Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

MLB News

Tip o' the cap to teams' luckiest moments

Fluky plays, fortuitous Draft picks, unexpected trade results endure
March 16, 2016

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, the legendary "luck of the Irish" and the eight players that (per Baseball-Reference) have carried the nickname "Lucky," let's run down each team's luckiest moment. Subjective? Absolutely. That's how luck works, though. It's never quite as concrete as you'd like it to be.

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, the legendary "luck of the Irish" and the eight players that (per Baseball-Reference) have carried the nickname "Lucky," let's run down each team's luckiest moment. Subjective? Absolutely. That's how luck works, though. It's never quite as concrete as you'd like it to be.

 Arizona Diamondbacks
 The bloop that won a championship.

It's a fine line between luck and skill, and Luis Gonzalez's World Series-winning bloop single off the legendary Mariano Rivera required a little bit of both. Certainly, to even make contact off the greatest closer of all time didn't come by accident, and Gonzalez deserves credit for not whiffing in the biggest spot, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in a tied Game 7.
Of course, the ensuing batted ball barely cleared the infield dirt and would have been an out in just about any situation where Derek Jeter and the rest of the infield weren't drawn in. We didn't have Statcast™ in 2001, but if we did, the hit would be, let's say… 40 mph of exit velocity and 45 degrees launch angle? Not usually a recipe for success.

 Atlanta Braves
 The rejection that turned into a superstar.

In 1990, high school pitcher Todd Van Poppel was the near-indisputable best player on the Draft board, and the Braves held the No. 1 pick, eyeing the possibility of adding another high-ceiling arm to Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. But Van Poppel's bonus demands were high, Atlanta had been lousy for years and Van Poppel had enough confidence in his stock to tell the Braves that he'd rather go to college so they shouldn't draft him. Worried about wasting the top pick, Atlanta moved on to the next name on its board, a Florida high school shortstop with the given name of Larry Jones Jr. You probably know him better as "Chipper."

 Baltimore Orioles
 A trade even Annie Savoy could love.

Frank Robinson had hit at least 21 homers in each of his 10 seasons with the Reds and had won the 1956 National League Rookie of the Year Award and the 1961 NL MVP Award. Then they went and dealt him to the Orioles in a 1965 deal so brutal that it's even referenced in "Bull Durham" more than 20 years later, as Annie Savoy noted that "bad trades are a part of baseball."
At the time, Reds GM Bill DeWitt said Robinson was "not a young 30," though accounts from the era refer to off-field difficulties Robinson had with Cincinnati management, including a potential threat to retire over an earlier salary dispute. Regardless of the reason, the O's found themselves with a slugger who won the American League Triple Crown and the AL MVP Award in his first season with the team, ultimately hitting 179 homers in six years with Baltimore -- two of which ended with World Series rings.

 Boston Red Sox
 The Yankees extra-base hit that actually helped the Red Sox.

After the Red Sox won Game 5 of the 2004 AL Championship Series, 5-4, in 14 innings, GM Theo Epstein called it "the greatest game ever played, in my mind." Understandably so, given that the Sox were down 3-1 headed into the game and, as you hardly need to be reminded, hadn't won a ring since 1918.
But Epstein probably wouldn't have thought of it that way had the Red Sox lost, and they came mere inches away from doing that. Yankees first baseman Tony Clark, who had been with Boston in 2002, came up in the ninth with a man on and ripped a double to right field that should have scored Ruben Sierra with the go-ahead run. But the ball ever so barely bounced into the seats at Fenway, leading to a ground-rule double and keeping Sierra at third. The Yanks wouldn't score, and the stage was set for David Ortiz's walkoff single in the 14th.

 Chicago Cubs
 The century-old miscue that's still to this day tied into the most recent Cubs title.

Sorry, Cubs fans. When you haven't won anything of significance in more than a century, it's hard to dig up much recent good luck. So, yeah, even though it's predictable, we're digging all the way back to 1908 for Fred Merkle's famous, well, you know. That we still talk about it 108 years later should tell you a bit about its significance -- 19-year-old Giants rookie Merkle, in his first big league start, failed to touch second on Al Bridwell's game-winning single. With darkness approaching, the game was suspended as a 1-1 tie. Two weeks later, with the Giants and Cubs tied at the end of the regular season, the game was replayed, and the Cubs won, sending them to the 1908 World Series -- still their most recent title.

 Chicago White Sox
 The postseason strikeout that wasn't.

