Apparently it’s not enough that the virus has us all feeling a bit down these days, so the sports networks decided to pile on this past week by rebroadcasting the 2006 Rose Bowl between USC and Texas and game 7 of the 1992 National League championship series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves. As a USC Trojans and Pittsburgh Pirates fanatic all I can say is:

As a fanatic you ride the rollercoaster with your team throughout the years. You exult the highs and lament the lows. Some moments, however, reach higher than high and sink lower than low. The two games mentioned above were easily the worst moments of this fanatics sports life.

The Louisville Cardinals hoops team suffered some tough losses over the years. US Reed hit a half court shot in 1981 to send the Cards packing and make me realize my team wouldn’t always win the big game. Two years later they lost the “Dream Game” to Houston in the NCAA semifinals. More recently, Mangok Mathiang missed a free throw that would have sent Louisville back to the Final Four in 2015. Instead they lost in overtime to Michigan State.

The Steelers and Penguins have both had some hard losses as well. The Steelers have a Super Bowl loss, a couple of tough playoff losses in Denver, and the Jesse James catch/no catch game in 2017 that ruined that entire season. The Penguins have reached the Stanley Cup finals only to fall short, and a stunning home game seven overtime loss in 1993 to the undermanned New York Islanders prevented a third straight trip to the finals.

All of those losses were tough, but they didn’t reach the level of the two I’m going to talk about. These two were foul, nasty, come from ahead losses that will always be stuck in your memory bank.

Fourth and two

The first gut punch I’ll discuss is the 2006 Rose Bowl. Texas 41 USC 38.

In my lifetime, this was arguably the greatest stretch of USC football. I remember the end of the John McKay/beginning of the John Robinson era, but was a bit young to appreciate it. After sloshing through Ted Tollner, Larry Smith, John Robinson part II, and (gulp) Paul Hackett, Pete Carroll created an atmosphere of fun and winning.

The 2005 team would roll into the 2006 Rose Bowl with back to back national titles and a 34 game win streak. They were 48-3 over a four year stretch, and in the seven year period from 2002 to 2008 they were a combined 82-9. After typing those numbers, I’m not sure the word arguably should be included in my previous paragraph.

Carroll had a way about him. He was positive and vibrant; competitive and demanding. He created a winning culture at USC. He also liked his players to have fun experiences. This rankled the hypocrites that run the NCAA. Carroll invited the likes of Will Ferrell(USC grad) and Snoop Dogg to practice and games. He even had Bill Withers, who recently passed away, in to the meeting room.

The players loved these moments, yet stayed focused. Oh, and check out Carroll grooving in the background. He was smart, fun, and always seemed to make the correct decision.

The Trojans sported the previous two Heisman Trophy winners in Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. Bush is the best college football player I’ve ever watched. I know that is arguable, but I’ll stand by my claim. As for Leinart, he was just a winner. Cool, calm, collected, and never afraid to make any throw. One of the great mysteries in football for me is how he did not become a successful NFL quarterback. With these two, plus an assortment of high end receiving talent, the offense was high octane all the time.

The season had already provided the greatest game of my time as a USC fan. The “Bush Push”, as it has been dubbed, gave the Trojans a stunning last second victory over hated rival Notre Dame. The fourth and nine pass on the game winning drive from Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett will forever be my favorite play in USC football history. As a fan of a team that had 34 straight victories and that stunning escape in South Bend, I was confident yet guarded. Guarded because the USC defense had been porous most of the season, and Texas had Vince Young. Young thrived on porous defenses.

The thing, aside from the events of the game, that I remember most is my son was almost five months old. I was a full time single dad from day one, and on this night I could not get him to sleep. He cried and cried. Finally I called my parents to come and help out. I’m sure me yelling at my TV was not helping the situation. After getting some time with Grandma and Grampy, my son nodded off to sleep. My parents stayed until the end before quietly excusing themselves sickened by my childish display.

USC survived a Vince Young knee down not called, a fumble recovery overturned to an incomplete pass, and a bizarre Reggie Bush lateral that turned a first down inside the Longhorns 30 to a turnover. After all of that nonsense, USC had a 12 point lead midway through the fourth quarter and things looked good. Even after Texas scored(far too easily for the record) I was relatively confident that USC would run out the clock.

USC made one first down, then faced a fourth down and two play. Pete Carroll would never punt. With two Heisman winners in the backfield and a future Hall of Fame coach on the sidelines they would surely convert. Bush found himself mysteriously on the sideline. Leinart, who made a career of clutch throws, was ordered to turn and hand the ball off. Carroll, a go for broke coach, called an off tackle run that Texas was waiting on.

After the Longhorns made the stop, Vince Young started scampering and didn’t stop until it was orange and white confetti pouring over Pasadena instead of cardinal and gold.

