“It doesn’t get any better than this.” Those words echoed throughout my head all of Thursday in anticipation of the ALCS Game Seven matchup between the Boston Red Sox and Pedro Martinez against the New York Yankees and Roger Clemens. I’d stopped reading analyses by mid-afternoon and decided to avoid predicting what would happen, instead surrendering to the giddy anticipation of a ballgame that might become one for the ages.
Would that little punk Pedro Martinez avenge his meltdown and put up the big game which would lift the Sox over the Curse of the Bambino and into the World Series, or would the Rocket, in perhaps his final start, equal the cool-headed performance he’d mustered in Game Three and best his hot-blooded successor, hammering a final stake into the heart of his former team? Who the hell knew?
I passed up two invitations to this ballgame, one from my pal Nick, the other from my college friend Ben, who bears a striking resemblance to Aaron Boone when he’s wearing a Yankees cap. I did so for several reasons: I was 0-for-2 in the postseason, needing some fiscal responsibility, with a Game One World Series ticket awaiting me, and a cousin I had seen only once in the past eight years — at my grandfather’s funeral in 2000 — visiting town for a night. But mostly, I wanted to share the potential glory with somebody else. I sent girlfriend Andra to the game with Ben and another college friend, Katy, the lead singer of local punk rock band, the Fire Ups.
Katy holds a special place in my personal scrapbook of Yankee lore. Minutes after they won the World Series in 1996, I went to fetch myself a cold one at an Avenue A deli. As I returned to my apartment, a voice shouted out to me from a passing car. “Jay Jaffe, do you have Yankee fever?” I turned to see Katy leaning out of a passenger window and raised my brown-bagged beer in salute. A fond memory.
So I waited for brother Bryan and cousin Eric to arrive at my East Village apartment, and just as I paused the TiVo at the first pitch, my phone rang — a pal calling from the west coast to wish me luck. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he reminded me.
The other Jaffes arrived, and after quick greetings, we settled on the couch to watch the game, our talk immediately turning to baseball chatter. When Clemens blew a fastball by Johnny Damon on his second pitch, I got the sense that the Rocket was on, but as I discovered, it was far too early to make that judgement. He got out of the first unscathed, but having fired 21 pitches, including 10 to Todd Walker, who singled.
Pedro looked spotty as well. He struck out Alfonso Soriano to start the game, but then, what else was new? Nick Johnson worked a five-pitch walk, Derek Jeter popped out weakly… this was all in the script, I was sure. But when Bernie Williams singled on Pedro’s first pitch to put two men on, I began to think this might not be Pedro’s night after all. Even Hideki Matsui flying out to center did nothing to disspell that notion.
But it was the Sox who made sure it wasn’t Clemens’ night in the next inning. Kevin Millar stroked a ball into the right-center gap which Bernie cut off to prevent a double, but three pitches later, Trot Nixon blasted a two-run homer to draw first blood, Nixon’s third homer of the series and fourth of the postseason. The Sox added another run on a two-out double by Jason Varitek and a two-base throwing error by third baseman Enrique Wilson, in the lineup as Pedro’s nemesis. 3-0 Boston. Gulp.
Pedro cruised through the second, highlighed when he came back from a 3-0 count to whiff Jason Giambi, who’d been dropped to seventh in the Yankee batting order. In the third, Clemens worked through the dangerous 3-4-5 hitters of the Sox — Nomar, Manny, and David Ortiz — on 12 pitches, giving hope that the Rocket might at least keep the Yanks in the ballgame. Martinez countered in the third with an 11-pitch inning; he had conserved far more bullets than his match.
The fourth inning looked to be the Rocket’s final stage. Millar greeted Clemens with a first-pitch homer to leftfield, Nixon worked a walk, and Bill Mueller singled to center as Nixon took third. Joe Torre arrived at the mound, and reality set in for the Yankees fans: the greatest pitcher of his time wasn’t going to have the storybook ending they’d imagined. With their team trailing 4-0 and counting, the Yankee fans nonetheless mustered a standing ovation for Roger Clemens as he left the field for what would in all likelihood be the final time.
Taking a page from the Jack McKeon playbook, Torre brought in Mike Mussina to make his first-ever major-league relief appearance. Mussina was 0-3 in the postseason, with two losses in this series, and though he’d pitched a credible game on Monday, his postgame comments about the sputtering Yankee offense had raised some eyebrows: “I don’t bear all the responsibility. I can only control 60 feet, six inches. The other stuff has to be attended to by other people, not me.”
