The temperature was minus-6 degrees when I lumbered out to the Toyota this morning. The Patriots are a week into the offseason, and the only season that really matters for the Bruins and Celtics is the postseason, which I believe ends in the NBA and NHL sometime around August.
Seems to me that now is as good a time as any for some warm thoughts about baseball. Unfortunately, pitchers and catchers don’t report for roughly 21 days. (20 days, 15 hours, 42 minutes, 20 seconds as I write this sentence, but who’s counting?) So if we can’t look ahead just yet, we’ll do the next best thing: Look back.
We’re always up for some Red Sox reminiscing around here, and the MLB Network has provided a terrific opportunity to do just that. Tonight, in its latest episode of its MLB’s 20 Greatest Games series, a particular game near and dear to all Red Sox fans’ hearts will be featured: Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees.
That’s the one where it all changed, of course. We trust you know the details . . . and very possibly are now griping that the games is rated just the 17th-best of the last 50 years according to the MLB Network’s countdown. Shouldn’t it be in the top 10? The top 5? Heck, even Joe Buck got excited by the end of this one. (See No. 26.) Shouldn’t it be in the argument for No. 1? I know this much: If the Aaron Boone game rates higher . . .
Ah, we may not be so objective on this topic, I suppose.
While the historically pivotal events of the game are easily summarized in three words — Dave Roberts’s steal — it’s more fun to discuss it in, oh, a couple thousand more.
And we’ve got just the guy for that task.
Kevin Millar — the man who worked the walk off Mariano Rivera, then gave way to Roberts so he could steal his place in history — will join Bob Costas and Tom Verducci on the telecast, during which the three will converse over an abbreviated replay of the game. It airs beginning at 8 p.m., and judging by the previous three entries in this series, we can’t recommend it enough.
This afternoon, TATB had a chance to chat with Millar, a natural in his second year as an MLB Network analyst. (FYI, he’s no longer doing work for NESN.)
Here’s a partial transcript of the conversation, focusing mostly on Game 4, a memory that will never fade around here. (No. 17? Really?) . . .
Before we talk about Game 4, first things first. Have you heard from the Rays yet? Seems like they’re having a little bit of a 2004 reunion down there. [In case you were in football/shoveling mode and missed it, the Rays signed 2/3ds of the 2004 Red Sox outfielder over the weekend in Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon.]
Millar: “I was actually thinking about giving [Rays GM] Andrew Friedman a call and seeing if he would hook me up. [Laughs.] Maybe get Pedey [Pedro Martinez], give Trot Nixon a call to complete the outfield . . . he might be on to something down there. The Idiots, together again.
“In all seriousness, though, the Rays don’t make too many mistakes. That’s a great organization. Pat Burrell didn’t work out for them, but they’ve had a real knack for finding players that fit well and building a farm system and all the things they have to do to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees year after year. And signing Manny and Johnny, that’s just smart, getting the two of them for that price [$7.5 million combined]. Manny can still hit and get on base and Johnny can still play. At the very least that’s a heck of a platoon.”
Let’s go back to the year you won it all with those guys, and specifically the game we’ll see you talking about tonight. I’ve talked to Dave Roberts about that postseason before, and he says that stolen base is something he is reminded of every single day, usually by a Sox fan he bumps into in some random place. Is it similar for you? He had that one particular defining moment, but does anyone ever say to you, ‘Hey, thanks for walking so Roberts could swipe second’?
Millar “You know, it’s not daily that I’m asked about 2004, but it still happens all the time. Red Sox fans still come up and say, ‘Thank you guys for getting that monkey off the Nation’s back’ and Yankees fans come up and say, ‘Millar, you bum, we’re sick of hearing about ’04,’ though they don’t always put it that politely. With Dave, he should hear about it every day. It was a pivotal moment in changing the history of the franchise. I mean, he came off the bench on a freezing night, had to dive back a couple of times as Rivera threw over, and it was close, man. It was close. Then he stole the base by, what, the length of hand, with [Derek] Jeter nearly stealing an out with that sweep tag that he does. I mean, Dave had a great career, was a regular with the Padres and Giants, and yet it’s this one amazing play that has given him a place in baseball history that will always be his.
“I don’t think he would ever get sick of hearing about that, and I don’t ever get tired of hearing from Red Sox Nation about 2004. That whole series changed everything in Boston forever. The Red Sox could win 20 more World Series, and that team will still be remembered not only for what we did, but how we did it. Everyone was a regular guy, we had no entourages or anything like that, we went out to the bars and had beers with the fans. We had fun, we loved talking baseball day or night so we could relate to the passion, and we understood what it meant to win here. We looked at the fans like three million family members.”
I assume you’ve probably seen your at-bat against Rivera in the ninth inning of Game 4 quite a few times over the years. But how vividly do you remember it? Can you go through the pitch sequence in your mind and remember what was going through your head when he threw you ball four?
Millar: “Oh, yeah, I still can remember it like it happened yesterday, man. All the details. It’s funny, I actually enjoyed facing Rivera. I was probably the only one, but I’m a little crazy. [Laughs.] But he’s a fastball pitcher, and comes right at you, and I was a fastball hitter so I always felt like he was going to challenge me. Honestly, I was literally thinking, man, I could hit a home run here. I was thinking “hit the vanilla coke bottles,” which his what we tried to do in batting practice when we were at Fenway. He was trying to pound me in, and if he came in too far or left that cutter out over the plate enough, I was thinking I was going to homer.”
