Who'da Thunk?: Unlikely New York Champions

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Who'da Thunk?: Unlikely New York Champions

New York has enjoyed many champions ever since the 1920s, especially with the Yankees' success.

While fans lament the fact that the Jets and Knicks are horrible and the Rangers have won just one Stanley Cup since 1940, the reality is that New Yorkers have been fortunate to witness a lot of championship moments in their lifetimes.

And oh yeah, the Yankees, despite having not won any World Series titles since 2000, have still made the postseason every year since 1995.

And of course the Mets now have Johan Santana in their starting rotation.

First off, this was written not to diss the New York sports teams. They played in several championships that they seemingly had no business playing in—and still managed to be victorious.

I will admit I do not like the Yankees, for starters. I do not support any New York teams either.

However, I must say that the Giants' Super Bowl victory last week was so improbable, but nonetheless impressive at the same time.

Eli Manning's club managed only a 10-6 record, but became Giant-killers in the postseason, knocking off the top two seeds in the NFC (Dallas and Green Bay) before rallying against the perfect New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

Who would have thunk that?

And with that, I have compiled a "Top Five" list of improbable New York championships in the last four decades:

 

1. New York Jets' Super Bowl III victory on Jan. 12, 1969

Thirty-nine years prior to the Giants' shocker against New England, New York's other football team, the Jets, made history with an improbable Super Bowl III victory.

This has been looked upon as one of the biggest upsets not only in football but also in sports history.

At the time, the NFL was regarded as a far superior league compared to the upstart AFL, which had been established only in 1960. (The NFL had existed 40 years prior to the birth of the AFL.) Many writers and observers stated that it would take a few more years for the AFL, which didn't have the same calibre of players as NFL teams, to be truly competitive.

Naturally, the NFL champion Baltimore Colts, who had a 13-1 record, were heavily favored to beat the Jets (11-3), winners of the AFL. In fact, the Colts were 17-point favorites going in.

However, Joe Namath, the brash quarterback of the Jets, guaranteed victory a few days prior to the Super Bowl, saying, "We'll win the game. I guarantee you."

Of course, no one took Namath's statements seriously.

In the game, Namath completed 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards and led the Jets to a stunning 16-7 victory over the Colts. He was named Super Bowl MVP.

The Jets' victory established immediate credibility for the AFL, proving that the league could compete against the powerful NFL—and win.

 

2. Miracle Mets beat Orioles in 1969 World Series

Nine months after the Jets shocked the world, the New York Mets did the same thing against the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

The Orioles, winners of 109 games in the regular season, walked through the AL East, finishing 19 games ahead of the second-place Detroit Tigers.

Baltimore had seemingly everything: power (with sluggers Boog Powell's 37 homers and Frank Robinson's 32), defense (led by Brooks Robinson at third base, who himself contributed offensively with 23 home runs), and the three aces who combined for 59 wins in Mike Cuellar (23-11, 2.38), Dave McNally (20-7, 3.22), and Jim Palmer (16-4, 2.34).

Meanwhile, the Mets, who entered the National League in 1962, had their first ever winning season. It was the first time they had finished higher than second-to-last in any season, and also the first year that they had topped the 73-win plateau.

In fact, as late as mid-August, it looked to be another losing season for the Mets, who were in third place, 9.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs, a team led by Ernie Banks and Ferguson Jenkins. Amazingly, the Mets went 39-9 down the stretch to reach the 100-win mark, easily out-distancing the Cubs by eight games by season's end.

Both the Orioles and Mets swept their LCS series and met in the World Series. The Orioles won Game One easily, but then stumbled the rest of the way.

The Mets won Game Two in Baltimore, scoring a ninth-inning run on three straight singles to take a 2-1 decision.

In Game Three at Shea Stadium, Tommie Agee started the Mets' half of the first inning with a lead-off homer, and then made two great catches in center field—both with two outs and at least two runners on base—to save at least five runs. New York won 5-0.

Game Four saw the Mets get a break in the 10th inning, as they pulled out a 2-1 win. With two on, J.C. Martin laid down a bunt, but Orioles pitcher Pete Richert's throw to first hit Martin in the wrist. This allowed the winning run to come around and score. The Orioles protested, screaming interferrence—as Martin was illegally running on the inside of the first-base line—but to no avail.

By that time, it seemed New York was destined to win. The Mets indeed finished off the Orioles in Game Five, rallying from a 3-0 deficit with five runs in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings.

Series MVP Donn Clendenon hit three homers for the Mets, including a two-run homer that broke the shutout in the finale. The normally weak-hitting Al Weis also had a big series, batting .455 with a game-tying home run in the clinching victory.

 

3. Yankees' 2000 Subway World Series victory

In 2000, the Yankees were coming off two straight World Series championships and had won three in the previous four seasons.

However, the Yankees finished the '00 campaign with an unimpressive 87-74 record, the worst among the eight postseason teams, and only 2.5 games better than the second-place Boston Red Sox.

In fact, New York had stumbled into the postseason, losing seven straight to end the regular season against the likes of Baltimore (74-88), Tampa Bay (69-92), and Detroit (79-83). The Yankees were blown out in several of the losses, falling 15-4 (Tigers), 11-1 (Devil Rays), 11-3 (Devil Rays), 13-2 (Orioles), and 9-1 (Orioles). They had also lost 13 of their final 15 regular-season games.