When he took the mound with two on and none out, Mussina pitched out of the stretch. I explained to my cousin that I called this “The Goddamn Drinking Bird” because of how far Mussina bent over, and how frustrating it was to watch him struggle. But the Moose came up big. He struck out Varitek on three pitches, got ahead of Johnny Damon 0-2, then induced a double-play grounder to Derek Jeter. The Yankee shorstop scooped up the ball moving towards second, then took several steps to cover the bag himself before firing to first to double up the speedy Boston leadoff man and end the inning. Yankee fans collectively breathed a huge sigh at Mussina’s relief.
The Yanks mustered a threat in the fourth on a two-out double by Hideki Matsui to no avail, and Moose came back out to work through the dangerous top of the Sox lineup. He got Walker to fly out on the first pitch, but gave up back-to-back singles to Garciaparra and Ramirez. He fell behind David Ortiz 2-0, and I had a sudden flashback to Ortiz’s towering Game One homer at his expense. “There he goes,” I thought. But the Moose got loose, striking out Ortiz, then retiring Millar on a grounder.
Leading off the fifth, Giambi came to the plate guessing changeup, and he put Pedro’s first pitch over the centerfield wall, just barely missing the black batter’s eye and joining a select list (18 people, 22 homers as of April 02). The Yanks were finally on the board. But Pedro looked undeterred, sawing through the next six hitters, interrupted only by a 1-2-3 encore from Mussina.
The Moose was cooked, however, and in the seventh, Torre gave the ball to two of the relievers who’d done damage in Game Six. Felix Heredia came out throwing strikes, ringing up Damon and then getting Walker to pop out foul. Jeff Nelson came in, and my cousin, a Mariners fan still smarting from the reliever’s unceremonious exit there, remarked that he looked forward to Nellie getting one last pounding, at which my brother and I nodded in agreement. But whoa, Nellie — with his slider working, he K’ed Nomar to end the inning.
At this point, my friend in Maine, not much of a baseball buff but with an avid Orioles fan for a wife, called. He thanked me for sending him a couple of pieces of Futility Infielder merchandise as a thank-you for our recent visit, then gently tweaked me about the ballgame: “All of New England is really happy right now.”
Tempting as it was, I invoked no Yogi Berra-isms here. But the smile that crossed my face was a mile wide. The first unhatched chicken had been counted. Could another chicken be rounding third. headed home to roost? “Hey,” I told my friend, “Even if the Sox win this one, they’ll have to win every World Series until I’m 59 years old to catch up to the Yanks.” I relayed the underlying message — the first “Dewey Beats Truman” prophecy from up north — to my brother and cousin during the long seventh-inning stretch.
After the usual display of patriotic ferver, the bottom of the seventh — where the Yanks have scored seven runs in their first four postseason games — arrived with Pedro having thrown only 78 pitches. By the time he’d unleashed ten more, he’d gotten to two outs and two strikes against Jason Giambi. On a 1-2 pitch, Martinez missed with a high fastball against Giambi for ball two. then on the next pitch, Big G hammered another ball over the centerfield wall to take the game to 4-2. This was doable. The Yanks wouldn’t let Pedro off the hook, either. Enrique Wilson hit a high bouncer down the first base line which Millar speared, but the Boston first baseman’s momentum carried him several steps into foul territory and he slipped before he could throw the ball to Martinez covering the bag. On the next pitch, Karim Garcia followed with a sharp single to center. Soriano struck out, but not before drawing six pitches to bring Pedro’s count to 99.
“We have a pulse,” said my brother. But it was a faint one. Nelson started the eighth by inducing Manny to a groundout, then gave way to another Yankee starter, David Wells, to face David Ortiz. Lefty against lefty. Another farewell cameo, I thought to myself, as Ortiz crushed Wells’ first pitch for a solo homer to negate Giambi’s, taking the lead back to 5-2.
The end of the half-inning was the cue for my guests to skidoo. As my bro and cuz had filed out the door, I had reached the point of surrender. Mentally, I began composing a concession speech of sorts, starting with the title, “Curse the Reverse.” Words to the effect that it had been a great run this October, but we all knew going into it that this Yankee team was good but flawed, that the strength of their starting pitching camouflaged the true weakness of their bullpen beyond Mariano Rivera, and it was only a matter of time before the glue finally melted and the walls came crumbling down, and hats off to the Sox for finding that soft underbelly with their relentless offense. As I thought these things, I wasn’t so much saddened but relieved, detached and philosophical.
