Greatest catch, biggest choke and more

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Over the past week, we have dug deep on some of the best things in New York sports history — from trades to pop culture cameos and free agents to stadiums. Here’s a look at five more categories.

Best catch in N.Y. baseball history — Willie Mays

Baseball may have seen greater catches, but never witnessed one more legendary. It was Sept. 29, 1954 — Game 1 of the 1954 World Series — when Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz came to the plate with the score tied in the eighth inning at the Polo Grounds. Runners were at first and second. Wertz worked a 2-1 count against southpaw reliever Don Liddle, then blasted a deep shot to center field, sending the 23-year-old Mays sprinting backwards, while glancing over his left shoulder.

The ball traveled over 420 feet through the horseshoe-shaped stadium in Upper Manhattan, before Mays made the magnificent over-the-shoulder catch, then quickly spun and threw to the infield — as his hat flew off — to prevent the runners from advancing. The 97-win Giants would take Game 1 in extra innings, then complete an improbable sweep and upset of the 111-win Indians to claim the New York club’s first World Series title in 21 years.

Mays never believed “The Catch” — now immortalized atop the Willie Mays World Series MVP Award — was his greatest defensive feat, but no other catch will ever be so iconic.

Biggest choke in N.Y. sports history — 2004 Yankees

Without historical context, the 2004 ALCS could be considered the worst collapse in sports history. In 115 years of postseason baseball, no other team has blown a 3-0 series lead.

But so much more was at stake, besides a World Series berth. The Red Sox hadn’t won a title in 86 years. The Yankees had won 26 titles since acquiring Babe Ruth from Boston. In the 2003 ALCS, the Yankees came out on top of baseball’s biggest rivalry, capturing the pennant with a Game 7 comeback and dramatic Aaron Boone walk-off home run.

One year later, the Yankees were three outs from a sweep, with the greatest closer of all time on the mound. Unbeknownst to all at the time, disaster began when Mariano Rivera issued a walk to Kevin Millar, allowing pinch-runner Dave Roberts to steal second and then score the game-tying run. David Ortiz ended Game 4 with a 12th-inning homer and then hit a walk-off single in the 14th to win Game 5 after the Yankees bullpen blew a two-run lead in the eighth.

Back in The Bronx, Game 6 was sealed by Curt Schilling, the bloody sock and Alex Rodriguez’s illegal slap of Bronson Arroyo. Then, a second-inning knockout decided Game 7, via Johnny Damon’s grand slam. Boston celebrated in The Bronx, then won the first of four titles this century.

Best dynasty in N.Y. sports — 1949-53 Yankees

The only team in history to win five straight World Series titles reigns supreme among multiple Yankees dynasties. Following a typo-like third-place finish in 1948, the Yankees hired Casey Stengel as manager despite his posting a 534-682 combined record in Brooklyn and Boston.

His fortune changed over the next five years with six Hall of Famers (Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize), two MVPs (Rizzuto, Berra), 13 All-Stars (DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Rizzuto, Mize, Tommy Henrich, Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds, Tommy Byrne, Jerry Coleman, Ed Lopat, Gil McDougald, Johnny Sain) and one Rookie of the Year (McDougald).

The past beautifully transitioned to the future with Mantle taking over in center field, following DiMaggio’s retirement after the 1951 World Series win over the Giants. Despite lacking a historically dominant season like other Yankees dynasties (i.e. 1927, 1961, 1998), this group’s unprecedented stretch required three title triumphs over the loaded Dodgers (1949, 1952, 1953). The title run ended in 1954, when the Yankees fell short of the AL pennant after winning 103 games — the most they’d won in 12 years.

Best quote in N.Y. sports history — Joe Namath

Joe Namath’s numbers (173 touchdowns, 220 interceptions, 50.1 completion percentage) will never properly explain his talent, poise and impact. His words three days before Super Bowl III — “I got news for you, we’re gonna win the game, I guarantee it.” — still conveys the aura.

After the Packers dominated the first two AFL-NFL World Championship Games, the NFL’s Baltimore Colts entered the 1969 title matchup viewed as perhaps the best team in football history. The upstart AFL’s Jets entered as 18-point underdogs, a Super Bowl spread topped once in the next 50 years.

Still, when Namath heard a heckler at the Miami Touchdown Club, he responded by predicting one of the biggest upsets in sports history. The 15-1 Colts soon discovered the brash, 25-year-old quarterback’s confidence was warranted. As the Jets defense held Baltimore scoreless until the game’s final minutes, Namath held the ball for more than 36 minutes, repeatedly connecting with George Sauer and feeding Matt Snell to pull off the shocking 16-7 win at the Orange Bowl.

After completing 17-of-28 passes for 206 yards, and earning MVP honors — the only quarterback in Super Bowl history without a touchdown pass to earn the award — Broadway Joe memorably jogged off the field, holding his index finger in the air.

Best goal in N.Y. sports history — Stephane Matteau

Howie Rose ensured the name — “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau! — would ring out forever. Without Stephane Matteau’s wraparound goal in double overtime of Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, chants of “1940” could still be ringing in the heads of Rangers fans instead.

Matteau missed most of the Rangers’ dominant Presidents Trophy run through the regular season, joining the team in late March — following a trade from Chicago — and appearing in just 12 games with the team before a pressure-filled postseason, where the Rangers were tasked with ending the league’s longest Stanley Cup championship drought. After rolling through the first two rounds, the Rangers faced elimination in New Jersey in Game 6, but Mark Messier cashed in on his game-winning guarantee with a third period hat trick.

In Game 7, the Rangers looked set for their first conference championship since 1979, until Valeri Zelepukin stunned Madison Square Garden with a game-tying goal with 7.7 seconds left in regulation. Matteau, who’d won Game 3 with a double-overtime goal, ended the incredible suspense and agony at 4:24 of another second overtime, swooping behind the net and slipping the most important goal in Rangers history past rookie Martin Brodeur, allowing the Rangers to soon win their first title in 54 years.

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