With that approach, how did you manage to lay off the high fastballs, particularly the one on ball four. It was pretty similar to a pitch you hit out off of Clemens in the ALCS the year before. How’d you resist?
Millar: “Now that you mention it, I have no idea. [Laughs.] No, I had a pretty good idea what they were going to try to do — come up and in and get me to chase one out of the strike zone. It was a pretty good approach on their part, because I couldn’t resist those high heaters sometimes. And ball four really wasn’t that close, which sort of surprised me, because once it got to three balls I thought they’d come after me a little more. It’s not like I was Manny or Papi and needed to be pitched around. I’m proud that it was a disciplined at-bat, though, because what we needed was a baserunner. Though a homer would have been pretty cool, too.” [Laughs]
So you work the walk, Rivera mutters something to himself, and you trot down to first base as Roberts makes his way out of the dugout. What did you say to him? You offer him any words of wisdom?
Millar: “Nah, because we immediately knew the situation and what had to be done. No words were necessary, and it’s not like I was about to give him baserunning advice. So I gave him the knuckles, got off the field, and tried to get some elbow room by the railing to watch him go off to the races. And you probably don’t need to be told this, but man, it couldn’t have been closer. [Jorge] Posada made a great throw, Jeter nearly stole the out with that sweep tag of his, and Mariano is tough as heck to steal on. Dave deserves all the credit in the world for pulling that off, in that circumstance, against those guys, with all of Red Sox Nation on his shoulders.”
The Roberts steal is the defining moment of that run for you guys, but so much happened in all of those games that a lot of amazing things got lost in the shuffle. Even Bill Mueller’s hit that scored Roberts is probably a little bit overlooked.
Millar: “Man, I agree with that 100 percent. A hundred percent. This guy raps a single up the middle off Rivera, who was and still is death on lefty hitters even more than righties. If Bill doesn’t get that hit, maybe Dave gets stranded at second, and history is different. He was the unsung hero, and it wasn’t the first time he beat Rivera. And Billy, what a great ballplayer. Great, great ballplayer, and a better human being. I remember in ’03 when Theo traded Shea Hillenbrand so Billy and Papi could play every day, and people were like, ‘We traded Shea Hillenbrand? Why?’ But Billy, like so many of us newcomers to Boston that year — Papi, myself, Todd Walker — really found himself at home here, winning the batting title. Red Sox Nation learned to appreciate him pretty fast.”
This might seem like an odd question, but do the 2003 and ’04 seasons almost run together in your mind? It’s almost like 2004 was a continuation of ’03, with the Aaron Boone game making ’04 even more rewarding, almost as if it all were scripted. And it never seemed right that someone like Todd Walker, who was so great in the 2003 postseason, didn’t get to be a part of it.
Millar: “It’s a great question. I actually thought the 2003 team was a little better, at least with our lineup. We set a couple of records, scoring all of those runs , had something like six or seven guys with 20-plus homers. [It was six with at least 25.] That was a tremendous team. And then we had the painful ending, which really taught us about where Red Sox fans were coming from, how they’d dealt with so much disappointment. So in ’04, we had probably 80-90 percent of our team back, and we were that much more determined to get over that hump and bring that championship to Boston. That first spring in ’03, so many of us were all new — me, Billy Mueller, Ortiz, Walker — and we didn’t know what to expect. We were taught that in ’03, and those of us who were back in ’04 were on a mission. I mean, our pitching was better with Schill and Foulkie, giving us that other ace with Pedey and the closer we needed after bullpen by committee, but if you compared our lineup to New York’s, there were probably two guys who would start for them — Manny and Papi. You look at third, you have to go A-Rod over Mueller, you probably go Bernie Williams over Damon in center, [Gary] Sheffield over Trot in right, and you definitely go Jason Giambi over Millar at first base. But we were a team, and we were together after what happened in ’03, and that really meant something in the end.”
In all of the videos and recollections of 2004 — whether it was ESPN’s recent “30 for 30” film or “Faith Rewarded” or whatnot — there’s always that footage of you saying the same thing to anyone within earshot before Game 4: “Don’t let us win tonight.” How calculated was that, or was it just something that popped into your head that you thought might provide a little spark in what looked like a hopeless situation?
Millar: “Well, it definitely makes me look pretty good looking back on it. [Laughs.] I mean, no, it wasn’t premeditated. It happened the way it happened, but it came from me really believing in our team and wanting fans to still believe in us despite having the odds stacked against us. Looking at it realistically, I knew it was hard enough to win four games in a row against the Royals, let alone the mighty Yankees, you know? How do you beat that team four games in a row? We were down three games, got crushed in Game 3, and I didn’t really like our pitching matchup in Game 4 with Derek Lowe on the mound, because the Yankees had a knack for hitting his sinker since they’d seen him so much. But if he could come through, and he did, as I always said, we’d have Pedro in Game 5 and Schilling in Game 6 and then anything is possible in a Game 7 because even the Yankees have that human factor. They’d be so tight and scared if we could just put them in that situation, and it started with Game 4. I just wanted people to believe in us, for our fans to keep believing in us. And hey, look how it worked out, right? [Laughs] Faith rewarded. But I’ll tell you, in Game 7 . . . even after Johnny’s second home run gave us that huge lead, we still wanted to keep on scoring and scoring, because we had to get that, that insurmountable lead on those ghosts Jeter was always talking about. We exorcised ’em, though. Man, we exorcised ’em.”