But, to borrow a line from The Godfather, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. And it took a hat trick of sorts, but I found my Rally Totem.
Back in late September 1999 my pal Nick and I took a baseball trip to the midwest to see Tiger Stadium before it closed, as well as Jacobs Field in Cleveland, and Wrigley Field in Chicago. I had purchased a brand new Yankees cap for the occasion; my old one, already salt-stained as it was, had fallen into a beer puddle at the Stadium and I made the mistake of trying to get it dry-cleaned, with disastrous results. But in my packing frenzy, I forgot to include the new cap, so I arrived in Cleveland hatless, and I bit the bullet to purchase yet another Yankee cap at Jacobs, much to the vendor’s disgust (the Yanks were playing the Indians that day). That one became my gamer; I was wearing it at the Stadium the night the Yanks won the ‘99 World Series, and it’s stayed with me ever since, creases and salt stains and all.
But something happened this October. I wore the hat to two postseason games, both of which the Yanks lost. At home I’d hunker down in front of the tube with the hat on as the Yanks fell behind, then inevitably I would toss it aside, and the Yanks would come back. I started to catch on, schlepping it over to Nick’s, but not wearing it, treating it as though it were some wheelchair-bound relative who could still come to Thanksgiving dinner even if he could only eat mashed potatoes through a straw. The uncomfortable conclusion I reached was that this hat had lost its mojo. It had become the anti-rally cap.
I had long since considered replacing it with that other hat, the one which missed the plane, but every time I tried that one on, it didn’t fit right — too stiff and perhaps a size too small. When I moved apartments, I found a use for that hat, however. I stuck all of the baseball-related pins I’d accumlated over the years — Basebal Hall of Fame, 2001 World Series, 100th Anniversary Yankees pin, and replica World Series pins from 1927, 1938, 1943, and 1953 — and hung it on the wall with some of my other memorablia, a display item.
So there I was in the middle of the eighth inning, alone in my apartment, locked away from the rest of the world so that I could suffer the final indignity of the Yanks losing the pennant to the Boston Red Sox in solitude. And the lightbulb went on in my head: time for a new hat. I pulled my showpiece off the wall, gave the brim a good curl, and then stretched the thing front to back as if trying to rip it apart. Stuck atop my head, it wasn’t a great fit; it looked ridiculous, but it might do.
The thing worked like a charm, and in retrospect it all makes sense. The latest addition to that hat, acquired at my last regular season home game the night Jorge DePaula flirted with perfection, was the 1927 World Series pin.
The Bambino. You were expecting anyone else?
This current Red Sox offense drawn comparisons to Ruth, Gehrig and that Murderer’s Row crew, besting that crew’s all-time best team slugging percentage of .489. But we all know that any time the Red Sox go near the spectre of Babe Ruth, strange things happen. Two years ago, on May 30th, Pedro Martinez beat the Yankees, striking out 13 over eight innings and allowing no runs. After the game, Martinez responded to a reporter’s question about Ruth with a now-legendary quote: “I don’t believe in damn curses. Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the ass…” In his next start, a ballgame I attended at Yankee Stadium, Pedro and the Sox pen frittered away a 4-1 lead, and Luis Sojo, the futility infielder himself, blooped the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth. Martinez didn’t notch another win all year as the Sox imploded in legendary fashion. You could look it up.
Nick Johnson began the eighth with a seven-pitch at-bat, getting ahead 3-1 before popping out to Nomar at shortstop. The Boston Red Sox now stood five outs away from the pennant, the same distance another star-crossed team had been only two nights before. But — wait for it — Jeter Was Next.
I pounded my hands together slowly as I recited my mantra. Jeter swung through strike one, then fouled the second pitch off to put himself in an 0-2 hole. But on the third pitch, Martinez’s 110th of the night, the Yankee captain socked one over rightfielder Trot Nixon’s head. The ball bounded off the wall and Jeter went into second standing up.
Bernie Williams stepped in, and the Fox cameras cut to Mariano Rivera in the Yankee bullpen. The message was clear: not dead yet. On the fifth pitch, Williams blooped to centerfield and Jeter sped home, cutting the lead to 5-3. Hurrah for the Yanks’ old guard.
