The Ghost of ’04

For two days before Thursday’s ALCS Game Five in Anaheim, I strongly discounted the media drumbeat that a Yankees failure to close out the series that night would evoke the leering specter of 2004’s collapse against the Red Sox in the minds of Yankees fans.

My feelings stemmed from the key differences between this season’s Yankees squad and the one that historically blew a 3-0 lead over its opposition. I was never comfortable with that lead in ’04. Even as the Yankees headed into Boston for three games after taking a 2-0 series advantage, and then pounded the Sox into their shower room in a 19-8 laugher, I worried about the pitching matchups in potential Games 6 and 7 at Yankee Stadium.

kevinbrown_250_102309.jpgThe Sox had Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe in line to start those games. The Yankees had Jon Lieber, followed by basically nobody. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez was a candidate for a possible all-or-nothing seventh game, but a very iffy one, as he’d been struggling to recover from a late-season injury. It seemed doubtful that Javier Vzquez, who’d been a huge disappointment in his first and only year with the team, would get the ball. That left the Yankees’ alleged ace going into the season, Kevin Brown, as manager Joe Torre’s likeliest option if the series was extended to its limit.

No Yankees fan in the universe would have chosen to entrust his or her team’s fate with the injury plagued, surly, selfish and ineffective Brown. Most never believed the series would come down to it. The Yankees, after all, had three cracks at putting away the Sox before they reached that critical juncture.

As I said, I was jittery over the prospect all along. For one thing, overconfidence is not one of my personal failings. For another, I had always felt the Yankees’ unwise failure to re-sign Andy Pettitte after the 2003 season had birthed a big, vicious dog that would sink its teeth into them where and when it hurt the most.

I believed then, and still believe, that the Yankees would have never had their 2004 championship aspirations murdered by the Red Sox if Pettitte had been on the team. If they’d held onto Pettitte, I think there’s a good chance they would have won their fifth World Series title in less than a decade.

It’s poetic to me that Pettitte, with his hawkish stare and Texas-sized heart, a Yankee to the marrow rightfully back in the place where he belongs, will be taking the ball for the Yankees in a vital Game 6 of the 2009 ALCS in hopes of staving off yet another apocalyptic Game 7.

But six years have passed since Pettitte threw what would prove to be the last pitch as a Yankee for far too long in the 2003 World Series. He is not the same pitcher now as he was back then, and Yankee Stadium is not the same place as it was back then. His cut fastball has lost several miles of velocity, and he relies more on off-speed pitches and precision accuracy than he used to. The cutter remains his best weapon, the one gets him his groundball outs. If it isn’t sharp, though, it can lead to hard-hit fly balls. And in Yankee Stadium, now, fly balls can travel great distances. This is probably the major reason Pettitte’s 2009 record on the road was better than it was at home.

There’s still reason to be confident–not overconfident–that Pettitte can do his part to send the Angels flying home on droopy wings Saturday night. That the Yankees will close out the series behind him, pop their champagne corks and go on to tackle the Phillies in the World Series. He was excellent overall throughout the regular season, and found renewed success at Yankee Stadium back around June or July, very uncoincidentally when he rediscovered his feel for the cutter.

But even if he pitches well, Pettitte is going to need help. If 2009 is not to resemble 2004 in its outcome — albeit with the current opposition wearing a more garish shade of red than the Boston team — it would be helpful for Phil Hughes to pitch with the courage and confidence we saw from him all season rather than look like Tom Gordon reincarnated on the mound.