In winning the 2005 World Series, the team's first since 1917, the White Sox needed a little luck to get past an Angels team that had won it all three years earlier. In Game 2 of the ALCS, with Chicago down 1-0 in the series and down to its last strike in the ninth inning of a tie game, A.J. Pierzynski struck out to send the game into extra innings.
...or so it seemed. Home-plate umpire Doug Eddings ruled that catcher Josh Paul had not caught the ball cleanly, requiring a throw to first. But Paul, thinking the inning was over, rolled the ball to the mound and ran to the dugout. After a prolonged dispute, Joe Crede would double in pinch-runner Pablo Ozuna for the victory, and the White Sox didn't lose another game that October.

 Cincinnati Reds
 The unpopular trade that changed a franchise.

The funny thing about the 1971 trade that sent Joe Morgan from Houston to Cincinnati is how extremely unpopular it was at the time ... but not in Houston, in Cincinnati. After all, the package going to the Astros included Lee May, who had hit 111 homers over the previous three seasons, and All-Star second baseman Tommy Helms, who would later return to the Reds as their manager.
Luckily enough for Cincinnati, the reason Morgan was even available was in part because he  reportedly had personal issues with Houston manager Harry Walker (as did fellow Astros star Jimmy Wynn, soon to end up with the Dodgers). It's hard to imagine the Big Red Machine without Morgan, arguably the best second baseman of all time.

 Cleveland Indians
 The whiffed bunt that won a playoff game.

Game 3 of the 1997 ALCS should have already been over; Marquis Grissom lost a ninth-inning ball in the lights, allowing Brady Anderson to hit a tying "double." So there was still baseball to be played in the 12th, when Omar Vizquel attempted a bunt while Grissom ran with the pitch from third base. Vizquel completely whiffed on the bunt attempt, which in most cases leaves the runner totally hung out to dry. Of course, if this were "most cases," we wouldn't be talking about it. Vizquel's bat distracted Orioles catcher Lenny Webster enough to allow the ball to scoot away and Grissom to score. Though Webster and the O's argued that Vizquel had fouled the ball, the umpire disagreed, giving Cleveland a 2-1 series lead.

 Colorado Rockies
 The face-first slide that launched a World Series run.

The magical Colorado run to the 2007 World Series, the only appearance in team history, nearly didn't make it past the final game of the regular season. And we do mean final -- a 163rd game was required to break a Wild Card tie between the Rockies and Padres. San Diego took an 8-6 lead in the top of the 13th inning, but Trevor Hoffman allowed three extra-base hits to allow Colorado to tie the score, then permitted Jamey Carroll to hit a fly ball to right. Matt Holliday tagged up on the play and scored the winning run … if you believe he touched the plate, which is in contention to this day. The plate umpire believed he did, and that was good enough for the Rockies.

 Detroit Tigers
 The unsigned contract that nearly sunk a franchise.

After acquiring him from Texas, Detroit offered slugger Juan Gonzalez an eight-year, $140 million contract extension, which would have made him the sport's highest-paid player. Gonzalez rejected it, suffered through a subpar (by his standards) lone season with the Tigers in 2000 and, hampered by injuries, reached 350 plate appearances only once more in his career. Free of what would have been a franchise-crippling deal, Detroit eventually was able to sign free agents Magglio Ordonez and Pudge Rodriguez, key pieces of the team that went to the 2006 World Series.

 Houston Astros
 The nice prospect that turned into a franchise legend.

The famed 1990 trade that brought Jeff Bagwell to Houston for reliever Larry Andersen is well-known at this point, but it's important to remember that this was not a case of a team acquiring a universally acclaimed prospect. Bagwell was a third baseman who hit all of four home runs in Double-A as a 22-year-old for Boston, and while his on-base skills were impressive, that lack of power is problematic for a corner infielder. Clearly, he was a good prospect -- he was ranked No. 32 in the Minors by Baseball America before the 1991 season -- and the Astros showed foresight in asking for him. But to expect the 449 homers and the franchise icon that came with it? Not even the most optimistic Houston exec could have expected that.

 Kansas City Royals
 The reason Royals fans probably were just fine before instant replay was implemented.

Luck is a matter of perception, really. Depending on which side of Missouri you favored when the Royals faced off against the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series, your view of Don Denkinger's famous blown call in the ninth inning of Game 6 takes on a very different connotation. Obviously, if you liked Kansas City, Denkinger incorrectly calling Jorge Orta safe on a leadoff infield grounder is proof of karma going your way. Even though Orta would later be thrown out at third on an ill-advised sacrifice bunt, the chain of events that befell St. Louis after failing to get the first out would lead to a 1-0 lead becoming a 2-1 loss -- and a date with Brett Saberhagen in Game 7 the next night.

