Bronx, N.Y., September 17, 2004 — To battle your way down the interminable ramps leading to the exits at Yankee Stadium after Friday night’s game, you would have thought the days of a last-place finish in a 10-team league from 1966 were back to haunt us. Of course, a healthy percentage of the 55,000-plus who remained through two rain delays, five hours, and 300-plus pitches from eight hurlers were wearing red, and they were in a celebratory mood. But the majority were wearing some midnight blue, and they were unhappy.
Of course, Yankee fans are never pleased when fans of other teams pick our park in which to throw their parties. But turnabout is fair play, I suppose. I have often enjoyed the chants of “1918″ (and put up with some of a less subtle nature), reveling in the boisterous spirit and joie de vivre that comes from being an enthusiast for the most successful franchise in the history of spectator sports. A taunt yes, but a clever and not openly hurtful one in my book. But we saw some dangerous pushing along the rampways swelling with fans of all sizes, shapes, and ages after this game, and witnessed an out-and-out brawl in the upper levels of the walkways leading toward Gate Two in the left field corner. I was tired, wet, sweaty, stinky, depressed, saddened by the failure of one of my all-time favorites, and concerned for my team’s future. But I was not angry, and entirely too many people were.
It hadn’t looked to be a night with that kind of ending for much of the evening, even though the visiting Sox had threatened in the first and taken the early lead on a Johnny Damon upper deck home run to right off el duque in the third. The Duke was not sharp, but he worked effectively, and although he left after throwing too many pitches through three frames and two rain delays, he did only allow the one run on three hits. The first delay came with David Ortiz up in that third inning, three batters after Damon’s lead-creating blast. The stoppage was relatively short, but not as brief as the amount of time until the rains came yet again.
This happened at about 8:25 after Trot Nixon had mercy on us all and finally struck out to end the visiting third and send the crowd scurrying for cover. It would be well over an hour before the game would start up again. With that resumption, several things would change. Tanyon Sturtze would replace Hernandez on the mound and, despite the misgivings of the crowd, he was superb. Holding the Sox at that one early run through the next 3.7 innings on just one single and two walks, he would notch five strike outs (three swinging) before surrendering the ball to Tom Gordon with two down in the seventh.
The other thing that would change is that the dominant Bronson Arroyo would slip a bit, and the Yanks would capitalize immediately. I would remark to friends during the rains that the Yankee bats were ominously quiet, and even though he would pop up meekly to short in the first, Alex Rodriguez was really the only Pinstriper to have a professional at bat in the first two innings. Arroyo kept the Yanks off balance, causing them to hit the bottoms of baseballs for a slew of harmless popups. Jeter and Sheffield joined A-Rod in popping out in the infield in the first, and Posada added a pop to Nixon in short right in the second.
But Rodriguez would drive Arroyo’s second post-delay pitch to the wall in right center for a double leading off the fourth, and Sheffield moved him 90 feet with a single up the middle. Alas, Matsui popped (!) to short right, but Posada would deliver the tying run on a fielder’s choice. Then in the fifth Olerud gave the Yankees the lead with a 1-1 drive to the right centerfield bleachers. Cairo almost bunted his way on with a ball that just rolled foul down third, then fouled off two more, and then delivered a high drive toward the left field foul pole that had the distance. But the drive was too high, and the sometimes wacky and ineffective (defensively) Manny Ramirez actually stole Miguel’s home run try from the first row and brought it back into the field of play.
None of us realized then that the infield single with which Lofton would follow Miguel’s drive was to be the last Yankee safety of the night. Ramirez is a great and dangerous hitter, and he shows flashes in the field. But one way to write the story of this game is to say that two and a half weeks ago the Yanks lost a game in Cleveland to a squirrel. Friday night they lost one to a nut.
But alas, that is not the only story. With the Yankee bats filed way for the evening, Sturtze’s stellar performance was key. And Tom Gordon was overpowering in carrying the game to the ninth. As they say in the Bronx, “you gotta go to Mo.” A friend pointed out to me that Mariano was going for save no. 50 as he warmed. But it was not to be. Nixon worked a seven-pitch walk. Varitek brought a smile to my face with his fourth strike out of the night (I can’t abide him since the “mask” incident), but Millar was hit by a 2-1 pitch, an event that bizarrely brought a Hunter Wendelstedt warning to Rivera and to both benches. I couldn’t help but thinking, “You mean you think he purposefully hit a guy to put the winning run on base!?!” As soon as the thought registered, I stopped it, but apparently not in time. Two singles would follow, and the Red Sox grabbed the lead. The Yanks went down in order to Keith Foulke in the ninth, sending fans into emotional distress. Yankee fans booed, Sox fans celebrated raucously.
Many questioned Torre allowing Giambi to hit with the game on the line in the ninth, but I had no problem with it. He frankly looks just like he did earlier this season, which is not a good thing. But if you are going to give him at bats in hopes he’ll get his eye, well, in a 3-2 game, let him try to jack one out, I say. The only move that really bothered me was huge too. After Rivera hit Millar, he fell behind shortstop Cabrera 2-1. The Sox figured to run, and they did. Predictably, Cabrera failed to pull Rivera, smacking a ground ball the other way toward second, right to where Miguel Cairo would have (should have?) been. But Cairo covered second rather than Jeter, and what could have been a 4-6-3 game-ending double play was instead a game-tying single.
Rivera was not hit hard. The leadoff walk was huge; the hit by pitch added to the poisonous pot. But let’s face it. If you play a whole game and your team gets only four hits, you don’t deserve a win. Both teams came to the ninth with four safeties, The one that added two to their total won the game.
One of the best years in the Yankee/Boston rivaly, of course, was 1978. The Yanks put the finishing touches on their comeback drive that season in two September series with the Red Sox. First came the four-game Boston Masscre in Massachusetts, and the Yanks outscored the hapless Sox 42-9 in the sweep. Perhaps less famous is the three-gamer in New York one week later. The Bombers made it six in a row with 4-0 and 3-2 wins in the first two. But on September 17, the Sox started their drive to stay alive with a 7-3 win of their own. They would tie the Yanks on the last day of the season, then lose to the Bucky Dent home run in the one game playoff.
It was a wonderful time, and not at all like the 1966 debacle that dumped the Bombers to 10th in a 10-team race. You win, you lose. That’s why we play the games, people. Try to enjoy each and every one, win or lose.
One more thing about that 7-3 loss to the Sox this day in 1978. The Yanks got just four hits in that game too.