

Even Eva shed a tear for Tony after last night’s Spurs collapse. (AP)

I’ve always had a thorough appreciation of San Antonio. Tim Duncan is without peer among power forwards in NBA history. Gregg Popovich is among the top 10 coaches  the league has ever seen and Tony Parker belong in the same breath among point guards. The Spurs, with those guys in charge, had Game 6 in the freaking bag. They recovered from a blown 13-point lead and were up five with 28 seconds left. But Popovich’s decision to remove Duncan – a man who has appeared on the NBA’s all-defensive team FOURTEEN TIMES in his career and averages the seventh-most defensive rebounds per game EVER – cost San Antonio two critical rebounds and led to two second-chance 3-pointers for Miami. The substitution game bit Popovich again in overtime, when he failed to use his final timeout with eight seconds left to get Parker, also off the floor for defensive purposes, back in. Manu Ginobili decided to take matters into his own hands, further dropping trou on one of the worst games he’s ever played by wildly driving into the lane and losing the ball, ensuring there’d be a Game 7.

He probably got fouled, but only after he’d blatantly traveled. No complaints. This one was on Popovich, who always makes the right moves, the Argentine, who had played one of the best games of his life two days earlier, Parker, who missed 17 shots, and Duncan, who had 25 points in his brilliant first half but just five in the second half and overtime.

I’m not going to pretend that loss hurt me as much as it did an actual Spurs fan, who even if Thursday’s decisive game goes poorly can sit back and reminisce about any of their four championships in the past 15 years. But it still stung. The odds are heavily against them in Game 7 – road teams are 3-14 in decisive NBA Finals games – and this may be the last realistic shot for Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili together. It also would provide further validation to the Heat and perhaps increase the likelihood that James stays when he can become a free agent next summer.

The Spurs sounded like they couldn’t get off the mat after the game. Ginobili said he was “devastated.” But that’s the reaction that comes from the immediacy of a game that was one rebound or free throw from being over. Duncan said Wednesday the players aired their grievances during a late postgame meal, and like the veteran bunch they are, the Spurs sounded poised to recover.

It probably took them all of 60 minutes.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I can’t say for certain each of the games on the following list of difficult defeats only took me 60 minutes to get over. I’m still reeling from one of them.

This list is unique to me, and even someone who roots for the exact same set of teams might make a different one. It depends on how old you are, where you were, who you were with and what you were expecting. I’m sure a few of these games will ring a bell, even if they didn’t stick with you as long as they stuck with me. There are two Super Bowl losses, one of which I attended, that don’t even make this top 10 list, so either I’ve seen my share of sports devastation since 1990 (we’re arbitrarily starting this list from games I at least have a solid memory of) or I just really, really like to complain.

Maybe a little bit of both.

Brad Marchand scores one of Boston's 317 first-period goals from Game 3. (AP)

Brad Marchand scores one of Boston’s 317 first-period goals from Game 3. (AP)

10. 2013 NHL Eastern Conference finals Game 3 – Bruins 2, Penguins 1 (2OT)

This one is all of two weeks old, but it still sneaks onto the list. The Penguins were favored to get to the Stanley Cup finals heading into this series against Boston, but were outscored 9-1 at home in Games 1 and 2. This was their chance to make it a series and perhaps turn the tide, which can tend to happen for the winner and loser of a multiple overtime game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Pittsburgh was arguably the better team in regulation and had numerous chances throughout the first overtime, but Patrice Bergeron ended any hopes of this series becoming a lengthy battle with his goal 15:19 into the second OT. This makes the cut due to the high quality of play in Game 3, the nearly 100 minutes of hockey that took place and the fact that it was essentially the epitaph to a Penguins season that failed to live up to the ever-so-lofty standards they set for themselves.

Manu Ginobili Scale of Devastation Score (out of 10): 3.5

Penguins goalie and first-class media darling Tom Barrasso reacts to Florida fans littering the ice with vermin.

Penguins goalie and first-class media darling Tom Barrasso reacts to Florida fans littering the ice with vermin.

9. 1996 NHL Eastern Conference finals Game 7 – Panthers 3, Penguins 1

Pittsburgh was an offensive machine led by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, averaging 4.4 goals a game and scoring EIGHTY more than anyone in the Eastern Conference. Lemieux and Jagr combined for 310 points on what was the NHL’s last great offensive team. The Penguins score 362 times that regular season, and no one has scored more than 313 in an 82-game season since. This was just as much about who they were playing than the end result. Florida was in only its third year in the league and was in the playoffs for the first time. Pittsburgh went 32-9 at home during the regular season but was just 5-5 on its own ice in the playoffs, culminating with this Game 7 loss that remains the Panthers’ last postseason series victory 17 years later. Florida went on to get swept in the Stanley Cup finals rather than setting up what would have been a fascinating offensive showcase between the Penguins and Avalanche. Instead, this was Pittsburgh’s last great chance with Lemieux and Jagr at their peaks, but it went by the wayside to a team that threw rubber rats on the ice to celebrate goals.

