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Casey Stengel Haunts the World Cup - Freebo's Blog
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Voyages of a Flying Dutchman

Reflections on our times from my vantage point in Maine. The Flying Dutchman: A ghostly galleon doomed to sail the seven seas against the wind for eternity…

Casey Stengel Haunts the World Cup

The Old Perfesser would have known what the magnificent US Women's Soccer Team was feeling last night.  For it was Casey Stengel who wisely said that "there are some games you can't win, and some games you can't lose."  In this essay, RVT wonders if the soccer gods took charge and somehow affected the outcome.  It has happened before...and it will happen again.  Maybe that is one reason why we love sports.  Sometimes there are upsets that live on forever, for better or worse.  I hope you enjoy the reading and I look forward to your feedback.


Casey Stengel Haunts the World Cup

I vaguely recall “the Old Perfesser” grousing to the press after a particularly egregious loss by the hapless New York Mets whom he managed, “Some games you can’t lose...and some you can’t win.”  This struck me as classic fatalism by the field general who had reinvented the English language to serve his eccentric but brilliant mind.  Anyone who was a Yankee fan, and there were millions of them, or a Yankee hater like myself, recalls the incomparable Casey Stengel who commanded the likes of the Mick and Yogi and Whitey during that era, even before the Mets were born.  People listened because this old geezer had won five World Series in a row with the Bronx Bombers from ’49 to ’53, and then two more in ‘56 and ’58...three of the seven titles in exciting seventh games.  And his star-studded club also lost three seventh games along the way in the Fall Classic: in ’55 to the Bums, in ’57 to the Braves, and the most unforgettable of all, in ‘60 to the Pirates.  In his 12-year run with the richest franchise in baseball, the team now known to Red Sox fans as the Evil Empire was in the hunt in October for a colossal ten out of the twelve years the crusty old guy called the shots.

Google Casey Stengel and there are a slew of salty and ironically deep quotations, but only a few are painfully relevant to what transpired yesterday in Germany:  Here is one fragment of his wisdom:  “Most ballgames are lost, not won.”  That surely was true in the Women’s World Cup final, where the ostensibly superior US squad that had pummeled Japan in every single match over the years should have and could have been up by at least two or three to nil after the fearsome fusillade of attacks in the first thirty minutes of the game.  The intrepid US team missed every golden opportunity in every excruciating manner, as the cruel and unusual soccer gods erected a force field around the Japanese net.  I could picture Casey at the mic, saying, “There are some games you can’t win.”

Sometimes but actually very rarely in the world of sports there is an  impossible result. No matter how unbalanced the talent or execution, in some sports such as ice hockey or soccer or baseball and a very few others where blind luck can play a monstrous and often sadistic role in reversing the expected outcome, the fates do seem to take over and the legends are created.  For as anyone who has played or watched sports over the years will attest, most games are really not in doubt from the get-go.

This stunning and frustrating but in some ways extraordinary World Cup final was not won by a superior but noble Japanese team that outplayed the Americans.  It was their roll of the dice, made more dramatic by the horrors suffered by their country earlier this year.  This game was not lost by a random defensive rebound off a leg in the second half or by a lucky corner kick with three minutes remaining in overtime, or by the rare mistake under pressure by the gritty US superstar with seconds left in extra time from point-blank range, and the game was certainly not lost by  horrendous ineffectiveness in the ultimate shootout by the courageous American women who had performed so amazingly in the clutch in their rather amazing and fortuitous upset over Brazil in the quarters.

No, the game was lost in that first half hour of the contest when the USA squandered all sorts of opportunities to turn the game into the laugher and valedictory it should have been.  Does anyone who witnessed that utter domination take place doubt for a moment that in a seven game series, the US would prevail four games to none?  But we do tend to remember the alleged “miracles” when the hopeless underdog rises up to pull off the impossible, as if there were some strange but invisible controlling force playing chess with the petty games of mere mortals.  The win over Brazil was remarkable in the determination of the US team not to give up at the last second and in the genius of the soaring cross and awesome header for the tying goal, but it was not an upset for the ages because the American team was expected to win it all and had beaten their arch rivals before.  Indeed, history is studded with occasional times in those sports where luck factors in so hugely, when the inferior team catches a wave of improbability and rides it all the way to a title that is remembered forever.

In Casey Stengel’s last year at the helm of the Yanks, his team had blasted the Pirates off the field three times in the first six games, while losing three close ones.  In baseball, a game of inches fair or foul, of frozen ropes caught and sickly bloopers falling in for doubles, of subjective and inconsistent calls of balls and strikes, the fates have a field day.  But it takes real skill to get to the final game.  So Game Seven lives on forever, with second baseman Bill Mazeroski’s three run walk-off dinger in the bottom of the ninth enshrined at Cooperstown and etched into the memory banks of every fan who was alive at the time or in younger fans who have only seen it sail out of Forbes Field in a hundred retrospectives over the years on ESPN and YouTube.  The denizens of the dungeons rose up that day to defeat the dynasty.  It is a day all Yankee haters treasure.  Because it was a seventh game, the Pirates’ victory was not tainted in any way.

