The Great Missed Opportunity series continues with an entry that, I admit, I have a little bit of glee writing about.
I have made no bones about the fact that I am a Red Sox fan, and with the territory goes the fact that I root against the Yankees. So perhaps it is best for everyone I get this out of the way now.
Now we all know the Yankees have a remarkable history and their run under Joe Torre in the late 1990’s and 2000’s was the best in the Wild Card era.
They had many remarkable victories, titles and iconic moments.
They’ve also had their share of faceplants as well. I suppose being in the post season almost every year will pile up painful as well as marvelous results for Yankee fans.
Now, as per the rules of the series, the Great Missed Opportunity had to take place during the Wild Card era, so that eliminates 1926, 1955, 1960, 1964, 1981 and 1985. All of those years were soaked in “What if?” possibilities.
And the other rule is it can not be a World Series failure. So the shocking collapse in 2001 against the Diamondbacks and the stunning loss to the Marlins in 2003 are off the table.
That leaves plenty of other choices.
The 1995 Division Series lost in the bottom of the 11th when Edgar Martinez doubled home two runs to win the series for the Mariners? Crushing, especially since it was the end of Don Mattingly’s career. But it also set up the Joe Torre years.
How about Sandy Alomar’s homer off of Mariano Rivera that turned around the 1997 playoffs, which the Yankees lost in 5? Please. They had won the year before and they won the next three.
The Angels had a pair of Division Series upsets in 2002 and 2005. But the Yankees got their revenge in 2009 en route to their latest title.
The Indians, Tigers and Rangers all have sent the Yankees packing in recent years. But who are we kidding? If there was a great missed opportunity, it was the grand daddy of all ALCS match ups.
The 2004 New York Yankees did more than lose a playoff series. They did more that fold in a way that had no precedent in the history of baseball.
They altered the state of reality and forever changed the baseball universe. Nothing in baseball is the same now.
It will be difficult for future generations of baseball fans to understand how insane the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry was getting in the mid 2000’s. But it seemed to come to a head in the 2003 ALCS. The two teams were insanely evenly matched that year. Each team was star studded (and evidently juiced up the ying yang.)
Despite not coming in first place, the Red Sox looked like they might actually have the superior team and the series went the distance. Finally the Red Sox were going to win and put the Yankees in THEIR place. They had a 5-2 lead in the 8th with Pedro Martinez pitching.
Grady Little leaves Pedro in too long. Jorge Posada’s two strike hit falls in the exact spot where no fielder could get it. Aaron Boone homers in the 11th. The Curse lived on. Yankee fans rejoiced that they can continue to torment the Red Sox and their fans with the “19-18” chant.
Red Sox fans (including yours truly) stared off into space wondering if we will ever see our team win it all before we decompose into mulch.
The off season between 2003 and 2004, the Red Sox and Yankees acted like two monsters from a Japanese movie and the rest of MLB was poor Tokyo about to be squashed.
The Red Sox needed an ace to pitch alongside Pedro and a closer to anchor the pen. In came Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke.
The Yankees needed a new slugger in the outfield and imported Gary Sheffield.
The Red Sox said good bye to Grady Little and hello to Terry Francona. Then they tried to move Nomar Garciaparra and his pending contract dispute and Manny Ramirez and his attitude for Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez. The Player’s Association wouldn’t allow the deal and before the dust settled, A-Rod was a Yankee.
As this Sports Illustrated cover eerily foreshadows, the Yankees losing Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens to the Astros was not as big news but would haunt the Yankees before the season was over.
Kevin Brown arrived from Los Angeles, still with the reputation of a big game pitcher. Javier Vazquez was the great young budding ace rescued from Montreal.
Both teams were stacked and ready to do battle in 2004.
As with most seasons, the Red Sox jumped ahead early. They swept the Yankees in the Bronx in an April series.
The Yankees responded by winning their next 8 games and the race was on.
By June 1 they were in first place and the year was going according to script. Brown began the season 9-1 and looked like he was handling New York well. Javy Vazquez made the All Star team. El Duque Hernandez rejoined the team and kept winning. Mike Mussina and Jon Leiber gave the club pitching depth. Mariano Rivera was having one of his best seasons and former Red Sox star Tom Gordon gave him an able set up man. Jose Contreras was bombing badly but they could carry him until he was dealt for Esteban Loaiza.
Their lineup was staggering. Six batters clubbed 20 homers. Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter gave pitchers little room to breathe. But Jason Giambi showed up looking thin and sick and his production took a startling nosedive. Whatever was wrong with him seemed to change daily. Ruben Sierra returned to the Yankees, now on good terms with his former nemesis Joe Torre, and picked up Giambi’s slack along with John Olerud and Tony Clark.
