The Epics is a series of nostalgic looks back at individual games that hold a special place in our hearts as Red Sox or Yankee fans. These are the games that constructed our outlook on baseball and helped shape us into the fans we are today.
watershed (noun): an important point of division or transition between two phases, conditions, etc.
John used to say that the Yankees and the Red Sox don’t have any more of a rivalry than a hammer has with a nail. While I don’t think that analogy has been accurate since the 1970s, when Carlton Fisk’s Red Sox engaged in blistering battles with Thurman Munson’s Yankees, there was certainly a grain of truth to it. While the Red Sox often performed admirably and took the Yankees to the limit during the Bronx zoo days, the late-90s dynasty period, and most notably the 2003 ALCS, the Bombers always came out on top. Yogi Berra famously summed it up before Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS:
“Relax. We’ve been beating these guys for a hundred years”
Little did Yogi know that the tide had already turned a mere three months earlier during a brutal, rainy, ugly game where the Boston Red Sox finally gained their footing, stepped out of the corner, flung a lethal right hook, and finally cut the unbeatable juggernaut right on the eyebrow.
A few of you may remember that this game on July 24th, 2004 almost never happened. A steady rain had fallen much of the day, pushing back the scheduled 3pm start a full hour. In fact, the umpires actually elected to call the game before the Red Sox front office overruled them (the home team has the final word on postponing a game). Many of the Yankees had already showered, dressed in their travel clothes, and were preparing to board the team bus before finally being informed that the game would in fact take place as scheduled.
Could this have been a little gamesmanship perpetrated by Theo Epstein and the Red Sox? Possibly. But the fact is that virtually everyone on the field during this contest looked like a slapdick jabroni, Red Sox and Yankees alike. This game was a symphony of ineptitude featuring an array of blunders and buffoonery that somehow yielded a numerical symmetry of sorts, like a Fibonacci sequence of awfulness.
During this nine-inning game, we saw:
5 pitchers last less than an inning
2 bases loaded walks
and 1 balk
Oh yeah, we also saw this.
You may have noticed the broadcaster at the end yell “Varitek kept his mask on!”
That’s Tim McCarver, the Phil Simms of national baseball broadcasts. He was an awful play-by-play man in general, but Red Sox fans could never stand him because he was always such a mark for the Yankees. Or maybe he just hated the Red Sox. He was on the Cardinals team that defeated the Red Sox in the 1967 World Series, one of several Red Sox championship near-misses during the 86-year curse. I’ve always had a theory that somebody on the Red Sox said or did something to McCarver during that series that he never forgave, and he paid the fanbase back for whatever that slight was each time he called a Red Sox game during his 33-year reign of terror in the booth.
Throughout the rest of the game, McCarver made sure to refer back to Varitek keeping his mask on each time the discussion reverted back to the third inning brawl. Stone-age baseball etiquette apparently calls for catchers to be sure to stop and remove their facemasks before engaging in on-field combat, even as the belligerent hitter is leaning into the catcher’s face screaming “f*** you, motherf***er!”
McCarver had a hard on for the Sox before this game even started. He went out of his way to lay a few early jabs into Red Sox management for jerking the Yankees around before the game regarding the faux postponement. Following the brawl, McCarver castigated David Ortiz for taking a swing at Yankee starting pitcher Tanyon Sturtze, completely overlooking the fact that Sturtze had instigated that action by grabbing Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler in a chokehold from behind and pulling him away from the pile by his neck. Ortiz had stepped in to protect his teammate, not that McCarver cared a lick.
Sturtze and Bronson Arroyo, the starting pitchers for this contest, both sucked.
The Yankees took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second shortly after Alex Rodriguez reached on the first of four Boston errors. Jorge Posada singled on a perfectly executed hit and run play (remember those?), Hideki Matsui doubled in ARod, and Tony Clark drove in Posada with a groundout. New York’s third run crossed the plate the following inning on a Gary Sheffield double play ball, which immediately preceded Arroyo pegging ARod to start the brawl.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: I’m pretty sure Arroyo hit ARod on purpose.
