Anyone who has listened to The Comcast Morning Show at some point over the last handful of years has often heard me remark that nothing good comes from losing.
A lot has been made over the last two weeks about the Colts pulling their starters against the Jets – while winning the game – and essentially “giving up” and letting the Jets win.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in Indianapolis next weekend when they start their playoff season, but I’m sure of this: They’d be more confident going into that game if they would have finished the regular season at 16-0. Finishing the year undefeated would have made them, literally, invincible…at least for the regular season, anyway.
So it’s never good to lose a game. That’s what I think.
That is, unless you sort-of, kind-of do it on purpose…in an attempt to HELP your cause, not hurt it.
And I will admit, now, 12 years later, that I was involved in one of those situations.
I’m too lazy to look up the exact dates, but I can remember the details as if the game and the events happened yesterday.
I was the General Manager of the Baltimore Spirit (nee: Blast) indoor soccer team in the 1996-97 season. We had a decent club and battled a bunch of injuries throughout most of the season and wound up doing just enough to qualify for the playoffs with one week left in the regular season. Our record was 20-19 with one game to play — a visit to Philadelphia to play the Kixx on a Saturday night at the Spectrum. The outcome didn’t matter in terms of our playoff qualification, because we had clinched a spot. But depending on our result and the result of another game played on Saturday afternoon in Buffalo, our playoff seeding and opponent was still undecided going into the final game.
The possibilities were very clear. The Tampa Bay Terror needed to win at Buffalo on Saturday afternoon to get in the playoffs. If Tampa Bay won, and we beat Philadelphia, the Kixx would drop to the 4th seed, Tampa Bay would finish 3rd, we would finish 2nd, and we’d play Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs, a best-of-3 series. If Tampa Bay won and we LOST to the Kixx, the Kixx would finish 3rd, we’d finish 2nd, and we’d then play Philadelphia in the first round and Tampa Bay would have to play Cleveland.
If Tampa Bay LOST on Saturday in Buffalo, they’d finish 4th no matter what happened in our game with Philly and we would play Philadelphia regardless of whether or not we won in Philly in the last game.
On the field, there was a distinct advantage – in our mind – in playing Philadelphia. We had handled them in the regular season series and knew their players and style of play very well. Tampa Bay, with ex-Blast coach Kenny Cooper at the helm, had given us trouble during the regular season and Stankovic and I – having worked for Cooper for 12 years – knew that Kenny was always going to have a playoff trick or two up his sleeve.
There was also the financial benefit of playing Philadelphia. We’d have one – maybe two – home game against them and by virtue of the proximity of the two cities, our home crowd against the Kixx would be at least 500 or so higher than if we played Tampa Bay. The Kixx had a decent-sized fan club at the time. Our gate would probably improve by at least $5,000 if we played Philadelphia. And by beating Philly, we’d get a home game against Cleveland and have a chance at a decent gate there because the Cleveland team was a marquee match-up in the league at that time.
Simply put: It was much better for us to play Philly than Tampa Bay.
In the final week of the regular season, for reasons I’d prefer not to disclose here, the owner of our team was in the beginning stages of a financial struggle and during a phone call to discuss the day-to-day events of the soccer team, he suggested to me that meeting a projected playoff budget (player payroll, travel expenses, etc.) of $55,000 for the month of April might not be possible. He asked me to take a hard look at the budget and “trim the fat” in whatever manner I could do to reduce his financial exposure for April.
When I mentioned we needed a check for nearly $5,000 to prepare for the possibility of having to buy airline tickets to Tampa Bay and two days worth of hotel and per-diem, he simply said, “I’m not going to be able to get that to you right away. You should make provisions to take the bus to Tampa Bay.”
I didn’t push that information along to our head coach, Mike Stankovic, because I privately hoped the owner would “come around” in a day or two and realize that asking a team of 20 soccer players to take a 16-hour bus trip to play a post-season game probably wasn’t a good recipe for success.
A day later, or thereabouts, we talked again and he threw another grenade at me. ”Did you get the bus arranged for Tampa Bay yet?”
The owner obviously didn’t “come around”. We were taking a bus to Tampa Bay if we played them in the post-season.
Players didn’t like the 90 minute bus ride to Philadelphia, imagine how they were going to feel when the GM broke the news to them that they were going to bus 16 hours to Tampa Bay.
Still, I didn’t say anything to the head coach or anyone else in the organization, for that matter. The only other person I confided in was my secretary, Stacy Holland, because she was in charge of organizing the travel.
Now, back to the Saturday chain of events on the last day of the regular season.
For some reason, and honestly, I don’t remember why, the coach (Stankovic) and I drove to Philadelphia in his car instead of taking the bus up there. It might have been just to have a chance to talk about the team, the roster, the playoffs, etc. But we got in his car in Timonium and headed to Philly in mid-afternoon.