Putting aside the NCAA’s frontier justice that unfairly punished USC a few years later, I often think about how winning that game would have cemented that era of USC football as the best ever in college football. It may still be, but a couple bad calls, a bizarre lateral from a Heisman winner, and a botched fourth and two prevent the certainty of that statement.

As a Trojan fanatic, that game was one serious gut punch that was hard to get over.

I hate you, Sid Bream

October 14 is my birthday. Now, the older I get the less I like seeing that date come around. But back in 1992, turning 26 wasn’t so bad. It was actually turning out to be a pretty happy birthday.

Well, that was before the ninth inning of game seven of the National League championship series between my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates and the *&$#*@#$*+€^@ Atlanta Braves. This gut punch would land a little lower. Atlanta 3 Pittsburgh 2.

1979 was a glorious capper to a great decade for the Pirates. I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch all of game seven of the Pirates “We Are Family” World Series championship clincher over Baltimore that year.

The 80’s were pretty bleak in Pittsburgh until Jim Leyland was hired as manager. By the end of the decade the Pirates were showing signs of life with a roster that was very competitive. The Bucs won the National League East in 1990 and 1991, but they failed in the league championship series each year. In 1990 the Bucs lost to the Cincinnati Reds, and in 1991 they blew a 3 games to 2 lead to the Atlanta Braves. They blew a fantastic pitching performance in game 6 from Doug Drabek, losing 1-0 with the run coming in the top of the ninth inning. 1992 would provide a miserable piece of deja vu.

Everybody knew 1992 was going to be this particular Pirates roster’s last stand. Free agency would pry away most of the talent and leave the Pirates wallowing. Of course not even the most ardent pessimist could have imagined 20 straight seasons of wallowing. Looking back, that makes game seven of the 1992 championship series all the more brutal.

The Bonds, Bonilla, and Van Slyke star studded trio was down to Bonds and Van Slyke. Doug Drabek was still an ace on the mound, and Jim Leyland remained one of the best managers in the game. Surely this would be their year after two close calls the previous years.

The National League championship series started poorly for Pittsburgh, as they found themselves down 3-1 to the tomahawk chopping Atlanta Braves. Leaping off the deck, the Bucs steamrolled the Braves in the next two games evening the series at 3-3. It was on to game seven in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.

Up 2-0 with Doug Drabek throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Braves, the Pirates were in pretty good shape heading to the ninth inning. Literally everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Pirates in that fateful ninth inning.

Earlier in the game John McSherry, the original home plate umpire fell ill. He left the game, placing Randy Marsh and his hideously tight strike zone behind the plate. Jose Lind botched a routine ground ball for only his seventh error of the season. That placed men on first and third and nobody out. Former Pirate Sid Bream walked on four pitches, and a totally gassed Drabek had to be removed. Stan Belinda came in with the bases loaded and got the first out on a deep Ron Gant sacrifice fly. The lead was one, but the Bucs got an important out.

Then Marsh factored in. Belinda threw not one, not two, but three straight pitches in the strike zone to Damon Berryhill. Marsh called them all balls and Berryhill walked, loading the bases once again. Marsh would forever be considered the all time worst umpire by every Pirates fan I know. Belinda regrouped and induced an infield pop out to bring the Pirates within an out of the World Series.

Standing in the way was some guy named Francisco Cabrera. Cabrera promptly pounded a ball in to left field. Sid Bream, running from second base with a proverbial piano on his back, beat a weak throw from Barry Bonds and scored the winning run. The Braves celebrated at home plate, while the Pirates were stunned. This was Andy Van Slyke’s reaction in centerfield minutes after the game was over.

photo courtesy 90feettoperfection.com

My reaction watching the game from my parents’ basement was the same as Van Slyke. My dad had gone to bed with a case of bad nerves. My mom came racing down when she heard me yelling. I honestly couldn’t speak. I have never been that stunned by a sporting event. Cabrera, Bream, et al. ripped out my sporting soul and stomped on it with their sharp, metal cleats.

It is worse looking back now. Twenty losing seasons followed, then a few failed wildcard teams, and back to losing seasons in three of the last four. That makes game seven in 1992 even more painful. The Pirates haven’t been to a World Series in 41 years, and they were that close.

1992 was one out away, but unfortunately circumstances allowed the Braves five outs in the ninth inning instead of three. For this reason nobody is permitted to speak the names José Lind, Randy Marsh, or Francisco Cabrera in my presence. I’m not super fond of Stan Belinda either. Sid Bream was a favorite of mine when he was playing for the Pirates.

All I wanted for my birthday in 1992 was a 27th out in game 7. What I got was a Sid Bream slide that led to decades of misery. God, I hate Sid Bream.

