On Oct. 27, 1991 John Smoltz started game 7 of the World Series. The Braves would lose that game, giving Minnesota the World Series title. Unfortunately for Smoltz, that was just the beginning of the bad news when it comes to the postseason.
Here’s a nice trivia question: Which player was on the most World Series-winning teams? The answer: Yogi Berra. During his 18 years with the Yankees, Yogi played in 14 World Series, also a record. His team won 10 of them, more than 70%. (Berra also won two pennants as manager, but his team lost the Series in seven games both times.)
Now here’s a less nice trivia question: Which player was on the most World Series-losing teams? Two players share that dubious distinction, Pee Wee Reese and Elston Howard with six. Howard at least had four victories to go along with his six defeats. Poor Reese was victorious only once, over Howard and the Yankees in 1955.
But, of course, those are both World Series records. Just as many prominent postseason records have fallen as baseball has added more rounds—Derek Jeter alone holds the postseason records for games, at-bats, runs, hits, singles, total bases, times on base and strikeouts—players have had more chances to lose series.
(Strictly speaking, a player can lose only once every postseason, same as he could when there was only a World Series. But a player and his team now have three separate chances to have that one loss hung on them every year; they used to have just one.)
Before getting into the nasty business of series losers, it is only fair to spend some time on the winners. The all-time leader in playoff series victories is Andy Pettitte, who has won 18 different series with the Yankees and Astros. For good measure, Pettitte was also a member, but injured, of the 2004 Astros team that won the NLDS that year.
At a rate of one celebration per series, plus a celebration for making the playoffs, and giving him credit only for those series in which he was healthy, Pettitte has run around a clubhouse soaking his teammates with champagne (and being soaked in return) 29 times. That’s a lot of bubbly.
The position player leader in postseason series wins is (act surprised!) Jeter, with 17. Because Jeter has one-and-dones on his postseason resume that Pettitte does not, he is tied with him for all-time champagne celebrations.
But, of course, for some players to have all that success, others must suffer defeat. Unfortunately for him, “others” in this sense often means John Smoltz. It is only fair to point out that Smoltz is a brilliant postseason performer. He has thrown more than 200 innings in the postseason and has a 2.65 ERA to show for it. Smoltz’ ERA has been two or under in nearly half of his postseason series, including six of the series the Braves have lost.
Due to a number of factors, many of them out of Smoltz’ control, he is the all-time leader in postseason series team defeats. Smoltz’ teams have lost 12 series, four each of League Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series. Others from those Braves teams rank high on the all-time lost series list, including Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine (each with 11) and Chipper Jones (10).
In fact, now that I think about it, Bobby Cox—who managed all those Braves teams—is probably the person with the single most playoff series losses in baseball history. In addition to the 12 he shares with Smoltz, Cox also managed the Blue Jays to defeat in the 1985 ALCS against Kansas City. No wonder he gets ejected so often; he has a lot of grief to work through.
Besides a host of postseason losses, all the players and managers discussed in this essay have something in common: At one time or another, they’ve all won a World Series. Now, some have won more than others—we can only imagine what Cox thinks of Berra’s 10 rings in 16 tries compared to his one in 13—but they have all at one time or another been at the peak of major league success.
Not all players are so lucky. The next player shares two especially dubious distinctions. He is not only the position player with the most postseason losses in history, but also the player with the most series losses without ever being on a World Series winner. That man? Kenny Lofton.
Lofton’s postseason resume is a veritable platter of misfortunes. His team has been defeated six times by the team that would go on to win the World Series (that will rise to seven if the Red Sox triumph). Part of Lofton’s problem is a lousy sense of timing. He was defeated by the champion Braves in 1995, and joined them two years later, only to fall in the NLCS. In 1998 his Indians went down to the Yankees. He joined them a few years later and went down in defeat.
Lofton has been part of a number of noteworthy collapses as well. In 2002, his Giants were up by five runs with just eight outs needed to win the title, only to see the Angels rally and their hopes melt away. In 2003 Lofton was with the Cubs and seemingly on a path to another pennant when—depending on one’s view—bad luck or Steve Bartman intervened, sending Chicago down in defeat. In 2004 Lofton was on the Yankees and part of the first team to lose a series after taking a 3-0 lead.
This year, Lofton was a member of an Indians team that needed just one more win to go to the World Series, and proceeded to get stomped by a combined 30-5 score in the final three games. (In fact, Lofton has now lost 10 straight potential pennant- clinching games.)
Perhaps it is not Lofton’s fate to win a World Series. It seems unjust that Lofton should manage to lose 11 postseason series (out of 20, his winning percentage is just .450) while other players—I’m looking at you, Yogi—seem to have all the luck. Maybe next year will bring redemption and victory to Lofton. Or maybe life just isn’t fair.