As a sea of Arkansas fans throughout the stadium raised their arms in celebration of the school’s first baseball national championship on Wednesday night, disaster struck the star-crossed Razorbacks at the worst possible time.
They botched what could have been the final out of a title-clinching victory and gifted Oregon State new life.
Three Arkansas players raced after the potential series-ending popup hit by Oregon State’s Cadyn Grenier, but none could make a routine catch in foul territory down the right-field line. The Beavers then capitalized when Grenier delivered a game-tying RBI single and Trevor Larnach followed with a go-ahead two-run home run.
The lingering question entering Thursday night’s winner-take-all Game 3 of the College World Series is how Arkansas will respond. Are the Razorbacks already dead men walking as a result of the psychological scars from Wednesday’s loss? Or can they summon the resiliency necessary to wrest back momentum away from Oregon State?
There are a few examples of athletes or teams overcoming ill-timed gaffes en route to capturing a championship, but history suggests that’s all too rare. Far more often, the emotional hangover from the blunder proves too debilitating to rise above.
Below is a list of notable sports gaffes in which the blundering athlete or team still had the chance to recover in time to salvage its championship hopes. In all but one instance, the flubs proved fatal and the bumblers could not recover.
J.R. Smith forgets the score (May 31, 2018)
WHAT HAPPENED: A 51-point performance from LeBron James went to waste because of an air-headed mistake from one of his teammates. When George Hill missed the potential go-ahead free throw with 4.7 seconds left in Game 1 of this year’s NBA Finals, J.R. Smith outfought Kevin Durant for the offensive rebound. Mistakenly convinced that his team led by a point even though the score was actually tied, Smith attempted to dribble out the clock instead of trying to win the game. By the time Smith realized what he had done, it was too late, and the Cavs failed to get off a quality shot before the buzzer.
HOW CLEVELAND RECOVERED: They didn’t. Golden State reeled off 12 of the next 14 points en route to a 124-114 victory, and you could see it coming before overtime even began. TV cameras caught LeBron glowering at Smith in disbelief, throwing his hands in the air in disgust and then not saying a word to anyone on the bench during the ensuing timeout. Never again did Cleveland have a better chance than that to win a game in this year’s Finals. Golden State won the next three games by an average of 16.7 points en route to a 4-0 sweep.
Bill Buckner’s infamous error (Oct. 25, 1986)
WHAT HAPPENED: To a legion of tortured, success-starved New England sports fans, Bill Buckner committed an unforgivable crime. The first baseman let a bouncing baseball slip through his legs to cap a bullpen meltdown that began with the Red Sox one out away from winning the 1986 World Series and snapping a championship drought that dated back to 1918. Buckner’s run-scoring error in the bottom of the tenth inning completed the Mets’ rally for a 6-5 victory in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Instead of the Red Sox celebrating the end of Babe Ruth’s curse in a champagne-soaked locker room, they had to somehow regroup in time for a winner-take-all Game 7.
HOW BOSTON RECOVERED: All the attention that Buckner’s error has received the past three decades makes it easy to forget that Boston still had a chance to salvage the series in Game 7. The Red Sox actually led 3-0 into the sixth inning before starter Bruce Hurst began to tire and an overworked bullpen collapsed. New York’s 8-5 Game 7 victory extended Boston’s World Series drought another year and cemented Buckner as a tragic figure in baseball lore. The passage of time diminished the vitriol aimed at Bucker, but not until the Red Sox finally won a championship in 2004 did the most diehard Red Sox fans truly forgive him.
Missed free throws doom Memphis (April 8, 2008)
WHAT HAPPENED: To Kansas fans, it will forever be known as Mario’s miracle. To Memphis supporters, it was a heartbreaking collapse. John Calipari’s most star-laden Memphis team led formidable Kansas by nine points with two minutes to go in the 2008 national title game when the Tigers’ notoriously haphazard foul shooting deserted them at the worst possible time. Stars Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts combined to miss four of five free throws down the stretch, paving the way for a Kansas comeback capped by Mario Chalmers’ game-tying 3-pointer in the dying seconds of regulation.
HOW MEMPHIS RECOVERED: Shellshocked and heavy-legged, Memphis could not halt Kansas’ momentum in overtime. Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson scored the first six points to put Kansas ahead 69-63 and Memphis pulled no closer than three the rest of the way. That outcome continues to alter the perception of two of college basketball’s most successful coaches even a decade later. Bill Self isn’t saddled with the label of college basketball’s best coach never to win a championship because of that comeback. Calipari too often receives criticism for only netting one national title in part because of that collapse.
Steve Smith’s disastrous own goal (April 30, 1986)
WHAT HAPPENED: Wayne Gretzky’s juggernaut Edmonton Oilers captured five Stanley Cup trophies in seven seasons from 1984 to 1990. They might have won another in 1986 were it not for a self-inflicted mistake that still lives in infamy in hockey circles. Edmonton was tied 2-2 with Calgary in the seventh game of their second-round playoff series when the upstart Flames surged ahead in unfathomable fashion. On the night of his 23rd birthday, dependable defenseman Steve Smith attempted a third-period pass to a teammate, but the puck hit the leg of totally unaware goalie Grant Fuhr and trickled into Edmonton’s net.
