Upsets are part of what makes baseball interesting. They remind us that any team -- no matter where they're from and how small the payroll -- can beat any other team on any given day. All sports have upsets, but baseball history is filled with some of the most dramatic upsets of all.
Part of the reason for that is baseball is such a game of numbers and statistics. We have precise metrics (batting average, earned run average, slugging percentage, etc.) that describe exactly why the good teams are good and the bad teams are bad. Those statistics can help make us think that the outcome of a game is sometimes determined before it's even been played. Additionally, with 162 games, the regular season for Major League Baseball is so long, and analysts and oddsmakers have a rich data set with which to determine the favorites and underdogs.
Ranking upsets is just as much a measure of our own expectations as it is performance. As fans, sometimes we tend to look past the players on the field, seeing only the numbers -- batting averages, runs scored, number of wins, etc. But like every sport, you have to play and win the games in order to hoist the trophy. As a general rule, the higher the stakes, the more dramatic the upset, so it should come as no surprise that three of our top five upsets took place in the World Series, the annual best-of-seven contest to decide Major League Baseball's best team.
Do the 2004 Red Sox really deserve a seat at this table? Do we overvalue what they accomplished more because it's still recent history? Yes, and possibly yes. The 2004 Red Sox managed to do something that no other team had accomplished before or since: win a seven-game playoff series after losing the first three games. Part of what made the Red Sox's victory in the 2004 American League Champion Series is that they did it over the rival New York Yankees. Because they play in the country's biggest media market, and because the team has included so many legendary players and won so many titles over the years, the Yankees tend to be a perennial favorite, so it should come as no surprise that they were losers in some of baseball's most memorable upsets.
At the end of the 2004 regular season, Boston finished just three games behind the Yankees, and the two teams finished No. 1 and No. 2 in team payroll, so by most accounts they were very evenly matched entering the playoffs [source: ESPN]. After winning the first three games of the series -- two games at Yankee Stadium and one at Boston's Fenway Park -- it seemed inevitable that the Yankees would prevail. After all, the sports analysts continually reminded viewers, no team in history had ever managed to climb out from a three games-to-zero hole.
But then something funny happened. In fact, you can even pinpoint the moment when the momentum shifted. In the 9th inning of game 4, Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera walked Kevin Millar, which ultimately became the tying run (in the form of pinch runner Dave Roberts), extending the game into extra innings. In the bottom of the 12th inning, slugger David Ortiz hit a walk-off home run, winning the game for the Red Sox and keeping Boston's hopes alive. Going into that game, the odds were 58-to-1 against the Red Sox winning the series, yet they still managed to pull it off [source: Silver].
Although it fields the best baseball team in Europe, the Netherlands is not typically known as a baseball powerhouse. Like most of Europe, soccer (futbol) is the most popular sport in the Netherlands, and ice skating is also very popular -- but not baseball? Not so much. Most baseball fans would probably be hard-pressed to name a single Dutch ballplayer. That's why it came as such a surprise when the Dutch national team shocked the Dominican Republic in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
One game can easily be written off as a fluke, but the thing that makes Holland's victory over the Dominican Republic such a notable upset is that they pulled it off twice in a period of four days. With a roster composed entirely of Major Leaguers, the Dominicans were considered tournament favorites in 2009. After winning the first game of the best-of-three series 3-2, the Dominicans stormed back and took the second game handily, by a score of 9-0. After such a lopsided victory, it was widely assumed that the Dominican Republic would prevail in the third game, but the Dutch team had other ideas [source: Curry].
The third and final game of the series was a low scoring affair. After nine innings, the score was still tied at zero, but things finally got interesting in the 11th, when a fielding error by Dominican Republic first baseman Willy Aybar allowed a run to score, ending the game in dramatic fashion. Sure, the Dominicans can make the excuse that Alex Rodriguez -- one of the most talented and highest-paid athletes in the world -- was injured and unable to play, but the team was still stacked with Major League All Stars. The Dutch team, meanwhile, featured just two Major Leaguers [source: AP].
The 1969 Baltimore Orioles were a juggernaut, but they couldn't top the Miracle Mets. The Orioles roster boasted the best pitching rotation in the majors, and with sluggers like Boog Powell and Frank Robinson, its offense wasn't anything to sneeze at either. The team cruised through the regular season, winning 109 games, which was the most any team had ever won up to that point. The New York Mets, meanwhile, won an impressive 100 games in the '69 season, but they were still a young franchise (the Mets were formed in 1962). Most analysts didn't expect them to be able to match the statistical advantages enjoyed by the Orioles.
When the series began, it looked like the oddsmakers would be proven right. Baltimore pitcher Mike Cuellar smothered the Mets lineup, pitching a complete-game victory. But then the Mets' starting rotation took over the series, allowing the Orioles to score just two runs over the next three games. The Mets then won the series in dramatic fashion with a home run off of Don Clendenon's bat [source: MLB.com].
