Bronx, N.Y., September 28, 2003 — If you lived north of the city, as I do, you could be forgiven for thinking Sunday morning that there would be no game in the Bronx to finish the season. With the AL East Title won and best record in the League already assured, and all the playoff pairings finalized, the game was not necessary, and the rain north of the city was depressing and unrelenting. But lo and behold, as I drove south through Westchester and into the Bronx the rain slowly subsided, although the skies certainly never cleared.
And although the roadways and parking lots appeared a little emptier than usual, everything seemed to be building toward a fairly normal Sunday afternoon in the Baseball Cathedral. I got my diet coke to the strains of the Rascals Groovin’ (“…on a Sunday afternoon”) and took to my seat as the sound system regaled us with Mel Torme’s Sunday in New York. But the afternoon took a sharp turn toward the unique and rare when Bob Sheppard made a “special announcement” at 12:59: Organist Eddie Layton, on the job in the Bronx for 37 years without a day missed, was retiring! I stood stunned during the National Anthem, and looked ahead as the Scoreboard graphic that usually ends with the words “Play Ball” instead read “Eddie Layton.”
It was, of course, a big day for Roger Clemens, his last regular season day with the Yanks after winning his 310th game on Saturday. I chuckled when I heard on the radio during my drive south that Joe Torre had handed the managing reins over to the Rocket for this game, and that fellow Texan and friend Andy Pettitte would be serving as his bench coach. It was a short seven years ago this day that Andy had beaten Roger, 4-2, in Clemens’s last appearance on the mound in Fenway wearing a Red Sox uni, and I wondered to myself if they were friends back then. I remember fondly that Joe had given Paul O’Neill the same role piloting the team for a game in earlier years, with bench coach Tino Martinez faithfully at his side.
The Stadium picked up on the Clemens theme, as the second inning trivia was the easiest of the year, when Mike Mussina asked a fan, “Who was the last Yankee pitcher to win his 300th game in Yankee Stadium?” And it was multiple choice, no less! And the fourth inning mindbender featured the tall Texan too, as he was the subject of the day’s “Match Game NY” (pictures of Clemens appeared behind numbers five and seven, as a different fan successfully ascertained). Another Yankee who might have worn the Pinstripes for the last time today (yet again — third time’s a charm), Luis Sojo, was featured in the player name spelling bee. Luis got a big hand when he spelled his name correctly after many fan misses, as he was greeted warmly also in the ninth inning when he took over for Nick Johnson at first base.
But although it was a fun day in the Bronx, serious tasks were at hand, aside from the usual job one: Win the game at hand. Lefty starter David Wells was making his second attempt at winning his 200th game, something righty Mike Mussina failed at a few days back, and shortstop Derek Jeter had a genuine shot at the batting title after raising his average to .326, one point behind leader Bill Mueller, with his three for four in Saturday’s win. The Yanks did not get off to a great start in any of those three tasks.
Boomer did look sharp while retiring the O’s in order in the top of the first on 11 pitches. But Soriano whiffed after extending Eric Dubose to seven pitches, and Jeter closed out a 1-2-3 bottom of the first by bouncing routinely to Batista at third. David Wells was presenting the Orioles with a steady diet of strikes from the get-go, but after throwing six of seven times in the zone to start the second, he faced a second-and-third, no-out situation after Batista had singled to left and Gibbons had followed with a double down the right field line. Rookie O’s first baseman Mendez delivered one with a bouncer into the third base hole, but Yankee third base prospect Drew Henson made a fine stab and throw to retire him, leaving Gibbons still standing on second base. When Wells escaped further trouble by coaxing Jack Cust to roll out to second and retired catcher Fordyce on a pop to Henson, who looked good in the Pinstripes this day, we moved to the bottom of the second with the home team trailing, 1-0.
The Yanks threatened to take the lead with the long ball in that frame’s bottom half, and then did exactly that in the third. Designated hitter Hideki Matsui singled up the middle with one out in the second and Karim Garcia drew a rare (four-pitch) walk after Juan Rivera flied out. (Matsui, by the way, set a new Yankee record this day, as he became the first Yankee to ever play 163 games in a regular season. Chris Chambliss, Roberto Kelly, Don Mattingly, Bobby Richardson, and Roy White — twice — had been tied with 162.) Backup catcher John Flaherty threatened to cash both Matsui and Garcia in when he poked one at the left field foul pole, but it was caught by a fan in the first row just to the left of the pole, and Flaherty then grounded out to Batista for a five-unassisted.
But the Yanks would not be denied in the third, as Orioles shortstop Morban just barely deflected Henson’s bouncer up the middle, as the Yanks retrieved the ball that Drew had stroked for his first ever major league hit. Soriano fouled Dubose’s first pitch, but drove his second to deep left center into the netting above the retired numbers and the walkways to the bullpens, and the Yanks had a 2-1 lead.