HOW EDMONTON RECOVERED: It wasn’t pretty for Edmonton after Smith’s mistake gifted Calgary the go-ahead goal. The defenseman immediately fell to the ice in a tear-stained heap, and the Oilers’ vaunted offense could not produce the tying goal over the final 14:46 of the third period. Calgary went on to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where it lost to Montreal. Edmonton regrouped to capture the Cup the following two years. Gretzky invited Smith to have the first turn skating with the trophy in 1987 to redeem him to outraged Oilers fans. Smith went on to play for the Oilers until 1991 and to return to Edmonton as an assistant coach from 2010 to 2014.
Bartman’s burden (Oct 14, 2003)
WHAT HAPPENED: Only a franchise as star-crossed as the Chicago Cubs could have its World Series bid deteriorate as a result of a mistake by a fan. That’s what happened with one out in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS with the Cubs ahead of the Florida Marlins 3-0 and seemingly cruising toward a pennant-clinching victory. Moises Alou attempted to chase down a foul ball hit by Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo, but a Cubs fan named Steve Bartman infamously reached for the ball, deflected it and disrupted Alou’s attempt to catch it. Gifted new life, Castillo drew a walk, sparking an eight-run series-altering rally.
HOW CHICAGO RECOVERED: The Bartman incident became the turning point in the series, the stroke of bad luck that kept the Cubs from reaching their first World Series since 1945. The Cubs lost Game 6 to the Marlins, 8-3, and battled back from an early 3-0 deficit in Game 7 only to fall 9-6 against the eventual World Series champions. Bartman had to be led away from Wrigley Field by security as passers-by pelted him with beer and debris. He has since avoided attending Cubs games and stayed out of the limelight, declining invitations to make public appearances after the team finally ended its World Series drought in 2016.
Garo Yepremian’s pass (Jan. 14, 1973)
WHAT HAPPENED: Thanks to an ill-advised decision on the NFL’s biggest stage, a highly accomplished kicker remains best known for a comically inept pass. Only a few minutes remained in Super Bowl VII, and the undefeated Miami Dolphins led the Washington Redskins 14-0. Don Shula called on future all-pro kicker Garo Yepremian to attempt a 42-yard field goal, one that would have clinched the game and potentially made the final score match the Dolphins’ 17-0 record. Washington blocked the kick, but even that would have been well short of disaster for Miami had Yepremian merely fallen on the ball. The 5-foot-7 kicker instead scooped it up and needlessly attempted to pass, a poor choice that resulted in the ball slipping out of his hands and into the hands of the Redskins’ Mike Bass, who ran 49 yards for a touchdown.
HOW MIAMI RECOVERED: Maybe Miami deserves credit for displaying more resiliency than some of the other teams on this list. Maybe Washington simply didn’t have enough time to fully capitalize on the gut punch of Yepremian’s gaffe. Whatever the reason, the Dolphins managed to hang on for a 14-7 victory that immortalized them forever as the NFL’s first undefeated Super Bowl champ. Washington forced a quick punt from Miami on its ensuing possession, but the Redskins couldn’t capitalize after getting the ball back down seven with just over a minute to go. Bill Stanfill sacked Billy Kilmer on 4th-and-14 from the Washington 26-yard line, ending the game and letting Yepremian off the hook.
Jean Van de Velde’s 18th-hole collapse (July 18, 1999)
WHAT HAPPENED: Needing only a double bogey on the 18th hole at Carnoustie to secure an unlikely British Open title, upstart French golfer Jean Van de Velde got himself into big trouble with needlessly aggressive choices when going conservative was clearly the right move. He teed off using his driver instead of an iron and pushed himself far to the right of the fairway. He went for green instead of laying up with his second shot and the ball struck the grandstand and came to rest in knee-deep rough. A chop out, chip and two putt still would have saved van de Velde, but his third shot landed in the burn in front of the green, leading to the iconic image of the French golfer removing his shoes and socks wading into the water and pondering his unfavorable options.
HOW VAN DE VELDE RECOVERED: Van de Velde pulled himself together enough to sink a brave eight-foot triple-bogey putt to secure his place in a three-way playoff, but he was too frazzled to offer much competition to eventual champion Paul Lawrie. He took a double bogey on the first hole of the ensuing four-hole playoff and followed that with a bogey on the second hole. Improbably still within striking distance on the final playoff hole, Van de Velde again found the rough, ending his bid for what would have been his lone major title and creating a headache for tournament organizers. Van de Velde’s name had already been engraved on the Claret Jug. It had to be scratched off so that Lawrie’s could replace it.
Lindsey Jacobellis celebrates too early (Feb. 18, 2006)
WHAT HAPPENED: Having opened up a massive lead in the final of the Snowboard Cross at the 2006 Winter Olympics, 20-year-old American Lindsey Jacobellis needed only to stay upright to capture the gold medal. The pre-race favorite instead crashed on the second-to-last jump of the race, allowing Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden to pass her just before the finish line. How did Jacobellis fall? TV replays revealed the shocking explanation. She showboated by going for a method grab in midair in an event with no style points. As a result, she landed on the edge of her board, tumbled and had to settle for the most unsatisfactory of silver medals.
HOW JACOBELLIS RECOVERED: Jacobellis has captured four of her five world championships since the 2006 Olympics, but she has faded each time she has returned to the Olympic stage. In 2010, she hit a gate and was disqualified before reaching the medal round. In 2014, she crashed while leading her semifinal race. She advanced to the final race in 2018 and led midway through the event, but other riders passed her on the bottom half of the course and she again left without a medal. Jacobellis finished fourth by 0.03 seconds, missing the medal stand and some semblance of redemption by about half the length of a snowboard.
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