Despite having added David Justice, Glenallen Hill, and Jose Canseco during the season, the Yankees hardly looked like a championship-caliber team.

They faced Oakland in the ALDS and had a chance to clinch the series in Game Four at Yankee Stadium. Roger Clemens, however, imploded, allowing six runs, and the A's won 11-1, forcing a decisive game at Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland. Surprisingly, the Yankees upset the A's 7-5 and moved on to the ALCS.

In the championship series, the Yankees were shut out by the Mariners in Game One, and were on the wrong end of a 1-0 score against unheralded Seattle pitcher John Halama in Game Two. But the Yankees' bats came alive in the eighth inning, scoring seven runs to win 7-1. From there, the Yankees cruised, winning three of the next four games to clinch the AL pennant.

In the World Series, the Yankees faced the cross-town rival Mets. Either way, it was going to be a New York team winning it all.

The Yankees lucked out when the Mets made a base-running blunder in the sixth inning of the Series opener and the Yankees rallied to tie it in the ninth against Mets closer Armando Benitez. The Bronx Bombers won in extra innings.

In Game Two, Clemens threw a bat at the Mets' Mike Piazza, but surprisingly was not ejected. Clemens threw eight shutout innings (allowing two hits) and left with the score 6-0. The Mets' rally in the ninth fell short, and the Yanks hung on for a 6-5 win.

From there, the Yankees didn't look back, winning the Subway Series in five games.

 

4. Rangers win behind Messier's guarantee

The 1993-94 New York Rangers won 52 games and finished with an NHL-best 112 points.

However, the Rangers had a 54-year Stanley Cup drought going, and despite having no problems in the first two rounds of the playoffs, looked vulnerable to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Devils stunned the Rangers with a double-OT win—after tying the game with a minute left in regulation—to open the series, and won Games Four and Five, outscoring New York 7-2 in the process. Game Six would be played in New Jersey, with the Rangers down three games to two.

Rangers captain Mark Messier, a five-time Cup champion with the Oilers, guaranteed a victory in Game Six. However, the Rangers fell behind 2-0 against the defensive-minded Devils at the Meadowlands. The Rangers didn't quit though, scoring late in the second period to cut the deficit to 2-1.

That still left the Rangers 20 minutes away from elimination. Once again, it looked as though the Rangers' Cup drought would continue for another season.

The Devils couldn't contain Messier in the third period. Messier scored a natural hat trick in the final 20 minutes to give the Rangers a 4-2 win, staving off elimination.

The Rangers then won Game Seven in double overtime, and beat the Vancouver Canucks in seven thrilling games to win the Stanley Cup.

 

5. Yankees end 18-year drought

The Yankees had not won a postseason series during the Don Mattingly era. (They lost to Seattle in the 1995 ALDS, Mattingly's final big-league season.) In fact, the Yanks had not won a World Series since 1978.

However, a year after Mattingly retired in 1996, the Yankees made it to the postseason and faced off against the powerful Texas Rangers in the ALDS.

The Rangers won Game One behind John Burkett's pitching and Juan Gonzalez's home run, and led Game Two 4-1 behind two more Gonzalez homers. If the Yankees lost, they would fall behind 0-2 with the series shifting to Texas.

New York rallied in the late innings to tie it and won in extra innings on an error.

In Game Three, Darren Oliver pitched well for Texas, but the Yankees again rallied late, plating two runs in the ninth inning to win 3-2.

Following two heart-breaking losses, the Rangers couldn't recover. Despite yet another Gonzalez home run in Game Four, Texas lost for the third straight time, as the Yankees overcame an early 4-0 deficit.

In the ALCS against Baltimore, the Yankees were helped out by a Game One Jeffrey Maier-aided home run, and an eighth-inning meltdown by Orioles' ace pitcher Mike Mussina in Game Three. The Yankees cruised to a five-game series win.

The Yankees were in the World Series, but were up against the defending champion Atlanta Braves, who had demolished St. Louis pitching in the NLCS, outscoring the Cardinals 32-1 in the final three games.

The Braves were highly regarded as baseball's next dynasty, led by their pitching staff of aces Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine, who each could be a No. 1 starter for any major league club. Despite the Yankees having home-field advantage, the Braves entered the World Series as heavy favorites against New York.

And the Yankees looked vulnerable against the mighty Braves, falling 12-1 and 4-0 against Smoltz and Maddux. Worse, the Yankees' 21-game winner, Andy Pettitte, was rocked in the Game One debacle.

However, the Yankees rallied to win four straight close games, with closer John Wetteland picking up a save in each of the Yankees' victory.

Wetteland took home Series MVP honors, posting a 2.08 ERA in five appearances, easily redeeming himself for a disastrous 1995 postseason against the Mariners where he was lit up for a 14.54 ERA in three outings.

The Braves' "dynasty" never materialized and the Yankees went on to win titles again in 1998, 1999, and 2000.


So there you have it—the top five unlikely championships in New York sports since the late 1960s.

I didn't include the Mets' 1986 miracle against Boston partly because I root for the Red Sox, and also because the Mets were expected to win going in.

But what do the rest of you out there think? Any other "improbable" championships for any team in recent years?

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