I hate that word.
Already we're hearing it about the Indians. The series isn't even over yet, but there are a lot of people talking about how Cleveland is "choking the ALCS away" - presumably because the Red Sox have been here before, while the Indians haven't, and besides, they still can't get over what happened in 1999, or something.
It's such nonsense. Teams don't choke; they lose. Sometimes they lose consecutive games. It happens all the time during the summer, but for whatever reason, as soon as the calendar turns to October, we're supposed to believe that such strings of lousy play reflect poorly on a team's psychology. I'm not buying it.
As far as I can tell, in order for a team to "choke", it must give away a lead in a big game or series. (Occasionally you get something like the 2001 Mariners, who earned the label despite never leading the ALCS, but that's a rare exception.) The idea is that the team in the lead suddenly realizes the magnitude of what it's playing for and buckles under the pressure, thus allowing its opponent to come back and claim victory.
So the question is, how did that team build its lead in the first place? Using the current series as an example, if the Indians are such chokers, how come they won three games in a row? Does the significance of October baseball not hit you until an elimination game? I guess we should only evaluate a player's "clutch" playoff ability by his performance when his team is on the brink of either advancing or dropping out, since apparently the rest of the games are no different than the regular season.
...obviously, that's ridiculous. Everybody knows that the pressure's on as soon as the playoffs begin (or even earlier, if you're in a tight race down the stretch). As if making it to October weren't proof enough that a team has a backbone, winning a game and taking a lead in a series should be evidence enough that it's up to the task. If anything, the biggest "chokers" would be those teams that either wilt down the stretch or get swept out of the playoffs in the first round, but then they can't be true "chokers" because they never had a lead, suggesting that even if "chokers" really do exist, our definition is pretty much the exact opposite of what it ought to be.
I think my favorite part of Boston fans calling the Indians "chokers" is the necessary inherent implication that the Indians are therefore the better team, and that the Sox are only still alive because Cleveland can't handle the pressure. Seems to me that, were I to see my team advance in the playoffs, I'd rather it be because they had more ability than because the opponent folded up shop when the stakes got too high. But that's just me. Maybe Boston just really enjoys its inferiority complex.
When you take a broader look at things, baseball is all about probability, and if you assume roughly equal odds of each team winning, then 12.5% of the time a team will come back from a 3-1 deficit and claim the series. That's just how it is. For the sake of comparison, those odds are more than twice as high as the probability that David Ortiz goes deep in any given plate appearance. It always feels somehow uniquely different when you're watching the individual games take place, but it isn't. Series leads get erased. That doesn't make the losing team a bunch of chokers. It makes it a team that lost four games before it could win four of its own.
Unfortunately, this is a storyline that we'll never be able to escape. For some reason people absolutely love this kind of thing, and whenever a team loses in the playoffs, there's always going to be some psychological angle you can take in the aftermath. Team A loses 2-1? Its big bats couldn't stomach the pressure. Team A loses 11-9? Its trusty pitching staff was too green and came apart at the seams. Every winning team has a biggest contributor, and every losing team has a biggest suckfest. That's the necessary condition of having winners and losers. And because of that, fans and sportswriters alike will always have their guys who rise above, and their guys who fall apart in the spotlight. And when the Red Sox finally shed their label and beat the Yankees in 2004, or when Derek Jeter looks like a goat in the ALDS, then whatever, you just move on to a new target, because with every game in October you'll have someone to rip and someone to place on a pedestal.
To affix the "choker" label to a team suggests that it must have six or eleven or nineteen people who all come apart in the clutch. This despite the fact that, for years, people have struggled to find evidence of individual players who performed way better or way worse in big situations. It's hard enough to conceive of one guy who responds differently to pressure without trying to think of entire teams that act the same way. It doesn't make any sense. Even if a team had one guy who couldn't handle the stakes, he's not going to cause a crack in the foundation of the entire roster; it seems far more likely to me that the other 24 guys would be able to calm his nerves without any irreparable damage.
The world needs fewer unfalsifiable positions, not more. You can't prove that chokers don't exist, but you can't prove that they do, either, and any rational thought process will always side with the former. If the Indians lose this series, it isn't because they're chokers; it's because, on four of seven occasions, they played worse than the Red Sox did. And that's the end of it.