It’s okay for Hughes to tell the media, as he did after Thursday night’s loss, that he was “too fine” with his pitches when he entered the game with two outs in the seventh inning, surrendering two runs after the Yankees staged what could have been a comeback for the ages. I wouldn’t have expected him to say Anaheim’s thunder sticks and Rally Monkey overwhelmed him, as the entire postseason seems to have done thus far. But “too fine” is latter day coach-speak, a positive way to say a pitcher isn’t throwing strikes because he’s shying away from contact, which is itself a polite way of saying Hughes is looking scared right now. That has to stop, and at once, or the tomorrows for the Yankees may be numbered. Coach-speak doesn’t win series. Sometimes I think all does is provide a player with a psychological cushion when a hard jolt of reality would serve him better.

joba_250_102309.jpgWhile Hughes may have taken the loss, there were goats aplenty in the pitching staff. The guy one New York Times reporter calls “the pitcher who used to be Joba Chamberlain” was ineffective in the eighth inning, giving up a leadoff double and a single, putting men on first and third with one out, leaving it to the great Mariano Rivera to enter in a non-save situation and hold the Yankees to a one-run deficit. Starter A.J. Burnett would wear the biggest set of horns, first putting the Yankees in a four-run hole before we’d even carried our chips and soda in from the kitchen, and then putting two men on base in the home half of seventh after the Yankees’ breathtaking rally at the top of the inning, the one we all thought would start the corks popping in California.

Offensively, it’s unfortunate the Nick Swisher succumbed to his bte noire, the hyper-adrenalized dark beast of impatience that undermines his natural talent for identifying the strike zone in tight spots. YES postgame analyst Ken Singleton pointed out that Swisher would have been well advised to take a cue from former Yankee Bernie Williams in his bases loaded, ninth inning at-bat, and repeatedly step out of the box to throw off the timing of the Angels’ shaky closer Brian Fuentes. Fuentes was self-destructing, and Swisher had run up a full count on him. A little psychological gamesmanship might have led to ball four, a tie game, and a very different final result.

As fans await Saturday night’s penultimate game of the series, it should be comforting to know that Pettitte will be on the mound. It is an equal comfort that CC Sabathia, the anti-Kevin Brown, will follow him should things come down to a Game 7.

The 2009 Yankees aren’t the 2004 Yankees. I think they will pull this one off.

But I would be lying if I denied that the malevolent specter of the ’04 debacle didn’t reach its cold, ragged-clawed fingers into my heart last night. After insisting all day that the press was summoning up a false demon to sell newspapers papers and keep radio listeners near the dial, I realized I was wrong and they were right. Burnett spoke of leaving it all on the field after his losing effort. That’s all fine and dandy. But I now realize I’m no different than countless other Yankees fans who left something the field at the Old Lady Across the Street after Game 7 of 2004’s ALCS. Burnett didn’t do anything Thursday night to help us reclaim it. And as I went to bed, I couldn’t shake the image of Hughes looking like Gordon on
the mound amid a roaring sea of red.

In my mind’s eye, there was something very scary and dangerous hovering over him.



    JP, you have a way of making me understand and putting it in writing about our loss yesterday and the yankee players concerning their psyche, so thanks for this post and lets have Andy and our team bring it home the way we want.


    Masterfuly poetic Jerome, that is exactly how I felt. I would be lying however if I didn’t hope for this series to end at home. This team and her fans have already exorcised a few demons this year we inherited back at the old stadium after that 04 nightmare. This is not 2004, we did not have Andy or CC, this is not the old house, it is the new house,it is time to bring it home. I feel the new house deserves her first celebration, I wouldnt want it any other way.

  3. Jerome Preisler

    Thanks, Don . . . Acibic, you’re pretty poetic yourself. A win tonight with Andy on the mound would be unforgettable.

  4. nyyank55

    I can’t help but see the sentiment in both your posts and I too felt that a win at home with Andy on the mound would be poetic. That was my feeling in the 1st inning when Burnett proved to me once again why we should have never signed him in the first place. Burnett may talk the talk and he may keep the team loose, but let’s face it, he’s a .500 pitcher at best.
    However, after that improbable and heroic comeback in the 7th to take the lead, I was hoping we’d go for the jugular and put the Halos away. The Halos scare me, and to let not one, but two games get away is unforgivable and downright dangerous. Girardi is proving that he cannot handle the pressure of the post season and is relying too much on statistics instead of going with what is right in front of his face, going with the hot hand. I hope this doesn’t come back to haunt us. That being said, let’s hope Andy is on tonight and we’ll pop the bubbly in the new house and christen it as we all in our hearts wanted it anyway.