One of the biggest intangibles in any team sport is coaching, because it's difficult as spectators to know how much of an impact a coach might have on the outcome of a game. But that wasn't the case in game 5 of the 1969 World Series. In the 9th inning, Mets manager Gil Hodges managed to convince the umpires that a low pitch had hit batter Cleon Jones in the foot by retrieving the ball and showing the shoe polish on it. The very next batter, Clendenon, hit a two-run home run, winning the game and the series for the Mets [source: SI.com].
Perhaps more than any other playoff series in the modern era, the 1988 World Series is remembered with one iconic image: MVP Kirk Gibson hitting the winning home run and limping around the bases. Morrison had injured both of his legs during the National League Championship Series against the Mets, and he wasn't expected to play in the series. But in the bottom of the 9th inning, he told manager Tommy Lasorda that he was available to pinch hit, and a few minutes later he sent a 3-2 slider from Oakland A's closer Dennis Eckersley over the right field wall [source: Weinburg].
Gibson's walk-off home run set the tone for one of the most improbable upsets in baseball history. Going into the series, the A's were a heavy favorite. Oakland's lineup featured the so-called "Bash Brothers," Mark McGwire and José Canseco, who were two of the more feared homerun hitters in baseball, and the team's pitchers were the finest in the American League. In comparison, the Dodgers looked weak heading into the series. In fact, on the air, NBC broadcaster Bob Costas even went as far as to call the Dodgers' Game 4 lineup one of the weakest in World Series history -- and yet they still pulled off the win [source: Wulf].
Outmatched though they did seem, the Dodgers reveled in their underdog status -- Lasorda reportedly reminded his players of David and Goliath throughout the series. On the field, Gibson wasn't the only Dodger to step up; Cy Young-award-winning pitcher Orel Hershiser started two of the five games, pitching complete games in both and allowing a total of just seven hits and two runs.
No team has dominated American sports quite like the Yankees. Throughout the team's history, the Yankees have hoisted 27 World Series trophies -- far more than any other. 1960 marked the beginning of a golden era of Yankee baseball, as the team featured Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra, three of the best players in Major League Baseball history. By almost any measure, the Pittsburgh Pirates were an inferior team. Their pitching was inconsistent, and although the Pirates' lineup included batting title winners Dick Groat and Roberto Clemente in their prime, they couldn't quite match the Yankees' firepower.
The box score at the end of the series even seemed to suggest that the Yankees were the superior team -- New York scored more total runs and racked up more total hits than Pittsburgh, and they still managed to lose. Those numbers were skewed by the fact that the Yankees dominated the three games that they won, winning by a combined score of 38-3, while keeping the games they lost very close.
Apparently nobody told the Pirates that they didn't stand a chance against the formidable Yankees. Despite getting blown out in the second and third games of the series, the Pirates hung around, getting strong pitching from Harvey Haddix and Vern Law in the next two games. Game 7 of the 1960 World Series is generally considered one of the most memorable games in baseball history. The back-and-forth game went down to the wire, with each team taking the lead in the 8th and 9th innings. Then, in the bottom of the 9th, Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit the only Game 7 walk-off home run in World Series history -- one of the most unforgettable home runs ever [source: Schoenfield].
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Author's Note: 5 of Baseball's Most Dramatic Upsets
Although I grew up in a part of the country that doesn't have its own Major League Baseball team, I've always been a big baseball fan. I always tend to root for the underdog, so this topic was a fun one for me. Of the five upsets listed here, the Netherlands victory over the Dominican Republic strikes me as the most surprising, and it goes to show that any team, no matter who they are and how well known they are, can beat any other.
- Associated Press. "Netherlands stuns Dominican Republic again, advances with 11th-inning rally." March 10, 2010. (July 29, 2010) http://sports.espn.go.com/extra/baseball/wbbc/recap?gameId=290310118
- Curry, Jack. "Netherlands Sends Dominicans to an Improbable Exit in W.B.C." The New York Times. March 10, 2009. (July 29, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/11/sports/baseball/11sanjuan.html?_r=2
- ESPN.com. "2004 MLB Payrolls." April 8, 2004. (July 29, 2012) http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=1778397
- MLB.com. "Koosman, Miracle Mets complete upset over mighty Orioles." Oct. 16, 1969. (July 29, 2012) http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/baseballs_best/mlb_bb_gamepage.jsp?story_page=bb_69ws_gm5_balnym
- Schoenfield, David. "The greatest game ever played." ESPN.com. Oct. 13, 2010. (July 29, 2012) http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/playoffs/2010/columns/story?id=5676003
- Silver, Nate. "Baseball's Biggest Chokes." Sports Illustrated. Oct. 1, 2007. (July 29, 2012) http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/baseball/mlb/10/01/bp.collapses/index.html
- Sports Illustrated. "Greatest Upsets In Sports History: NY Mets beat Baltimore Orioles." (July 29, 2012) http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/0802/biggest.upsets/content.15.html
- Weinberg, Rick. "Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit HR wins World Series game." ESPN.com. (July 29, 2012) http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/espn25/story?page=moments/3
- Wulf, Steve. "Destiny's Boys: L.A. miraculously beat Oakland in the World Series." Sports Illustrated. Oct. 31, 1988. (July 29, 2012) http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/mlb/features/1998/wsarchive/1988.html