I will never forget the Fall of 2003 (ten years ago) when former Philadelphia Phillies manager Terry Francona sat down with Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein, and accepted the position as Red Sox Manager. Was the position of Mayor held by Thomas Menino more important or esteemed in the eyes of Bostonians than that of Red Sox Skipper? Probably not.
These were the days following the Grady Little disaster. Yeah, you remember – it was the Bottom of the Eighth at Yankee Stadium in the 22nd hour of October 20, 2003. The greatest Red Sox pitcher of All (yeah, better than Clemens, and Cy, and El Tiante, and Lonborg, and all the rest) was on the mound trying to punch the Red Sox a ticket back into the World Series for the first time in 17 years. But the Yankees were beginning a Game 7 Rally, and had runners in scoring position when Grady, Jason Varitek, and Nomar strolled out to the mound. We will all remember the Glare – the Glare that Pedro Martinez gave to Skipper Little – with those wide-open white irises, and those dark brown pupils – the Glare that transparently echoed the theme of the Ace’s seven-year career in Boston: “These are the Yankees, and I am Pedro! I’m the best pitcher in Baseball, and I want to finish these guys!”
I remember thinking (and saying to my Dad and Papa) – “Yeah, it’s Pedro. You can’t take the ball out of the hand that got you here.”
“But,” my Dad countered and questioned (a former baseball coach in his own right, and a Championship-winning one for the 1994 Babe Ruth Cardinals), “you have “Mike” Timlin and “Scott” Williamson in the pen – both ready to go?” Both of the Red Sox finishers had been lights out in September and October. I could see what direction the Super Big Ern was going on this one.
But the debate between Erns was irrelevant. Only Grady could make the decision, and he nodded at Pedro, then nodded at Nomar, and walked back to the dugout. I remember hearing the roar of Yankee Stadium at that point. That’s what this Rivalry is all about. None of the fans ever want to see reserves determine championships or even regular season games. Both opponents only want the best. Jorge Posada stepped to the plate, and eyed his nemesis – Pedro. Early on in their AL East careers, Martinez had dominated the Yankee catcher’s at-bats. But as the early twenty-first century had taken shape, the tables in this conflict had begun to turn.
Earlier in the night (before the Game had started), Papa had brought a vintage emblem to my parents’ house – a shiny old silver coin picturing Babe Ruth’s visage dawning the classic “NY” Yankees cap that had earned him Baseball immortality. My grandfather (a jeweler – 72 at the time) had formerly been a coin collector, and had recently spotted this “treasure” in his basement. I’ll never forget my brother Eric pulling me aside before the Game, saying, “Has Papa gone mad? We finally have a chance to beat the Yankees, take their spot in the World Series, and he’s rolling in here with a BABE RUTH coin?!! Is he crazy?”
And then as the Game was almost ready to start, FOX started showing images of Red Sox-Yankees Lore, and at the very end, the black and white video of the Yankee Babe winking at you, which had become the lasting television symbol of The fabled Curse that his untimely departure from Boston had spawned over Beantown and al of New England back in 1918. Now (about 3 hours later) as Pedro gazed down on Posada, I recalled The Babe’s wink, and immediately thought of Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon – uttering “I’ve got a back feeling about this.” The Yankee catcher ripped the ball into the right-center field gap, driving in two runs, and I wasn’t surprised. As Posada glided into second base, he pumped his right fist, and the game was tied. This was pretty much how my bad dream had already played out in my mind over the past 60 seconds.
Then, there was the next Glare of Pedro – yes, still the Glare, that Look of the pounded Title Fighter that had given all that he had, extinguished all of his fuel. The only characteristics missing from Pedro’s face were bruised eyes and incomprehensible sweat. Now Grady had to take the ball from Martinez, and I thought back to my own playing days when I couldn’t find the plate as a pitcher, and the coach (often times by Dad) would have to stroll out to the mound and say “Ern, you don’t have it today, and we can still win this game.” Then, I thought back to my brother Eric – a skilled pitcher into high school, whose coaches would sometimes have to come out to the mound, and say, “Eric, you’re out of gas. We’re gonna try to close this one out from the pen.” And then, I finally thought of a great young pitcher – Jeff Allison (who I had just had the honor to coach that same baseball season at Peabody High). I had even seen Allison (just drafted by the Florida Marlins in the First Round of the MLB Draft) subjected to these moments. In the State Quarterfinals, legendary Tanner Coach Niz walked to the mound after his flame-throwing right-hander suffered his tenth hit allowed to the St. John’s Prep Eagles, and took the baseball from him. The Coach had been wise, as Peabody would ultimately win that game.