  5. Jerome Preisler

    nyyank55 . . . Make no mistake, I’d have also preferred to see the Yanks put this series away in Anaheim and slept soundly Thursday night. I remember back in ’04 when Girardi was doing pre and postgame commentary for YES during the ALCS. When the Yanks won Game 3, he talked about the importance of keeping the proverbial foot on the Sox’s throat. When they lost the next game, he said something like, “Well, they’ve taken that foot off just a little but better end it right here.” Second loss it was, “The foot’s just come off a little more.” Before Game 7, he was no longer talking about their having foot on the Sox’s throat at all. I hope all the Yanks keep this in mind.

    I’ve been back and forth on Burnett, though it’s hard to be too thrilled with him right now. And I’m less critical of Girardi’s handling of Game 5 than Game 3. I think I’d have put Burnett back in to start the seventh, but given him the hook with the first batter that reached base. In fact, I think everyone watching the game would have made that move. Except the manager, obviously.

    I’ve been critical of Girardi’s occasional over-reliance on stats before. It’s odd, though. When it came to pitchers, Torre would go with the hot hand until he burned out both that hand AND arm. Girardi has kept his ‘pen fresh and deep, but in the postseason has pulled the wrong strings in a couple of critical instances. I guess my thought is that it’s difficult to look at any manager, even the best, without second-guessing. In the end, maybe positive results are the ultimate sin-eater.

    Anyway, I’m rambling. Just hope tonight’s game isn’t washed out.


    Jerome, thanks for your insight in comparing 2004 to now. This year’s pitching is far superior to 2004, it’s not even close. And I know everyone loves Andy & he’s done great things for our Yankees. I’m just looking for the Andy of Game 5 in 1996 to show up, not the Andy of Game 6 in 2001. And I do hope Girardi stops running for Matsui & Swisher too soon; I love Brett Gardener, but not batting after A-Rod from the 8th inning on..Go Yanks; Let’s bring on the Phillies…

  7. nyyank55

    What you said about Torre is true and Girardi did keep the bullpen fresh all year. But it’s THE PLAYOFFS now. there’s nothing to save the arms for, unless you’d like to watch the Halos play the Phillies. Plus, with all the off days built in, how could you burn out your arms?
    Interesting what you said about game 5 and Girardi bringing Burnett out to start the 7th. I was on the phone with my son who had just called me from Florida to celebrate the Yankees explosion in the 7th and we were discussing who should start the 7th. He was of the opinion to bring in Hughes. I had two thoughts, let Burnett start the 7th as you have also said, and as soon as an Angel reaches base you take him out. I would have chosen Robertson. Plan 2 was to bring in Robertson to start the 7th. Either way, I would have rode the hot hand with Robertson. In my opinion Hughes’ and Chamberlain’s
    heads have gotten too big for their own good. Since when do guys with virtually no postseason experience shake off a catcher with the pedigree of Posada? I’m sorry, but unless you’re Mo, you have no business doing so. Do you think Vlad would have gotten a hit if Hughes didn’t shake off Posada and went with a 3rd curveball instead of switching up to a fastball? I think not, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.


