The greatest pennant-chase comebacks in baseball history: here are 14 teams that trailed by 10 or more games near the season's midpoint and went on to win division or league titles
Baseball Digest, Oct, 2005 by George Vass
CALL, THEM THE LUCKY 14, TEAMS that by the end of June fell 10 to 15 games behind a front-runner, yet overcame formidable odds to snatch a division title or league pennant away from a rival seemingly assured of finishing on top.
If one stretches a point, and accepts what many purists consider a debasement of the game, the "wild card" berth, a case might be made for increasing the total to 15 or more teams that have shaken off early and mid-campaign staggers to enter postseason competition with a blistering stretch run.
It's always a possibility, the wild card arrangement having vastly increased the number of teams that might make the most of a closing desperate dash to salvage an otherwise disappointing season. It could happen this time around, with four, five or six also-rans in each major league clutching at the last straw in the closing weeks.
Last year, for instance, the Houston Astros spent two-thirds of the season scuffling around and below .500. Their record on August 14, 2004, was an unsightly 56-60, and they were in third place 19 and one-half games behind the National League Central leading St. Louis Cardinals, as well as seemingly out of even wild card contention.
It's on record now that the Astros, revived by new manager Phil Garner, outfielder Carlos Beltran and pitchers Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, went 36-10 in their final 46 games of 2004 to gain the N.L. wild card berth.
All the same, the Astros still wound up 13 games behind the division champion Cardinals, who ended up 105-57. As commendable as the Astros' drive was, their failure to finish first tends to downgrade the merit of their achievement in some quarters. After all, some might say, the goal is to be on top, not achieve something that resembles the game of Monopoly's second prize in a beauty contest.
Admittedly, many former skeptics have warmed up to the wild card, especially if they've benefited from it. Among the "converts" have been pitcher Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox, who wouldn't have had the opportunity to win the 2004 World Series without it as they finished second in the American League East. Yet, Schilling admitted he didn't like the innovation when it was introduced in 1995.
"Not until there was one," he said. "I think it's done a lot for the game, though. Once you started to see situations like this, where you have six, seven, eight, nine teams (in contention for a wild card berth) with two weeks to go, you never had that before, and I think that's good for the game."
Schilling echoed the sentiment of many others, former doubters or not, yet while the wild card may be good for the game in an awkward fashion, it doesn't alter the fact that the chief aim of every team should be to finish first. The wild card generally becomes the goal only when it appears painfully evident that first place is out of reach.
Nevertheless, the wild card is here to stay, so it's a waste of words to condemn it as a radical departure from the notion that only first-place teams deserve to contend for World Series championships. (As it happens, the latest three Series titles have gone to teams that were outplayed during the 162-game regular season schedule but sneaked into the post-season as wild card entries.)
Sour grapes from a purist? Maybe. But when it comes to the game's greatest come-from-behind charges, tradition rules. Only first place counts, and that's what The Lucky 14 aimed for and achieved after it seemed an impossible goal with the front-running team sometimes almost out of sight, in one instance 15 games ahead.
Here's a rundown on The Lucky 14, the list of teams that trailed by 10 or more games going into the month of July since 1900, but captured a league pennant or division title:
* 1914 Boston Braves were 15 games out on July 6 with a 26-40 won-lost record. They went 68-19 in the final 87 games of the season to win the N.L. pennant by 10 games over the New York Giants.
* 1930 St. Louis Cardinals endured a 12-game shortfall on August 9 with a 53-52 record only to win 39 of their final 49 games to win the N.L. pennant by two games over the Cubs.
* 1935 Chicago Cubs were buried 10 and a half games behind the Giants on July 5 with a 38-32 record, but won 62 of their final 84 games, including a 21-game winning streak from September 4 through September 27, to win the N.L. pennant by four games over St. Louis and eight and a half ahead of the Giants.
* 1936 New York Giants were grounded in fifth-place in the N.L. with a 42-41 won-lost record, 10 and a half games behind the Cubs. In their final 71 games, New York went 50-21 to capture the NL. pennant by five games over the Cubs who went 36-38 in their remaining 74 contests.
* 1942 St. Louis Cardinals were burdened with a 10-game deficit on August 5 with a 62-39 mark, but won 44 of their last 53 games to overtake the Dodgers by two games to win the N.L. pennant.
* 1951 New York Giants lagged behind the Dodgers by 13 games on August 12 with a 59-51 record In the remaining 45 games of the season, the Giants went 37-8 while Brooklyn went 27-24 during that span and lost the pennant on Bobby Thomson's home run.
* 1964 St. Louis Cardinals loitered 11 games out on August 24 with a 65-58 record, but the breakdown of the Phillies who went 16-23 in the final 39 games while the Cardinals went 28-11 helped St. Louis capture the N.L pennant.
* 1969 New York Mets were lagging by 10 games behind the Chicago Cubs on August 14 with a 62-51 won-lost mark before they closed out the season with a 38-11 run as the Cubs spun into a 18-27 nosedive. The Mets captured the N.L. East division by eight games.
* 1973 New York Mets were 11 and a half games in arrears of the Cardinals in the N.L. East division on August 5 with a 48-60 won-lost mark. The Mets finished the year with a 34-19 record in the final 53 games while the Cardinals suffered to a 20-31 mark during the same span.
* 1973 Cincinnati Reds grimaced at a 11-game handicap, trailing the Dodgers, on July 1 with a 39-37 record only to go 60-26 the rest of the year while Los Angeles struggled with a 44-39 mark during the same stretch and lost the N.L. West division to the Reds by three and a half games.
* 1978 New York Yankees trailed by 14 games in the A.L. East division on July 20 with a 48-42 record. The Yankees won 52 of their remaining 73 contests including a one-game playoff over the Red Sox to win the AL. East with a 100-63 mark.
* 1989 Toronto Blue Jays were struggling in sixth-place in a seven-team A.L. East division with a 38-45 won-lost record before going 51-28 in the final 12 weeks of the season to win the division crown by two games over the Orioles.
* 1993 Atlanta Braves suffered a 10-game deficit on July 23 with a 55-42 record before going 49-16 in the final 65 games to win the N.L. West division over the Giants by one game.
* 1995 Seatlle Mariners sagged 13 games behind the California Angels on August 3 with a 44-46 record before going 35-20 to win the A.L. West title, while the Angels struggled with a 22-33 mark during the final 55 games of the season.
The passage of time has clouded the fame as well as the details of some of these improbable and relatively rare charges to the top by teams whose cause seemed to have turned hopeless.
Certainly not even extremely knowledgeable fans are likely to cite the Cardinals' 1930 surge after a poor start as being among the memorable recoveries. Nor are there many other than their most fervent followers who would refer to the Reds' revival of 1973 or the Blue Jays' thrust of 1989 as being on a par with the more celebrated examples of thrilling second half comebacks in the game's long history.
Even the most recent such feat, that of the Mariners just 10 seasons ago when they came from being 13 games behind on August 3. 1995, to capture the American League West title, hardly put a dent in the public consciousness, let alone became the stuff of legends. That's probably because only a division title was involved, and the Mariners failed to go on and win the A.L. pennant.
On the other hand, there's no denying that the achievements of at least five of The Lucky 14 teams have achieved virtually mythical status, and have become enshrined among the highlights of baseball's history.
We can always hope right?