The temperature hovered in the high 50s on Saturday, Oct. 11, 2003, in Boston, and first base was open.
The top of the fourth inning of Game 3 of the ALCS began with a Jorge Posada walk and a Nick Johnson single to left. Red Sox 2, Yankees 2, Pedro Martinez on the mound. Hideki Matsui strode to the plate and promptly pounded a Martinez fastball to deep right. The ball skipped over the outfield wall for a ground rule double, scoring Posada to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. Third base umpire Angel Hernandez tossed up his arms and told Johnson he must stay at third.
Karim Garcia’s turn.
What happened next was lighter fluid to the Boston-New York rivalry. It was the calm before one of the ugliest storms in baseball’s most romanticized hatred. Pedro threw a blazing fastball behind Garcia, hitting him in the upper back. Some thought the white pill was zeroing in on Garcia’s head. Garcia immediately turned toward Martinez, shouting indistinguishable words and pointing his bat at the pitcher like an officer pointing his nightstick at a potential rioter. A man who would amass only 352 career hits was staring down one of the most dominant pitchers baseball has ever seen and, given the nature of the rivalry, it felt … normal.
Alfonso Soriano then grounded into a double play, and Garcia slid hard into second base, swiping at the legs of Boston’s Todd Walker. Words were exchanged, the benches slightly emptied, and Posada began yelling from the top step of the visitor’s dugout at Fenway Park. He shouted at Martinez, who eerily stared back at the dugout, pointed at Posada, and then lifted his right finger to his temple like a revolver in a lethal game of Russian roulette. It was a warning shot for whomever wanted the next piece of Pedro.
If the Garcia beanball was a hand grenade, the high Clemens fastball that Manny Ramirez overreacted to — and, yes, it was an overreaction — was napalm. In the bottom of the fourth with Ramirez leading off, Clemens threw a fastball head-high to Ramirez. Ramirez, probably expecting retaliation, acted like the pitch was meant for his batting helmet. It wasn’t. Replays showed the pitch was actually over the plate despite its height. Ramirez began walking toward the mound, bat in hand, shouting obscenities at Clemens. “F— YOU! F— YOU!” Ramirez repeated. Clemens wasn’t backing down.
“F— ME? F— YOU!” Clemens responded. With emotions boiling over like a disobedient pot of soup, the benches emptied. For reasons Jesus himself couldn’t explain, 72-year-old Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer made a beeline for Pedro Martinez. Zimmer wanted to fight. Pedro, appearing caught off guard, grabbed Zimmer by his bald head and shoved him to the side. Zimmer barreled into the ground, his young-ballplayer heart putting his old-man body in an unforgiving position. Zimmer took a cut to the face and a sledgehammer to his pride.
The following spring, months after Aaron Boone had sent a Tim Wakefield knuckleball deep into the Bronx night in Game 7, propelling the Yankees to walk-off victory and another World Series birth, Pedro sat down with ESPN’s Peter Gammons for a TV interview. Gammons asked Pedro about that Game 3 and about Karim Garcia.
“Karim Garcia?” Pedro quizzically responded. “Who’s Karim Garcia? Who are you Karim Garcia to try to test Pedro Martinez, a proven player for 10 years?”
Welcome to Yankees-Red Sox pre-2004.
* * *
The man who opposed Pedro on that October night in 2003 once was a bastion of Red Sox lore, the caretaker of Fenway Park. The Red Sox selected Roger Clemens with the 19th pick in the 1983 draft out of the University of Texas, and by the summer of ’84 Clemens was embarrassing hitters in the American League East. In 13 years in Boston, Clemens won 17 or more games seven times, winning three Cy Young awards and the 1986 A.L. MVP.
If you put aside the needles and Brian McNamee’s bedtime diary for a second, you would remember Clemens as one of the best pitchers of all-time, perhaps THE best right-hander ever. But Clemens can’t simply take a dab of Lysol to his mixed denials of steroid use and call it even. The Red Sox, like any well-run club, were understandably skeptical of an aging pitcher when free agency arrived after the ’96 season. Clemens had reached the 200 inning plateau only once in the last four seasons, and Boston decided to let him walk instead of offering big dollars.