With his ace’s odometer at 115 pitches and reliever Alan Embree at the ready, Boston manager Grady Little paid Martinez a visit. Shockingly, Pedro stayed in the game to face Hideki Matsui, who had driven in the go-ahead run against Pedro in that contentious Game Three. Godzilla ripped the third pitch, an 0-2 fastball down the rightfield line, for a ground-rule double to put runners on second and third. Little’s decision not to remove Pedro — a move which may be dissected for another 85 years by New Englanders, drew fire from Fox announcer Tim McCarver: “The way I see this, this is the most blatant situation for a second guess in this series, whether to bring Embree in to pitch to Matsui or not. If you’re not going to bring him in against Matsui, when are you going to make that move?”
Not yet, was Little’s tacit response. Martinez stayed in to face Jorge Posada and went to 2-2 on the Yankee catcher. On the fifth pitch, Posada connected for a flare into centerfield as Damon, Garciaparra, and Walker converged. Williams windmilled his arm before crossing the plate, and as the Yankee dugout, led by Jeter, spilled onto the field, Matsui followed him home. Posada alertly took second with no one covering. Tie ballgame.
After two and a half hours of staring oblivion in the face, the Yanks had reset the clock and finally driven their nemesis from the ballgame. The Stadium erupted in an obscene serenade, and I chimed in from home with one of my own. Jumping up and down like a monkey, I gave Martinez the double middle-fingered saluted I’d been waiting for all night. “FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE!” I shrieked, then waved my new rally cap madly.
The phone rang, and I knew exactly who it was before picking it up. With some 56,000 screaming fans behind her and the signal breaking up, my friend Katy screeched at the top of her lungs, “Jay Jaffe, do you have Yankee fever?” I let out a few whoops and hollers, told her that I did indeed, then hung up the phone.
I paced around the apartment, draining my beer, unable to sit down as the game resumed. My Maine man called, moaning, “What have I done?”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I told him. “I needed to hear exactly what you’d said earlier. Gotta go now!”
With the go-ahead run on second, the late-arriving Embree got Giambi to pop up for the second out. Mike Timlin came on to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra, subbing for Wilson. Aaron Aaron Boone came on to pinch-run, and then Timlin unintentionally walked Garcia to load the bases. Soriano, who’d struck out three times against Pedro, took the first pitch from Timlin for a ball, the Boston reliever’s ninth straight, drawing a visit from pitching coach Dave Wallace. Two pitches later, Sori connected, lining a ball which deflected off the upward slope of the pitching mound and right into the glove of Walker, who flipped to Nomar to force Garcia at second and end Boston’s nightmare inning.
Mariano Rivera came on in the ninth. If the Red Sox were going to win this game, they would have to beat the World’s Greatest Reliever. Rivera gave up a one-out single to Varitek, who yielded to pinch-runner Damian Jackson, who made it to second on a fielder’s choice, but Walker lined out to Soriano to end the inning.
The moment was delicious. The Yanks entered the bottom of the ninth knowing that one swing of the bat could end Boston’s season in heartbreak. But Timlin, Boston’s ace reliever this October, with 8.2 innings of one-hit, scoreless ball, iced the Yanks 2-3-4 hitters in short order. Rivera returned for the tenth, striking out Nomar, getting Manny on a grounder, then yielding a two-strike double into the leftfield corner to Ortiz, a ball that very nearly went out. But Millar popped out to end the inning, giving the Yanks another shot at a sudden death victory.
Tim Wakefield, the man who’d done more to get the Red Sox to this point than even Pedro Martinez, came on in relief of Timlin as the clock struck midnight. But his knuckler didn’t turn into a pumpkin; as it had in his first two outings, Wakefield’s money pitch befuddled the Yankee hitters, and they went quietly in the 10th.
At this point, Torre made the bold decision to send Rivera back out one more time. Rivera had pitched two innings several times, but he hadn’t gone three frames, we were told by the Fox announcers, since September ‘96, when he was John Wetteland’s setup man. Having already thrown 37 pitches, he mercilessly cut through the Boston hitters. He struck out Nixon looking on the fourth pitch, got Mueller to ground his first pitch to second, and then rung up backup catcher Doug Mirabelli swinging. The coolest customer in pinstripes strode slowly off the mound as Fox cut to the commercial.
