I suspect I’m not the only baseball fan feeling a little bleary-eyed today, in the aftermath of the Chicago Cubs’ 8-7 win over the Cleveland Indians last night in an amazing Game 7 of the World Series. And I suspect I’m not the only one wondering if I just the witnessed the greatest baseball game ever played.
My first recollection of a World Series game is 1975 and by 1978 I’ve pretty much watched them all or at least been very attuned to what was going on. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to restrict the discussion to games played in my lifetime. And since the era of free agency in baseball dawned at this same time (1976) you can make a very good case that a unique period of MLB essentially began here as well.
As another means of narrowing the scope of discussion, I’m restricting the list to only World Series Game 7s. There have absolutely been epic Game 6s and there have been fantastic deciding games in the League Championship Series. But for reasons that I trust are obvious, the context of Game 7 in the World Series gives these games a uniquely high bar that’s very difficult to match. And the seven games below are tough to top. Here they are in chronological order…
1975: All the historical hype given to Game 6 of the Reds-Red Sox battle (when Carlton Fisk homered off the foul pole) obscures the fact that Game 7 was pretty amazing. Boston jumped out to a 3-zip lead. Red Sox starter Bill Lee tried to sneak an “eephus” pitch (a ball just lobbed over the hitters’ head at a softball-esque arc)past Tony Perez, who deposited it over the Green Monster. The game was tied 3-3 in the ninth and Joe Morgan delivered a two-out bloop single to win it.
The Red Sox’ pre-2004 journey has been well-documented. Less noted is that the Big Red Machine had lost the World Series in 1970 and 1972, and lost the NLCS in 1973 in a big upset. They won 108 games in ‘75 and the choke label would have only intensified had they not prevailed.
1986: Another Red Sox matchup with a powerful 108-win team, in this case the Mets and another case where an epic Game 6 (the Buckner ground ball) overshadows the next game. It’s even another case of Boston grabbing the early 3-zip lead. Bruce Hurst cruised into the middle innings and was poised to win his third game of the Series. The Mets got to him and took a 6-3 lead. The Red Sox rallied to 6-5 and put the tying run in scoring position in the eighth. New York held them off and got some insurance on a Darryl Strawberry blast.
1991: The Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins were already great stories, having gone worst-to-first in a single season. They had already played a great Fall Classic, including another one with a magnificent Game 6 (Kirby Puckett makes both a great catch against the Metrodome Plexiglass and then homers in extra innings to win). A great pitchers’ duel between Jack Morris for the Twins and the Braves’ John Smoltz ensues. A baserunning blunder costs Atlanta a run in the eighth and it goes scoreless to the 10th. Morris pitches all ten innings and wins 1-0.
1997: The Indians were poised to do the Marlins what the Cubs did this season, and that’s go on the road to win the last two games of a Series. The Tribe were three outs away when they coughed up the tying run and then lost in the 11th on a base hit by Edgar Renteria. The downside of this game in comparison to others on the list is the weakness of the context—the Series itself had been fairly pedestrian leading up to it and while Cleveland’s pursuit of a title was a compelling story, it was less for the expansion Marlins.
2001: The Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees. More accurately, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson beat the Yankees. The two aces dominated. Schilling only gave up two runs, but still trailed 2-1 in the ninth. Johnson, the winner of Games 2 & 6, came out in relief in the eighth. Arizona wins it with a soft rally in the ninth, punctuated by a Luis Gonzales bloop hit that would have been a popout to short had Derek Jeter not had to play in with the winning run on third.
This game dramatically enhanced the reputations of Schilling and Johnson. For Schilling, it would be even more so when he went to Boston and helped the Red Sox over the hump. For the Yankees…the loss merely cost them their fourth straight World Series title. This was a game so good that it’s been chronicled in a great book by ESPN’s Buster Olney, The Last Night Of The Yankee Dynasty.
2014: San Francisco held off Kansas City 3-2 through the sheer will of Madison Bumgarner. Having already dominated Games 1 & 5, Bumgarner threw five shutout innings of relief in this one. Joe Panik turned an amazing double play to quelch a KC rally and ensure San Francisco had the lead when Bumgarner entered. Alex Gordon’s two-out ninth-inning rocket to the wall was misplayed into a triple and almost turned into a stunning inside-the-park home run. Bumgarner’s performance remains one of the great championship displays in any sport.
2016: And thus we come to this year. The two biggest championship droughts in sports on the line. Two sports-crazed cities. Two men—Theo Epstein and Terry Francona, vying to become the official “Drought-Quencher King”, given their roles with the 2004 Red Sox. Some curious handling of the pitching by one of the best managers in the game. A stunning home run by Rajai Davis and a 17-minute rain delay with the game tied after nine innings. Not much missing in this one.
Those are the seven candidates for best baseball game of the modern era. I try not to be prisoner of the moment in these things and as such, I’m looking for a reason not to choose last night’s game as the best. Especially since I already declared Cavs-Warriors Game 7 to the best NBA game of our lifetime. I fear becoming one of these writers who sees a Game of the Century every weekend.
But another part of being prisoner of the moment is undervaluing what we’re watching now and overly romanticizing what happened before. Given the prominence the city of Cleveland has suddenly taken in our sports and the opponents they drew in the NBA and MLB—a record-setting basketball team and the only baseball team with a longer drought, is it unthinkable that we’re just in the midst of a historic year? In world where good and bad often come hand-in-hand, is it a shock that we’d get great sports moments as a diversion from this particular political season?
So I’m confident in saying that Cubs-Indians was the best baseball game of my lifetime, a period which covers more time than I’d like to think. Here’s how I’d rank the rest of the seven….
#2: Reds-Red Sox 1975
#3: Braves-Twins 1991
#4: Diamondbacks-Yankees 2001
#5: Giants-Royals 2014
#6: Mets-Red Sox 1986
#7: Indians-Marlins 1997