But later on came an even more unlikely outcome on the ballfields of America.  The comeback by the Sox over the Yanks in the ALCS in 2004 was one for the ages.  And I loved it.  The Yanks had brutalized the Sox in the first three games and the curse of the Bambino seemed alive and well, but a long sequence of utter improbabilities had to occur for the home team to win Game Four against the greatest reliever in the history of the game, including a steal of second where the runner is safe by a nanosecond, a seeing-eye base hit followed, and then ensued a string of delightful interventions by the baseball gods that swept the Sox into their first World Series championship in eight agonizing decades. But these baseball tales and others do not qualify for the true upsets like the one Japan was gifted yesterday, for those teams were given the luxury of best-of-seven series to prove their mettle.  It is in a single game for all the marbles where the insane laws of improbability can really run amok.

Does anyone who screamed out “USA, USA” repeatedly after the so-called “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid in 1980 truly believe that the rag-tag bunch of collegiate players would have beaten the peerless Russian National Team in a seven-game series?  No, it was one winner-take-all semi-final on their home country’s ice.  If those rabid hyperpatriotic fans were honest, of course not.  As the world learned in 1936 in Berlin, the angry politics of nationalism and sports make an ugly mix.  It’s still a great story because we all like to see the underdog gain a victory in this world that is too often totally dominated by the rich, the powerful the well-connected, the cities and countries blessed with the overwhelming resources, those with massive inherited fortunes, the ruthless, etc.  We identify with the humble Davids against the mighty Goliaths of the world.  Once in a long time the little guy can use effort or luck or unusual skill or surprise and wrest a trophy from the pre-ordained winner.  Once in a long while the hockey team with the best goalie in the world will lose a single game in the Olympics to a bunch of kids who seemingly have the tide of history on their side.

The gurus in Major League Baseball and the NHL and the NBA try to minimize the role of luck or random bounces in the outcome of their championships by having best of seven formats that tend to make upsets far less likely.  The grand slams in tennis, even though the tournaments are single elimination in all seven rounds, accomplish the same goal by having the men play best of five sets instead of merely three.  There are four grueling rounds, not just one lucky one, required to win a major title in golf.  No inferior player could ever beat Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros simply because of one lucky bounce.  No one could top a Nicklaus or a Woods with a single bounce of an errant pitching wedge off a tree limb into the cup.  But in March Madness and in collegiate and pro football, there are times when a beaten and undeserving team can indeed emerge with the “W”.

Examples abound, but a prominent ones was the so-called “immaculate reception” by Franco Harris of the Steelers over the Raiders in the divisional playoff in 1972 that enabled his team to go on to the first of its four Super Bowls in a decade.  That strange ricochet and shoe-top reception turned the outcome for sure.  And the victory of the Giants in the 2007 Super Bowl over the undefeated Patriots is another even better instance of the cussed law of the unpredictable, for the play that decided the contest against all odds at 17-14, for all practical purposes, required so many improbabilities for the upset to take place that it still gives nightmares to New England fans.  A one in a hundred escape by the Giants QB was followed by a one in a thousand fingertip reception wedged against a helmet downfield.  Casey Stengel was there in spirit for sure:  “There are some games you can’t win.”  Fate was in the saddle and it rode roughshod over logic in that moment of absolute absurdity.

But for obvious reasons, there is no way the great college bowls or the NFL playoffs can adopt a best of seven or five or even three game format.  That would constitute unfair punishment in a sport known for its brutal attrition.  However,  as long as top-flight soccer insists on the single-elimination format, there will be many more freakish, heart-rending, outrageous games in the future where the team that dominates the action and peppers the goal relentlessly will be turned away by the legacy of the Old Perfesser.  There will be even more  bizarre deflections and caroms off posts and backs of heads to turn victory into defeat for the superior team.  And half of the fans will love it.

In this case, of course, the people of Japan in their year of unimaginable grief at the loss of so many of their fellow citizens in the earthquake/tsunami disaster, have their own impossible dream to celebrate...a brief time on the world stage when the fickle soccer gods were incredibly kind and the contest did not end up as a one-sided shutout.  So shed no tears for the brave American girls who played so well for so long but were turned away by the wildest of unlikely scenarios.  The gifts of good fortune they reaped against Brazil were yanked away without conscience when they faced the opportunistic  side from Japan.  The US squad has no one to blame but themselves for failing to take control of their many chances in the first half, but instead they allowed a crack in the door and destiny galloped in, carried with superhuman determination by the Japanese athletes, with three minutes to go.  And soon Team USA faltered and some would say even choked in the penalty kicks, but by then it was too late to turn back the clock to the beckoning opportunities they wasted early on.

For the Japanese on that Sunday evening in Germany, “there are some games you can’t lose.”  Mr. Stengel would have understood that unforgettable result perfectly.


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