Clemens signed a four-year, $40 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays that offseason, and he went on to put up ungodly numbers in Toronto. At 34-years-old in ‘97, Clemens went 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA with 292 strikeouts in 264 innings, winning the Cy Young. The following year, Clemens won 20 games, posted a 2.65 ERA and won another Cy Young award. This was also the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were winning the hearts of American baseball fans back with their assault of the single-season homerun record.*
*If memory serves correctly, the ’98 season also gave us a three-way tie between Clemens, McGwire and Sosa for the “Most Insanely Obvious And Grotesquely Blatant Steroid User Who Hoodwinked All Media Including Me” award. One note: I wasn’t actually a member of the media that summer. I was a snot-nosed kid deciding between a hamburger with only ketchup on it or a bean-and-cheese burrito from Taco Bell for lunch. But you know what I mean.
After the ’98 season, The Blue Jays swung a deal with New York for Clemens. David Wells, Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd went to Canada, and Clemens went to the Bronx. This killed Red Sox fans. It was bad enough to watch Clemens leave Boston and sign with a team in the same division, but the man had given 13 years to the organization. And, besides, the Blue Jays? Nobody cared about the Blue Jays. But going to the Yankees? Clemens could have urinated on Paul Revere’s grave, and it would have went over better in New England than going to the Yankees.
I don’t think it was that Clemens pitched exceptionally well with New York that tortured the souls of Red Sox fans, because he didn’t. In five seasons, Clemens went 77-36 with a 4.01 ERA. He really had only one great year in pinstripes, which was 2001 when Clemens went 20-3 and won his sixth career Cy Young.* What tortured Red Sox fans was that Clemens pitched well, for the most part, in the postseason with the Yankees. And he won.
*And even that year left a bit to be desired. Clemens’ 3.51 ERA didn’t sniff his second-worst ERA in a year he won the CY (2.65) and he gave up 205 hits in 220 1/3 innings. He struck out 213. OK. He gave up 19 bombs. Meh. It was also his 12th best “WAR” (wins above replacement) season in his career, so you tell me. It was a good year, for sure, it just wasn’t in the same stratosphere as his previous Cy Young seasons. And the 20-3 record distorted his overall winning percentage during his New York years. That’s if, you know, you put much thought into pitcher’s wins.
In five trips to the playoffs with the Yankees, Clemens won seven games, including career-defining moments in Game 4 of the ’99 World Series (7 2/3 of one-run ball in the series’ deciding game) and Game 2 of the ’00 Fall Classic (8 shutout innings, one shattered bat flung Mike Piazza’s way… and this was after a 15-K shutout of Seattle in the ALCS). It wasn’t that Clemens pitched poorly in the playoffs with Boston, the end result just wasn’t the same and the raw stats weren’t as eye-popping.
In four trips to the postseason in Boston, Clemens won a single game. With the Red Sox, Clemens saw only one World Series, and that was when he posted a 3.18 ERA in two starts against the Mets in 1986. And we all know what happened in ’86. There was Mookie’s dribbler and Buckner’s legs and Vinny’s call and Ray’s run and the Curse of the Bambino’s prolonged life. And that was all in Game 6.
The torment turned many Boston hearts black and cold. Kids wondered if that was what rooting for a sports team was really like. Parents wondered how could such a storied franchise with such great talent be haunted by such terrible luck. Grandparents wondered if they would die before the Red Sox won a world series. Seeing Clemens give 13 years to Boston, then a few seasons later be crowned a world champion in pinstripes?
That did it. That was too much.
* * *
In December 2003, Boston thought it was on the verge of exporting an iconic shortstop and importing a legendary one.
As Ian O’Connor brilliantly describes in his recent book, “The Captain,” Nomar Garciaparra had seen his career in Boston come to an impasse. Nomar was a favorite at Fenway, a dazzling ballplayer, but it became clear he didn’t like how the front office was handling contract negotiations, and now, whether true or not, it appeared to the public eye that he was distancing himself from the club. A year earlier, a new ownership group was put in place and a young Theo Epstein was leading baseball operations. For Nomar, the sun began setting in the east.
Red Sox brass began to put the pieces in place for a blockbuster deal that would send Manny Ramirez to Texas for Alex Rodriguez. The club also planned to send Nomar to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez. In 2000, A-Rod had signed a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Rangers. In order to come to Boston, the Red Sox wanted to lower the AAV (annual average value) of A-Rod’s deal. The MLBPA wasn’t having that. Without restructuring capital, there was no deal.
