Over the next few days, in appreciation of a certain anniversary, I am re-watching each game from the 2004 American League Championship Series, when everything about being a Red Sox fan changed. Then I’ll come over here and write about all that was memorable, and all that we might have forgotten too.
Reliving this magical nine-day stretch isn’t the same as living it in real-time. But damn, if anything in Boston sports history is worth reminiscing about at any opportunity, isn’t it this?
Let’s go back to October 17, 2004 (and the early minutes of October 18), and this one time, you see, when a guy stole a base and our baseball world began to change …
WHAT HAPPENED, CONDENSED VERSION
What happened? What happened? Oh, you know. Not much. Just everything. We’ll get to all that, but the condensed version is promised here, so …
The Yankees took a two-run lead in the third on prancing doofus-narcissist Alex Rodriguez’s two-run homer off Derek Lowe, which landed outside the ballpark, was thrown back in by a fan, thrown out again by Johnny Damon (longest throw he ever made), thrown back in again by a fan, then confiscated by Joe West, who covered it in Tabasco sauce and ate it right there on the field … (All but the last part is true.) … The Sox took a 3-2 lead in the fifth off El Duque on an Orlando Cabrera RBI single and David Ortiz’s two-RBI rope … The Yankees seized the lead again in the sixth on cheapo RBI singles by Bernie Williams and Tony Clark … The lead held up until the bottom of the ninth, when … well, hell, you know: Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer ever, and one who had saved the first two games of the series and all six playoff opportunities in his career against the Red Sox, walked Kevin “Don’t Let Us Win Today” Millar … Dave Roberts ran for him, stole the most — what, clutch? — base in baseball history, then came around to score on Bill Mueller’s single. … David Ortiz made the last out in the ninth …
David Ortiz did not make the last out of the 12th. No, he definitely did not do that.
WHAT YOU REMEMBERED, WHAT YOU DIDN’T REMEMBER,
WHAT YOU DIDN’T WANT TO REMEMBER … WELL, HELL WITH THAT, BECAUSE YOU WANT REMEMBER ALL OF IT Tony Clark got the start at first base for the injured John Olerud, who I believe suffered either a bruised foot or a cracked batting helmet. Not sure which. Seeing Clark, who was historically abysmal during his one season with the Red Sox (.207/.265/.291, 47 OPS+, 3 HRs in 290 plate appearances), in the Yankees lineup was cause for celebration and concern. Clark was terrible, but it would have been just our luck then to have him punish the Red Sox as a Yankee two years after he played a large role in the ’02 Sox missing the playoffs … Did you remember that El Duque was the starting pitcher for the Yankees? I didn’t. Buck and McCarver mention that he had been topping out at 81 miles per hour late in the season. He was touching 90 here, with his usual slop … Gary Sheffield entered Game 4 hitting .692 in this series. Man, that guy was intimidating. The way he wagged the bat, he made you believe he was capable of walloping a three-run homer even when no one was on base. Cool to admit now that I always wished he’d played for the Sox? …
With one out, a runner on third, and a scoreless game in the top of the second, Francona brought the infield in, and it worked to perfection when Jorge Posada grounded to Orlando Cabrera, who threw out Hideki Matsui at the plate. Derek Lowe, who was pitching with poise, which had been missing for much of the season, as well as a quick pace, then whiffed 47-year-old Ruben Sierra to escape the inning. Francona was so good at managing a game based on the magnitude of the moment. It’s something the likes of Mike Matheny have never learned … Buck and McCarver spend some time in the second inning criticizing the Boston media for giving Francona grief for using the likes of Curtis Leskanic and Ramiro Mendoza early in the Game 3 blowout. As it turned out, Tito’s handling of the bullpen in the losses proved crucial later in the series, when his best pitchers were rested enough to succeed. That man was a damned good manager here, and this series was his masterwork … After A-Rod’s home run in the top of the third — Lowe threw him a fat, delicious meatball — Jeter greets him at home plate with an exaggerated high-five. You’d almost think he could stand the guy …
Buck and McCarver rave about Carlos Beltran’s beastly postseason for the Astros — he hit eight homers in 12 playoff games — then speculate he’ll sign with the Yankees as a free agent. They were technically right, just a decade early … Yankee who was far more annoying than skilled: Miguel Cairo … To reiterate: Halfway through this game, the Red Sox are going quietly and A-Rod looks like hero of the night. Who could have ever imagined the seismic shifts ahead … It’s been left somewhere in the distance behind the many extraordinary moments that occurred later in this game, but Orlando Cabrera’s at-bat in the fifth inning deserves to be remembered. With two on and two out, he fell behind 0-2, resisted two of El Duque’s enticing junk-sliders, fouled off another bending pitch, then Jetered a single to right field to cut the Yankees lead to 2-1. Cabrera was probably the least patient hitter in the Sox lineup, but he worked a great at-bat when they really needed one …
After Mark Bellhorn couldn’t handle Clark’s infield hit in the sixth — a tough play — fans chanted “We want Pokey!” That wasn’t very nice … Again, Tito handled the bullpen with the urgency and creativity the moment demanded, bringing in Keith Foulke to start the eighth while trailing by a run … Credit also to Joe Torre, who turned to Rivera in the eighth, trying to apply the boot to the Boston throat … Manny singled and moved to second on a Millar groundout, but with two outs, Trot Nixon ended what felt like the last, best opportunity with a chopper to Clark. Wonder if Francona had any temptation to run Dave Roberts for Manny there … When Fox came back from break for the top of the ninth, their bumper music was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Clever. Aggravating. But clever …
Now for the truly transcendent stuff: the ninth inning … Amazing how off Rivera’s control was when he walked Millar on five pitches. And yet I still don’t know how Millar laid off the high heat. Incredibly disciplined at-bat … Buck: “A one-out walk. And there’s life for the Red Sox.” … And then, an understated introduction: “A pinch runner, Dave Roberts, is going to come in for Boston. He can run, picked up from the Dodgers” … Al Leiter, matter-of-factly, after Rivera’s third pickoff throw to first: “He’s going.” … He, as you may recall, did indeed go… The pitch before Bill Mueller rapped the game-typing hit to Rivera’s glove side, he showed bunt. Did you remember that? I did not … Know what else is forgotten? That the Sox had first and third with one out. But Orlando Cabrera whiffed on three pitches, and after Ramirez was walked, Big Papi popped up. … In between Papi’s popup and his walkoff exclamation point in the 12th, one notable moment did happen: Curtis Leskanic earned his World Series ring in advance, retiring Bernie Williams on a fly out with the bases loaded and two outs in the 11th. When we talk about how every single player contributed along the way, this is exactly what we mean.
