Saturday, December 4, 2010

What If the Chicago Cubs Hadn't Collapsed in 1969?

I present this post in memory of Ron Santo, who should have been in the Baseball Hall of Fame years ago.

I'm going to look at 3 Cub seasons that, to put it politely, did not work out well: 1969, 1984 and 2003.

I'm going to overlook their other postseasons from 1945 onward that didn't result in Pennants, simply because they weren't really "curse material." But the Black Cat, the Garvey/Durham NLCS, and Steve Bartman? All true "curse material."

Each of these what-ifs is based on actual starting pitchers used. In the case of 1969, the last few starts of the regular season, moving into the National League Championship Series. In the case of 1984 and 2003, the NLCS, moving into the World Series.

Today, 1969. I'll do the other two at a later date.


If the Cubs hadn't collapsed in their "September Swoon," and had gone on to beat out the Mets for the National League Eastern Division Title, and played the Atlanta Braves for the Pennant:

Game 1, Saturday, October 4, at Atlanta Stadium (later renamed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the series would've opened at the NL Western Division winners' home field no matter what): Ferguson "Fergie" Jenkins vs. Phil Niekro. RL: The Mets started Tom Seaver, and won, 9-5. A 5-run Met 8th was the difference. I'm not sure the Cubs would've done that. Fergie might've pitched better than Tom Terrific, but it might not have been enough. Braves 4, Cubs 3. Braves lead, 1-0.

Game 2, Sunday, October 5, at Atlanta Stadium: Ken Holtzman vs. Ron Reed. The future Phillies reliever was 18-10 for the '69 Braves, but in RL, the Mets knocked him out of the box in the 2nd inning. A 5-run 5th knocked out Jerry Koosman, but Holtzman might've been able to stop that. Cubs 6, Braves 2. Series tied, 1-1.

Game 3, Monday, October 6 at Wrigley Field, Chicago: Bill Hands vs. Pat Jarvis. Not sure why there was no travel day. In RL, Gary Gentry had to leave the game in the 3rd inning, and Nolan Ryan went the rest of the way for the Mets in a 7-4 Pennant-clinching win. Cub fans know Jarvis as the man who, the next season, gave up Ernie Banks' 500th home run. I don't know if the wind was blowing out at Wrigley on October 6, 1969, but the Cub bats might've made it seem like it. Cubs 7, Braves 4. Cubs lead, 2-1.

Game 4, Tuesday, October 7 at Wrigley Field: Dick Selma vs. Milt Pappas. The same Pappas that the Baltimore Orioles, the AL Champions this season, traded to the Cincinnati Reds after the 1965 season for Frank Robinson. And the same Pappas who, in 1972, pitched a no-hitter (it was damn near a perfect game) against the San Diego Padres. The Braves' other choice would have been George Stone, who in RL-1973 would help the Mets win another Pennant. Pappas would have been better, but that doesn't mean the Cubs wouldn't win. Cubs 6, Braves 2. The Cubs win their first Pennant in 24 years.

The World Series would have started on October 11, no matter how far each League's LCS had gone. As it happened, the first-ever ALCS and the first-ever NLCS were both sweeps, by the Mets over the Braves and by the Orioles over the Minnesota Twins. So here's how the World Series would have gone:

Game 1, Saturday, October 11, at Memorial Stadium, Baltimore: Jenkins vs. Mike Cuellar. In RL, Don Buford hit Seaver's 2nd pitch out, and the O's went on to win 4-1. Hmmmm, Cuellar with that lefty screwball, and the Cubs haven't played in 4 days and Fergie hasn't pitched in 7... I don't like this. Let's keep it simple and keep the same score: Orioles 4, Cubs 1. O's lead, 1-0. So far, aside from the Cubs being the NL Champions, no change from the way the RL Series played out.

Game 2, Sunday, October 12, at Memorial Stadium: Holtzman vs. Dave McNally. If you've seen the film Frequency, which is in part about changing history, you know that, if the 1969 World Series is Cubs vs. Orioles instead of Mets vs. Orioles, there's a bigger chance that Frank Sullivan could die in the Buxton Fire. Anyway, in RL, this was a tight one, with Koosman allowing just 2 hits. But the Cubs' righty bats might give the lefty McNally some trouble. Cubs 3, O's 1. Series tied, 1-1. So far, no change from RL.

Game 3, Tuesday, October 14, at Wrigley: Bill Hands vs. Jim Palmer. Big change here, because the difference between Wrigley Field and Shea Stadium was not unlike the difference between Rutgers' College Avenue Campus and its Busch Campus: Very ivy and classic vs. very concrete and tacky. In RL, Gentry had good stuff, while Jim Palmer shook off 3 runs in the first 2 innings and settled down, but it was too late. The Mets won, 5-0. Could the Cubs do the same? Not sure, Hands wasn't as good as Jenkins or Holtzman. And Palmer was not yet the dominating pitcher he would become. Still, the Mets needed 2 great catches from Tommie Agee to hold this one, and the Cubs' center fielder is Don Young, infamous for bobbles against the Mets in the regular season. But that doesn't mean that a different pitcher would give up the same 2 drives up the gaps. Cubs 4, O's 2. Cubs lead, 2-1. So far, at least as far as results go, no change from RL.