About the same time, the Yankees faced a predicament. Weeks after Aaron Boone hit his famous walk-off homerun in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox, he tore up his knee playing pick-up basketball. New York suddenly had a vacancy at third base, and the team wasn’t happy with Boone, whose contract specifically prohibited him from playing basketball. Yankees GM Brian Cashman got on the phone with Rangers GM Jon Hart, asking what could be done to put A-Rod in pinstripes.
Cashman and Hart continued to talk, and they eventually agreed on a foundation for a deal. New York would send prized second baseman Alfonso Soriano to Texas in exchange for A-Rod, and Texas would eat $67 million of the remaining $179 million on A-Rod’s contract. The only thing holding the deal up was the approval of the commissioner. Bud Selig is no idiot. He knew what kind of star baseball had in Alex Rodriguez, and he knew what the bright lights of Broadway would do to A-Rod’s, and baseball’s, popularity. Selig signed off on the deal, and the Yankees had themselves a third baseman to go with another gut punch to the archrival Red Sox.
Even if A-Rod wasn’t directly responsible for the deal to Boston breaking down, it didn’t mater. He was the face of it.
Clemens was, to some extent, off the hook. There was a new star in New York to hate.
* * *
Funny thing about myths. They make you feel incredibly ignorant if not astoundingly unintelligent once their inaccuracies are brought to light. How did I not realize that? Why didn’t I take the 5.6 seconds to find a morsel of truth? Am I sure I’m not blind? Damn it all!
In the years leading up to 2004, the Red Sox and their fans skillfully executed a tortured younger brother routine. I guess to some degree Boston really was tortured. I mean, no title since 1918? OK, that’s a bit of torture.* But it wasn’t entirely accurate. There was this dual perception tagging along with the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry. This perception that the Yankees obliterated the flesh of innocent people with their financial might, and the Red Sox pretended to be like everyone else, feebly quivering in the corner, hoping the “evil empire” didn’t squash them.
*Chicago Cubs fans are making seedy deals with the devil as we speak.
The national media exacerbated this perception, and if you weren’t a Yankees fan, you were a Red Sox fan. The Red Sox were the “underdog,” and America loves a good underdog tale, right? There is no defending the Yankees. They are the club that traded for the final two years of Kevin Brown’s comically preposterous $105 million contract. They are the club that gave Jason Giambi $120 million to play baseball, and another $120 million for “vitamins and nutrients.”* They are the club that handed Jaret Wright $21 million and Carl Pavano $39.95 million because, you know, it was Tuesday. They are the club that dealt for a 41-year-old Randy Johnson and paid him nearly $32 million for a 4.39 ERA over two seasons. They are the club that brought a 44-year-old Roger Clemens back in the middle of the ’07 season and paid him $1.1 million FOR EACH START. And that wouldn’t even write the prologue of our little bad Yankees contract book we have going here.
*That exact figure has yet to be confirmed.
Even so, there was one difference between the Yankees and Red Sox in this national perception: the Yankees spent and won, the Red Sox spent and continued to lose. That’s it. The Red Sox have never played the younger brother role when it comes to spending dollars. Nobody paid attention because they weren’t winning. They happily filled the lovable loser’s role. New York? It went to the playoffs every year under Joe Torre and finished first in the A.L. East eight out of nine times from ’96 (Jeter’s rookie year) to ’04. But because the Curse of the Bambino remained intact, the Red Sox were Zimmer and the Yankees were Pedro, freely taking the indefensible by the noggin’ and tossing him to the ground. The facts just didn’t back the perception up.
In 2000, Boston was 7th in baseball in payroll at a little more than $75.5 million. In the offseason, it signed Manny Ramirez, David Cone and Hideo Nomo, and watched its payroll spike to $114 million, behind only the Yankees (by about $125,0000) and the Dodgers (by about $1.1 million). Since then, Boston has never been lower than fourth in total payroll, and it was second to New York for four consecutive years (’04-’07). Hear Boston fans making excuses for their team spending big money? Of course not. Boston figured out it had to spend a lot of money if it wanted to break the Curse, and it ended up winning two titles from ’04-’07 while the Yankees won zero.
The perception remained, though, that the Yankees “bought” their championships while the Red Sox did not. We’ve taken our swings at the Yankees, and it’s still hard to defend the “bought their championships” claim at that time.* Their titles came from ’96-’00, and the core of those teams — Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, Mariano — were homegrown. The 2004 Red Sox team? Manny Ramirez was signed in 2000 from Cleveland for a 10-year, $200 million deal. Pedro was brought in from Montreal via trade after the Expos realized they wouldn’t be able to keep him in free agency, and the Red Sox gave him a six-year, $75 million deal with a seventh-year option for $17 million. Johnny Damon signed as a free agent in 2001 for four years and $31 million. Keith Foulke signed in December 2003 for a deal potentially worth four years and $23 million. Curt Schilling was brought over from Arizona.