 Los Angeles Angels
 The legendary player that dropped into their laps.

The yearly arguments about Mike Trout and the AL MVP Award -- he has one, but had a great argument for four -- tend to obscure just how historic a player he is. He's not just the best player in the game, but he's on track to be one of the best players anyone has ever seen, and he's still only entering his age-24 season.
Think about how different baseball history might look if 23 teams hadn't passed on Trout in 2009. In fact, even the Angels technically passed on him once, taking Randal Grichuk one pick before.

 Los Angeles Dodgers
 The failed first-round pick that became the best pitcher of a generation.

With all due respect to the selection of Tommy Lasorda family friend Mike Piazza in the 62nd round of the 1988 Draft, the luckiest moment for the Dodgers happened much more recently, with a pick they failed to sign. In 2005, the team selected Luke Hochevar with the 40th pick of the Draft and thought they'd reached an agreement, only to see Hochevar renege on the deal. Hochevar would then be selected No. 1 overall by Kansas City in 2006, helping to put a player the Dodgers would never take into the mix before their No. 7 pick. As the story goes, because the Royals took Hochevar instead of Andrew Miller first overall, Miller was there for the Tigers at No. 6, where they reportedly were planning to select Clayton Kershaw. Still on the board, the Dodgers pounced on Kershaw and ended up with arguably the best pitcher of a generation, thanks in part to their failure to sign Hochevar the previous year.

 Miami Marlins
 The entire eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS.

You knew this was going to have to be about Steve Bartman. The controversial fan interference play on Luis Castillo's foul fly that prevented Moises Alou and the Cubs from securing the second out with a 3-0 lead instantly became one of baseball's most enduring moments.
But in much the same way that Bill Buckner's error only gave the 1986 Mets life, not the series, it's easy to forget all that happened afterward. The Marlins would score eight runs in the inning as the Cubs collapsed, with Mark Prior throwing a wild pitch on ball four to Castillo and shortstop Alex Gonzalez booting a Miguel Cabrera grounder that may well have been an inning-ending double play. Whether it was bad luck for the Cubs or good luck for the Marlins, it turned the series.

 Milwaukee Brewers
 The Wild Card appearance that required help from New York.

Milwaukee's first postseason berth in 26 years didn't come without a little help. The Brewers entered the final day of the 2008 season tied with the Mets for the NL Wild Card spot. CC Sabathia pitched a complete game on three days' rest and Ryan Braun hit a homer as the Brewers beat the Cubs, 3-1. But even their 90th victory of the year didn't quite put the team into the postseason as New York was playing Florida at home at the same time with the chance to force a one-game playoff. The Mets, however, surrendered back-to-back homers to the Marlins in the eighth inning, and the Brewers and their fans watched New York lose on the big screen at Miller Park. When Ryan Church flew out in New York to end the Mets' season, the Brewers were in.

 Minnesota Twins
 The play that made Kent Hrbek a legend.

It's the play so famous in Twins lore that it spawned its own bobblehead -- Kent Hrbek lifting Ron Gant off the first-base bag in Game 2 of the 1991 World Series. With the Braves down 1-0 in the series and 2-1 in the game, Gant singled in the third inning, pushing Lonnie Smith to third. As Gant rounded first and then got back to beat the relay throw, Hrbek helped push him off to get the unusual 7-1-3 out. Instead of bringing David Justice up with men on the corners, Minnesota was out of the inning, and ultimately won the game, 3-2, on an eighth-inning Scott Leuis home run.

 New York Mets
 The absurd confluence of circumstances that put Tom Seaver in New York.

You're already thinking about Bill Buckner. Of course you are. But you already know all about the famous gaffe that propelled the Mets to the 1986 World Series title, so let's instead realize just how much luck it took for one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history to land in Queens rather than with NL-rival Atlanta.
In 1966, the Braves used the 20th overall pick on Tom Seaver. But the pick was voided because of confusion over Seaver's Draft eligibility (regarding rules concerning his college team), and he couldn't return to college since he'd signed a pro contract with Atlanta. The patched-together solution that the parties agreed to was that any team willing to match the Braves' contract terms would be entered into a special lottery for Seaver's rights, which the Mets ended up winning over the Phillies and Indians.

