Thursday, August 27, 2009

Destiny, Coming To A Stadium Near You

FatherBlog was so excited to talk about seeing an unassisted triple play in person that he forgot where he was.

"I was at Shea Stadium when it happened," he said.

Shea Stadium. Citi Field. TigerBlog knew what he meant and was simply grateful that he didn't say "Ebbetts Field" or "The Polo Grounds."

The unassisted triple play was turned by the Phillies' Eric Bruntlett to end the game against the Mets Sunday afternoon. It was the 15th unassisted triple play in Major League history and the first in the entire history of the National League that ended a game.

Bruntlett, a career .231 hitter with 11 career home runs in 502 career games, now has his jersey in the Hall of Fame.

And how exactly did he turn his unassisted triple play? The inning started when Bruntlett made an error, and it became first and second with no out when he couldn't reach a ground ball that he had a chance at. Then, the Mets tried a double steal, which moved him closer to the bag, right in the path of the line shot that Jeff Francoeur rocketed up the middle. If all that wasn't enough, he was only playing because Chase Utley, arguably the best second baseman in baseball, got the day off.

In other words, it can often be better to be lucky than good, or in some cases, lucky than smart.

The unassisted triple play started TigerBlog thinking about great Princeton athletic moments that he's seen and how fate could have changed them so easily. We're not talking about people who put in amazing individual performances that led to a win (Zane Kalemba against Colgate in the 2008 ECAC semifinals, for instance). We're talking about situations where an athlete or team ended up with an all-time glorious moment that could have been so different had something completely out of their control changed.

Take the most famous moment in Princeton athletics TigerBlog has seen, the winning basket by Gabe Lewullis in the 1996 NCAA tournament opening round win over defending-champion UCLA. It's a play any Princeton fan has seen a million times, the perfect pass from Steve Goodrich and the layup by Lewullis that put Princeton up 43-41 with three seconds left.

But how many Princeton fans remember what happened six minutes earlier? The game had been 34-34 at one point, but UCLA scored seven straight to go up 41-34 with six minutes left. Princeton then turned it over, and Charles O'Bannon took an over-the-shoulder pass ahead of the field. O'Bannon, though, lost track of how close he was to the basket and ended up blowing the uncontested layup.

"I don't know how he missed it," Princeton's Mitch Henderson said at the time. "The ball just popped right into my hands."

Princeton's next possession ended when now-head coach Sydney Johnson dropped in a long three-pointer, and what would have been a nine-point UCLA lead was instead a four-point game that was soon tied.

Even from there, it might have all been different. Cameron Dollar missed two foul shots after an intentional foul call with just over a minute left; had he made either, UCLA would have been up one (or two, if he'd made both) with the ball. Even after Dollar's misses, UCLA could have taken the lead or gotten the ball back had the refs called traveling on Steve Goodrich (TB has studied the tape, in which the entire UCLA bench can be seen jumping up signaling a walk, and it was close but not a travel) after he rebounded Kris Johnson's miss.

But none of that happened, and Princeton ended up 41-41, with the ball, and the rest is the kind of history that gets replayed hundreds of times on TV every March, when TB's phone rings off the hook with people who start out by saying "I'm doing a story on great NCAA tournament upsets and was hoping to speak with Gabe Lewullis."

How about Princeton's 2006 Ivy football championship? The most famous play from that season - and in the last, oh, 50 years of Princeton football - was when Jeff Terrell took the pitch back from Rob Toresco after Toresco had been stopped by the Penn line three times in the second overtime and ran it into the end zone. Terrell is known now as the guy who made that play and then threw for 445 yards and three TDs the next week to rally Princeton past Yale, known as the guy who led Princeton to the league title and won the Bushnell Cup as Ivy Player of the Year. In other words, known as Princeton football royalty.

But what if the refs had blown the whistle and said Toresco had been stopped? Then what. No TD against Penn, which would have surely meant a Penn win (the Quakers scored on their first play of the second OT). Had Penn won, Princeton would have had consecutive Ivy losses, which would have left the Tigers two back of Yale. In that situation, it's probable that Princeton would not have rallied from two touchdowns back in the second half in New Haven. No Ivy title for Princeton would have meant Bushnell Cup for Yale's Mike McLeod and not for Terrell, whose legacy would be radically different. All from one ref's whistle.

Or how about one of the great nights in the history of Princeton women's athletics, the night Princeton defeated Washington 3-1 in women's soccer to advance to the 2004 NCAA Final Four? Lourie-Love Field was jammed that night, with lines from the door all the back to the parking lot long before the game started. Princeton, with that momentum, scored early and then twice in the second half to beat the Huskies. It was by any account an epic night for Princeton athletics.

Yet the only reason the game was in Princeton was because the No. 2 seed Penn State had been upset in Round 2 of the tournament. Had Penn State won out, Princeton would have been at State College in the quarterfinals, not home against Washington (who beat Maryland after Maryland beat Penn State). Obviously, winning that game would have been more difficult, as Princeton would have been on the road against the No. 2 team in the country instead of having the support of the huge home crowd.

Want another one? Look at Princeton's six NCAA men's lacrosse championships, four of which have come in overtime. The second one came off a goal on a feed that missed its target and instead went right to a different player, who then scored on his shot. The third came when the refs awarded timeout to Princeton in a situation so unsettled that it actually led to a rule change.

How about the 2001 title, Princeton's sixth? Princeton led Syracuse 9-8 when Mikey Powell scored with 16 seconds left in regulation, giving SU the momentum heading into OT. The Orange had three real chances in overtime before Princeton scored. One of those ended on a great play by Damien Davis. One ended when Syracuse missed the MVP of the previous year's championship game wide open in front of the net. The third ended when Ryan Mollett forced a turnover against Powell on a play where a loose-ball push could easily have been called (it wouldn't have been the right call, as replay showed, but it would have been an understandable call given the circumstances, as Powell slipped on wet grass just before Mollett got there).

Instead of Princeton possession, which led to B.J. Prager's winning goal, it would have been Syracuse ball, settled six-on-six, with little over a minute left in the first OT. Had SU held for the last shot and not scored, the Orange did have Chris Cercy, one of the best face-off men in college lacrosse history, for the second OT. In other words, Syracuse would have had a good chance of cashing in, which would have taken away the sixth title, the one that Bill Tierney won with both of his sons (Trevor and Brendan).

TigerBlog has always hated the sports cliche of "controlling your own destiny." TB understands what it's come to mean, but it doesn't change the fact that you can't control your destiny. Your destiny is something that happens to you, regardless. Don't believe it?

Ask Eric Bruntlett. Or Gabe Lewullis.

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