    Here?s an excerpt from a response I wrote on the Yahoo Yankee boards:
    In case anyone forgot the importance of Thursday’s game, it was the clinching game of the ALCS. HINT: If the Yankees win Game 5, they go to the WORLD SERIES!!!; THE WORLD SERIES!!! However, A.J. choked hard, hence, his corrective name is now “Choke Hard”. With all the bending and compromises that has been made for him, he should not have trouble nailing down a really big win that was needed. Giradi (or what some are now referring to him as is “Retardi”–which I can not argue with either) has decided to bench a perennial borderline Hall of Fame catcher (to cater to ?Choke Hard?s? fragile psyche) which lowers the sting in the Yankee lineup. That?s huge catering when we are talking about the playoffs. Many good and great players play they whole career without ever playing in the playoffs or the great ones wait a long time. By your admission, you said runs are going to be scored as the Angels are a very good team so wouldn’t any manager have there best lineup out there all the time. Retardi (I mean Giradi) clearly does not have a mind to go out on a limb on his own. He is starting “Choke Hard” to cater to Cashman?s and the Steinbrenner’s ridiculous signing. That way if “Choke Hard” fails (and he has already failed in the regular season and during the Yankees biggest game of year) he can always say “well, I played the big names that were signed–it not my fault if he can not come through”. I think Retardi should have made Petitte their #2 starter as Petitte earned it during the regular season. Why not???!!! Hey, wouldn’t it be something (interesting) if Andy Petitte rise to the occasion and win the Yankees most important game of the year after the Yankees spurned him during the offseason (it will not only be Karma but a living example that a champion?s heart can not be bought–a champion?s heart is intangible and contains untouchable substances). I have more faith in Petitte; not only because he is a “real Yankee” and “have been there before” but simply because he a better pitcher than “Choke Hard”. Andy Pettite is a proven champion and thrives under pressure. Think about this too; if Petitte fails in Game 6 he won’t be hated in NY anyways because he is a NY legend, borderline Hall of Famer, does not try to blame his teammate(s) when things don’t go his way, and does not have a big mouth. On the other hand, “Choke Hard” has proven to be immature, unpredictable, and has already crumbled under pressure.
    End of Excerpt
    Yankees have to win tonight to avoid any Game 7 doubts and pressure. Good luck Yankees.

  9. Jerome Preisler

    NYYank55 . . . Robertson’s non-appearance is inexplicable, and Hughes shaking off Posada equally so. And you’re right, Vlad would not have gotten a hit, but rather spun himself about twelve feet into the ground flailing his lumber at the air.

    noted_novelist . . . I totally understand your feelings about Burnett and have, in somebody else’s words, “skewered” him in the past for some of the very reasons you cite. But, while I hate to sound like I’m on the fence about him, I really am inclined to withhold judgment. If the Yanks get to the World Series, we’ll all have more of a basis on which to evaluate Burnett.

    Semi-early dinner for me now as I break away from the computer for the day. All I can add is that I hope we’re all celebrating a win tonight and don’t even have to discuss a Game 7 unless its in the W.S.

  10. iheartnyy242

    it truly is poetic justice that the man steinbrenner deemed unworthy of a contract after the yankees last world series appearance is the very one that will close the deal tonight and send the yankees back to the world series. i also believed that pettitte should have been the number two starter, not because he is one of my favorite all time yankees, proven and battle tested in every possible scenario, but because he earned it. pettitte was hands down a better pitcher than aj down the stretch, even flirthing with baseball immortality in late august, albeit against the lowly orioles. still, not bad for a guy who the yankees believed was washed up and only worth 5.5 million in the off season compared to aj’s 16.5 million. (if pettitte is any indication, perhaps all contacts should be incentive laden rather than guaranteed.) that said, i have to admit, there was no one else i wanted on the mound to clinch the division series @ minnesota in game three and DEFINITELY no one else that should be on the mound tonight to clinch the alcs.

    steaks are marinading, drinks are on ice…all i need now is a vintage performance from #46 to make my night complete!

    oklahoma city


    I can’t buy the notion that you would be uncomfortable with a 3 game lead with 4 games remaining. Like they say, hindsight is 20/20, and i say that because, it’s not like the Yankees were non-competitive after game 3. The Yanks had great chances to win game 4 and game 5. Anyone who says that they were still nervous when Mo got the ball in the 9th inning of game 4 is lying. I really don’t remember anyone saying their uneasiness when the Yankees were just slapping the red sox pitching left and right. Whether it was Pedro, Schilling, the Yanks were hitting everyone of the red sox pitchers. Also, Schilling was not a guarantee to go in game 6. Most people thought Schilling was done, and that the beating the Yanks gave him in game 1, was his last start in that postseason.