 New York Yankees
 The most important line drive in history.

The great thing about being the Yankees is that there's about a million things that have gone in their favor -- Jeffrey Maier, anyone? So while recognizing there's no shortage of ways we could go here, let's go back to Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, where one of their 27 World Series championships rode on the back of a hard-hit ball that went to the exact right spot.
Up 1-0 with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 7, Ralph Terry allowed Giants runners to reach second and third with Willie McCovey coming to the plate. McCovey, who had tripled off Terry earlier in the game, lined what would have been a Series-winning hit… had it not been right at second baseman Bobby Richardson. It was arguably the most critical plate appearance in the history of baseball, and it went the Yanks' way… as most things do.

 Oakland Athletics
 The "consolation prize" that became Reggie Jackson.

Sometimes you make your own luck. Sometimes luck is handed to you. That's what happened to the A's in 1966, when the Mets drafted high school catcher Steve Chilcott with the first overall pick. Chilcott would end up injuring his shoulder in the Minors and never appeared in the big leagues. Oakland had to "settle" for Reggie Jackson with the second overall pick, and he'd give the A's 269 homers in parts of 10 seasons with them -- as well as bringing back Mike Torrez and Don Baylor when he was eventually traded to the Orioles.

 Philadelphia Phillies
 The near-disaster that became an out.

With the Phillies up 4-0 in Game 6 of the 1980 World Series and six outs from their first World Series title, things started to get tense. The Royals put the first two men on against Steve Carlton before he was pulled for Tug McGraw. McGraw got Frank White to pop up in foul territory, and catcher Bob Boone settled under it for the out. But Boone flubbed the catch, and for an instant, you could imagine the entirety of Philadelphia holding its breath. With the top of the Royals' lineup looming, any second opportunity might have been all they needed. But the Philly faithful needn't have worried because the baseball gods were smiling upon them. The ball that Boone was unable to catch deflected directly to first baseman Pete Rose, who had come over to back up the play. Rose alertly grabbed the loose ball for the out, and the Royals had lost their seemingly golden opportunity.

 Pittsburgh Pirates
 The Pirates franchise icon that the Dodgers couldn't find room for.

Andrew McCutchen may have designs on the best career in Pirates history, but even he may not outdo the great Roberto Clemente, who barely became a Pirate in the first place. Signed by the Dodgers out of Puerto Rico in 1954, Brooklyn attempted to hide him on its Minor League team in Montreal until it was ready to promote him, rarely playing him and expressing doubt about his future. Of course, former Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, by then with Pittsburgh, had loaded his staff with former Dodgers employees, including scout Clyde Sukeforth, who saw through the subterfuge. Armed with the first pick in the 1954 Rule 5 Draft, Pittsburgh selected Clemente and allowed him to blossom into a legend.

 San Diego Padres
 The benefits of facing the cursed Chicago Cubs.

While the Cubs were looking for their first World Series appearance in nearly 40 years going into the 1984 NLCS, the Padres were looking to make it to the Fall Classic for the first time. So when San Diego was down 3-2 in the seventh inning of the deciding Game 5, it didn't look good for our favorite brown-and-orange team. With one on and one out, Tim Flannery grounded to first base, but the ball got through Leon Durham to allow the Padres to tie the score. Three consecutive hits later, they were up 6-3 and on their way to the World Series… where they were promptly steamrolled by the unforgettable 1984 Tigers.
A huge error is bad enough in itself, but if you really want to get luck involved? As the legend goes, Cubs second baseman and 1984 NL MVP Award winner Ryne Sandberg accidentally spilled a cooler of Gatorade just before the game, ruining Durham's glove. Manager Don Zimmer's advice to Durham? "Use it anyway," reported the Chicago Tribune. "It might bring you good luck." Famous last words, those.

 San Francisco Giants
 A broken-bat, redirected ground ball.

You don't win three titles in five seasons without something odd going your way, and the Giants received exactly that in Game 7 of the 2012 NLCS. Up 2-0 in the third inning, Hunter Pencedrove a catchable ball up the middle. Cardinals rookie shortstop Pete Kozma inexplicably broke toward third rather than second, and three runs ended up scoring as Jon Jay compounded the drama with an error.
It wasn't just a misplay by Kozma, though. As revealed by slow-motion cameras, Pence had shattered his bat and made contact with the ball three times, making it all but impossible for Kozma to read correctly.