THE D-LOWE REDEMPTION
Joe Buck, first inning, stage-setting:
“The Red Sox have no idea what to expect out of Derek Lowe. Here’s a guy who during the regular season won 14 games. He won 21 games two years ago, 17 games last year, and he’s been upset — and not quiet about being upset — about being banished to the bullpen this postseason. A free-agent-to-be. What an opportunity.”
Added Tim McCarver: “Terry Francona said, ‘It doesn’t matter if he’s mad at me. If he wins tonight because he’s mad at me, that will be fine.’ He’ll take it.”
My hazy, general memory of the 2004 season as a whole is that fans had about had it with Lowe, who had a 5.42 ERA in 33 starts and a memorable meltdown during the regular season at Yankees Stadium.
But maybe that’s wrong, and I just perceived it that way because Lowe was one of those guys I always liked, rationally or irrationally, and thus may have been slightly quick to defend. (Others in this group for me through the years: Troy O’Leary, Reggie Jefferson, and, um, Stephen Drew.)
Fans definitely had his back for Game 4, chanting, “Let’s go, D-Lowe!” and giving him a rousing cheer when Francona pissed him off by pulling him with one out in the sixth.
It’s must easier now, but I’m still defending him, a decade after he left Boston a champion. What he achieved that postseason — especially in Game 7, on short rest, at Yankee Stadium, with the weight of that history, after the lousy season he had — is perhaps the most serendipitous, unsung and ballsy performance of anyone on the 2004 Red Sox roster.
‘DON’T LET US WIN TODAY’
Don’t you remember it as “Don’t let us win tonight”? I always have. But Kevin Millar, in telling Dan Shaughnessy and anyone else within earshot before Game 4 that there was still hope (and let’s admit, he was probably half-serious, half-auditioning-for-a-future-TV-gig) if the Sox could just steal this one, actually did say “today.” The most prescient and memorable words Millar ever said were, exactly, these:
“Let me tell ya. Don’t let us win today. We’ve got Pedey tomorrow. And Schill Game 6. In Game 7 anything can happen …”
Does it matter that he said today? Well, no, not at all. I just wanted to have an excuse to post the video. I suppose, now that you mention it, that one was never necessary.
You’ve seen it roughly 2,004 times, and it still makes you nervous every single time you watch it. You know every twitch, every nuance — Roberts’s grouper-cheeked exhale after Rivera’s third pick off throw is close, the slight cut on Jorge Posada’s rifled throw that carries the ball to the shortstop side of the second base bag, the almost casual safe call from second base umpire Joe West. And yet when Roberts dives toward the bag, knifing his left hand in safely just before Derek Jeter, that savvy rascal, tries to steal the out with a wicked sweep-tag, the butterflies get to bouncing in your belly and it feels new again. Dave Roberts made it. We know this. He made it. He was safe. Yet even now, until you see the correct call made again and again and again, the tension weighs on your shoulders until you get the confirmation one more time.
NEW ENGLAND STATE OF MIND, POSTGAME
It was complicated and maybe a little contradictory, but I’d say this victory felt like this: A glimmer of genuine hope for the believers, and a temporary stay of execution for the cynics.
What we didn’t know is that these were the first steps — covering the 90 feet between first and second base, if you wish to pinpoint the distance and the moment — toward fulfilling our greatest dream as Red Sox fans:
To devastate the Yankees like they had devastated us for so long, right up through the previous October, and then win the World Series.
At the very point when all looked lost, again, everything began to change. There was so much farther to go in pursuing this impossibility — no team had ever come back from down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series — that we couldn’t possibly have known that history had shifted. right around the time when Dave Roberts’s hand touched second base.
When Ortiz’s home run landed in the Fenway bullpen at 1:22 a.m. and Joe Buck tweaked a famous call of his dad’s by telling us, “We’ll see you later tonight,” the seemingly impossible comeback had begun.
We wanted to believe. But we had to see more before we could believe in a possible dream.
Oh how we would see more, later that night …