Grady Little is a baseball lifer whose legacy is defined by one decision. Fairly or not, the mentioning of his name right away brings up the image of leaving Pedro Martinez in too long in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. His baseball career was much longer than that, but is his place in history.
Having someone like me call Grady Little a baseball lifer is apt. He had his first coaching job in 1971. That was before I was born. So literally my whole life, Grady Little has been working behind the scenes of baseball.
Because of that fact, I was kind of startled that I found out, as of this writing, he is only 66 years old. With 45 years of coaching experience (and his gray hair from 15 years ago) I assumed he was nearly 80. But actually that first coaching gig with the West Haven Yankees came about when he was only 21 years old. He was a minor league catcher who clearly had the goods as a coach over his playing ability.
In the 1980’s, he managed teams in the Orioles organization, the Blue Jays farm and for the Braves minor leagues. Many of his players went on to the majors and played in October.
And yes, he was the manager of the Durham Bulls the same year Bull Durham came out. He was indeed the old school folksy old time Southerner managing minor league ball.
Grady Little kept managing Braves farm hands and getting them ready for the post season throughout the 1990’s before finally making it to the majors as a coach for the Padres.
That could have been Grady’s legacy. Solid minor league manager and big league coach, mentoring players and being a great influence. But in spring training of 2002, the Red Sox ownership finally left the Yawkey control for good. New ownership shook up the front office and left the team without a manager.
Mike Cubbage took over as interim skipper after Joe Kerrigan was dumped during the Grapefruit League games. Eventually Grady Little was given his shot.
The Red Sox came off of a turbulent 2001 season, but were star studded and had high expectations in 2002. The dreams of New Englanders for a new day in Fenway were resting on a Southerner who left baseball briefly in the 1970’s to pick cotton. No really.
The Red Sox had a good 2002 but fell short of the Wild Card. In 2003, Theo Epstein took over as GM and the hopes for the team were sky high. Early on in the season, the bullpen was a disaster, blowing big game after big game. Perhaps the memory of this stuck in Grady Little’s head.
It became clear that the Red Sox and Yankees were destined to have a showdown for the AL pennant. The Red Sox lineup was unbelievably stacked. Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez all returned to have solid seasons. Newcomer Bill Mueller won a batting title. Two more newcomers, Kevin Millar and a fellow named David Ortiz exceeded expectations.
And oh yeah, Pedro Martinez was magnificent, if used correctly. The entire planet knew that after 100 pitches, Pedro’s effectiveness fell off a cliff. But the bullpen rebounded in the second half.
The Sox were nearly swept out of the Division Series by Oakland and were it not for a few base running blunders and a rare blown save by A’s closer Keith Foulke, Boston might not have seen the ALCS. And throughout that Oakland series, Little made the kind of moves that drove Epstein’s analytics driven front office (and all of Boston fans) bananas.
He brought in relievers at strange times, pinch ran for star sluggers weakening the lineup, and kept pulling Todd Walker out of the game even though he was hitting at a torrid pace.
Avoiding disaster in the Division Series, Little and the Red Sox faced off with the Yankees, a team they matched up with perfectly. Boston fans actually dared dream of the image of winning the ALCS and maybe even the World Series.
The series was as advertised. It was evenly matched, there was bad blood and drama. Inevitably it went 7 games after Boston’s come from behind victory in Game 6. Closer Byung-Hyun Kim was left off of the ALCS roster but the trio of Scott Williamson, Mike Timlin and Alan Embree shut down the Yankees bats over the first 6 games.
Pedro of course started Game 7 and the Red Sox bats clobbered Roger Clemens in what some thought would be his final game.
It was 5-2 Boston in the 8th. They needed 6 outs. Pedro had already thrown 100 pitches but he came out for the 8th. I remember thinking “That’s odd. But maybe with a 3 run cushion, Grady is thinking he will let Pedro pitch until he lets up a baserunner.”
He got the first out. Then Trot Nixon mistimed a leap on a Derek Jeter drive. We all know what happened after that. Little came out, talked to Pedro, asked PEDRO if he wanted to come out. That seemed smart. Ask one of the most competitive and macho players in baseball history if he wanted to keep pitching.
Everyone on the planet wondered what the hell was going on. Posada blooped it to center and that was that. Even before Aaron Boone came to the plate, Little’s fate seemed sealed.
When it was announced that Little would not be brought back, the narrative written was that he was fired for one decision. But Red Sox fans saw him make bizarre decisions all year long. The rest of the world finally saw the managerial style that inspired a blog to be called Surviving Grady.
The Red Sox would win it all the next year. Francona became the beloved manager, not Little who was branded as a nice guy who choked in the spotlight.
In 2006, around the time this card was printed, Grady was given another chance, this time with the Dodgers. They made the 2006 playoffs as a Wild Card. But in 2007, the Dodgers clubhouse was in turmoil and Little could seemingly not do anything about the tensions between young and old players. He was let go again, this time in favor of Joe Torre.
Currently a member of the Pirates organization, Little will always be the guy who let Pedro pitch too long. Even this card is probably intentionally a shot of him making a pitching change.
2004 is the year that Red Sox fans cherish. It was so close to being 2003. If it was in 2003, chances are Curt Schilling never is with the Red Sox, Nomar is in Boston for his whole career and this folksy drawl of Grady Little is a folkhero in New England.
I wonder how often Grady Little thinks about that 8th inning.