MGSODS: 4.5

I'm sure you're a nice guy, Dan Nystrom, but I'm still not sending you a Christmas card. (University of Minnesota)

I’m sure you’re a nice guy, Dan Nystrom, but I’m still not sending you a Christmas card. (University of Minnesota)

8. 1999 NCAA Football Week 11 – Minnesota 24, Penn State 23

Penn State was the preseason No. 2 in the nation behind Florida State, and after starting 9-0 it seemed to be destined for a national championship showdown with the also-undefeated Seminoles. The Nittany Lions were led by an outstanding defense that would feature two of the top three picks in the 2000 NFL draft (Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington), and I just so happened to be in attendance for this one, nine months before I’d begin my freshman year in Happy Valley. So, naturally, Penn State let this mediocre Minnesota team hang around until well into the second half, though it seemed like it would survive when Travis Forney’s 44-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter put the Nittany Lions up 23-21. Penn State even got the ball back with under five minutes to go but played conservatively, choosing to ride its top-ranked defense to victory. Except it never happened. Minnesota got the ball at its own 20 with 1:50 to go and marched 65 yards, completing a 4th-down Hail Mary and eventually kicking a 32-yard field goal as time expired. That started a downward spiral that included four losing seasons in five years – three of which I was, of course, in college to witness – and Penn State has never truly been the power it once was since. Oh, and far more significantly than this game, the architect of that great Penn State defense turned out to be using his position of power to sexually abuse children. Other than that, just another loss.

MGSODS: 6

The Heinz Field end zone tackled Troy Brown, or he may very well still be running. (Getty Images)

The Heinz Field end zone tackled Troy Brown, or he may very well still be running. (Getty Images)

7. 2001 AFC Championship game – Patriots 24, Steelers 17

The Steelers were once again the class of the AFC in the regular season, going 13-3, outscoring opponents by a conference-best 140 points and featuring what was by far the NFL’s top-ranked defense. They were at home for their fourth conference championship game in eight seasons, two of which they had lost and the third of which they came within a whisker of losing as a 12-point favorite. Pittsburgh was favored by 10 in this one, but the oddsmakers forgot to weigh a few key factors – the Steelers’ dreadful special teams and the presence of Kordell Stewart. New England got on the board late in the first quarter via a Troy Brown 80-yard punt return touchdown and Pittsburgh never recovered, with an Antwan Harris blocked field goal TD return midway through the third putting the Pats up 21-3. The Steelers got within 21-17 but Stewart threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions and Drew Bledsoe – filling in for some injured rookie named Tom Brady – helped New England hold on. Stewart started five more games the following season before mercifully earning his ticket out of town, and Brady and the Patriots went on to win three Super Bowls in four years – again beating the Steelers at home for the AFC championship after the 2004 season. You may be starting to notice a preponderance of New England-related heartbreak on this list, but don’t worry – there’s more to come.

MGSODS: 6.5

Be sure to say hi to David Volek the next time he assists you at Radio Shack. (Getty Images)

Be sure to say hi to David Volek the next time he assists you at Radio Shack. (Getty Images)

6. 1993 NHL Eastern Conference semifinals Game 7 – Islanders 4, Penguins 3 (OT)

The third and final entry involving the Penguins on this list, it’s debatable whether to put this higher or lower. On one hand, Pittsburgh had won the past two Stanley Cups, so bowing out of the playoffs and failing to three-peat (trademark: Pat Riley!) is hardly something to be ashamed of. On the other hand, this was EASILY the best of those three early 90s Penguins clubs. They’d set an NHL record with 17 straight wins, Lemieux had 160 points despite missing 22 games while being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the team had THREE 48-goal scorers. One of those, Kevin Stevens, went down with a nasty injury following a collision with the Islanders’ Rich Pilon early in Game 7, and New York built a 3-1 lead midway through the third period. The Penguins scored twice in the final four minutes to force overtime, though, and seemed to have all the momentum in the world heading into the locker room. But little-known winger David Volek scored his second goal of the game 5:16 into OT, ending Pittsburgh’s pseudo-dynasty and breaking the heart of 10-year-old me. Volek, in his fifth year in the NHL, scored twice more in the Islanders’ conference finals loss and had five more goals the following season before never playing again. The remainder of the Penguins’ Lemieux-Jagr years ended in playoff disappointment – one of which we covered earlier.

