Bronx, N.Y., May 27, 2003 — I was a mess thinking about Tuesday evening’s upcoming Yankee/Red Sox tilt in the Bronx Monday night after having spent some seven hours in the rain-soaked Borough earlier that day, witnessing the unfortunate outcome of Roger Clemens’s first attempt at his 300th win.
I gave SportsCenter a brief look for what was happening elsewhere in baseball, but I had no desire to confront any of the gory details regarding fan and ownership reaction. I learned painfully years ago that baseball seasons are rarely decided in May, and that a sane “fanatic” approach was one that avoided too many highs or lows this early in the year. I turned to a this-day-in-history database, a hobby of mine, focusing on Tuesday and wondering if there were any relevant foreshadowings in history of what was to come that next evening.
I drifted off to sleep imagining that the coming contest would be a war, as I noted May 28 marked the 1837 birthday of Wild Bill Hickok, and 1915 the same for author Herman Wouk (The Winds of War, et al), and that it also represented the anniversary of the Allies’ escape from Dunkirk in 1940 and the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck exactly one year later. From there my musings drifted off to the mystery of this unknown game to come, as I recalled that Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon and many more Sam Spade thrillers, was born the same day (1894), as was the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison (1934). It got creepy after that as my dreams veered into horror, influenced no doubt by the birthdays of both Vincent Price (1911) and Christopher Lee (1922), both of whom starred in many a scary movie.
By the time the alarm mercifully freed me from the downward spiral of this nightmare, I had drifted to a place where May in the Bronx was a Silent Spring (in honor of author Rachel Carson’s birthday — 1907), habeas corpus (literally “we have the body,” the New York Yankees?!?, in honor of that legal concept being written into western law first this day in 1679), and Ripley’s Believe It or Not (Yankee games returning to the poorly attended days in the 80s — poor Mr. Ripley died May 28, 1949 — and their fans becoming second-class citizens to that horrid team in F-l-u-…)
“R-I-I-N-N-G!” I awoke with a start, and stumbled through an uneventful and unending day, needing to get to the Stadium to dispel all that nonsense and worry.
And nonsense it was, as my first visions from Box 622 made clear. I forced myself to get there early, so I was looking serenely at a dry field, listening to Eddie Layton playing My Satin Doll on the organ at 6:40, when I simultaneously noticed a short man in red regalia walking in front of the Yankee dugout, and that there was a microphone placed behind home plate, a sure sign that we were to receive some live musical entertainment before the game would begin. Gradually it became clear (and then Bob Sheppard announced it in tones as clear as he ever has) that the Yankees were honoring the 135th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race to come this Saturday, and that we were to hear our National Anthem played by legendary Belmont bugler Sam Grossman.
There was a heightened buzz in the crowd after Sam’s stirring rendition even beyond what one expects at a Yankee/Red Sox game, and the cheers were long and loud as Funny Cide jockey Jose Santos threw out the first pitch. Play Ball!
I was glad to see Todd Zeile taking Jason Giambi’s place at first base. Although Jason’s health and hoped-for recovery from a litany of nicks and pains is something I root for almost as strongly as hits, runs and good pitching performances, the reason I liked that was that Robin Ventura would get a start at third against a lefty. I not only think Robin has a much better glove, I also believe he is a danger at bat even against southpaws, particularly with the short porch in right in Yankee Stadium.
The 11-3 final may sound like a laugher, but this was a nip-and-tuck battle that stood at 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh, and it is very possible that we would be ruing another Yankee loss were it not for the huge offensive and defensive contributions of both Yankee corners last night.
Our hopes rested with tall lefty Andy Pettitte, whose personal struggles have been going on even longer than this team has been slumping, as he had lost his last four starts, and looked particularly ineffective last Thursday against the hot-hitting Toronto Blue Jays. Johnny Damon was an effective pest in Boston last week and against Roger Monday, and he promptly tried to force the issue on the game’s third pitch by pulling a drag bunt past Pettitte in a bid to make first before the Yankee defense could react. The sure-handed but lumbering Giambi would not have managed the run, grab, pivot and lunge that Zeile pulled off, and rather than standing on our heels with a base stealer on first with no outs, we had their pesky leadoff guy out on the first of three 3-unassisted’s on the night, and four ground outs to the right side over all. Andy sat both Bill Mueller and Nomar Garciaparra down on called third strikes, though Nomar battled him for seven pitches, with Mueller going down in three.
As big as it was to shut the Red Sox down 1-2-3, it was just as big to get our glacially cold offense off to a good start. Joe has moved the homer machine Soriano out of the leadoff spot, but not the homers. Derek Jeter was badly beaten by journeyman lefty Bruce Chen’s 1-1 pitch as he swung hard and stumbled. But he fouled off the following offering, and lifted the fourth Chen delivery, and a majestic and lofty bomb over the retired numbers in left was the result. We had a lead.
Damon tracked down Matsui’s liner to deep left center, and when Jason beat the overshift and lined a hard single to right with two outs, it was the fourth time in three games that we have followed a homer with a single rather than the other way around. Mondesi led off the second by bouncing hard to third and handcuffing Hillenbrand for an error, but he aggressively tried to stretch the miscue into two bases and a backpedaling Garciaparra pegged him out. I thought it was a good aggressive play, but I have to agree with some seatmates that he was easily out, and when Robin made me feel like a genius by lining a shot about three feet fair and three feet over the wall in the the right-field corner, we had managed to hit our fifth consecutive singleton homer right after losing a runner on the base paths.