Dubose and Wells both pitched well and the game zoomed along. Some were nervous that the Yanks get five complete in as the rains came in the fourth, but it seemed clear that, showers or not, they would be able to finish this one. Although there wasn’t a lot of hitting, the defense was crisp for what was a meaningless game in the standings. Wells retired the Birds in order in the third, and retired Mendez on his only strike out (with no walks) of the day to close out the fourth. It was key because Gibbons had hit a one-out, two-foot roller in front of the plate to move Batista, who had singled again, into scoring position. An inning later, Wells grabbed a one-out, one-hop scorcher off Cust for the second out, and Ruben Sierra made a fine running grab of Fordyce’s drive to left center to close that frame. Honorable mention goes out to Sierra and Henson again, as both made fine grabs of line drives in the sixth after Matos reached on a hard bouncer at Soriano that was originally ruled an error, then correctly judged to be a base hit.
Speaking of second base, Brian Roberts of the Orioles had a great day. He denied Jeter on a hard grounder his second time up in the third, and made great plays on Rivera in the fourth, and Johnson in the fifth. Finally, he was fortunately positioned on the Sierra grounder that Dubose deflected for the second out of the sixth. But the young Oriole lefty was tiring, and he followed that play by walking David Dellucci, who had hit for Matsui in the fourth, and Juan Rivera, on 10 pitches. He got a strike call on Garcia, but missed twice, and Karim lined the next offering hard over Roberts and Dellucci sped around and scored the Yanks third run, the insurance run we were all hoping for.
David Wells was dealing, had great command, and a nasty curve ball he could throw for a strike at will. He continues to use a strategy that relies on hitting bats rather than missing them. Throwing 70 of 97 pitches for strikes, the swing and miss for the strike out that he coaxed from Mendez was one of only four on the day. Dan Iassogna called strikes against the Birds 15 times, and the visitors hit the ball with their bats the other 51 times, to little effect. David threw 21 of 28 first-pitch strikes, and the figure grows more impressive when the Nelson and Rivera (who followed) numbers are added (26 to 7 first pitches in the zone).
The crowd was feeling good about how Wells was pitching, about the Yanks’ prospects in the postseason, the way the game was moving along, and that the weather was holding out, if a little bummed when Jeter went 0-for-3 before leaving the game. As is the custom, the team had Yankee players thanking the fans on the Diamond Vision throughout the last home game of the year. Jeter thanked the fans before the second inning, with Posada echoing his words (I assume) in Spanish. Before the third inning we heard from a group that included Soriano, Boone, Flaherty, Giambi, and Sojo. We heard from Mariano and Karim Garcia in the sixth, and Clemens got to give his own message in the eighth.
Uncharacteristically, they fit in Cotton Eye Joe while Hargrove was replacing Dubose with Rich Bauer after Karim’s run-scoring single in the sixth, but the reasoning became clear an inning later. Once they played the Kate Smith rendition of God Bless America at the seventh-inning stretch, Sheppard exhorted all present to sing loud during two repeated verses of Take Me out to the Ball Game as they showed the retiring Eddie Layton yet again on the Diamond Vision as he played the spirited tune and waved to all the well wishers.
Then all that was left was to see how long Wells would go, whether or not the pen would preserve his 200th win, and if the teams would continue to play this game quickly so the celebrations could begin. Playing into the best aspects of all three scenarios, Morban and Roberts swung early and Wells retired both on three pitches starting the eighth, and Clemens did his best Joe Torre slow stroll to the mound. It is a perfected Torre trick to remove his pitchers during an inning when they have pitched well so they can leave to the sound of cheers, and to let them finish innings and not return if they have struggled. But I know I was just a bit nervous as Roger approached the mound, both because these two Yankee pitchers had words in the Press in the Spring, and because Boomer did not look particularly prepared to cede his spot on the mound. But when Roger reached the mound and looked up, Wells embraced him and the fans were delirious. Jeff Nelson came on throwing strikes and retired pinch hitter Tim Raines, Jr., looking on four pitches.
Rich Bauer had struck out the side in the seventh, and he retired the Yanks one-two-three in the eighth with a strike out of massive Francisco Seguignol to close the Yanks out. Mr. Sheppard informed us then that the day’s paid crowd of 42,000-plus had moved the 2003 Yanks to tops in the league and that a new Stadium season record was set as well, and the Stadium went wild as Mariano Rivera entered to the strains of Enter Sandman. Mo struck out Bigbie, retired Batista, who vainly tried for his 100th rbi all weekend, on a deep fly to right, and allowed an opposite-field single to Gibbons. But rookie Mendez didn’t stand a chance, and the game was over in two hours and 24 minutes after Mo whiffed him on three pitches.
Some were disappointed that Mariano hadn’t retired the side in order, but not the girl with the new ball who was seated behind me. Jay Gibbons just missed on the two-out 2-1 pitch that Mo threw him. Ancient Chinese sage and philosopher Confucius was born on or around this day in 551 BC. As I type these words with the ring finger of my right hand strangely bent and of a purplish hue, I think I know what that wise man would have said when Jay’s hard foul zinged up and back at my right side:
“Drop the scorecard and pencil!”