Which is the hardest game for a big league baseball team to win?
What set of circumstances distorts the normal odds of the sport by the greatest amount and produces the most outlandish results?
There is actually an answer: The hardest feat a team can try to accomplish is to clinch the World Series on the road in Game 6.
Your chances of winning such a game should, by any common sense logic, be about even money. In fact, based on generations of baseball history, the true odds are barely better than 1 in 5.
Saturday night here at Edison Field, this incredible Game 6 Jinx gave one of its must utterly unbelievable -- yet spookily familiar -- reiterations. For the 21st time in my life as a fan, and the 11th when covering the Series, I saw one of baseball's most mysterious phenomena claim yet another victim.
This time, it was the San Francisco Giants, who can barely believe what hit them. Leading 5-0, with just nine Anaheim outs between them and a world title, they watched the Angels battle on every pitch throughout the closing innings as though it were their inalienable right to win, no matter what happened.
And that's just what happened. Who cares if Barry Bonds had hit his fourth homer of this Series, and hit it off the Angels symbolic rookie phenom Francisco Rodriguez? Who cares if Rodriguez had wild-pitched home another run -- the kind of thing that usually haunts Series teams? Who cares if ancient Shawon Dunston -- kept around as a clubhouse leader -- golfed a two-run homer just inside the left-field foul pole?
Compared to the Win-On-The-Road-In-Six Whammy, it counted for nothing. With the Angels crowd standing and beating its ThunderStix for what seemed like an hour at a time, Anaheim hitters suddenly laid off every pitch that missed the plate by an inch. They fouled off every offering they couldn't handle and nailed every "mistake" pitch like it was sitting on a tee.
In the seventh inning, Troy Glaus and Brad Fullmer singled before Scott Spiezio -- culminating an interminable at-bat of foul balls -- clouted a three-run home to right field off reliever Felix Rodriguez. The long fly looked catchable at first, but it hooked, as though wafted by winds the flags couldn't detect, until it fell in the first row of bleacher seats just beyond Reggie Sanders.
In the eighth inning, the Angels scored their winning runs with an ease and incomprehensibility that would have mystified anyone -- anyone who didn't know that these were special baseball circumstances.
Darin Erstad led off with a home run off Tim Worrell. Well, of course he did. What did you expect? Rational baseball? Tim Salmon singled, and Garret Anderson blooped a single in front of Bonds in left field. Even the divine Barry, who is now hitting .500 in this Series, was caught in the tractor beam of The Thing. He bobbled the ball for an error, which left runners at second and third, eventually leading to the winning run.
The Giants decided to pitch to Glaus, whose seven homers in this postseason have made him the Angels' biggest threat. This might prove to be an even bigger error in judgment for Giants Manager Dusty Baker than letting his 3-year-old son, Darren, pick up bats at home plate while really large men are running the bases.
Glaus blasted a one-hop double off the left-field wall for two runs and the 6-5 win. Bonds could only wave at the ball -- holding his glove us as if faking a catch -- as the drive soared far beyond him.
So, you say, momentum has swung. The Giants' fate is sealed. This game carried the weight of the world with it. No, actually not.
While road teams trying to clinch in Game 6 seem to face a tremendous unseen disadvantage -- one that has absolutely never been better illustrated than it was Saturday night -- there is no such factor whatsoever once Game 7 arrives. History says that it's like Game 6 never happened. When the Giants' Livan Hernandez and the Angels' John Lackey meet Sunday night, each team has an equal chance in a winner-take-all game. In fact, teams that were in the same position as the Giants that lost Game 6 on the road have come back to win Game 7 10 of 21 times.
As we saw again Saturday night, whatever a home team needs to do to stay alive in Game 6, it will somehow find a way to do. Or outside forces will come to its aid. Bill Buckner's error came in just such a game, as did Carlton Fisk's home run. Don Denkinger's famous blown call in '85 and Kirby Puckett's 11th-inning game-winning homer in '91 did, too.
Whatever it takes, baby. That's exactly what will happen. Starting to get an eerie feeling? You should. Is this as weird as it gets in baseball? You bet. Which is why this "Clinch Away in 6" hex is so interesting. The pattern is so strong and, in my opinion, so rooted in human and athletic group psychology, that most of what you read here was actually written before the game's first pitch.
In Series history (since the current 2-3-2 Series format began in 1924), 28 teams have faced the same predicament that confronted the Giants in this Game 6. Obviously, all were exceptional teams, because they had already won pennants, plus three Series games. All "matched up" decently against their foes. They had proved it by leading the Series, three games to two, entering Game 6.
So, because home-field advantage has been a very small factor in baseball -- including postseason baseball -- for a century, it's reasonable to think the visitor should close out the Series in about half of those 28 games.
Only six of the 28 have won Game 6 to end the Series.
Listen to the names of the pitchers who won those six games. Three were Hall of Famers: Lefty Gomez ('36), Bob Lemon ('48) and Catfish Hunter ('78). Jimmy Key ('92) was a star and Johnny Podres ('59) was no bum. How Burt Hooton ('81) got in the group we'll never know. I guess he's the exception that proves the rule.
No wonder fellows such as Russ Ortiz, Rodriguez, Worrell and even first-rate Robb Nen, who allowed Glaus's double, could not finish the deal.
Before this evening, even this writer had his doubts about this bizarre behavioral pattern. Not any more. About once every three years, this situation arrives. Next time, perhaps we should just think of this as a unique investment opportunity.