Andy, meanwhile, was all we could have hoped for, and more. He mowed the first 10 Red Sox down, with four strike outs. The Scoreboard played the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” as his game was perfect entering the fourth, but Mueller, whose batting average is approaching .400, singled with one out. Matsui proved himself up to the task when Nomar lined hard and deep to left center, and Manny went out meekly 4-3 on a 3-2 pitch, and our 2-0 lead stood. Good thing, because a shaky Bruce Chen was finding himself. He walked Zeile after Robin’s homer, but had retired seven straight since, three of the last five on strike outs, and Kevin Millar led off a 2-0 top of the fifth by striking out swinging.
It seemed a group decision by the Boston players that if they were going to get to Pettitte they would have to do it swinging. So although fully one third of the strikes against them through four had been called by home plate umpire Paul Emmel (13 of 40), the strike one pitch to Millar leading off the fifth ushered in a part of the game where 24 of the next 25 Red Sox strikes were of the swinging variety. And the strategy (if that’s what it was) bore fruit almost immediately. David Ortiz swung hard at the second, third and fourth pitches after Millar whiffed. He missed twice, then doubled hard into the right field corner. Shea Hillenbrand drove a 2-1 pitch way up the foul pole in left, and only a foot or two foul, before popping harmlessly to Jeter as the Yankee fans in the crowd began to catch their breath. Jeremy Giambi walked on five pitches (Andy’s only walk of the night), but Jason Varitek lofted a 1-2 pitch to short left and Ortiz beat Rivera’s throw home, after a small bobble. Then Damon bounced into his third 3-unassisted and we led 2-1.
Juan got us off to a good start by lining hard at Nomar in the fifth, a shot he couldn’t bring down, and we had a base runner. The Scoreboard put the following stat up as Todd Zeile was announced: “Todd Zeile is the 74th player to play for both the Mets and Yankees.” When asked for some names, my first thought was that Bubba Trammell must be the 75th, and we felt that that would be it as Emmel called strike one, strike two. But Todd stiffened, took a ball, then another, then fouled off two in a row, as the names were rattled off from seats in several rows: “Ventura, Cone, Gooden, Rafael Santana, Yogi, Willie Randolph, Lee Mazzilli, Dave Kingman, Mike Stanley, Al Leiter, Graeme Lloyd,…”
“CRACK!” Todd swung late and lined the seventh pitch toward the right field foul pole. It was easy, several feet both further fair and higher over the fence than Robin’s had been, and we were up, 4-1. The Scoreboard even brought back the old, “WHOOOMP! There It Is!” cheer that they abandoned several years back as Todd rounded the bases and the Yankee fans danced with glee. Chen finished the inning without further interruption, though I was surprised at the ease with which Hillenbrand handled Alfonso’s bouncer right down the line, as it appeared to actually hit the third-base bag. Shea grabbed the hop and pegged him out.
The homer was huge. The Red Sox continued the attack, as Mueller and Manny banged doubles around a Nomar ground out, and both Millar and Ortiz hit the ball hard, but in the unwise direction of a center field being expertly patrolled by Hideki Matsui. Ramiro Mendoza came on and pitched the sixth and seventh in his old stomping grounds and actually did well. He was on the spot immediately as Nomar inexplicably failed to call off Manny Ramirez on Giambi’s pop to short left. Manny ran forever, and the ball popped out once it hit his glove. It was an e7, but I penciled e6? onto my scorecard. Jorge grounded to first to move Jason to third, the Sox infield came way in and Raul bounced the 1-0 pitch hard, but right at Hillenbrand. Robin walked but Rivera flied out; the threat had failed.
Pettitte managed a 1-2-3 seventh, with Varitek violating the Boston Commandment by taking strike three, so Joe sent Andy out for the eighth with 108 pitches already thrown, but he got through the sixth and seventh throwing just 20. And Joe’s faith was rewarded when Andy battled a frustrated Damon into his fourth ground out on eight pitches and Mueller bounced to Robin on the 1-1 pitch.
Joe Torre is many things as manager, and faithful to his players, perhaps to a fault, is one of them. Andy Pettitte’s career in the Bronx has flourished as he has excelled, then struggled, then righted himself, then struggled again. It is no secret that the current Yankee manager largely credits Andy for his (both his’s) first, almost miraculous World Series victory, as Pettitte battled a superb John Smoltz, who was on top of his game, to a 1-0 Yankee victory in the pivotal Game 5 in 1996. Joe goes with his “horse,” and it had become clear to me almost three hours earlier during the pregame ceremonies, dominated as they were by horse-racing greats, that that was the perfect “hook” for this game, and that Andy was just going to have to be the one who stopped the bleeding, and who would hand Joe a well-pitched victory.
No mystery, no horror. And my this-day-in-history search wasn’t so far off base, as the daily histories throughout May are dotted by horses and jockeys that won various Kentucky Derbies, and both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, by the way. (My favorite in this vein occurred a few years ago when we had Keisler [Custer?] going against the Indians on the 125th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, by the way.) Tuesday’s game was a good battle perhaps (and for seven innings, indeed it was), but an exercise in courage and faith mostly. The morning papers will be full, I’m sure of how the Yanks touched Ramiro up for one hard-fought run in the seventh. And how they beat up on rookie Matt White for another six in the eighth. For me, the game — and the column — end as Andy gave a last-minute tip of his cap to an appreciative crowd that loves him every bit as much as Joe does. Osuna stopped the Sox — and Nomar’s hit streak by the way — on one pitch. A rusty Mo closed it.
Some were dismayed when Joe came on to get Andy after he retired Mueller for the second out in the eighth. But many knew what Joe was up to. A Yankee team trotting off the field after the top of the eighth would share in the applause that was sure to rain down once the third out came. Andy Pettitte had run a great race, had triumphed against a foe whose figurative hoofbeats had resounded in his ear, a game battler who had breathed down Andy’s neck all night.
Joe was giving Andy his spotlight, his moment in the Winner’s Circle.