To my surprise, the top of my list was easier to pick than the bottom. I settled on the top five early on and never wavered. But those bubble games at the back end were a challenge. Here are a few that almost made the cut:
• The 1999 MLB All-Star Game
The 70th Major League Baseball All-Star Game was supposed to have been played in Milwaukee. But when it became apparent that Miller Park wouldn’t be finished in time, Fenway Park moved up in the rotation from its 2001 slot (for what was widely perceived to be its last hurrah before being torn down early in the 21st century). In the process, Boston benefitted from one of the many Y2K commemorations held throughout the sports world in 1999. Major League Baseball had compiled a list of the 100 Players of the Century; 31 of them were at Fenway that night. The Sox couldn’t have assembled a better welcoming committee for Ted Williams, whose dramatic arrival via golf cart from center field brought the pregame ceremonies to a standstill. With Fenway still aglow, Pedro Martinez then punched out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Jeff Bagwell (who had combined to hit 210 home runs the year before—52 more than the ’27 Yankees) in the first two innings. But ultimately I decided that this was more a great moment than a great game.
• Patriots 27, Jets 24, OT, September 14, 1997 (Tuna Bowl I)
In hindsight it’s hard to grasp the level of hype leading up to the return of former Pats coach Bill Parcells after his defection to the Jets. This was the most-anticipated regular reason game in Foxboro Stadium history. The fact that the Patriots pulled it out in dramatic fashion—defensive lineman Mike Jones blocked a chip-shot field goal at the end of regulation and Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winner in overtime—made it a viable candidate for the top 100. But despite superior talent, New England played a sloppy, undisciplined game—Drew Bledsoe in particular. And I decided that, even though the Patriots won, this game mostly showed what a step back it was for the franchise when Pete Carroll replaced Bill Parcells.
• Patriots 27, Dolphins 24 (OT), December 29, 2002
Since winning their first Super Bowl the Patriots have missed the playoffs just twice. Each time, they were still in contention after playing their final down of the season, pending the outcome a later game. And each time they lost out because Chad Pennington kicked Brett Favre’s ass under the lights at the Meadowlands. In 2008, with Matt Cassel as quarterback, the Pats routed Buffalo in their last game to finish 11–5. But they lost a tiebreaker for the division title to Miami. (Behind Pennington, the Dolphins knocked off the Jets 24–17 in their finale, thanks in large part to Favre’s three picks.) 2002 smarted even more. New England, reigning Super Bowl champions for the first time, overcame a 24–13 deficit against Miami in the last three minutes of their season finale to keep their playoff hopes alive. But Pennington (then with the Jets) thoroughly outplayed Favre (then with the Packers) as New York routed Green Bay 42–17 to win the division on a tiebreaker. And because the Pats failed to make the playoffs, that great ’02 comeback failed to make the top 100.
• Red Sox 4, Senators 0, June 23, 1917
Sox pitcher Ernie Shore can claim the distinction of throwing the only pluperfect game in major league history. In the first game of a Saturday doubleheader at Fenway Park, Shore recorded 27 outs while facing just 26 batters. And for years Shore—who entered the game when starter Babe Ruth was tossed for arguing balls and strikes after walking leadoff batter Ray Morgan—was credited with a perfect game. Sox catcher Sam Agnew erased Morgan on an attempted steal, and Shore allowed no one to reach the rest of the way. But in 1991, an eight-man bureaucracy from MLB accomplished what nine Senators from Washington could not: It spoiled Ernie Shore’s “perfect” game. A Major League Baseball rules committee reclassified Shore’s feat as a combined no-hitter. Considering Ruth’s contribution to the feat, it has to be the most inequitable shared record in sports.
• Red Sox 9, Mariners 7, April 10, 1998
The greatest home opener in Fenway history. The Seattle Mariners, defending AL West champs, were in town on Good Friday, with A-Rod and Junior Griffey in the lineup and Randy Johnson on the mound. The Big Unit was at his imposing best: fifteen strikeouts and more hit batsmen (three) than hits allowed (two). With Seattle holding a 7–2 lead in the ninth, Mariners manager Lou Piniella lifted Johnson and began an Easter parade of relievers, starting with former Sox closer Heathcliff Slocumb. They didn’t record a single out. All seven Sox batters scored—the last four on Mo Vaughn’s walk-off grand slam.
• Lynn Classical 38, Nashua 6, December 6, 1947
I was willing to include a high school game among the top 100 if I found a viable candidate. The 1914 Everett High team, for example, won the “national championship” by outscoring its opponents 600–0 en route to a 13–0 record. Great team? No doubt. Great games? No way. Even the so-called championship game was a howler: an 80–0 romp over a team from Oak Park, Illinois, coached by the legendary Robert Zuppke. The Lynn Classical teams from the 1940s that featured Harry Agganis—probably the best-known Boston high school player ever—also achieved national recognition. Classical beat a team from Norfolk, Virginia, 21–14, at the Orange Bowl on Christmas Day 1946. That wasn’t a national championship game; it was an invitational. Classical was supposed to return to Miami in 1947, but they were disinvited from the invitational when the Orange Bowl committee learned that the Lynn team had two black players, Paul Pittman and Tom Smith. “We don’t play our boys against Negroes,” Orange Bowl director Robert B. Mulloy told the Associated Press. “Lynn Classical has two and so Classical is definitely out.” Lynn coach Bill Joyce’s response: “We don’t play anywhere without our full squad, much less without our two Negroes.” And so Classical stayed home and instead played Nashua, the New Hampshire state champion, in a hastily arranged game at Lynn’s Manning Bowl. That game—dubbed the “Shoe Bowl” because of the importance of the shoemaking industry in each city—didn’t make the cut for my list, but it deserves honorable mention.