The Red Sox were usually the aggressors during this all-time high point of the greatest rivalry sports has ever seen. The Yankees, on the other hand, routinely shied away from retaliation. A mere three weeks earlier, Pedro Martinez plunked Sheffield during another all-time battle. That was the game in Yankee Stadium where a bitter, contract-less Nomar Garciaparra sat on the bench resting his sore Achilles while Derek Jeter dove into the stands four steps after making a running catch in foul territory. The Yankees won that game, which felt to Red Sox fans as an encapsulation of the rivalry.
The Yankees were tougher than the Red Sox. The Yankees were better than the Red Sox. And that pissed the Red Sox off so much that they were willing to hum fastballs at the Bombers in frustration.
Bear in mind, the previous season had ended with Aaron Boone walking off Tim Wakefield in Game 7 of the ALCS. Red Sox fan dejection was at its apex. Despite the championship talent that was all over the 2004 squad, Boston had struggled for much of the season, starting this game 9.5 games behind New York in the AL East.
McCarver and Joe Buck spent most of the first half of this game reminding us ad nauseum of how tough the Yankees were and how disappointing 2004 had been thus far for the Red Sox, who in the offseason had added elite starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke to a squad that already boasted a lethal offensive attack featuring Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, reigning batting champion Bill Mueller, and the perpetually boo-boo faced Garciaparra. This was supposed to be the season that the Red Sox got over the hump. Yet as of July 24th, it was the same old same old. The Red Sox continued to underachieve while the Yankees continued to soar.
Rodriguez, as pompous and image conscious as anybody to ever lace up a pair of cleats, was not about to lose face on national TV in his first year with the Evil Empire. In ARod’s mind, getting beaned was a direct assault on his manhood. Varitek subsequently stepping in front of him and quipping “we don’t throw at .260 hitters” certainly didn’t help either. Desperate to look like a tough guy in his first foray into the rivalry, ARod crossed the line. And Varitek responded.
Aside from the Sturtze-Kapler-Ortiz pig pile, this brawl was a pretty tame encounter involving little more than a scrum near home plate and some half-assed shoving. Buck and McCarver shoehorned in some praise for ARod’s triumphant ascent to becoming a real-life Yankee tough guy, then basically compared Varitek to a grown man entering a schoolyard fight wearing kevlar. After a lengthy delay, ARod and Varitek were ejected and the game resumed with the Yankees on top 3-0.
Much to the chagrin of the announcers, the basebrawl seemed to energize the Red Sox. A season of frustration had been expelled from a weary team, as had eight decades of misery from a downtrodden fanbase. The golden boy free agent, who would have been playing shortstop in Boston if not for MLBPA intervention, was pie-faced by the Red Sox’ dirt dog leader in front of a national audience. Boston had had enough of the preppy New York elites.
It was time to Cowboy Up.
It was only fitting that Kevin Millar, the shameless goofball who made himself into the mouthpiece of this crew of Idiots, started Boston’s fourth inning rally with his first of four hits on the day. RBI groundouts from Mark Bellhorn and Johnny Damon pulled the Red Sox within a run, and a Nomar 2-run single off reliever Juan Padilla put them ahead 4-3 in the fourth. Arroyo held serve until the sixth, when the wheels appeared to come off.
Enrique Wilson, ARod’s replacement, singled to begin a brutal rally that sucked the wind right out of Fenway Park. Doubles from Posada and Matsui followed, and two more hits from Miguel Cairo and Bernie Williams chased Arroyo from the game in favor of Curtis Leskanic, soon to be known in Boston as Curtis “Let’s Panic.” Leskanic lived up to his moniker from the second he exited the bullpen, surrendering three walks and a single to the only four men he faced. By the time Mark Malaska entered the game to put out the fire, the Yankees had scored six runs to take a 9-4 lead.
Before July 24th, 2004, the Boston Red Sox would’ve turtled and went down like lambs in their final four turns at the plate. However, over the next two hours (of course this nine-inning game took four hours to play), we learned that the watershed moment of this rivalry had finally arrived.
The Red Sox answered right back in the bottom of the sixth, loading the bases off Padilla and Paul Quantrill to set up a Mueller sacrifice fly, a Bellhorn double off the wall, and a Damon single to cut the deficit to 9-7. Felix Heredia, the third pitcher of the inning, then walked Ortiz and Ramirez to force in another run and make it a one-run game.