MGSODS: 7

Sniffle. (AP)

Sniffle. (AP)

5. 2009 NBA Eastern Conference finals Game 4 – Magic 116, Cavaliers 114 (OT)

I probably could have gone with Game 1 as well in a series that seemed like a mere formality for James and the 66-win Cavs before they went head-to-head with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the finals. That matchup never came to fruition, though, as Dwight Howard thoroughly dominated Cleveland’s empty interior, the Magic shot lights-out from 3-point range and the lack of a second offensive option weighed heavily in the Cavaliers’ collapse. Cleveland built a 16-point first-quarter lead in Game 1 before falling 107-106 and almost went down 2-0 before James’ miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer saved it in Game 2. Orlando won Game 3 by 10, but this was the one the Cavs had to have to make it a series. Cleveland led by eight at the half but faltered down the stretch, losing in overtime despite 44 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists from James. The Cavs won Game 5 in Cleveland but never led in a 13-point loss in Game 6, ending the franchise’s best season in history as the writing on the wall began to appear that James’ next season in Cleveland could be his last. We’ll get to that, though.

MGSODS: 7.5

Mario Manningham celebrates. I'm pretty sure I threw things. (The Michigan Daily)

Mario Manningham celebrates. I’m pretty sure I threw things. (The Michigan Daily)

4. 2005 NCAA Football Week 7 – Michigan 27, Penn State 25

This seems a bit early in the season for a college football loss to register as devastating, but just a week earlier, the Nittany Lions seemed to announce their return to college football prominence. They’d beaten sixth-ranked Ohio State in a raucous 17-10 home victory under the lights that literally left the stadium shaking, and next week had to make a trip to Ann Arbor to face a Michigan team they’d lost to six straight times. The Wolverines kept Penn State’s powerful offense off the board entirely until the final 10 seconds of the third quarter, and led 10-3 heading into what became a surreal final 15 minutes. Three touchdowns were traded in a 2:24 span early in the fourth before Garrett Rivas’ 47-yard field goal put Michigan ahead 21-18 with 3:45 left. Like he seemed to do so many times that year, quarterback Michael Robinson led Penn State back, taking his team 81 yards in 13 plays and scoring on a 3-yard run with 53 seconds left to grab a 25-21 lead. Unranked but hardly untalented, Michigan fought back, getting an outstanding kick return from Steve Breaston and going 53 yards from there, scoring with no time remaining on a strike from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham. Penn State finished third in the BCS standings, behind USC and Texas. Had it held on at Michigan, it’s unclear whether the Nittany Lions would have spoiled the Trojans and Longhorns’ classic of a national title game. What they would have most certainly done was jump-start the conversation for a playoff, as that would have marked two years in a row with three major conference teams unbeaten in the regular season.

MGSODS: 8

Stan Humphries was the definition of an average quarterback. The Steelers followed through on their plan to make him above average. (Sports Illustrated)

Stan Humphries was the definition of an average quarterback. The Steelers followed through on their plan to make him above average. (Sports Illustrated)

3. 1994 AFC Championship game – Chargers 17, Steelers 13

The Steelers’ days of Super Bowl glory all happened prior to my arrival on this Earth, so one could understand my excitement as they tore through the AFC with a 12-4 record, the conference’s top seed and bounced the hated Browns for a third time with a 29-9 divisional round victory. It was time to sit back, relax and watch Pittsburgh pound the heavy underdog Chargers in the Steel City’s first AFC title game in 15 years. You, of course, know where this is headed. Up 13-3 in the third quarter, the Steelers allowed someone named Alfred Pupunu to break lose for a 43-yard touchdown catch on their vaunted defense, the same magical distance covered by Tony Martin on a TD reception with 5:13 to go in the fourth. Down 17-13, Neil O’Donnell led the Steelers down the field with time running short, but his fourth-down pass to Barry Foster fell incomplete in the end zone and 12-year-old me got my first serious lesson in taking a game for granted. The Chargers went on to get absolutely annihilated by San Francisco in the Super Bowl, while the Steelers made it to the big game next year. But this is the loss that set the tone that defined Bill Cowher’s career on the Pittsburgh sidelines. Five conference championships were played on the shores of the Allegheny in Cowher’s tenure and the Steelers won but one of those.