Game 4, Wednesday, October 15, at Wrigley: Jenkins vs. Cuellar. In RL, this was a 1-0 game, Seaver ahead of Cuellar, until the bottom of the 9th, when Brooks Robinson hit a sinking liner into right field. Ron Swoboda made a sensational diving catch, limiting it to a sacrifice fly that tied the game and sent it into extra innings, but a mishandled bunt from J.C. Martin gave the Mets a 2-1 win in the 10th. Can we say that Jenkins would have been fresher than Seaver? Hardly. Can we say that Cub right fielder Jim Hickman would have made the same catch that Swoboda made? Not bloody likely. O's 2, Cubs 1. Series tied, 2-2, and now we have a different result. Whatever else happens, the Cubs will not be able to clinch at home at Wrigley -- the O's can still do so at "the Insane Asylum on 33rd Street."

Game 5, Wednesday, October 16, at Wrigley: Holtzman vs. McNally. In RL, this was the clincher, as the Mets rode Cleon Jones' shoe-polish-aided hit-by-pitch, Donn Clendenon's subsequent homer, and an Al Weis homer to win, 5-3. How nuts would the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field have gone if, instead of Clendenon, the Met 1st baseman, the Cub 1st baseman, Ernie Banks, hit one out? Cubs 5, O's 3. Cubs lead series, 3-2.

Game 6, Friday, October 18, at Memorial Stadium: Hands vs. Palmer. Since there was no Game 6 in RL, we can't be sure how well Palmer would have pitched. But he had outdueled Sandy Koufax (in what turned out to be Koufax' last game) in Game 2 in '66, so, while he was not yet the same pitcher he would be from 1970 to 1983, he did already have a big-game reputation. And while Hands was a good pitcher, he was not a Hall-of-Famer like Palmer. Orioles 4, Cubs 1. Series tied, 3-3. Here we go...

Game 7, Saturday, October 19, at Memorial Stadium: Jenkins vs. Cuellar. The Cubs' ace, maybe the best pitcher the franchise has had since Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, vs., if not Baltimore's best starter, then certainly the Oriole starter with the nastiest pitch, Cuellar's screwgie.

It's worth nothing that, going into 1969, in 4 of the last 5 World Series going to a Game 7, Game 7 was won by the visiting team: The Yankees over the Giants at Candlestick in '62, the Dodgers over the Twins at the Met in '65, the Cardinals over the Red Sox at Fenway in '67, and the Tigers over the Cardinals at Busch in '68. The exception in that span was the Cardinals over the Yankees at Sportsman's Park in '64.

In fact, you could go back further, and make it 8 of the last 10 WS Game 7s won by the road team. The Yankees over the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in '52 and '56, the Dodgers over the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in '57, the Yankees over the Braves at Milwaukee County Stadium in '58; the other exception being the Pirates over the Yankees at Forbes Field in '60. And, in RL, this would be followed by the Pirates over the Orioles at Memorial Stadium in '71 and '79, the A's over the Reds at Riverfront in '72, and the Reds over the Red Sox at Fenway in '75. The exception in that stretch was the A's over the Mets at the Oakland Coliseum in '73. That would make it 12 out of 15 Game 7s won by the road team between 1947 (Yanks at home over Dodgers) and 1985 (Royals at home over Cardinals). So the home-field advantage for the Orioles is hardly a guarantee that they would have beaten the Cubs.

Since then, though, in RL, the last 7 World Series Game 7s have all been won by the home team: 1985 (as stated), 1986 (Mets over Red Sox at Shea), 1987 (Twins over Cardinals at Metrodome), 1991 (Twins over Braves at Metrodome), 1997 (Marlins over Indians at whatever they were calling the Dolphins' stadium at the time), 2001 (Diamondbacks over Yankees at Bank One Ballpark, now Chase Field) and 2002 (Angels over Giants in Anaheim).

Of course, do you really think I would have taken you this far and NOT have the Cubs win the whole thing for the first time in 61 years? Ernie Banks homers in the 2nd. Ron Santo homers in the 7th. Cubs 5, Orioles 2.

As Cub broadcaster Jack Brickhouse would have said, "That's it! That's it! Hey hey! Wheeeeeeee!"

Or, as Harry Caray, about to get fired as the voice of the arch-rival Cardinals (leaving their booth to Jack Buck), "Cubs win! Cubs win! Holy cow!"


And 1973 is remembered as the Mets' "miracle year." Even if they fall one game short in the World Series, as Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, each for the first but not last time, give Yankee Fans a reason to tell them, "Thank you."

