Surviving the dog days of August

This may sound strange coming from a sports writer, but I wasn’t always a sports fan. Actually, I was introduced to sports as sort of a punishment for crawling out my aunt’s bathroom window when I was eight years old.

I was banished from playing with the rest of the kids that day and had to spend the rest of the afternoon in the living room with my dad and two uncles. They were watching a baseball game, and—you guessed it—one of the teams was the Red Sox.

As I was sobbing on the floor and drying my eyes I was taken back by the shrieks and hollers coming from these grown-ups. What was all the excitement about? About two hours later I was hooked, and I’ve been a sports fanatic ever since.

I still don’t recall why I was crawling out the bathroom window. Let’s just say I was an adventurous child. But ever since that day, I have been watching sports and screaming at my TV. And never again have I had the urge to crawl out another bathroom window.

Over the years of watching baseball, I have become familiar with the phrase “the dog days of August.” I always thought of it as a baseball terminology. Never really knowing where it came from, I just assumed it was penned by some clever baseball writer.

As I researched the material for this column I was amazed. Actually, the term ‘dog days’ refers to the hottest, most sultry days of summer. In the Northern Hemisphere, they usually fall between early July and early September.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists the traditional timing as the 40 days between July 3 and Aug. 11. The name comes from the ancient Romans’ belief that Sirius, also called the Dog Star, was the brightest star in the heavens besides the sun.

The game of baseball and the ‘dog days of August’ have been linked over the years with some historical memories, adding to the game’s lore. Baseball is filled with stories of virtual collapses of teams that were on the verge of winning it all. How much the ‘dog days’ have had to do with each one is anyone’s guess. Let’s just call it baseball’s little curse.

When talking about painful collapses, we need to start with none other than my beloved Red Sox. On July 19, 1978, the New York Yankees trailed the Red Sox by 14 games and it looked like Boston would be back in the World Series for the second time in the previous four years.

Four days later, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner fired manager Billy Martin for the umpteenth time and interim manager Bob Lemon righted the ship as the Bronx Bombers went 19-8 in the month of August.

By the time Sept. 7 rolled around, the Red Sox’s lead had shrunk to four games before a crucial four-game stand at Fenway Park in a make-or-break series. The Yankees bombed the Red Sox, outscoring them 42-8 to sweep the series in a modern-day Boston Massacre.

The two teams finished tied for first place at season’s end, and in a one-game playoff a midget of a hitter, short-stop Bucky Dent sent in the final dagger in the form of a three-run, seventh-inning home run as the Yankees won the East Division by a slim 5-4 margin.

Baseball history is filled with such collapses that have stood the test of time and are still talked about to this day. The 1964 Phillies blew a 6-and-a-half game lead with 12 games to play by dropping ten straight, giving the Cardinals the National League Pennant.

In 1969, the Cubs had a nine-game lead over the Mets on Aug. 14 looking for their first postseason bid since 1945. Thirteen days later, the Mets had climbed to within two games of first place. The Cubs collapsed, finishing September with an 8-17 record as the Mets won the National League East by eight games. The Mets went on to win their first World Series, knocking off the mighty Orioles.

In 1995, the Angels had a commanding 11-and-a-half game lead over the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 9. They faltered down the stretch, going 12-27 over the final 39 games, and a Seattle team—at the time fielding Ken Griffey and a 20-year-old shortstop named Alex Rodriguez—won a one-game playoff for the West Division title.

In 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers blew a 13-and-a-half game lead, but it really wasn’t a collapse. They went 26-22 the rest of the way, but the New York Giants were just sensational, winning 16 in a row and 37 of thire final 44 games to tie the Dodgers. That forced a three-game series to decide the winner, and the Giants won it on the fabled “shot heard around the world” by Bobby Thompson, with the announcer screaming into the microphone for all of the baseball world to hear, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”

Just last year, baseball was stood on its ear when the Tigers, who had been in first place for 164 straight days, lost a three-game lead with four games to play, earning the distinction of being the only team ever to do so.

So what is in store for baseball fans this season as the pennant races turn down the final stretch? There isn’t much of a wild-card race in the National League, as all three divisions are hotly contested by two-team races. Atlanta and Philadelphia are just two games apart in the East with 45 games to play. The Reds and Cardinals are separated by one game in the Central with the Padres holding a slim, three-game gap over the Giants.

One of the three teams that don’t win a division title will walk into the wild-card spot. In terms of a collapse, no team has a lock on things at this point, so any that falls by the wayside will be seen as being outdone in the end.

In the American League, the Yankees and Tampa Bay have been knocking each other around all season with the Bronx Bombers holding a slim one-game advantage at the time of this writing. The Red Sox are wounded and are on the verge of falling away altogether.

The Twins and White Sox are separated by just three games in the Central while the Rangers are on their way to a West Division title, eight games ahead of the Angels. My choice of a team ripe for a letdown is Texas.

I feel the Angels have a stronger starting pitching staff, and down the stretch the Rangers will be overcome by the strain of hanging on to the lead all season, much like last year’s Tigers.

No matter how it pans out, September will yield the results of the “dog days,” and one or more teams will have a long, hard winter to get over the agony of defeat.