When the Red Sox lost the 1999 ALCS at Fenway Park to the Yankees, I sat slumped on a couch at a bar I used to perform at in Manhattan called Indigo. Ramiro Mendoza, not Mariano Rivera, got the save in the final game. As I watched the MVP trophy being handed to starter Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, I muttered “He wasn’t the MVP. Mendoza was.”
A Yankee fan friend of mine heard me say that and retorted “Mendoza only got 7 outs. You can’t give the MVP to someone who didn’t even throw 3 innings.”
I shook my head. “Not all outs are created equally” I said. And nobody got bigger outs in the 1999 ALCS than Mendoza.
The Yankees were the defending World Champs in 1999 and looked like they were primed for a repeat. The Western Division Champion Texas Rangers provided little resistance in a 3 game Division Series sweep.
Their biggest challenge would come from the Red Sox, who erased a 2-0 hole in their Division Series fight with the Cleveland Indians and entered the ALCS with a red hot offense and an unstoppable force pitching every 4 days. Pedro Martinez put together a historically great 1999, only to be matched the next year, as the Red Sox ace put up mind boggling pitching numbers in the middle of the steroid era.
Pedro came out of the bullpen to throw 6 no hit innings to clinch the Division Series and would not be available in the ALCS until Game 3.
If the Red Sox had a hope in the ALCS against their rivals, they needed to steal a game in the Bronx in either Games 1 or 2 and hand the ball to Pedro in Game 3 and be up 2-1.
In Game 1, the Red Sox jumped on El Duque to put together an early 3-0 with images of a Game 1 win dancing in Boston fans’ heads. But the Yankees chipped away at the lead, benefited from a bad call at second and won on a walk off homer by Bernie Williams.
Game 2 became a critical game for both clubs. The Yankees could not go to Boston tied 1-1 knowing Pedro was on the mound. And the Red Sox could not be down 0-2 and be in position to lose the series in Boston even with a Pedro win.
The other Martinez, Pedro’s older brother Ramon, the former Dodgers ace, started for Boston. David Cone took the mound for the Yankees.
Jason Varitek tripled off the wall in the second inning but was stranded on third. In fact in each of the first four innings, the Red Sox stranded runners in scoring position while the game remained scoreless.
The Yankees took a 1-0 lead in the fourth on a Tino Martinez homer but the Red Sox jumped ahead 2-1 on a Nomar Garciaparra 2 run shot.
In the 7th, the Yankees rallied and made the score 3-2. Now it was a race to get to Rivera and close out the game. In the top of the 8th, Troy O’Leary narrowly missed tying the game with a homer, settling for a lead off triple. After a hit by pitch, Varitek bunted O’Leary to third and pinch runner Damon Buford to second. Now a single would give the Red Sox the lead. After an intentional walk, Joe Torre handed the ball to Ramiro Mendoza with the bases loaded and one out in a one run game.
Mendoza was Joe Torre’s jack of all trades. The 27 year old from Panama would start, close and be a set up man and middle reliever. 1999 was not as strong a year for him as 1998, but Torre never hesitated in throwing him into games with a constantly changing role.
Now he was essentially being asked to save the game. First up was pinch hitter Butch Huskey, an outfielder who slugged 22 homers between Seattle and Boston in 1999. Mendoza struck him out, ending any possibility for the Red Sox to tie the game on an out.
Next up was Jose Offerman, the Red Sox second baseman whose up and down season featured a trip to the All Star Game and a benching. His bat was heating up and he had already collected two hits in Game 2.
But Mendoza got him to fly out and end the threat. The Red Sox would later get a pair of hits off of Mariano Rivera in the 9th but once again fall short.
With Mendoza’s two outs in the 8th, the Red Sox bid to tie the game would not come through and the Yankees did indeed take the 2-0 lead.
Pedro Martinez won a Game 3 blow out but the Yankees took Game 4 in a contest much tighter than the 9-2 final would suggest. In Game 5, the Red Sox fell behind 4-0. But in the 8th, they started to rally. Varitek homered and the Red Sox loaded the bases with one out. Again, Torre turned to Mendoza with the go ahead run at the plate. He struck out Scott Hatteberg and got Trot Nixon to pop up.
When Jorge Posada padded the lead to 6-1 with a 2 run homer, the pennant was all but won. Torre let Mendoza close out the series instead of turning to Mariano Rivera. The Red Sox lost and the Yankees would avoid a second Pedro start.
And I slumped at the Indigo Bar. I was convinced I would never see the Red Sox win an ALCS, certainly not against the Yankees.
Not all outs are created equally. Yes, Ramiro Mendoza only got 7 outs. But think about 4 of them and how critical they were. Had the Red Sox rallied in Game 2, they would have taken control of the series. Even a rally in Game 5 could have set up a Game 6 “Avoid Pedro at all cost” showdown.
Instead he got the outs and eventually the save. While he never got the MVP I felt he deserved, he did become the Unsung Post Season Hero of October 14.
Jason Varitek is retired. And it is the right thing to do. His bat is gone. His ability to catch is diminished. And the great collapse last year showed that maybe his ability to handle the pitchers and lead may be in the past as well.
There is new leadership in Boston. Francona, Theo and Wakefield are all gone. It makes sense.
It was time.
And now is the time to salute the Captain. The man who has played in more post season games than any Red Sox player ever. Has the most post season homers for any catcher.
He hit the game tying homer in the decisive Game 5 of the 2003 Division Series. He drove home the first run in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS. His first inning triple started the scoring of Game 2 of the 2004 World Series. He drove in 2 runs in Game 1 of the 2007 World Series
And of course he caught more no hitters than any other catcher in history.
He was the captain for two World Champion Red Sox teams. One of these days he’ll probably be the manager.
But for now, let’s salute the player I have insisted on called The Lobster.
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