But, I had never seen a pitcher leave the mound to this type of reception at Yankee Stadium – to the raucus echoes of “Who’s Your DAADDY? Who’s Your DAADDY??” Who’s Your DAAAAAADDY?” Earlier in 2003, when questioned about Boston’s inability to defeat New York in critical games, Pedro was quick to tell the press that he wasn’t worried about the Yankees, that the Yankees in effect had no authority over him, that the Bronx Bombers didn’t own him – in essence, simply “the Yankees weren’t his Daddy!”
So, here, the Yankees had proven once again to be the Thorn in Pedro’s side. We all know the rest of this story. Wakefield. Aaron “Mother &%#*()@&#^(@)#)” Boone. Joe Torre. Joe Buck. Tim McCarver. Yankees returned to World Series, although ultimately losing in 6 Games to Josh Beckett (who we would all get to know better) and the Florida Marlins.
Terry Francona (Source: lehighvalleylive.com)
Then came Terry Francona. I remembered him from Philadelphia. I knew he had been a former Big Leaguer (playing a few different positions) for at least with the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers. I owned some of his Topps baseball cards. My previous impressions from hearing Francona talk was that he seemed like a nice guy. Grady Little was a mumbling bafoon in the press room, not that I cared because he consistently won games in his 2 years as manager. But Terry was definitely a better conversationalist. And shortly after he took the reins in Boston, another vocal baseball figure joined the Red Sox ranks – All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling, who had been Francona’s Ace with the Phillies. Schilling was not one to mince words. He was an avid George W. Bush Supporter, and a Guest Speaker in MLB’s Testimony to the US Congress on Steroid Abuse. Strangely (not known at the time), Schilling turned out to be the only one of those then-players invited to Congress that was not ultimately found guilty of using Performance Enhancing Drugs (“PEDs”).
Schilling now formed a Dual-Ace Rotation in Boston – joining Martinez. With Pedro and Schilling on the mound on consecutive days, the Red Sox were poised to more seriously challenge the Yankees for the AL East Crown. In 1998, ’99, and 2003, Boston had qualified for the Postseason, but only by virtue of the Wild Card (enacted in 1995 to give one second-place team in each of the 2 leagues a chance to contend in the Playoffs). But it had been demonstrated by 2004 that the path to success in the Postseason was typically paved (with a few exceptions) by winning your division, and earning home-field advantage. This was the path that Red Sox Ownership and Management knew to be smoother and richer.
But still (by the 2004 All-Star Break), things weren’t panning out the way General Manager – Theo Epstein had anticipated. The Red Sox were substantially behind New York in the Division (and although the Martinez/Schilling combination was dominating), the Overall Team (in particular the offense) just wasn’t clicking. And new closer Keith Foulke sucked.
Then came one of the defining moments of the 2004 Season. It was a late-July game in the Bronx against (of course) the Yankees. The Red Sox had managed to narrow New York’s Eastern lead to a reasonably obtainable margin (about 4 games). It was the final game of a 3-game series, and if I’m correct, a Red Sox win would have reduced the Divisional Spread to only 3 Games – leaving about 2 full months left in the season. That is when Nomar Garciaparra did not suit up to play. Nomar had been consistently injured from 2002-04. It is now widely thought that he tore muscles in his right arm due to using PEDs in the late 90s and early 2000s. But back then, Red Sox fans had loved Nomar, and had been understanding of his physical problems. Now that I look back, I believe Garciaparra had also been ridled with psychological anxiety. His obsessive-compulsive trips to the batter’s box are now haunting. While they were funny at the time (when I was a young guy in my late teens and early 20s), if you look back at the videos (I mean DVDs), these episodes now appear very disturbing, and are indeed stressful to even watch. I hate to even imagine what Nomar may have been going through during those times. But now that he is a commentator with ESPN, he seems to be doing much better, seems to be much happier, and I’m happy for it.
But in this game (which he unfortunately didn’t even compete in) would sink Nomar to the lowest depth of his mostly prolific career in Boston. Nomar batted an American League leading.356 in his sophomore year of 1998 – a year after winning the AL’s Rookie of the Year Award. Two years into his career, he was clearly better than the two other leading shortstops in baseball (both young like him, and both seemingly destined for the Hall of Fame) – New York’s Derek Jeter and Seattle’s Alex Rodriguez. Then in 1999 (with the All-Star Game returning to Fenway Park for the first time since the 1960s) Nomar won his second straight AL Batting Title by hitting a staggering .372. Now Ted Williams [himself staggering in old age (Teddy Ballgame had to be carted around the field before the 1999 All-Star)] was meeting with Nomar religiously. Early in Garciaparra’s career, the Splendid Splinter (Williams) had become enamored with the young shortstop’s swings, and would spend Spring Trainings down in Fort Myers, Florida to mold the prospect’s batting techniques. Now, by 1999, Teddy didn’t need to teach Nomar how to hit in the Big Leagues anymore; now he was instructing this Southern California kid (just like Williams) on how to become the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941, the last time any Major League player has been able to eclipse 2 hits in every 5 at-bats over the course of a full season. Williams was convinced that Nomar would also bat .400 (and in multiple seasons). Teddy Ballgame identified Garciaparra’s primary weakness as a lack of plate discipline. Nomar was known (especially in 1997-98) for free swinging, often at high pitches above the strike zone. While Garciaparra would drive several of those pitches into the gaps for doubles and over fences for homeruns, Williams knew that the young slugger would need more walks to hit .400. You see walks (or bases-on-balls) don’t count as At-Bats. Therefore, if a player can obtain a lot of walks (see Pete Rose, Wade Boggs, and Barry Bonds), that player would effectively require less hits to obtain a desired batting average. Because even though you would obtain less hits (swinging at less pitches, and reaching first base often without a hit), your average would be calculated by dividing those fewer hits by a substantially fewer number of total at-bats. In 1999, Nomar began this experiment, and it was paying dividends.
