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Reader Response
September 21, 2005

Regarding yesterday's Hot Corner article:

Dear Commish.,

After reading your article, I'm not sure what your definition of a "choke" is, or if you even agree that such a definition is ever applicable.   You seem to argue that a team doesn't "choke" it just previously over performed and set unrealistic expectations.  I understand the Commish's desire to take the rhetoric out of a heated issue such as this, but does that mean turning a blind eye as well?

If the White Sox current state is not a "choke", could you please highlight some events in sports history that were "chokes" and explain how they are different from the sad state of affairs on the South Side.


Before I go any further, let me clarify a few things: being from Chicago, I root for the White Sox, but the team I live and die with, so to speak, is the Braves.  With the Braves making the playoffs every year but only winning one World Series in the 90's, I have often been confronted with "choke" questions from my friends.  Your question is a good one - what do I define as choking?  I believe that the term IS applicable, but probably not nearly as much as most sports fans use it.  I am not unwilling to discuss a choke job, so here is one I don't consider a choke and several I do:

Super Bowl XXV - Scott Norwood misses a 47-yard field goal that would have won the Bills the Super Bowl.
My Opinion: NOT a choke. 
It wasn't an extra point or even a 35-yard attempt.  Kickers only make about half of the field goals from that distance, and Norwood didn't flub it or kick it into the line - he simply missed it.  This wasn't Norwood's first chance at a clutch kick, either.  With the Bills in the playoffs most of the 80's, his kicking helped Buffalo win many games - Norwood just happened to miss the one people remember.

Game 7 1991 World Series - Lonnie Smith is deked at second base and fails to score on Terry Pendleton's double.
My Opinion: Choke
I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to a player or team when their performance is less than stellar in the short term, because one kick, one missed free throw, etc. are things that happen all the time during the season, so they can't be directly attributed to choking.  What I cannot accept, however, are mental mistakes or simple physical mistakes (groundball under the legs, fumbling without being touched, etc.) by professional players.  In Smith's case, he headed toward second unaware of the ball's path (he was running with the pitch) and was fooled by Minnesota's middle infielders, acting as if they had the ball.  The hesitation by "Skates" was just enough to prevent him from trying to score, and the Braves ended up losing the game 1-0 in 10 innings and ultimately the World Series.  Unacceptable.

1996 World Series - The Atlanta Braves win the first 2 games by a combined score of 16-1 and head to Atlanta for 3 straight games, only to get swept at home and lose the World Series to the Yankees in 6 games.  Worse yet, the Braves blew a 6-0 lead in Game 4 and lost 8-6.
My Opinion: Choke
Again, one strikeout, one bad pitching outing, one bad game is acceptable, but being a World Series caliber team and failing to close it out with everything in your favor is unacceptable.

2003 NLCS - Up 3 games to 2 and 3-0 in Game 6, a Cubs fan's misplay of a foul ball turns into EIGHT unanswered runs for the Florida Marlins, propelling them to a series win over the Chicago Cubs.
My Opinion: Choke
As a professional, you need to regroup and play the game, but the entire team fell apart and repeated the action the next day.  After the foul ball, Alex Gonzalez flubs a possible double play ball, and they still could have regrouped, but instead the Cubs gave up 8 runs and a chance at the World Series.

Basically, my thinking process is that if a .300 hitter goes 2 for 10 in a playoff series, he's not really choking because he's only one hit away from his average, he is facing playoff pitching, and the sample size is incredibly small.  If that hitter is 30 for 150 in his playoff career, then the "c" word could be thrown around a bit.

Michael Jordan missed a LOT of last second shots, but he made even more of them.  Luckily for Jordan, his talent level allowed him to have a large sample size of pressure filled events.  That doesn't mean he choked in the games he lost - the percentages simply state that you can't make every shot.  If Joe Average only has one attempt at a last second shot, a field goal, or an at bat, I have a hard time calling him a choker if he doesn't succeed one time in one attempt.  That's why I am more willing to label a team rather than an individual as chokers, which leads us back to the '05 White Sox.

In my article, I basically claimed that Cleveland should be credited rather than discrediting Chicago.  Why?  The White Sox still have the best record in the American League.  While their lead has been severely reduced, on a total level, they have still played better than any AL team.  Does that mean they are incapable of choking?  Of course not.  If the White Sox unravel and finish the last dozen games at 3-9, lose the division, but still manage to back into the Wild Card, only to lose 3 straight in the playoffs, it will be considered a major choke job in my book because it would be the first time in 6 months the White Sox would have played so poorly for that amount of time.

Simply, you can't call "choke" until it actually happens, and the White Sox have built a boat strong enough to weather the minor storms this summer.  If the sinking of this ship happens in dramatic, error-filled fashion, I will thrust the "c" word upon them.  Comparing this situation to the 2003 Cubs, the Cubs didn't choke when Alex Gonzalez bobbled an easy hopper - they choked when the cumulative effect of the error, plus bad pitching, plus poor hitting led to 8 unanswered runs and a subsequent loss the following day.  Similarly, playing only "average" baseball the past month doesn't qualify as choking, but playing average baseball followed by a horrible season ending stretch knocking them out of the playoffs would. 

At this point in the season, White Sox fans should be more focused on the on-field activities rather than the standings, the wins, and the stats.  The starting pitching, sans Contreras, has looked quite susceptible as of late, and Chicago has always lacked the power pitcher necessary to dominate in the cold October air.  Rather than worrying about blowing a large division lead, Chicago should focus on trying to avoid the problems Oakland, Atlanta, and Seattle have had in recent years - winning plenty of regular season games thanks to steady play and depth in pitching, but losing in the playoffs because the depth becomes less important as teams can rely more on their superstars and aces.  That's a column for another day, though.