As we merged on to I-95, I told him about the playoff travel dilemma.
“We’re having some temporary financial issues,” I said. ”And we’re probably going to have to bus throughout the playoffs. If we play Tampa, we have to bus down there. If we win that series and we play Cleveland, we’ll have to bus there too.”
Stankovic, naturally, bristled at the notion of taking a bus to either location, but I explained to him that we had no other choice, unless he wanted to volunteer his salary for the month.
Of course, it went unsaid that if we played Philadelphia in the playoffs, the trip and the expense of playing the Kixx would be about $1,000 in total when you combine our bus (traded out for advertising in the arena), per-diem ($40 per-player) and the tolls on I-95.
As we cruised towards the worst city in America, I dialed the Marine Midland Arena press box in Buffalo to get an update on the game.
“Press Box…” a female voice said.
“Hey, it’s Drew in Baltimore, what’s your score?”
“With 12 minutes left in the game, it’s Buffalo 12, Tampa Bay 8.”
I reported the score back to Stankovic. ”As long as Buffalo doesn’t collapse, we’re in good shape,” I remarked.
Ten minutes later, I again called the press box.
“It’s Buffalo 12, Tampa Bay 12 with 30 seconds to go in the game,” the female press box attendant said.
I hung up and looked at Stankovic. ”Holy cow, it’s 12-12 heading to overtime.”
A few minutes later, I called again. There was typically a lot of background noise when you called any press box during the game. When she answered the phone, there was silence behind her voice.
“Hi, Drew again…what’s the score?”
“In overtime, Tampa Bay 14, Buffalo 12.”
I didn’t even have to tell Stankovic the score. My ashen-colored face told the story.
“Don’t tell me those f***ers lost,” he growled.
“Yep, Tampa Bay won in overtime,” I replied.
Mike stared straight at the road and said, “So we play Tampa Bay right?”
“Yeah, we play them if we beat Philadelphia tonight,” I answered.
About 30 seconds went by. Neither of us said anything.
Suddenly, Stankovic said, “We’re not going to play Tampa Bay, don’t worry.”
As we pulled into the Spectrum parking lot, Stankovic said, “We’re going to sit Vaccaro, Segota, Neely, Zoric and Jimmy Glenn.” Those players represented our starting goaltender, our best defender, our up-and-coming midfield sparkplug and a young forward (Glenn) who had caught fire late in the year. With those guys playing, we would have been 3.5 point favorites (if such a betting line existed). Without them, we would have struggled to win against the worst team in the league, let alone a playoff team like Philadelphia.
“I’m going to play tonight,” Stankovic said. ”And we’ll let Jim McCombs play in goal.” McCombs was our 3rd string goalkeeper who hadn’t started a game in his career.
When the bus pulled in, I met our trainer, Carlo Mastrangelo, and told him not to put jerseys in the lockers of the guys Stankovic was resting.
Carlo looked at me like I had three heads. ”Are you serious? What the hell is going on?”
I just walked away and mentioned to him something about “giving other guys a chance to play” and headed off to a private place in the building to either laugh or throw-up.
Stankovic never said a word to any of the players about the game and his altered line-up.
We went out in the first half and had a terrific first 30 minutes. McCombs – to borrow the old hockey term – stood on his head and made several miraculous saves. We passed the ball crisply, executed our set plays well and trailed at the half, 5-4. Without five of our best players, we still looked very good.
And we were still in the game.
Even when we were trying to lose, we were still in the game. It’s worth noting, of course, that not one Baltimore player knew that the Coach and GM were both begging for a loss. The players were playing their asses off, trying to win a game, because that’s what players do.
Second half play-by-play isn’t needed. Philadelphia, playing hard to avoid having to face #1 seed Cleveland, put together a great second half and easily beat our “B team”. I don’t remember the final, but I think it was something like 15-8.
A week later in Philadelphia, we pounded them in Game #2 of the best of 3 series, 21-12, and won the series in two straight games.
It only cost us $1,000 to play – and win – that playoff series vs. the Kixx.
Cleveland beat Tampa Bay in their playoff series and we wound up facing the Crunch in the next round. Magically – and thankfully – we flew to Cleveland twice for the games in their building and wound up losing in the 4th quarter of the 3rd and final game to be eliminated. But we had a $45,000 gate (ticket sales) for that Cleveland home game and that was money the club desperately needed at that time.
Other than losing to the Crunch, the whole playoff season went perfectly. We played Philly, had a good crowd at the home game, played Cleveland after that, had a really good home crowd, and that was that.
And we didn’t have to ride the bus for 16 hours to play a Tampa Bay team that would have given us fits in the first series.
So the next time you watch a team play – in any sport – and it looks like they’re trying to lose, remember this:
Maybe they are.