 Seattle Mariners
 Frank Costanza's least favorite trade.

Consider this the light version of the Bagwell deal. Jay Buhner had already been traded once, from the Pirates to the Yankees six months after he'd been signed, and after a brief 99-plate appearance stint with the Yanks in 1987-88, was dealt to Seattle (with a prospect and a player to be named later) for the immortal Ken Phelps. Fourteen seasons later, Buhner had hit 304 homers for the Mariners and was a huge part of some of Seattle's biggest baseball moments. A good prospect, certainly, but remember that his value at the time was such that the Yankees had to add their top two choices from the 1985 Draft to even get the 33-year-old Phelps. That Buhner became what he did was something of a happy accident for what would become one of the most exciting franchises of the 1990s.
Seinfeld: Jay Buhner

 St. Louis Cardinals 
 The ball that landed safely… for an out.

The Cardinals led the 2012 NL Wild Card Game 6-3 headed into the eighth inning, and that's how the game ended, so it would be easy to think nothing particularly notable happened. But at the time, a controversial call that went the Cards' way put the game into an uproar. With two on and one out, Andrelton Simmons lucked his way into a hit when shortstop Kozma called for a popup and then didn't field it, allowing the Braves to load the bases.
But the play went into the books as an infield fly, taking the hit away from Simmons, leaving the Braves with two outs and causing an ugly scene in Atlanta as fans protested the call. When the game resumed, the Cardinals got out of the inning without any damage and moved on to the NLCS. They may have outlasted the Braves anyway if Simmons was allowed to reach base, but they didn't have to worry about it.

 Tampa Bay Rays
 The wild end to the craziest day in baseball history.

Do you remember Robert Andino, Rays fans? Probably not. After all, he was a little-remembered utility infielder who never played for Tampa Bay. But you probably do remember the insane final day of the 2011 season, when the Rays completed a madcap run to the AL Wild Card spot when Dan Johnson tied the season finale with a ninth-inning homer, setting up Evan Longoria to win it with a walkoff homer of his own in the 12th.
Of course, none of that would have mattered if the Red Sox hadn't complied with a massive collapse to set the Rays up. Moments before Longoria's homer, Boston had Baltimore down to its final strike. Andino laced a ball to left field that Carl Crawford was unable to come up with, giving the Orioles a walk-off win. Without Andino, the Tampa Bay heroics would have been for naught.

 Texas Rangers
 The insanity before the insanity.

Remember the seventh inning of Game 5 of last season's ALDS? Of course you do; it was merely one of the craziest innings in playoff history. With the game and the series tied at two and Rougned Odor on third base with two outs, Toronto catcher Russell Martin made a simple return toss to the pitcher… only to hit Shin-Soo Choo's hand and have the ball carom away. Odor scored the go-ahead run, and although the Blue Jays rallied in the bottom of the inning, it looked, for a brief moment, as if the Rangers might win a playoff series on the back of one of the oddest runs anyone had ever seen.

 Toronto Blue Jays
 The playoff opponent that decided to stop playing defense.

We have more than a century of baseball history, and yet the seventh inning of Game 5 of last year's Texas-Toronto ALDS was so nutty that it actually merits two entries here. After the Martin/Odor play, and before Jose Bautista launched the bat flip that destroyed the sun, the Rangers began to fall apart. With Cole Hamels on the mound, three consecutive errors -- two by Elvis Andrus, and one on Mitch Moreland that easily could have been charged to Andrus as well -- turned a 3-2 Texas lead into a bases-loaded no-out situation that seemed set for disaster. And even before Bautista's blast, there was a Josh Donaldson game-tying bloop that it seemed Odor could or should have hauled in. He didn't, but all you remember now is the Bautista blast that came after. So, so much happened before that.

 Washington Nationals
 The meaningless wins a continent away that produced an ace.

The 2008 Seattle Mariners lost 101 games, and, no, we haven't confused the two Washingtons here. After losing 14 of 15 games in the middle of September, the Mariners decided the final weekend of the year was the opportune time to sweep their first home series of the season. That kept them at 101 losses, while the Nationals were busy getting swept in Philadelphia to finish with 102.
The unexpected Seattle rebound paid huge dividends on the other side of the country. With the ensuing first overall pick, Washington drafted Stephen Strasburg, who has been a valuable pitcher for the Nats (18.7 WAR). The Mariners had to settle for Dustin Ackley, who never quite blossomed in the Pacific Northwest.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for and host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.