Tuesday, October 20, 2009
A couple of weeks ago, Knucklehead and I told the tale of the Yankees and Red Sox, in 1978, playing a one-game playoff for the American League East title. My piece was entitled "The Agony", while his was called "The Ecstasy". That was because those bastard Yankees won that meeting, while my beloved Red Sox lost. This time around, my piece is entitled "The Ecstasy", while his is "The Agony". That should give you some idea about the outcome of the match-up we’re writing about THIS time around.
(You can go in any order you wish, but I'd actually suggest reading Knucklehead's piece first. Go ahead. I'll wait.)
In 2004, I was a Red Sox fan of 40-years standing. You could read about the exact day I became a Red Sox fan, if you wish, but you don’t have to.
During the first three years of my following the Red Sox, they were not good. I loved them, being an unjaundiced hometown-rooting youth of single-digit age, but they were truly horrible. They finished 9th twice and 10th the other year. This was in a 10-team league, by the way. Everybody in my neighborhood, kids and adults alike, called the Red Sox such pejorative nicknames as the Red Slobs (and I’m sure adult Bostonians, when alone among other adults, probably called them the Red Sucks. I was a little kid and didn’t get to hear such colorful stuff, although the phrase “Fuck you and the Red Sox” did reach my ears once, conflicting me horribly. I was pissed that someone was denigrating my team, but the incongruity of it tickled me to no end.)
Anyway, I stuck with them when others were making fun of them (and of me, by extension.) And that loyalty paid off, in spades, in 1967. The Red Sox, listed as 100-1 underdogs by Las Vegas going into the season, won one of the most exciting pennant races in American League history. They won it all on the final day of the season by beating the Minnesota Twins while the Detroit Tigers were dropping a doubleheader on the same day. The whole town was baseball crazy. During the World Series, our 6th grade teacher rolled a portable TV into the classroom and we watched the games rather than do any actual schoolwork. It helped that our teacher was the principal, of course, and nobody could report him to himself.
The Sox lost the World Series in seven games. That team is still fondly remembered, though, and nobody considered them anything other than heroes. Teams that followed them, and failed to win the big prize, would be looked upon with less mercy by a region starved for a championship.
The Sox reached the World Series again in 1975. Again, they lost it in seven games. Still, they gave us quite a thrill, what with Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk performing miraculous heroics in Game Six, so the eventual loss was not a reason to run them out of town.
In 1978, well... I refer you to the pieces Knucklehead and I did concerning that. Sox fans were beginning to become a bit more desperate, and the word "choke" began to make random appearances in folk’s conversations regarding the Olde Towne Team.
Then, the nightmare that was 1986 happened.
Oh, it was a wonderful regular season, and the comeback in the playoffs versus the Angels was a great thing, but Game Six of the Series will forever live in infamy in the minds of Red Sox Nation. They were one strike away from the World Championship. And, damn it, if anybody wants to lay the loss at the feet of Bill Buckner, you can safely ignore that person’s opinions concerning anything to do with baseball. Blame Calvin Schiraldi, blame Rich Gedman, blame Bob Stanley (and, as with Buckner, not really his fault, in my opinion), blame John McNamara, but poor Billy Buckner should never even have been in position to blow the play for which he is unfortunately remembered. Bottom line: the Sox lost the Series, again in seven games.
Fast-forward through a whole bunch of years where the Sox had decent teams, and made the playoffs, but never won it all. This brings us to 2003 and Aaron Bleeping Boone.
Sox vs. Yankees, for the American League pennant. Here’s a brief history of what had transpired in other years:
1949 – Sox need to win only one of the two remaining games in the regular season in order to go to the World Series (and play the Boston Braves, I might add, which would have been the only time a Boston Subway series happened.) They lose both games to the Yankees.
1950 through 1964 – The Yankees win the American League something like 13 times in this stretch. The Red Sox finish second three or four times, then start the slow decline to the last-place teams of the early 60’s.
1978 – Yankees beat the Sox in the one-game playoff. Yankees win World Series.
And so on. Whenever something was on the line, the Yankees won.
