In the good old days, it was the Red Sox that did the bad little things to lose games.
There’s Buckner’s fumbled play at first base, of course. That’s the epitome. The Sox are one out away from winning the 1986 World Series, one out from beating the Mets at Shea, and Buckner lets Mookie Wilson’s easy grounder slip under his glove into the outfield to tie the game, and the rest is bitter history for Sox fans. Too much.
But we don’t need to go back that far. In the late nineties, and up till they finally celebrated on the field at Yankee Stadium in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS on the way to winning it all, the Red Sox made all kinds of slip-ups that gave Yankees fans chuckles.
Some forget that the games would be close lots of the time. That was a big part of the fun, what made watching the Yankees beating the Red Sox such a delight. The Boston teams were tough, and scrappy, and talented, and they fought hard till the bitter end. But there would always be that one act of self-destruction, a bobble, base-running mistake or managerial gaffe that made you slap your knees till your hands were raw while you almost choked on your own hoots of laughter.
Nomar Garciaparra gave us plenty of great moments. An athletic shortstop, sure, but remember how he’d sling the ball into stands on overthrows to first base? And Todd Walker, what a pleasure it was watching him boot those balls at second. And let’s not forget Trot Nixon in the outfield. He kinda reminds me of a surly version of Nick Swisher. A hardnosed player who did loads of things right until he would do the one thing wrong at the worst possible time — like misjudging a fly ball to blow an easy catch, or getting caught napping off a base pad — that ultimately helped his team lose.
The Red Sox usually played with heart and effort. They threatened, and they got close. But in the final tally, in the box score, they always came out short.
It was like the Yankees were in their heads or something.
A game in 2002 comes to mind. Let me take you back. It’s late July in the wonderful Grady Little Era, and the Sox come into Yankee Stadium trailing the Yankees by a couple of games for first place. Jeff Weaver’s pitching for the Yankees, he’s got a four-run lead in the early innings, but the Sox come all the way back to tie the game, and then take the lead. But in the bottom of the ninth, Nixon lets a fly ball off Bernie Williams’ bat get by his glove out in right and the Yankees tie the game, Enrique Wilson scoring all the way from first. Even before that, though, in the top of the inning, Jose Offerman, who played a bunch of different positions, got nailed recklessly trying to steal third base with one out, maybe costing the Sox some tack-on runs.
But I don’t want to forget the best part. This, again, is at the bottom of the ninth inning, when Grady goes for his five-man infield deployment. With Williams on base, and one out, Little has his closer, Ugueth Urbina, intentionally load the bases with two walks, and pulls an outfielder out of position for that five-man infield configuration he loved so dearly, hoping to elicit a double play from the next Yankee batter up at the plate, Jorge Posada.
And, making a long story short, Posada walks in the winning run.
In those days, that kind of Red Sox loss was sweet and natural as the sugar in Pepsi Throwback.
And they kept on coming, through 2003, and then into the next year. In 2004, in fact, David Ortiz tried his best to reenact the Buckner error for young Sox fans who might have been unaware of their painful heritage.
What made it such a gas was that, at first, Ortiz was the hero. He drives in a run early, then homers in the sixth inning to make the score 2-0 Red Sox. And that’s how things stay until the bottom of the seventh, when Big Papi, who’s playing first base that day, muffs what should be a groundball out, and instead brings home two Yankee baserunners to tie the game. The very next inning, Gary Sheffield would double in the winning run for the Yankees.
“My glove was kind of soft. Maybe that’s why it went through,” Ortiz said afterward.
What a hoot. And things got even better the next day, in the 13-inning marathon that saw Derek Jeter’s fearless dive into the stands to catch a Nixon fly ball that would have dropped in for a potentially game-winning base hit, sacrificing his body to make one of the best plays you’ll ever see in what would also become one of the best Yankee victories over the Sox you’ll ever see.
With that win the Yankees swept the series, sending their archrivals back to Beantown to celebrate the July 4th holiday with their tails between their legs.
As I say, those were the days.
I couldn’t help but think of them watching the Yankees lose to the Sox Wednesday night. Take the top of the second, for instance. Matsui doubles and Swisher lays down a surprise bunt for a base hit, and then it’s first and third with nobody out. But then Melky Cabrera hits a hard shot to short, and Swisher’s strayed too far from the bag, and he gets easily doubled off. It would take a Jeter fly ball out to officially end the rally, but it really died with Swisher’s slipup. And he would further undermine the Yankees’ cause in the bottom of the inning misplaying what should have been a fly ball out to hand the Sox a run and compound Chien-Ming Wang’s struggles.
Give Swisher credit. He’d make a great catch later in the game. And he’d even hurl himself into the stands to try and make another. But in the end, it was the bad little things he did that hurt him.
We’ve seen lots of those things this series, and, so far, this whole season between the Yankees and Red Sox. It’s just like Sox players used to do, especially at Yankee Stadium. Except now the shoe — or maybe I should say the cleat — is on the other foot.
Now the point of all this isn’t to make everyone in Yankeeland feel more miserable than they already are. It’s to emphasize that baseball, more than any other sport, is one in which paying attention to details matter. The little things are what win or lose baseball games. Right now, when they play the Red Sox, the Yankees are doing all the bad little things, and that’s why they’re down 7-0 in the season series.
Here’s something to consider, though.
As I mentioned before, Ortiz’s Buckneresque play, and the Great Jeter Dive Game that capped the Yankee sweep of the Sox in July, all came in 2004.
That October, as nobody should have to be reminded, the Sox would turn the tables in historic fashion. Fortunes can change very quickly in baseball. And the players can make their own fortune.
Crestfallen Yankee fans might want to keep that mind as they drag through Thursday morning and afternoon, hoping for CC Sabathia to take the mound and prevent a sweep.
As might Red Sox fans amid their present good cheer.