What happened next, at the bottom of the eleventh inning, a few ticks shy of four hours into the ballgame, has already taken its place in the lore of both franchises. Aaron Boone, a player I’d continually refered to as “useless” throughout the postseason, much to my girlfriend’s dismay, was up. Boone’s postseason futility — a .161 batting average, with a lone RBI — had drawn descriptions even more cruel: “…pressing so hard that his plate appearances evoke images of a 40-year-old secretary playing softball for the first time in her life at the company picnic.”
At 12:16 AM, Boone tomahawked Wakefield’s first pitch. In Joe Buck’s words: “Boone hits it to deep left! That might send the Yankees to the World Series! Boone a hero in Game Seven!” — the fourth home run on the first pitch of an inning. Mariano Rivera knelt on the mound as Boone rounded the bases, greeted by the other Yanks as he bounded onto the plate for the pennant-winning run. A Get Off My Property and Away From My Pennant home run! The Fox announcers let the crowd take over, and Frank Sinatra sang in the background, “Start spreading the news…”
Boone joined Chris Chambliss, Jim Leyritz, and a trio of 2001 Yankees in the pantheon of memorable Bronx Bombs, and acquired a new middle name — a Curse word, if you will — to go alongside Bucky Dent in the nightmares of the Boston Red Sox. Boston fans will likely point fingers at Little’s failure to jerk Pedro — the media already is — as the reason their promising season crumbled, but it’s the Yankee third baseman who will evoke their strongest ire. For whatever it’s worth, in a rare moment of accountability, Martinez let Little off the hook, saying “There’s no reason to blame Grady. Grady doesn’t play the game, I do. If you want to judge me or criticize me or curse me or whatever, I will swallow that, because I am responsible.”
The urge to rub this one back in the Sox fans’ faces is overwhelming. But the karmic toll it would exact is far too much to make it worthwhile. The Yanks won a pennant from the Boston Red Sox when all looked lost, and that fact will sit like a knife between the shoulder blades until the Cruse of the Bambino is finally lifted. Scenes such as this photo of the Fenway Park grounds crew painting the World Series logo onto their field (thanks to Craig D’Entrone at Punched in the Head for that link), or the copy of the New York Post’s premature obituary for the Yanks are out there, as is this story about Red Sox “victory cupcakes” (thanks to Nick Stone for those two links). All that’s needed would be to see Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy wearing a Yankees cap as he sings “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
On that topic, noted Sox fan and former commissioner Bart Giamatti wrote several years ago:
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoon and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, you rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then, just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
He had to have been talking particularly about Boston fans. But at least one Boston fan took this in stride, posting on Baseball Primer:
“There is no curse, but the luck the Red Sox have historically seen in the postseason has all been front-loaded. Some fans mistake the early luck for Destiny; then, once they’ve bought into the notion that a higher power is affecting the outcome, the ensuing bad results are seen as that higher power being cruel. They remember the end result but (except for 1975) not the heaps of good fortune they had had leading up to that result, and for this I say that Red Sox fans should just grow up. Appreciate what you’ve had all along.
…I’ve seen comeback wins, I’ve seen blowouts, I’ve seen Clemens, Pedro, and Eckersley at their peaks as starters. I’ve seen the phenomena of El Tiante and El Guapo. I’ve seen Yaz still going strong in the twilight. I’ve seen the best damn outfield there ever was.
Twenty-nine years without a championship is not unreasonable, given how entertaining it has been. Thank you, Boston Red Sox, for giving me something to cheer about.
As much rage as I had at the Red Sox and their fans over the past week and a half — Cowboy Up Yours, indeed — I’ve let go of it today. The dogfight itself was exhausting enough to dispense with any further grudges, so if any Sox fans have read this far, I say to you, “Congratulations on a great season. Your team gave my team every ounce of competition it could have hoped for, and you should be proud of them today for having done so.”
The Yankees and the Red Sox played 26 times this season, and in the end were separated by one run in the bottom of the 11th inning of the 26th game. That’s as even a matchup as you’re going to see on the diamond, especially between two blood rivals, and that Game Seven, as I’ve said before, will go down in as one of the classics in baseball history.
I’ve got so much more to say about this game, and I’m hoping Andra and Nick will weigh in with their eyewitness accounts, but all of that will have go by the wayside for now. I’ve got a ballgame to go to on Saturday, Game One of the bizarro flipside to the matchup 90% of America wanted, the one which would put 85 or 95 years of futility out of one team’s misery. For the best of Friday’s coverage, check out the list of links Alex Belth has compiled at Bronx Banter and the stuff at Baseball Primer’s Clutch Hits.