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.
The 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 Vázquez, 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.
While 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 bête 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.
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.
So it’s Saturday morning in New York, and we’re at the First Avenue Coffee Shop, this great little place where you can still grab breakfast for under five bucks, and that includes endless coffee refills and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. It’s been in the neighborhood as long as I have, which is a long time, and I never checked it out till maybe a month ago, shame on me.
Anyway, I’m forking scrambled eggs and home fries into my mouth when I overhear Suzy, the waitress of waitresses who seems to run the joint, talking to another customer over at the counter.
” … and all of a sudden, they don’t want to talk Yankees-Red Sox!” she says.
My writer-in-search-of-material receptors whipping up into the air like I’m some kind of bug, I look across my table at The Wife, who’s quietly snoopier than I am.
“You happen to hear who she means by ‘they’?” I ask.
“Red Sox fans,” she replies, chewing her muffin. There you go — didn’t I just say The Wife was a major snoop? “She was telling the guy that they don’t want to talk Yankees-Red Sox anymore now that the Yanks are in first place.”
I swivel around in my chair to look at Suzy.
“You a Yankee or Red Sox fan?” I ask, dutifully checking The Wife’s facts.
“A Yankee fan!” Suzy says, and eyes me suspiciously. She seems vaguely upset by the mere suggestion that she could be anything else. “You a Yankee fan?”
“I write a column for the YES Web site,” I say.
“Great,” she says. “What’s your name?”
I tell her. She promises that she’ll check me out online, brings the coffee pot over to our table, freshens up our cups, and formally introduces herself.
“We heard you talking … ” I begin.
“Red Sox fans come in here, they catch it from me,” Suzy says before I finish my sentence. “They think they can walk around New York with their caps, I let them have it.”
I look at her. It’s nine o’clock on a weekend morning, and the place is already jumping. People from every cultural background and financial status under the sun are mingling at the counter like they’ve known each other all their lives, like they’re best friends or family at some kind of reunion, with Suzy here being the queen of all things breakfast-wise and master of ceremonies rolled into one.
And then it hits me that the only people she won’t tolerate in this New York melting pot of a coffee shop are Red Sox fans. Perfect.
“Pleased to meet you,” I say, slyly shaking her hand.
Slyly because I know I’ll be doing a whole lot of hanging out at the coffee shop from now on. And that you’ll be hearing plenty about it.
“Did you just say you were going to the Yankee game today?” asks the woman at the table across from us.
This is maybe 10 seconds after Suzy’s headed back around the front counter. We’ve seen the woman here before, reading the New York Times while eating cereal and cantaloupe and stuff between sips of coffee.
“No,” I answer. “I was just mentioning that I write this column about the Yankees … “
“Oh,” the woman says. “You know, my son and his friends bought Yankee tickets from a scalper a couple of weeks ago and they turned out to be counterfeit.”
“Ouch,” I say, shaking my head. “That stinks.”
“They were really looking forward to the game,” she says.
“It was Bat Day.”
“Adding insult to injury,” I say. “Next time maybe he’d better go through StubHub if it’s at the last minute.”
She asks me what StubHub is and I explain.
“The kid grew up in the city,” she says after thanking me for the skinny. “You think he’d know better than to get ripped-off by a scalper.”
“Hey, no shame. I grew up in Brooklyn and got ripped-off lots of times,” I say.
I’m suddenly remembering when I got scammed out of a full week’s minimum-wage record-schlepper’s pay while trying to help some guy who claimed to be a lost Jamaican sailor. And remembering when I was walking toward the F-train subway entrance on 42nd Street at one or two in the morning, and a bunch muggers with knives swarmed me out of nowhere, and I made a break for it and bolted downs into the station with all of them on my heels, and got lucky enough to run smack dab into a cop with a German shepherd at the bottom of the stairs.
I’m remembering those misadventures, and a couple of others too, and secretly thinking that, for every time I got robbed or suckered, at least I never had a lousy ticket scalper make a fool out of me outside Yankee Stadium.
And then it occurs to me that only in New York City can one person feel he’s got something over another person because he was ripped-off in a way that’s less embarrassing, relatively speaking, at least in his own mind.
In Maine, when people talk about getting ripped off, they’re making price comparisons between the local supermarket and Wal-Mart.
“Too bad our game was washout, huh?” says the guy with the corner fruit and vegetable stand.
Done with breakfast, The Wife and I have just passed his stand on the way back to our apartment when I hear that snipped of conversation.
I glance over my shoulder and notice the produce man’s talking to an older guy who’s stopped to check out his goods.
“Yeah,” says his customer. “Ruined my whole night.”
“Well, today’s sunny!” says the fruit man. “No more rain!”
The customer holds his palm out as if to confirm it, then nods his head.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”
“What are you going to do in this beautiful weather?”
The customer gives the fruit man a look that implies he has to be kidding.
“What else?” he says. “Stay home and watch the Yankees on TV.”
Which I’m thinking is about the closest many New Yorkers get to outdoor activity when the Yankees play a day game … and happens to be exactly what I plan on doing on that gorgeous June day.