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Dark legacies dot baseball history

Dark legacies dot baseball history

As the inconceivable upshot began to unfold early on Sunday afternoon in Queens with the instant departure of Mets starter Tom Glavine, the guy behind the mike, meeting his sponsor obligations, uttered the year's most oxymoronic words: "I'm lovin' it!"

Had he been in a broadcast booth in Citizens Bank Park, it would have been an understatement. There, the Phillies were about to burst into the trophy room through a seven-run hole in the door opened up by the Florida Marlins.

But the announcer was sitting in Shea Stadium, looking down on the final act of a play that was supposed to run for a few more weeks. The name of Florida's second baseman said it all for crestfallen Mets fans: It was an Uggla day.

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In baseball, records and hearts are made to be broken. So, apparently, are dark legacies. Because the Mets will now join a short list of teams who squandered their September leads. In the case of the Mets, it was a seven-game lead with 17 games to go.

The Mets became the third team to lose a seven-game September lead, but they sat on that cushion later than the two precedents: The 1938 Pirates led by seven on Sept. 1, with 26 games remaining, and the 1934 New York Giants held that edge on Sept. 6, with 21 games left. Willie Randolph's besieged club led the Phillies by seven on Sept. 12.

By losing 12 of those 17 games -- while the Phillies were winning 13 of 17 -- the Mets made their painful contribution to the Book of Pennants Lost. Obviously, the Mets weren't the only team to lose their way in a divisional race.

The young Milwaukee Brewers shot out of the gate like cork out of a shaken bottle of bubbly and held an 8 1/2-game lead on June 23, before being brought back to the pack by a tailspin the first two weeks of July; thereafter, they jostled with the eventual National League Central champion Cubs down to the wire.

Boston's Red Sox almost lost their double-digit lead, too, before straightening themselves out to capture their first American League East flag since 1995.

Of course, some recent freefalls have been cushioned by being able to fall back on the Wild Card. The 2006 Detroit Tigers held a 10 1/2-game lead over the Twins on Aug. 7 only to have them swipe the AL Central on the last day -- but still wound up in the World Series.

Amplifying that point while the AL East title was still being contested, Boston skipper Terry Francona had said, "First place means a lot, because that's what we set as our goal at the beginning of the season. But it doesn't mean much [when it comes to winning] a World Series."

As such, Francona's heart rate had to be a bit slower than Don Zimmer's in 1978, or Gene Mauch's in 1964, or Chuck Dressen's in 1951. But there was nothing to keep Randolph's regular. After 140 days in the lead, either they won or were done.

The post-mortems for the Mets will go on for a long time. Questions will be asked and blame will be assigned. You can call their collapse many things -- unthinkable, humbling, depressing -- but you can't call it a fluke. The Phillies took it from them, beating the Mets seven straight starting Aug. 27. After the teams' last meeting on Sept. 16, they played the same schedule down to the wire.

Here are 10 other memorable late-season finishes. Or lack thereof:

1. 1951, Brooklyn Dodgers to NY Giants
• Sitting pretty: On Aug. 11, after their 17th win in 20 games, the Dodgers were 70-35 and held a 13-game lead over the Giants.

• And then: The Giants won their next 16, including a three-game sweep of the Dodgers, after which they sat within five games of the lead. But they also had to win 12 of their last 13 to match the Dodgers, whom they then put away on Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" homer in the third playoff game.

• Key quote: "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention." -- Red Smith, writing with Thomson's shot ringing in his ears

2. 1978, Boston Red Sox to New York Yankees
• Sitting pretty: On July 19, the Red Sox held a lead of 14 games over fourth-place New York.

• And then: Calm, hands-off Bob Lemon replaced lit-fuse Billy Martin as Yankees manager, and the newspapers went on strike. The Bombers won 28 of their next 40, but the Red Sox never stopped winning, and New York still trailed by 6 1/2 games on the last day of August. Six consecutive wins over the Red Sox -- including the Sept. 7-10 Boston Massacre -- had the Yankees up by 3 1/2 in mid-month. Thereafter, both teams tore down the stretch, wound up tied -- and Bucky Dent became famous.

• "It happened in a hurry, I'll tell you that." -- Boston manager Don Zimmer

3. 1964, Philadelphia Phillies to St. Louis Cardinals
• Sitting pretty: On Sept. 21, the Phillies held a 6 1/2-game lead over both the Cardinals and Reds and were a lock. With 12 games to go, their magic number was seven, and the Phillies had never lost more than four straight.

• And then: Going for the quick kill, Phillies manager Gene Mauch decided to throw his one-two, left-right punch, Chris Short and Jim Bunning, on two days' rest. The Phillies lost 10 straight, with Short and Bunning each starting three of them and combining to allow 27 runs in 29 2/3 innings. The last three of those losses were to the Cardinals.

