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The best team doesn't always win

By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / October 25, 2007

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Don't be shocked

. . . if the Red Sox lose.

I'm officially picking them in five, but I wouldn't bet my house, car, autographed Oscar Schmidt picture, or collection of 1950s Sporting Newses on them in actual life. In truth, I am a pessimist, which I define as an optimist with experience.

I also like to think I'm something of a baseball historian, and anyone familiar with baseball history knows very well there have been far bigger World Series upsets than it would be if the Colorado Rockies upend the Boston Red Sox.

We need go no further for an Exhibit A than last year. I was there. I know what happened. I believe the Tigers were the better team, and I would pick them again and again and again to beat the Cardinals. They'd have to lose about 43 straight games before I'd start thinking that maybe, just maybe, the Cardinals were their equal. And the Cardinals would have to beat them another 43 straight games before I'd concede they were actually better.

The Tigers didn't play, or, more specifically, they didn't hit. I'm sure Jim Leyland will go to his grave wondering why they didn't swing the bats the way they were capable of in the 2006 World Series, and if he doesn't know, why should I? Was it the six-day layoff? Who knows? Not me. I just believe the better team didn't win, but one of the sober lessons in all of sport is that the better team doesn't always win.

I can cite seven examples in my lifetime of the demonstrably better regular-season team not winning the World Series.

1. 1954 Giants over Indians The Cleveland Indians had the single best season any American League team had under the 154-game schedule. They were 111-43 with one of the greatest pitching staffs ever assembled. Bob Lemon and Early Wynn each won 23. Mike Garcia won 19. Art Houtteman won 15. A 35-year-old spot-starting Bob Feller won 13. Rookie sensations Ray Narleski and Don Mossi came up to be twin bullpen aces.

Bobby Avila won the batting title at .341. Larry Doby took the other two-thirds of the Triple Crown with 32 homers and 126 runs batted in. Al Rosen was still a great player.

The Indians were a lock.

Aside from MVP Willie Mays, the Giants were OK, but nothing special. But they won Game 1 in the Polo Grounds when Mays made the historic catch off Vic Wertz in the eighth and pinch hitter supreme James Lamar "Dusty" Rhodes hit a 257 1/2-foot homer down the 257-foot right-field foul line to win the opener. The Indians never recovered. Three days later (for whatever reason, there was no travel day), it was over. The Giants had swept.

The great Cleveland season had been ruined in four days.

2. 1963 Dodgers over Yankees OK, it wasn't so much the idea that the Dodgers beat the Yankees as much as it was that they swept them. We weren't prepared for that.

This was the beginning of Yankee vulnerability, but we didn't know it. The Yankees had actually lost the World Series in 1955, 1957, and 1960, but when they won it in 1961 and 1962, the aura of Yankee invincibility was restored. Then Sandy beat them by striking out a then-record 15 in Game 1 and the Dodgers were in control, winning the next three games by scores of 4-1, 1-0, and 2-1 (Koufax beating Whitey Ford for the second time).

When the Cardinals beat the Yankees in 1964, we weren't quite so surprised.

3. 1966 Orioles over Dodgers Same deal. A stunning sweep in which the Orioles humbled the punchless Dodgers by scores of 5-2, 6-0, 1-0, and 1-0. Everyone knew the Dodgers couldn't hit, but this was beyond shocking.

4. 1969 Mets over Orioles This is one the Rockies can perhaps hang their hats on. The Mets had charm and karma and all that, but they were not supposed to beat Earl Weaver's Orioles, who had won 109 games and had blown away the Twins in the first American League Championship Series. Seaver and Koosman, yes, but Tommie Agee making Game 3 a personal showcase with a home run and two catches saving a potential five runs? Al Weis? None of it made any sense.

5. 1971 Pirates over Orioles Another (yawn) great 101-win Oriole team unable to close the deal, this one victimized by the great Roberto Clemente and the star-crossed Steve Blass, who won two games and eventually wouldn't be able to throw a strike.

6. 1988 Dodgers over A's How many times have we seen the Gibson home run? 75 kazillion? But the real story was Orel Hershiser, who had a year for the ages, and dominated a postseason from the mound as much as anyone ever has, starting and relieving as needed. The Dodgers beat two better teams, first the Mets and then the A's. They put out some of the most impotent lineups, in context, ever seen in October baseball, and it didn't seem to matter.

Nothing has made less baseball sense in the past, oh, 100 years.

7. 1990 Reds over A's Winning would have been shocking enough, but - here we go again - sweeping? Nah. Could never happen. The A's had rebounded from the '88 reversal to sweep the Giants in the '89 Earthquake Series and were a 103-win colossus as they entered the Series against a 91-win Cincinnati squad.

I'm sure people all over America knew that journeyman Billy Hatcher (last Red Sox player to make a straight steal of home) would get seven straight hits. Right. The A's couldn't handle Jose Rijo, winner of Games 1 and 4, and they were helpless against Lou Piniella's vaunted Nasty Boys in the bullpen.

And that's just, as I say, in my lifetime. The granddaddy of all Series shockahs may have been the 1906 White Sox conquest of the Cubs, who won a record 116 games during the regular season. And how about the upset that happened right here eight years later, when the "Miracle Braves" swept Connie Mack's haughty A's? I'm sure that had there been a Vegas as we know it, the odds on that one would have been a lot more than 2-1.

The way I see it, the Rockies can hit, the Rockies can field, and the Rockies can pitch. As Coach Bill would say, they're strong in all three phases of the game. It's just that the Red Sox are better.

I think.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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