However, in true Yankees vs Red Sox fashion, all the momentum Boston had gained in their four-run sixth instantaneously vanished when Ruben Sierra led off the seventh by tattooing a Malaska fastball onto Lansdowne Street to put the Bombers back up by two. After Millar failed to scoop a low throw following a diving stop from Mueller on the next play (Good God, Millar was a terrible first baseman), McCarver claimed, “this may be the worst game I’ve ever seen.” Buck corrected him a moment later, “the best worst game.”
Alan Embree and Ramiro Mendoza finally quelled Boston’s pitching nonsense from there, while Scott Proctor steadied things on the Yankee end. The score remained 10-8 until Mariano Rivera took over in the ninth for what every Major League Baseball fan in the world had been pre-programmed to believe would be an automatic save.
On this day, however, not even Rivera was immune to the changing winds that the baseball gods had decided to deliver unto these two franchises. Nomar ripped a double to left-center to lead off the ninth, and a 22-year-old me leapt out of my seat when my favorite player of the era, Trot Nixon, slammed a cutter 370 feet to right. While this ball would have been a game-tying upper decker in Yankee Stadium, this game was played at Fenway Park. Nixon’s drive fell harmlessly into Sheffield’s glove for the first out of the inning.
That was their chance, I remember thinking as I settled back onto my mother’s couch and braced myself to watch Rivera mow down the next two hitters and end the game.
I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when Millar sent Rivera’s next offering into right-center for his fourth hit of the day, plating Nomar and putting the tying run on first base. I’m sure you can imagine my further surprise when Millar was lifted for pinch runner David McCarty, a backup first baseman who was virtually just as slow as Millar. This is a perfect testament to the abysmal lack of speed on this Red Sox roster until Dave Roberts was acquired a week later.
This would not be the last time Bill Mueller would step up to the plate against Mariano Rivera in 2004 with a big game on the line. Knowing that Rivera’s location was atypically off kilter, Mueller patiently worked his way to a 3-1 count. He knew what pitch was coming, although that was nothing new since Rivera pretty much only threw one pitch his entire career.
The 3-1 cutter was belt-high over the inner third of the plate. Mueller didn’t miss it.
The yells from the Fenway Faithful grew as they watched Sheffield edge closer and closer to the right field wall, then exploded when he finally turned his back to watch the ball drop into the bullpen catcher’s glove.
The game was over. The Red Sox had pulled out a miraculous 11-10 victory.
It was a poorly played contest that at times looked more like a JV high school game. Yet it was an instant classic. A benchmark statement game that will live forever in the hearts of every Red Sox fan that witnessed it.
The Red Sox had, quite literally, smacked the New York Yankees in the mouth. They had embarrassed the best player in baseball. They had walked off the best closer of all time. And they had introduced the New York Yankees to the changing dynamics of this ancient blood feud. The pendulum had finally begun to swing Boston’s way, even though it wouldn’t truly cross the median for another three months.
This week was the first time I watched this game in its entirety since it originally took place. It was a fantastic experience not only because I got to relive a milestone Red Sox victory, but also because the recording I viewed was an airing of the original broadcast in its entirety, complete with MLB game breaks and commercials.
Old network TV recordings can be a time capsule of sorts if you pay close attention, and I discovered a few interesting Easter eggs as I watched this one.
- Doug Mirabelli was hitting .298 with seven home runs as a backup catcher in late July.
- Travis Hafner was showcased as a player on a hot streak, hitting .480 over the past week. His head shot revealed the type of swollen-faced mutant that you don’t often see in baseball these days. Let’s just say that 2004 Travis Hafner is a perfect representation of the type of player that really succeeded during this era of baseball.
- The Oakland A’s led the league in pitching with a team ERA of 4.05! In 2022, 21 teams had a team ERA under 4.05.
- Three years before becoming famous, Howard from The Big Bang Theory appeared in a Burger King commercial, throwing his friend’s TV out a window.
- Five years before becoming famous, Shirley from Community appeared in a Citicard commercial as a hefty, unpregnant lady who is asked by a stranger when she is due to give birth.
- Method Man and Redman had a primetime sitcom on Fox! In the trailer I saw, Redman told a small boy that women “have to be this tall to ride Flesh Mountain.” Method & Red lasted nine episodes.