So here were the two teams matched up in 2003. It came down to a seventh game, in Yankee Stadium, and that game went into extra innings. The Sox lost when Aaron Boone hit a walk-off home run off of Tim Wakefield (who was very much in line to be the MVP of that series until then, by the way, and deserved better when he was pressed into duty in that extra inning game, the poor bastard.)
You have to understand that, as much detail as I’ve gone into, I easily could have written another 10,000 words about my history as a Sox fan. And there have been more good times than bad. I shortened the details to save you from amazing boredom, and concentrated on the failures because it makes a better story. Anyway, in a nutshell, that was the history coming into 2004. I was a fan for 40 years and the Sox had never won the championship. As a matter of fact, they hadn’t won it since 1918, a span of 86 years. Bostonians were born, lived their entire lives, died as old men, and never saw the Sox win it all. My Dad was one of them. Some wag put it this way: “They killed my grandfather, they killed my father, and now they’re coming for me!”
In 2004, the Red Sox would again meet the Yankees in the final round of the playoffs for the right to go to the World Series. As usual, the American League Championship Series was a best of seven. First team to win four games goes to the World Series.
The Yankees won the first three games.
The stark reality of the above sentence is that the Yankees not only won the first three games, they won them handily. The third game was a 19 – 8 mauling, and it took place in Fenway Park, home field of the Sox.
It would have been hard to imagine a more thorough whipping of one team by another, nor a less-favorable outlook for the success of the other team. Only the most optimistic of Red Sox fans held out hope for them to win game four. Nobody in their right mind thought that they had any chance of winning the series itself. No baseball team in the entire history of the sport had ever come back from a three games to none deficit in a best-of-seven series.
I’m an optimist by nature, but even I wasn’t Pollyanna enough to believe that the Sox could buck history to such an extent. I thought it was reasonably possible for them to win game four, and avoid total embarrassment, but win the series? I’d love to sit here with a straight face and tell you that I knew it all along, but even a professional bullshit artist can only expect you to believe so much and then it becomes wishful thinking.
I was one of the few in the New England region who watched every painful minute of game three. That game – as many Yankee/Red Sox games tend to do – had gone well over four hours. Most people went to bed long before the final out. Not me. And, because of that masochism on my part, I was one of the few who enjoyed to the fullest possible measure what happened later. I had fully invested my pain, so my payoff in pleasure was much more than that of the casual (sane) fan.
In game four, the Sox once again trailed going into the ninth inning. The deficit was only one run, but the Yankees had Mariano Rivera (for those unfamiliar with baseball history, arguably the best relief pitcher in the history of the sport) pitching in the ninth. One run is always possible, but the way to bet was with the Yankees at that point.
Kevin Millar drew a base on balls to lead off the ninth. Sox manager Terry Francona removed Millar in favor of a pinch runner, Dave Roberts.
Roberts was a decent ballplayer, but his one truly outstanding attribute was his speed. Everybody in the ballpark – Yankees, Sox, fans, broadcasters, cameramen, peanut vendors, pigeons, politicians in the front row who had never paid their way into a ballgame and knew about as much concerning strategy as the pigeons – knew that Roberts would try to steal second base. It was going to happen. The only question was whether the Yankees could stop him.
They couldn’t. Roberts stole second, putting the Sox into a much easier position to tie the game. And then Bill Mueller drove a single up the middle, scoring Roberts. Game tied. Extra Innings.
The game went on, well past midnight and the five-hour mark, until finally, in the 12th inning, David Ortiz slammed a home run into the right field seats. The Sox had won a game and saved face.
Game Five followed somewhat the same script. Again, the Sox trailed. Again, Mariano Rivera was on the mound. And, again, the Sox scored off of Rivera. When the game reached the midnight hour in extra innings, David Ortiz again delivered the goods. This time, he didn’t hit a home run, but he did deliver a single to score the winning run in the 14th inning. Tim Wakefield was the winning pitcher. The Sox now trailed the Yankees 3 games to 2.
As fantastic as those two games had been, Game Six was better.
