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Tuesday, August 10, 2004
An alternate sports universe

By Graham Hays
Page 2

What if?

It isn't just the stuff of Ashton Kutcher movies anymore.

The names and misdeeds of the biggest chokers in sports are as well known as any hero or Hall of Famer. In fact, ESPN will devote an hour of air time on Tuesday night (8 ET, ESPN25: Who's No. 1?) to determine the biggest choke of the last 25 years. But what if those mistakes had never happened? Physicist Stephen Hawking recently said that his own earlier hypothesis about the existence of alternate universes is no longer viable, but that isn't enough to keep us from peering through the looking glass at worlds where the most infamous moments in sports never occurred.

But remember: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And in the end, things happen for a reason.

Bill Buckner
Maybe Buckner could have been a good manager?
Bill Buckner's Replacement
The Red Sox stand three outs from their first World Series title since 1918 -- they lead the Mets 5-3 in the 10th inning of Game 6. But disaster strikes when Calvin Schiraldi allows back-to-back-to-back singles and Bob Stanley uncorks a wild pitch that allows the tying run to score from third. The Sox escape the inning when Mookie Wilson grounds weakly to Dave Stapleton at first base. Neither team scores in the 11th inning, but the Red Sox load the bases with one out in the 12th after singles by Spike Owen and Wade Boggs and a walk to Marty Barrett. Forced to bat Stapleton, who he had inserted for Bill Buckner in the bottom of the 10th, manager John McNamara watches the veteran with just 39 at-bats all season ground into an inning-ending double play. Keith Hernandez makes the Red Sox pay for stranding 17 runners in the game, hitting a game-winning home run off Steve Crawford in the bottom of the 12th.

The Mets proceed to capture Game 7 two days later, and the full wrath of the Boston faithful lands on McNamara's shoulders. The Boston media lambastes the decision to remove Buckner, who drove in 102 runs during the regular season, pointing out that even the aging first baseman could surely have handled Wilson's grounder, the only ball that came his way in the 10th inning. Forever viewed as the man who would have ended the Curse if not for "McNamara's Meddling," Buckner goes on to enjoy a successful eight-year run as Red Sox manager before retiring to the broadcast booth.

Chris Webber
Chris Webber knew how big a mistake he'd made.
Chris Webber's Lost Prize
With under a minute to play in the NCAA title game and his Michigan Wolverines trailing North Carolina by two points, Chris Webber grabs a missed Carolina free throw and moves up court, getting away with an obvious travel before crossing midcourt. Trapped between two Carolina players and the sideline, Webber appears poised to call a timeout that his team doesn't have. But spotting the distinctive maize of another pair of Michigan shorts hanging several inches lower than the haze of Carolina blue, Webber stops short of disaster and fires a pass to Ray Jackson, who calmly hits a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Hailed as a hero for the miraculous pass and leading the "Fab Five" to a championship, Webber is the unquestioned top pick in the NBA Draft. Orlando officials laugh at trade rumors involving Penny Hardaway, knowing fans will flock to see the personable, open and joyful rookie. Webber wins Rookie of the Year honors and goes on to form one of the most dominating frontcourts in NBA history alongside Shaquille O'Neal. Webber and Shaq are inseparable, negotiating lifetime deals to stay in Orlando and lifting the Magic past Michael Jordan's Bulls to win four consecutive NBA titles. Webber retires as one of the NBA's all-time leading scorers and later becomes majority owner of the Magic.

All of which sounds pretty good ... until you consider that in this scenario, he never meets Tyra Banks.

Steve Bartman Saves Civilization
The year of the great seventh number accomplished,
It will appear at the time of the games of slaughter:
Not far from the great millennial age,
When the buried will go out from their tombs.

-- Nostradamus, Century X, quatrain 74

Juan Pierre's double could have been the start of something, but the Cubs were not about to be denied a long-awaited trip to the World Series. With Florida trailing by three runs and one out in the top of the eighth, Pierre doubles to left, and the heart of the order follows. But when Moises Alou catches Luis Castillo's foul pop down the left field line in front of a distracted fan -- locked in fruitless pursuit of a radio station that wasn't playing "Hey Ya" by Outkast -- the wind drifts out of the Marlins' sails. Pierre eventually scores on an Ivan Rodriguez single, but Mark Prior escapes the inning on Miguel Cabrera's routine groundout to Alex Gonzalez.

The Marlins go meekly in the ninth, and the Cubs advance to their first Series since 1945. Inspired by Chicago's triumph, the Red Sox knock off the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS behind seven strong innings from Pedro Martinez and some brilliant bullpen work.

The battle with the Red Sox begins quietly enough, as the teams split the first two games in Boston. But strange things begin to occur when the action shifts back to Wrigley Field. The rain of frogs during Game 3 is explained away by a freak wind storm sweeping through Lincoln Park; but the Red Sox play Game 4 under protest after claiming a small earthquake causes Manny Ramirez to misplay a ninth-inning sacrifice fly that leads to the winning run.

It only gets worse. The Sox are similarly peeved when a long power outage during Game 5 darkens Wrigley Field and knocks Martinez out of action, sending them back to Boston trailing three games to two. But back in Beantown, under a red moon that many assume is part of a sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola, the Sox turn the tables on the Cubs and force a seventh and deciding game.

Red Sox
What if Grady Little had taken the ball from Pedro a little sooner?
In retrospect, fans at Fenway are remarkably calm about the Angel Gabriel playing the national anthem before Game 7, but panic truly sets in when it is announced that not only is Babe Ruth warming up in Chicago's bullpen, but a stray meteorite has taken out the city's last Dunkin' Donuts. Reports of the final innings are hazy at best, but those Red Sox fans who await the game's final judgment contend to this day that Johnny Damon catches the final out before the trumpet sounds and a bottomless pit opens to swallow that part of humanity which isn't the Expos or Royals -- who promptly inherit the Earth and trade it for prospects.

The Greatest Choke of All
They saw his face grown stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain
and they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer had fled from Casey's lips, the teeth are clenched in hate.
He pounds, with cruel violence, his bat upon the plate.

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
and now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright.
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.

And, somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout,
and there is now joy in Mudville
for mighty Casey hit it out.

(The Aftermath)

The crowd in joyful chorus, roars as Casey makes his trot,
except the boy who caught the ball, out of whom they beat the snot.

And lawyers smelling blood, did hastily converge,
knowing the price to come at auction would allow them all to splurge.

And upon the stricken visitors, grim melancholy sat;
there seemed little chance of returning without Felipe or old Jack.

For Felipe faced arbitration, as did also our man Jack;
and the former was a 30-30 threat and the latter was no hack.

Amidst the bitterness reporters did descend, like buzzards on the dead,
with questions at the ready about the fateful head to head.

The pitcher had looked tired after hits did Flynn and Casey groove,
and voices could be heard to wonder why the skipper didn't move.

But instead of taking blame, he raised his hand to quell the salvo,
saying only that he wished some of his sluggers would visit Balco.

Now the parade had barely slowed, ending at Ocean Avenue,
before the team's owner did start singing about lost revenue.

If no park could be constructed, with playgrounds for the kids and suites for the team,
he fretted that it might prove hard to give Casey the contract of his dreams.

Tired of the taxes, the smiles fled from their collective lips,
as the town folk told the owner to do a solo dance for which he'd need his hips.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright.
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.

And, somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout,
But the joy in Mudville must cease,

for the favored Nine just moved to D.C.

Graham Hays writes "Out of the Box" five days a week in-between moonlighting for Page 2. He can be reached at graham.hays@espn3.com.