Without that 1969 "September Swoon," and the "lovable losers" image it projected, maybe the Cubs don't choke in the 1984 NLCS. And maybe Steve Bartman keeps his hands to himself in the 2003 NLCS. And maybe, without the legacy of 1969, the Mets don't get another "miracle" in Game 6 in 1986, and the Red Sox win. With the result being that they don't seem "cursed," either.

And nobody ever talks about the Curse of the Bambino, and the Curse of the Billy Goat is something now in the distant past, to laugh about, just like that other phrase that originated from William Sianis' Billy Goat Tavern, "No hamburger: Chizburger chizburger chizburger! No fries, cheeps! No Coke, Pepsi!"

I have been to the real Billy Goat Tavern. Yes, Sam Sianis, the original Billy's nephew, was there that day. Yes, he really does talk like the John Belushi character in the Saturday Night Live sketch (named the Olympia Cafe after the place Belushi's father Adam -- a Balkan immigrant but Albania rather than Greek -- owned in nearby Wheaton, Illinois). And, yes, they do make damn good cheeseburgers. But the drink is the opposite: No Pepsi, Coke.

Friday, December 3, 2010

What If There Had Been an ABA-NBA Finals?

Having done this for the AFL and the NFL, I move on to basketball.

1968: With the AFL-NFL World Championship Game (soon to be called the Super Bowl) already having been played twice, the Pittsburgh Pipers, newly-crowned champions of the American Basketball Association, challenge the National Basketball Association Champion Boston Celtics to a best-4-out-of-7 "World Series of Basketball."

Big mistake: Bill Russell and company shut down Connie Hawkins, and the Celtics take the Pipers in 4 straight.

1969: Rick Barry and the Oakland Oaks put up a better fight, but the Celtics still win the series in 5. Bill Russell retires a "World Champion."

1970: Flush with their glorious win over the Los Angeles Lakers for their first NBA title, the New York Knickerbockers get surprised by the ABA Champion Indiana Pacers. Captain and center Willis Reed missing the first 2 games doesn't help. But when the series goes out to Indianapolis, the Knicks take over, and win the series in Game 7 at a raucous Madison Square Garden.

1971: This one also goes to 7 games, but the Milwaukee Bucks of Oscar Robertson and Lew Alcindor (it will be another year before he changes his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) beat the Utah Stars, coached by former Celtic star Bill Sharman (who then moves on to the Lakers) and led on the court by Willie Wise and Zelmo Beaty.

1972: The Lakers, having gone on a 33-game winning streak (still the longest ever in North American major league sports) and won an NBA-record 69 games (since broken), sweep the Pacers in 4 straight.

1973: The Knicks make it 6 straight wins by the NBA over the ABA, defeating the Pacers in 6 games.

1974: Finally, the ABA wins, as Julius "Doctor J" Erving, and rookie "Super" John Williamson lead the Long Island-based New York Nets to a stunning victory over John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and the Boston Celtics. Dr. J's 42-point performance in Game 7 at the Boston Garden stuns the sports world, and talks of a merger between the two leagues can finally be taken seriously.

1975: The Louisville-based Kentucky Colonels make it 2 straight, beating the Oakland-based Golden State Warriors in 5 games.

1976: The Nets make it 3 in a row, beating the Celtics again, this time in 6 games.

The merger happens. The Knicks demand a huge sum from the Nets for "territorial indemnification." It's either sell Dr. J off, or not be let into the NBA even though they've won 2 of the last 3 ABA and World Championships. A compromise is struck: The Nets' owners will receive Gulf + Western stock, thus making them part-owners of the Knicks, Rangers, and the Madison Square Garden Corporation; while the Nets' players are dispersed. Erving goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, and the teams that enter the NBA from the ABA are the Colonels, the Pacers, the Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs.

2002: The Lakers beat the Pacers in the NBA Finals for the 2nd time in 3 years.

2003: The Spurs beat the Colonels in the NBA Finals. The Pistons win it all the next year against the Lakers, but in 2005 will fall to the Spurs again.

Meanwhile, Bruce Ratner is looking to buy an NBA team, but he can't get one. The Seattle SuperSonics go to Clay Bennett, while Ratner's bid to buy the New Orleans Hornets is scuttled because their city is determined to keep them as a rallying point after Hurricane Katrina.

Ratner wants to build a new arena in Brooklyn, but can't get anyone to play there. He comes close in 2008, but the Kentucky Colonels get a deal to build the KFC Yum! Center (seriously, that's the building's RL name, as Louisville-based Yum! Brands is the owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Belland Pizza Hut), and move out of old Freedom Hall.

Ratner appeals to the NBA to grant him an expansion franchise, which he would give the old name of the New York Nets, but so far, no luck.


I will conclude this series with the WHA and the NHL at a later date.