  12. yankeexx

    JP…first…yes..this is not the 2004 Yanks. I think things have aligned themselves so that the Yanks will clinch at Yankee Stadium. Now that would be poetic. New Stadium…with new memories. Yanks have 2 cracks at winning one game so the uphill battle is for the Angels albeit they’ve gained momentum in their minds. The problem will be is the Yankees lose game 6 and have to fight for game 7 but I think game 6 will do it like they’ve done it thusfar. If not…then no World Series viewing for me. Media blackout ALL THE WAY! Although I am being asked to cheer for a fellow Hawaiian on a certain National League team. Sorry I can’t do it. Yankees all the way!!!!

  13. Jerome Preisler

    Heather . . . I had guacamole, chips and sandwiches ready for tonight. I hope one extra day of marinating just makes those steaks taste better. But what the HECK are we supposed to do till tomorrow night?

    Steeve . . . . maybe it’s the life of a freelance author that’s taught me a deal isn’t a deal till it’s done–and that a book ain’t finished till you’ve written the last word. Maybe it’s partly just my natural disposition to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Maybe, in terms of the Yanks, Game 7 in Arizona taught me a lesson in humility when I cut my celebratory strawberry shortcake few minutes too soon and wound up dumping it in the trash–my personal metaphor for a moment of hubris since then. But I assure you, I was never comfortable with the ’04 lead, and anyone who knows me is well aware of it–and, moreover, not surprised by it. You will note that never in five or six years of Deep In the Red has there been a column of predictions. Nor will you ever see one from me, or hear me make them in person. The part that I fail to understand is why you’d think I’d make this up here. For what reason, exactly?

    Val . . . tell that fellow Hawaiian to go flyin’!

  14. iheartnyy242

    sunny and 70’s in oklahoma city today. at 2300 local time, it’s still breezy and 61. hoping the clear skies make their way northeast because this rainout really screwed up my entire night!

    i rented a couple of movies to ease my rainout letdown, and devised a new game plan for tomorrow. it will be a day for renaissance men…first favre and his 40 year old arm and experience will lead the vikings to 7-0 now is it??? (don’t forget the true pride of oklahoma, adrian peterson) and for an encore, andy pettite’s 37 year old arm and experience will lead the yankees to the world series. posada is behind the plate, mo in the bullpen, and jeter leading things off…all is right with the world. (i’ve even stopped cringing when arod comes to the plate at a critical at bat…more impressive, i’ve stopped expecting him to do the worst) so that’s the plan.

    unfortunately, the meal has now changed…you’re right, the steaks would have been great marinading one more night, but the baked potatoes were already on, so now it’s chicken nachos. keep in mind my son and i believe in the church of baseball and as such, are very superstitious (he’s twelve and i’m still retying his cleats at the start of every game because i’ve done it since he was four and now tighten them between every inning that he pitches)… should both of my predictions happen, we’ll be eating chicken nachos until they prove no longer lucky…

    sigh…it’s not even midnight, i think i need a yankee classic to soothe my nerves…game five of the subway series, maybe that will help.

    oklahoma city

  15. iheartnyy242

    .500 would get me in the hall of fame! 🙂 favre had a rough ending, but pettitte was brilliant! more impressive was that joba looked like the old joba, and of course, mo was mo. i thought the play that set the tone for the whole night was swisher doubling off vlad on the shallow fly ball.

    i can’t wait to hear what your neighbor has to say now!

  16. Jerome Preisler

    Heather . . . I’d thought of you when I saw that 4th quarter “interception”. My father-in-law’s a diehard Packers fan whose heart left with Brett, and who roots for him except when he plays the Packers, when he doesn’t know WHO to root for. So I follow suit and pull for Favre unless he’s playing the Giants. Anyway, it’s only one regular season loss, and the Yanks got one big regular season win, .500 for you looks pretty good.

    The Sox fans I know vanished a few weeks ago. Went poof. I think a flying saucer got them.

    Killcam . . . I never get on people for making grammatical mistakes that would earn third-grader failing grades because it’s a cheap shot. And I don’t really care if you want to call me a dumb anything. But since I THINK you’ve decided to come here and attack readers who have just expressed joy over their team winning . . . all I can say is, “Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!”

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