*If you want to make an argument for 2009, the floor is yours. I probably won’t agree, because I don’t fundamentally believe in the “buying” championships premise (I think winning titles is much more complicated than that), but there ain’t nothing homegrown about A-Rod, Sabathia and Burnett. I’ll give you that.
All of this was masked over by the Curse of the Bambino. The 2004 season rolled around, and everything changed. The Varitek-A-Rod fight in July. The David Roberts steal. Big Papi’s late-night October magic show. The comeback. The sweep of the Cardinals. The crushing of the curse and the permanent burial of the Bambino. It transformed the rivalry entirely. No longer was Boston longing for what the Yankees had. They had it. The rivalry’s sharp edge was replaced with a softer, gentler curve. The Red Sox were no longer tortured, their fans could come out of hiding. The Yankees had stopped winning championships and now the Red Sox had started winning them.
The national perception of the Red Sox as this weak, suffering character trapped in baseball’s darkened annals suddenly vanished. America realized, oh wait, Boston isn’t handicapped. They actually have a brilliant GM, a stellar management team, incredible talent, and pockets deep enough to out-bid us for any player at any time. Whoops.
I didn’t despise that national perception. I LOVED that perception. It made the rivalry great. Better yet, it made the rivalry vile. At some point, the Red Sox needed to win a title. And when they did, it was like we all awoke from our bitter Yankees-Red Sox rivalry dream.
* * *
They’ll try to tell you it’s the same today. Don’t believe them. Sure, a Yankees-Red Sox series may be more intense than other series in baseball, but not like it used to be. As a kid, the rivalry dominated my days and I lived on the West Coast. Tonight, Josh Beckett and C.C. Sabathia square off as the Red Sox try to win their third series of the year against New York including their second sweep at Yankee Stadium. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t feel like that big of an event. It feels small. It feels like one in 162. It feels corporate. Another ALCS showdown would boil the blood of the rivalry, but the national interest is largely gone. There’s no curse to break. No history to make. No underdog to pull up.
This all sounds cynical and pessimistic, but it isn’t. Baseball as a whole is a better product today than it ever has been. Since 2004, 11 different teams have appeared in seven World Series, with six different organizations winning championships.* Tampa Bay gave teams with inferior payrolls the blue print for making a run at a World Series. With advanced statistics and innovative minds in the game, different team are finding new ways to compete.
*Only Philadelphia, St. Louis and Boston have gone twice each since ‘04, and only the Red Sox have won twice.
After the ’04 World Series, Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” had been out for about a year, and it had made its rounds around the league. If front offices weren’t thinking along the exact lines of the book, the main premise had at least been accepted: there are advantages waiting for teams intelligent and daring enough to explore possible market inefficiencies. Possibly no team has hacked away at that challenge like the Rays, a major reason why the Yankees and Red Sox aren’t holding parades every year. Their divisional opponents have evolved.
The Red Sox followed the same blueprint. They drafted Kevin Youkilis when A’s GM Billy Beane — the mastermind the plot of “Moneyball” was created after — coveted him. Theo Epstein and his scouting department took a pipsqueak out of Arizona State named Dustin Pedroia. Intuitive scouting and superior player development has allowed Boston to stockpile the necessary prospects in case it wants to trade for a Josh Beckett or an Adrian Gonzalez. Its plush revenue streams allow it to throw nine figures at a Carl Crawford or spend more than $50 million to simply talk to a coveted international pitcher. These are who the Red Sox have always been. The game has changed. The Yankees and Red Sox are smarter clubs now. They have the foresight to draft a Jon Lester in the second round and the means to give him the biggest bonus in that round.
There is still much to enjoy about the New York-Boston rivalry, but it’s no longer must-see TV. When the Red Sox shed the “cursed” label and were no longer desperately trying to steal everything the Yankees had, we all lost.
Beckett and Sabathia is always good. Yankees and Red Sox is always entertaining. A brawl or a seven-game playoff series will shake the hatred in its sleep. But it’s just not as fun.
Not as fun as the days when Karim Garcia had the gall to stare down a future Hall of Fame pitcher after being beaned, wave his bat at him, and act like he was actually going to do something about it.
Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.