When the Yankees swept the Red Sox in a dramatic three game set in the Bronx (highlighted by Jeter’s face first dive into the stands in the finale), New York took an 8 1/2 game lead in July. Later, the Yankees again beat Boston in a heartstopping game in Fenway and the lead swelled to 9 1/2. In the wake of the A-Rod/Varitek brawl the next day, they were a Mariano Rivera save away from going up 10 1/2 games.
The rivalry was men versus boys. It was a lawnmower against the grass.
Bill Mueller homered off of Rivera to win the game and the Red Sox got life. They pulled to within 2 1/2 games in September and won the season series, 11-8. An ALCS match up was inevitable.
It almost didn’t happen. The Minnesota Twins won the first game of the Division Series and had a lead in the 12th inning of Game 2. They were a save away from taking a 2-0 lead to the Metrodome. But Alex Rodriguez doubled home the tying run and the Yankees would win the game. The Yankees won another extra inning game in Minnesota to get to the ALCS. If the Twins won those two games, the Red Sox would have faced Minnesota. Instead it was the sports equivalent of Ali-Frazier 2.
The storylines seemed so clear going into the ALCS. The Yankees were efficient, business like and had all the history behind them. The Red Sox were sloppy, a mess and trying to give a middle finger to expectations.
Curt Schilling, brought in to be a Yankee killer like he was in the 2001 World Series, flopped and got rocked in Game 1. The Red Sox tried to come back but fell short, a fitting metaphor.
Pedro Martinez, who had famously called the Yankees his “daddy” after a September loss, lost as well. The series went to Boston and a slugfest broke out. By the time the dust had settled, the Yankees won 19-8. They had a 3-0 series lead, Schilling was hurt, Nomar was traded, Pedro was emasculated and the series was a total anticlimax.
At least the Twins put up a fight.
Alex Rodriguez was outstanding in the Division Series and the first three games of the ALCS. Hideki Matsui was the front runner of ALCS MVP, but A-Rod was showing the world he was up to the task in New York and was a game away from taking his show to the World Series.
A-Rod homered in Game 4 and the Yankees took a lead to the bottom of the 9th with Mariano Rivera on the mound.
We all know what happened after that. The Millar Walk, the Roberts steal, the Ortiz homer, the rally off of Gordon in Game 5, not stealing off of Tim Wakefield, Ortiz’s second walk off hit, the bloody sock, the slapped glove, Foulke striking out Clark, Damon’s two homers, Red Sox celebrate in the Bronx.
Seriously, if you have read this far, you already know what happened in the 2004 ALCS. No team had ever blown a 3-0 lead before in a baseball post season series before the Yankees fell to the Red Sox.
Stop and think about the moment in time when Rivera was facing Kevin Millar in Game 4. Imagine if Rivera got the Red Sox out and the Yankees went on to the World Series.
So many things would have carried on as they were. The Yankees beat the Red Sox at every turn. The history of the two teams would have continued unblemished.
Alex Rodriguez would have delivered in his first season and may have become a beloved Yankee. The image of that first season would be his playoff home runs, not slapping Bronson Arroyo’s glove. How much would that good will have been banked in the hearts of Yankee fans.
There would be no image of a Game 7 in the Bronx where Torre had to turn to an overmatched Kevin Brown, who had broken his own hand down the stretch, an Javier Vazquez, who bombed badly after a good first half. Brown and Vazquez’s horrific outing highlighted the loss of Pettitte and Clemens the previous winter. The team would spend big bucks to bring them back.
Red Sox fans would not have turned Yankee Stadium into Fenway South on a cold night in October. Curt Schilling? He was a flop. Pedro Martinez? His last game as a Red Sox was losing in the Bronx. Chances are Manny Ramirez would be dumped. Johnny Damon’s eventual defection to the Yankees would be even more cruel.
Even if the Red Sox went on to win the 2007 and 2013 World Series, there would be an asterisk hanging over them. Sure they won, but they did not have to go through the Yankees those years. That dragon would still be unslain.
The Yankees lost game 6 with Tony Clark at the plate and game 7 with Ruben Sierra batting. In both cases, the absence of Jason Giambi was felt. Tom Gordon pitched terribly in the Game 5 and 7 losses as the Red Sox bullpen was superior for once.
The words “choke” and Yankees went together in a Red Sox series. The Red Sox were World Champs and for once not everything broke the Yankees way.
The world was turned upside down.
In a way, it was the climax and resolution of the Red Sox and Yankees rivalry. Despite ESPN and Fox’s best efforts, it is simply not the same. Much like when the Lakers finally bested the Celtics in 1985, the storyline was forever altered.
Future generations of Yankee fans may witness individual seasons of superiority over the Red Sox. But they will never have that spiritual birthright. Generation after generation saw the Yankees beat the Red Sox and Boston had no response.
Now they do. And the Yankees were three outs away from extending it for another generation. The Greatest Missed Opportunity indeed.