• Key quote: "And my father said, 'I don't like to sound pessimistic or anything, but I wouldn't really be sure of playing in the World Series until I know you have clinched the pennant.'" -- Phillies infielder Ruben Amaro, on a Sept. 21 call to invite his father to see him play in the Classic

4. 1995, California Angels to Seattle Mariners
• Sitting pretty: On Aug. 2, soaring on the left arms of Chuck Finley and Mark Langston and with a midseason boost from rookie Garret Anderson, the Angels held an 11-game division lead -- over Texas, with third-place Seattle 13 back.

• And then: California went into total remission, going 17-34 -- including two losing streaks of nine games -- to be overtaken by the Mariners, who took off right after veteran Felix Fermin replaced the ninth-place hitting rookie shortstop -- Alex Rodriguez. The Angels recovered to win their last five, only to earn the pain of being personally kayoed by the M's in a one-sided, one-game playoff.

• Key quote: "I still can't believe that the Angels lost and O.J. Simpson won." -- Anonymous fan on the events of Oct. 2, 1995, when the Angels lost the playoff in the Kingdome on the same day a Los Angeles jury returned its not-guilty verdict on Simpson.

5. 1942, Brooklyn Dodgers to St. Louis Cardinals
• Sitting pretty: On Aug. 5, the Dodgers had a 74-30 record and a 10-game NL lead over the Cardinals.

• And then: Not really a fold, but they did have that double-digit lead, then it was gone. The Dodgers played .600 ball (going 30-20) the rest of the way -- and it wasn't enough, as the Cardinals won 43 of their last 52 games to snag the flag. The Bums' 104 victories remain the most for a non-postseason club.

• Key quote: "I declare, I didn't think it was possible." -- Dodgers outfielder Dixie Walker

6. 1993, San Francisco Giants to Atlanta Braves
• Sitting pretty: On July 22, Barry Bonds' first Giants team held a 10-game lead over the defending NL East champion Braves.

• And then: History repeated. The Giants went 25-19 through Sept. 11 but fell out of the lead as Atlanta ripped off a 36-10 tear. The teams were tied on the season's last day, when Mike Piazza's two homers led a 12-1 Dodger Stadium burial of the Giants -- whose 103 wins are the second-most among bridesmaids.

• Key quote: "It was just tremendous excitement, beyond belief. A true pennant race." -- Rod Beck, the late closer for those Giants

7. 1969, Chicago Cubs to New York Mets
• Sitting pretty: On Aug. 16, with 43 games to go, the Cubs held nine-game leads over both the Cardinals and the Mets.

• And then: A black cat crossed in front of the Cubs' dugout, and 12 wins in their next 13 games got the Mets believing. The tide turned for good in early September, when a New York nine-game winning streak coincided with an eight-game losing streak that left the Cubs in a two-game hole.

• Key quote: "They never told me this stuff burns - but it's a happy burn." -- Mets closer Tug McGraw, wiping victory champagne from his eyes

8. 1914, New York Giants to Boston Braves
• Sitting pretty: On July 5, the Giants had a four-game NL lead over the Cubs -- but a 15-game bulge over the last-place Braves, a typical ditch for a team that had averaged 100 losses in the previous 10 seasons.

• And then: A miracle of near-biblical proportions. The Braves didn't even reach .500 until Game No. 90 on Aug. 1, but kept passing teams in the standings. Thirty-two games later, of them 24 wins, they were in first place by Sept. 8 and copped the flag going away. The Giants finished second by 10 1/2 games -- a 25 1/2-game swing.

• Key quote: "We didn't belong where we finished - except for one thing. We weren't great players, but we were a great team." -->i? Hank Gowdy, the Braves' catcher

9. 1979, Houston Astros to Cincinnati Reds
• Sitting pretty: On July 4 -- always a telltale date on the baseball calendar -- the Astros held a 10 1/2-game West Division lead over the Reds.

• And then: The teams matched strides for the balance of the season, except for a late August stretch when Cincinnati put together an eight-game winning streak and the Big Red Machine finally overtook the Astros.

• Key quote: "I never get any endorsements or commercials. I never understood why. I have an accent, but so does Ricardo Montalban." -- Cesar Cedeno, Astros center fielder

10. 1987, Toronto Blue Jays to Detroit Tigers
• Sitting pretty: On Sept. 26, following a third consecutive victory over the Tigers, the Blue Jays boasted a 3 1/2-game lead over them with seven games remaining.

• And then: Nothing. Literally. The Blue Jays never won another game, their winless week ending with a predictable three-game sweep in Detroit.

• Key quote: "If we keep winning, we don't have to worry." -- Jimy Williams, Toronto manager, following the 10-9 victory over Detroit on Sept. 26

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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