MGSODS: 9

Dammit LeBron, I just can't quit you. But you can quit me. (Washington Post)

Dammit LeBron, I just can’t quit you. But you can quit me. (Washington Post)

2. 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals Games 5/6 – Celtics 4, Cavaliers 2

The only spot on this list I felt had to be occupied by two games instead of one to tell the complete story. The Cavaliers bounced back from their ouster to Orlando to win 61 games even with James’ free agency the only story the media was interested in talking about for seven straight months. Cleveland was up 2-1 in the series when Boston won Game 4 at home, but that wasn’t unexpected. The series was shifting back to Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs were 39-7. Sure, they’d lost Game 2 at home by 18 points in a complete and utter no-show, but that certainly wouldn’t happen again. Or would it? Cleveland led 29-21 early in the second quarter before the wheels began to fall off and the RV it was driving careened into the side of a mountain, spritzing gasoline on the city below before igniting in flames. The Celtics outscored the Cavs 99-59 over the final 34 minutes, James finished with 14 points on 3 of 14 shooting in arguably the worst performance of his life and seemed disinterested at the boos rained down in the arena he’d turned into a sold-out, opened-ended Broadway show. The series wasn’t over, but it might as well have been. Cleveland played better back in Boston for Game 6, but James’ triple-double nearly became a quadruple-double due to his nine turnovers. His headband came off – hi there, Game 6 of the 2013 Finals! – and as he walked down the tunnel of the TD Garden and ripped off his wine and gold uniform, there was an overwhelming sense that jersey was never going back on. He was off into the night, beginning a two-month process of toying with the entire league’s emotions, and on that sticky July evening when the decision came down, the Cavaliers entered an abyss from which they’ve yet to emerge. There have been worse losses, but this one wasn’t about the end of a singular season. It was the end of an era, the end of a dynasty that never got going and the beginning of James being branded a traitor. James has come up short in playoff games before and since, but never has a player of his caliber delivered the absolute shit sandwich that he submitted in Game 5.

MGSODS: 10

The exact moment my childhood innocence was lost. Thanks, Sid.

The exact moment my childhood innocence was lost. Thanks, Sid.

1. 1992 National League Championship series Game 7 – Braves 3, Pirates 2

A moment that, quite frankly, the Pirates have yet to recover from, and I think one that any Pittsburgh fan still feels whenever he or she watches any team, anywhere, suffer a particularly gut-wrenching loss. It was the playful impetus for my Twitter handle, but there was nothing funny about what happened in the 9th inning at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium during the hour 9-year-old me spent sobbing, disconsolate, on the couch as my parents wandered by and wondered when I’d get over it. For those unfamiliar, the Pirates were in their third straight NLCS, having fallen short in the previous two. They lost to these same Braves a year earlier in seven games, scoring a grand total of zero runs in the final two. This was the last hurrah as the team had been constructed, with Bobby Bonilla already gone to the New York Mets via free agency and Barry Bonds – then a skinny, speedy, twig of a man – and former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek headed out of town as well. This time it was the Pirates rallying to force a Game 7, scoring 20 total runs in winning the fifth and sixth games after falling down 3-1. Drabek pitched eight spotless innings in Game 7 and manager Jim Leyland decided to let him start the ninth rather than go to a bullpen that was shaky during the regular season and downright bad in the series against the Braves. Drabek ran into trouble, loading the bases with no outs via a double, an error and a walk, and Leyland brought in closer Stan Belinda. Atlanta cut the lead in half with Ron Gant’s sacrifice fly, Damon Berryhill walked to again load the bases but Brian Hunter popped out. Needing only one out to make it to their first World Series in 13 years, the Pirates saw Atlanta send pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera to the plate. Cabrera had 10 at-bats during the regular season and was a non-prospect approaching journeyman status, but he cemented his legacy in Braves history and Pirates nightmares by lacing a single into shallow left field. David Justice scored the tying run and former Pirate Sid Bream – carrying not a piano but an entire orchestra on his balky back – stumbled around third and slid into home, just under Mike LaValliere’s tag. The throw from Bonds in left wasn’t great, and that was his last act in Pittsburgh before ballooning up via illegal means and becoming baseball’s all-time home run king. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since. If ever a singular moment became the defining fork in the road for a franchise, it was Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Pittsburgh’s baseball club has been a laughingstock since, underspending, overdrafting and failing to properly evaluate talent from the top down. There are losses, and then there’s THIS loss.

Give me 60 years and I won’t forget it.

MGSODS: 11 out of 10