Curt Schilling was the scheduled pitcher for the Sox. He had been the ace of the Sox staff for the better part of the season, but the Yankees had slammed him around in his previous start in the series. Schilling had been battling a serious injury, a tendon in his ankle, and had not been able to throw effectively at all. Before game six, he underwent an actual operation, a medical procedure not previously listed in the journals of the AMA.
Schilling had a tendon from a corpse transplanted, temporarily, into his ankle.
It was a temporary fix concocted by team physicians. They came up with a bizarre way around Schilling’s injury. They sliced open his ankle area, stitched the extra tendon into place in such a way as to keep Schilling’s own injured tendon from contacting areas that would bring him the excruciating pain he had been in while pitching, sewed him up again, shot his ankle area full of painkillers, and sent him out to throw a baseball.
Schilling went to the mound with blood and pus copiously weeping from the sutured area and onto his sock. Yankee fans (and other morons) have since desperately tried to convince the world at large that Schilling was just fine and only painted his sock with some sort of marker to simulate blood. Those people are the same type of emotional misers as Doubting Thomas was. They refuse to believe in heroism unless they stick their own fingers into the wounds.
Schilling, with his sutured ankle bleeding, pitched seven magnificent innings. The Sox won the sixth game. The series was now tied.
No team in baseball history had ever done so much as force a seventh game from such a precarious situation. The Sox now had, and they were in position to actually win the damn series.
And Game Seven was the easiest one of them all. The Sox got out to an early lead in the first inning, and then Johnny Damon blasted a grand slam in the second inning. That put the Sox up 6 – 0 and effectively started some cautious partying in New England. Later on, Mark Bellhorn hit the right field foul pole with a home run. It made a hideous clanging sound when it hit the pole, one I personally took to be God’s own voice telling me that the historical Yankee dominance over the Sox was now dead, forever.
(Seriously. It was spooky-sounding. Unfortunately, I can't find video of it anywhere. Take my word for it. It was a sound out of a horror film.)
The Boston Red Sox had pulled off the impossible. They had come back from a 3 – 0 deficit to win a seven game series. AND they had done it against their most ancient and hated of rivals, the New York Yankees.
It was, and remains, the most joyful moment in my life as a sports fan.
The truly interesting part of this whole scenario is that the Red Sox still had not won the World Series. They would, beating the St. Louis Cardinals in a four-game sweep, ending the 86-year-old championship drought, but it was truly anti-climactic for me. I think if you ask any long-time Sox fan whether the World Series win was more satisfying than the comeback against the Yankees, they'd truthfully say that it wasn't. While winning the championship was something we had imagined as possible, beating the Yanks in such a fashion was beyond imagining. But the Sox did it, damn it. They did it.
Postscript: The Yankees, and their fans, were – for the most part, excluding the unbelievers concerning Schilling’s injury - amazingly classy in defeat. The Sox celebrated long and hard on New York’s home turf, and the Yankee Stadium denizens and personnel did not try to shorten any of it. Most newspaper accounts from New York, while bemoaning their own fate, did not denigrate the Sox’ achievement. And, at the beginning of the following season, when the Yankees opened the season at Fenway Park against the Sox, and the Sox had their championship ceremony for the fans before the game, the Yankees players – led by their always-classy manager, Joe Torre – watched every minute of it, respectfully, from the enemy dugout. When Mariano Rivera’s name was given over the public address system during player introductions, the Red Sox fans gave a huge cheer, somewhat mocking the man for his failure to close out the series in games four and five. Rivera, secure in self-knowledge that his credentials as a clutch player were, and are, impeccable, acknowledged the cheer by taking off his cap and giving a similarly mocking bow to the fans.
That was the very epitome of good sportsmanship, and Rivera has been my favorite Yankee ever since. I’m happy to report that, when he answered their cheers in that way, the Sox fans gave him an even louder cheer, which he richly deserved and which made me proud, once again, to be a Sox fan.
Soon, with more better stuff.
(If you didn't read Knucklehead's piece already, do so NOW, please.)