But alas, we need to return (or jump forward) now – back to this game in July 2004 that Nomar didn’t play in (and the Red Sox needed to win). In the late innings, rival shortstop Derek Jeter dove into the third-base stands to haul in a foul ball for an inning-ending out, squashing a Boston rally. The Yankees would win the game, and further bolster their divisional lead. And I remember the feeling that night – the Yankees are willing to do what the Red Sox aren’t willing to do to win these big games. They’ll dive into the stands, they’ll crash into the catcher at home, they’ll foul off a hundred pitches to tire a starting hurler. And, specifically – it was Jeter who would do anything, push any envelope, to get a win. While Nomar on the other hand was far more temperamental. Was he feeling good? Did he get enough sleep the night before? Were the numbers all lining up right in his head? Were the stars aligned properly?
And the next morning, all the local sports media had the same outlook. That the Yankees (and individually Jeter) wanted the AL East more than the Red Sox (and specifically Nomar). And had all this money during the offseason (for Schilling, Foulke, etc) been paid to produce the same old story? Well, that question was definitively answered about a week later – right before the annual End of July Trading Deadline, when Theo Epstein announced that the Sox had moved the face of their franchise since 1997 – Nomar to the Chicago Cubs (through a 3-team deal) in exchange for two Minnesota Twins – slick-fielding shortstop Orlando Cabrera and backup first-baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. Mientkiewicz had played high school baseball in the Miami area with Alex Rodriguez, who had ironically just signed the largest paying contract in MLB History ($25 Million/Year for 10 Years)] to play for guess who? – the Yankees. So, as the Baseball Gods would have it, these two former South Florida schoolmates would ultimately collide in that October’s 2004 ALCS.
As soon as Cabrera was inserted into the Boston lineup, everyone started playing better. It was as though Orlando had a magic wand at shortstop that bounced around the diamond, scrolled into the outfield, stopped by the bullpen, and then finally filtered into the Red Sox dugout – all along, sprinkling some dust onto each of the players and coaches. The magic became undeniably visible shortly after the Trading Deadline, with the Yankees in town on a Saturday afternoon. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were back in the booth for the national FOX telecast. An inside pitch came too close for A-Rod’s liking, and he started exchanging some bitter commentary with Red Sox backstop Jason Varitek. After another pitch sailed by, the conversation escalated and the two All-Stars started yelling at each other. A-Rod stuck his face into Varikek’s personal space and pointed his finger. The Red Sox catcher violently extended both arms into A-Rod’s face, and It Was On! Both benches cleared onto the field at Fenway, and the hatred, the bitterness, the animosity, the fever of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry ensued.
Well after tempers settled down, the Yankees still had a lead in the bottom of the ninth with their Hall-of-Fame closer Mariano Rivera on the mound. The Sox had showed spunk, but at the end of day, it appeared they would once again lay victim to baseball’s most notable dynasty from the Bronx. That’s when Sox third baseman Bill Mueller (in his second year with the team) changed the course of the 2004 MLB Season by driving a Rivera fastball into the bleachers – giving the Red Sox their biggest victory of the regular season. Not only had the Red Sox responded to the Yankees intimidation motives, they had now actually also taken care of business on the field, and on the scoreboard. With the Red Sox celebrating (for the first time in a long while) a critical regular season victory, it was now apparent that this AL East battle could go right down to the wire.
The Yankees ended up winning the division by just 3 games (far different from the dominant margins with which they dominated the Red Sox in the Division in 1998, 1999, and 2003). But in 2004, it seemed “for some reason” that Boston was so much closer to the Yankees that in previous postseasons. Even the national media was in many cases “predicting” that Boston would defeat New York in the ALCS because of the combination of Pedro and Schilling. Those predictions would bode ominous as Pedro and Schilling would each consecutively lose the first two ALCS games at Yankee Stadium. Then, the Bronx Bombers would invade Fenway on a moist Saturday night, and lambaste Bronson Arroyo, Tim Wakefield, and a plethora of other Sox hurlers in a 19-8 romping – to take a commanding 3-0 series advantage.
