Whenever Angel Manager Gene Mauch listens, he hears the words. Wherever the Boston Red Sox look, they see them.
Choke. Curse. Collapse.
Ugly sounding. But labels that whichever one loses the American League playoffs this week will have to live with for another winter. Is either one meant to win?
No Mauch-led team has reached the World Series in his 25 years of major league managing, the longest such streak ever. His 1964 Philadelphia Phillies blew it in the final week. His 1982 Angels fell apart in the playoffs.
California was within one strike of making the trip when it squandered a three-run lead in the ninth inning Sunday and eventually lost a chance to win the team's first pennant.
"Monkey, are you on my back again?" Mauch said recently when asked about the spell.
Mauch and the Angels, still leading the best-of-seven series 3-2, get another try to break the jinx tonight in Game 6 at Fenway Park. Kirk McCaskill, the Game 2 loser, will be opposed by Boston's Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, the loser in the third game.
Angel rookie first baseman Wally Joyner, who hit .455 in the first three games but missed the next two when hospitalized by a bacterial infection in his lower right leg, made the trip to Boston and is expected to play.
Boston again will be trying to avoid elimination, having staved it off in Sunday's 7-6 victory in 11 innings. The Red Sox, without a World Series championship since 1918, spent the entire regular season fighting off AL East challengers and the ghost of missed opportunities past, before narrowly escaping a wipeout in Anaheim.
Sunday, Anaheim Stadium was adorned with more than a dozen banners recalling Boston's inability to win big games in previous seasons.
"Actually, there must have been 15 signs like that around the park," Red Sox designated hitter Don Baylor said. "I saw them, but anyone who knows this club knows we are not choking."
Yet anyone who saw the Red Sox lose Saturday night would have said differently. Boston was only three outs from tying the series 2-2 when dominating Roger Clemens let a 3-0 lead slip away in the ninth inning and the Angels won, 4-3, in the 11th.
But, in the ebb and flow of playoff baseball, the tide quickly turned back against Mauch on Sunday. His best pitcher, Mike Witt, took a 5-2 lead into the ninth inning before Baylor hit a two-run homer with one out.
Witt retired the next batter on an easy popup, then Mauch pulled his ace and brought in a left-handed Gary Lucas to pitch to lefty Rich Gedman, who was 4-for-4 with a home run against Witt. Lucas, who had struck out Gedman Saturday night, hit him with a pitch Sunday.
Mauch then summoned Donnie Moore, who gave up a home run to Dave Henderson that put Boston ahead, 6-5. The Angels tied the score in the bottom of the ninth but left the bases loaded, and Henderson's sacrifice fly won it in the 11th.
"I've never had much success relieving Mike Witt. But I've also never seen Rich Gedman do anything but strike out against Gary Lucas," Mauch said.
"I can handle it this way. If I had left him (Witt) in and Gedman had another hit, I couldn't have handled that."
It has been Mauch's handling of pitchers in tense situations that has stirred criticism in the past. In 1964, he overworked pitchers Jim Bunning and Chris Short in the stretch and they wore down as Philadelphia was unable to hold a 6 1/2-game lead with two weeks remaining in the National League race.
In 1982, California won the first two games of the then best-of-five AL playoffs against Milwaukee. After the Angels lost the third game, Mauch rushed Tommy John back on three days rest and he lost Game 4. The Angels lost the series the next day.
This year, Mauch has resisted the temptation to overuse his starters. While Boston Manager John McNamara is pitching Clemens, Boyd and Bruce Hurst all on three-days' rest for the first time this year, Mauch gave Witt his usual four days off following a five-hit victory in Game 1.
That strategy seemed to be paying off as Witt, looking strong, pitched the Angels within three outs of the World Series. Then, it fell apart for Mauch and the Angels.
"There's no question about it. We shouldn't have lost the game," said Angel designated hitter Reggie Jackson, who is only 2-for-17 in the series.
"This is more meaningful for us to lose a game because we had the pennant right in our hands."
Something of note occurred during Sunday's fifth game of the American League championship series, but it passed almost unnoticed.
A streak of sorts came to an end in the eighth inning, but it is unlikely that most people at Anaheim Stadium knew of the landmark or would have cared about it even if they were aware.
The moment occurred when Ed Romero entered the game as a pinch-runner and stayed in at shortstop. He went hitless in two at-bats and did not participate in any fielding activity.
Romero's appearance meant little in terms of Boston's victory Sunday, but it did manage to enhance the quiet 29-year-old infielder's personal pride.
Romero was a member of the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers but did not play in five American League championship series contests or in seven World Series games. The native of Santurce, Puerto Rico, also was idle in the first four games of these playoffs, running his personal streak to 16 postseason games in which he has not been called upon despite being in uniform and healthy.
Romero never complained of his seeming non-status, although he admits he felt as useless as an appendix.
"I figured I'd get my shot someday," he said.
What did Romero do when McNamara motioned for him to run for pinch-hitter Mike Greenwell, who had singled for starting shortstop Spike Owen?
"I made sure he was talking to me," said Romero. "I was very happy this finally happened. I feel like I was needed and I did the job."
The light-hitting Romero played in 100 games, mostly as a late-inning defensive replacement. He batted a career-low .210 with a career-high two homers and 18 RBIs.
Romero was acquired from Milwaukee last winter in exchange for pitcher Mark Clear. He can play every infield position and says he will work on his hitting this winter.
It is hard for most fans to realize a reserve's importance because it is easy to overlook the Ed Romeros of the major leagues.
Since major league teams have gone to a 24-man roster, the fringe players who have stuck have had to develop versatility.
Boston has that in Romero.