Two Cent Takes

NFL

~New Orleans is set to host the 2024 Super Bowl. With the new 17 game schedule in play that pushes the big game in to Mardi Gras time. Nothing messes with the Mardi Gras. Add that to the list of reasons to hate the new schedule.

~Nick Foles vs Mitch Trubisky in Chicago. Foles won’t have to find too much of that old magic to win that one.

~Since there isn’t anything to bet on, how about this one. Will Antonio Brown end up in jail or back in the NFL first?

~The draft is happening, and it will be fine. Well, other than missing Roger Goodell bro hugging the draftees.

College Basketball

~Obi Toppin is cleaning house in the player of the year awards. One big regret of not having the tournament is not getting to see Toppin dunk all over everyone.

~Tonight would have been the National Championship game. This is the night that Louisville would have held off Michigan State to win a fourth national title. That’s how the 🔮(#TCCCB) saw it, so who am I to doubt it would have gone down this way?

~Keep an eye on the transfer portal. A lot of helpful grad transfers have committed, but there are still some interesting names out there. Louisville just nabbed Carlik Jones, from Radford, possibly the top grad transfer available.

~Andy Enfield has been spotty at best at USC, but he is winning the offseason. Almost daily, the Trojans pick up either a big time recruit for the future or a top grad transfer for the present.

~My Two Cent Top 10 for 2020-21 as we enter the official offseason: Kentucky, Duke, Gonzaga, Iowa, Virginia, Baylor, Creighton, Florida State, Villanova, Texas Tech.

Keep an eye on: North Carolina, Louisville, Tennessee, Florida, Rutgers, Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, West Virginia, Oregon, UCLA, Northern Iowa, Richmond.

NBA

~Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett lead this year’s NBA Hall of Fame inductees. Not a bad trio to go in at the same time.

~A lot of ideas for sports programming have been thrown at the wall during the shutdown. I would be all in for televised H-O-R-S-E between players from their homes. Everyone can relate to this game, and who among us hasn’t tried some crazy trick shot to knock a player out of the game.

College Football

~Mike Leach has never been known for his sensitivity. Many videos over the years have leaked showing locker room tirades or rants directed at the media. It’s a conundrum because Leach can also be very funny. I’ve included many of his funny takes right here.

Mississippi State’s new coach’s latest attempt at humor fell a bit short with some of his players. Leach tweeted a virus/noose joke that was meant for an innocent laugh. Some of his players didn’t laugh, in fact defensive lineman Fabien Lovett is transferring.

It is true that some people are overly sensitive. However, a white guy telling a noose joke in Mississippi is a sure sign of someone who doesn’t know the temperature in the room. I’m not sure how fine the line is between funny and douchebaggery, but it has become clear Leach is tightroping that line.

A Penny For My Final Thought…

Well, it’s that time again. What old school video game was I playing this week? Last week’s correct answer was Pitfall. What game is this?

In other quarantine events, I did take in some of the old games that everybody is showing. It made me realize just how much I missed March Madness. One of my favorite games not involving one of the teams I cheer for was the 1985 National Championship game between Georgetown and Villanova.

Two years earlier we had the huge NC State upset of Houston, and many experts stated we wouldn’t see something like that again. Villanova finished a distant fourth in the Big East with ten losses. They entered the tournament as an eight seed, and had to beat Dayton in Dayton to advance to the second round.

Georgetown reached the finals while barely breaking a sweat, and were a heavy favorite to send Patrick Ewing out as a back to back champion. Villanova had other ideas.

Everyone refers to this as the “perfect game” by Villanova. They did make 79% of their shots from the field. On the other hand the Wildcats were out rebounded and had 17 turnovers. Often, Georgetown had Villanova rattled with their full court press. Having said that, the underdog Wildcats never blinked. Even the Villanova cheerleaders were on point.

She is correct. That was a travel.

The game turned at the end of the first half when Georgetown mysteriously allowed the Wildcats to milk two minutes off the clock, then sink a basket to take a lead into halftime. For a team that essentially played five players the entire game that was huge. And then that shooting, led by four unorthodox shooters in Gary McLain, Dwayne McClain, Ed Pinckney, and Harold Pressley plus pure shooter Harold Jensen kicked in to high gear. Georgetown shot almost 55% themselves, but just couldn’t match the over the moon shooting of Villanova.

Another giant was felled by a low seeded underdog. Even the Hoya players applauded Villanova after the game. I wouldn’t call it perfect, but it sure was fun to watch.

What this game meant in the big picture is that every lower seeded underdog team over the last 35 years thought they could knock off King Kong and go on a six game run to glory.

That is what makes the tournament so much fun. It isn’t a best of anything, but rather a one game winner move on.

March Madness, you were sorely missed. I can’t wait to see you again.

Just my two cents…