The question after Game 3 (for Games 4-7) wasn’t “What happened?”, but was really “What didn’t happen?”. You (or I, or any baseball screenwriter) could have written the scripts for Games 4-7 of the 2004 ALCS, but none of those versions could have possibly lived up to the reality. As they say in Hollywood, “Sometimes Life imitates Art!”
Looking back on Games 4-7 of the 2004 ALCS:
– 4 Games in 4 Days [2 Extra-Inning Games: 12 Innings in Game 4, and 14 Innings in Game 5 (both at Fenway)]
– 2 Extra Inning-Games won by hits from the same player – eventual ALCS MVP David Ortiz [who homered in the wee early morning hours on a Monday morning at Fenway (Game Four, which longtime friend Jimmy Pointek left because he “got tired”), and then who singled that same Monday evening at Fenway to conclude the 14-inning Game Five]. So, yes, the Red Sox won 2 different ALCS Games (both Four and Five) on the same day.
– Curt Schilling underwent an invasive ankle procedure in the Red Sox clubhouse at Yankee Stadium before taking the mound in Game Six. The images of his blood-soaked sock still resonate through baseball lore. I believe that sock is in the Hall of Fame. And, yes, Schilling dominated New York through six epic innings.
– Schilling’s performance wasn’t enough to stand on its own in Game Six. In the 8th inning, A-Rod [racing Sox pitcher Arroyo (now in relief) to first base] swatted at Bronson’s glove and knocked the ball down the right field line. Jeter scored to tie the game, but “Not So Fast!” proclaimed the Umpire Crew of SIX (how fitting?). Interference on A-Rod was the call, and Jeter was ordered back to second base. Yankee fans begin to throw crap onto the field in protest, and NYPD (in full riot gear) flooded into foul territory at Yankee Stadium. After the tempers “subsided”, Arroyo got out of the jam, and the Red Sox went on to win the game, and tie the series.
– Johnny Damon hits a grand slam in Game Seven (erupting from a series slump).
– Pedro Martinez is inserted into Game Seven in relief. In the final season of his seven-year deal with Boston (and widely reported to be headed for greener pastures in 2005), Pedro wanted to imprint his final postseason stamp on Yankee Stadium. He ironically never got to punch that stamp as the Yankees continued to solidly pound him (even now in New York’s Game Seven collapse). In 2009 Martinez would return to Yankee Stadium – pitching for the Phillies in Game 6 of that World Series. The Yankees would crush Pedro again that evening, and then celebrate their first World Title after the Joe Torre Era – and A-Rod’s only World Championship.
But by the end of that October 2004, Pedro did finally have the opportunity to point his right index finger up toward the heavens, but in St. Louis – after dominating Game 3 of the World Series. And the next night it was Derek Lowe (who also clinched the Sox historic upheaval of the Yankees in the ALCS) who finished off the Cardinals. Lowe (resurrected from the Boston bullpen) proved to be a postseason hero. Keith Foulke got Edgar Renteria to hit a grounder right back to the mound to complete Boston’s first World Championship since 1918. Despite what jewelry my Papa could now find in his basement, the Curse of the Bambino was now finally over!
Ironically, the Sox would replace Orlando Cabrera (who essentially started their late-July, early-August rally toward the postseason with sparkling defense and timely hitting) in 2005 with Renteria, who struggled offensively all year and was not invited back for 2006. Renteria spent the rest of his career back in the National League, where he would again blossom. Who figures? Mientkiewicz (who was playing first base when Foulke fielded that last grounder from Renteria in the World Series) recorded that last putout of the Series, and then proceeded to “keep” the baseball. And I don’t mean that Doug “held onto the ball tight” to make sure the Curse was broken. I mean that Mientkiewicz quickly appraised the monetary value of the baseball and decided to “own the ball” personally as a collector’s item! I don’t know if MLB ever got that ball back for the Hall of Fame. But I do remember that Mienkiewicz at one point wanted some ridiculous amount of money for it.
In 2004, the Boston Red Sox finished the regular season 98-64 (like I’ve mentioned – 3 games behind the Yankees). More importantly, we won the World Series. In 2013, the Red Sox (if they beat Baltimore tonight and tomorrow to conclude the season) can finish 99-63 – one game better than ’04. We have won our first AL East Title since 2007 (another World Series Title season), and currently lead Tampa Bay (who may still qualify for the Playoffs) by SEVEN full games. Virtually all of the names (except Ortiz) have changed (Francona to Farrell, Pedro to Buchholz, Nomar to Pedroia, Foulke to Uehara), but the passion for Red Sox Baseball in New England right now is back at that “Fever Pitch” from 2004. What will happen this October???