Thursday, May 20, 2010

Small Time in a Big Time World -- Yankee Panky

It is October 16, 2003, and the City of New York -- you know, the city that never sleeps -- has been up all night worrying about the humiliating prospect of the Yankees losing the American League championship series to the Boston Red Sox.

The Bronx Bombers came back to the stadium up games, 3-2, and with the Red Sox trotting out John Burkett -- a journeyman's journeyman -- to pitch. They took a 4-1 lead, but the Yankees lit Burkett up in the middle innings and ended up with a 6-4 edge heading into the late innings ... and Mariano Rivera time.

But wait ... the Red Sox came back again, and won, 9-6, to force the seventh game.

This is germaine because I was there. Most of what I do revolves around community journalism ... high school sports (and in some cases lower than that). That's fine. I like it. In fact, on most days, I'd prefer covering the kids. The issues are far less complicated, and you have a better shot at meeting, and mingling with, real people rather than over-inflated (and, in some cases, over-medicated) athletes (not to mention other self-absorbed sports writers and broadcasters).

But once in a while, a nugget falls from the tree. And this was such a time ... all, almost.

Red Sox-Yankee games are pretty much like theater productions. They're melodramatic, overly drawn out, they take forever to play, and there's usually so much to talk about afterward you don't know where to begin.

Let's go back to the previous night. Game 6 began at 4 o'clock in the afternoon and ended sometime past 8:30. With all the post-game running around (getting quotes and waiting around for people to talk to you) I got out of there around 10 p.m. -- early enough to hop on the subway back to my midtown hotel.

The subway was full of Yankee fans, and -- quite naturally -- I felt a little out of place ... especially in my team-neutral clothing (not a stitch of MLB brand attire anywhere on me) and, I guess, my reserved demeanor.

Someone sitting near me concluded I was from "Borston." I kind of smiled, because -- unlike some Red Sox people -- I don't mind the whole Sox-Yankees thing. In fact, to be honest, outside of Roger Clemens (of course) I didn't mind these Yankees. Over the course of covering six games, I found that many of them -- especially Derek Jeter -- weren't bad guys at all.

Even Jason Giambi, who I really didn't like all that much as a player, turned out to be an OK guy. For a gorilla!

Anyway, I was prepared to have a little fun with these dudes, and they didn't disappoint. They all started chanting, "Here we go Yankees, Here we go!" and pointing to me. I thought it was great. They assured me that the Yankees were going to win (and I don't know why, but whenever a New Yorker says "Yankees" it sound uniquely evil).

I got home early enough to have a late dinner at Friday's, which was around the corner from the hotel, and watch the end of the Cubs-Marlins game (including the play when Steve Bartman interfered with Moises Alou on that foul pop).

Do you know how, sometimes, you just know? I knew. The Cubs were primed to go to the World Series. They were leading, and the Marlins weren't getting even a nibble out of Kerry Woods. Then, Alou couldn't quite snag the foul ball (Bartman did nothing wrong in a legal sense, but any good fan understands that if there's any chance for a play, you let your team make it while doing everything you can to keep the other guy from catching the ball; Bartman had it backwards).

Of course, the Cubs, being the National League's version of the Red Sox, fell apart like a cheap suit and the Marlins won the pennant. As a lifelong Red Sox fan who truly understands the ebb and flow of fortunes when it comes to this franchise, it sent chills through me. Karma -- to that point -- was dictating that this would be the World Series of Repudiation ... Red Sox-Cubs. Sort of a mano-a-mano battle of star-crossed franchises.

You got the feeling that for one of the teams to win it, the other one would have to be stricken by the plague somewhere in the middle of the series. Neither team could win on its own because, well, both teams had chances over the years and spit the bit miserably ... famously, even. So it wasn't a good thing, to me, to see the Cubbies hold serve in the choke department. This ruined the Karma. I went to bed as unsettled as any Yankee fan could have been.

A nice, long walk through Central Park calmed me down a little. I love New York City, despite whatever feelings I might have about its sports teams. Mainly, I just love to walk around and people-watch. And there's plenty of that going on in Central Park. The New York Marathon was going to be run the following Sunday, so workers were already putting up the barricades along the route. Runners from all over the world had already descended upon Manhattan. And, as one who has covered many Boston Marathons, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole scene.

It was kind of a mild day, too, which made the walk even more enjoyable. It also made me tired, so when I got back to the hotel, I grabbed a quick nap and got ready to head to Yankee Stadium.

I should say that whenever I hear the words "Yankee Stadium," I feel compelled to genuflect. I may not like the Yankees, as an entity, very much; but if you're a baseball fan, and you have an appreciation for how much the Yankees have contributed to the history of the game, it's impossible not to have a little respect for the legacy ... even if you'd rather see George Steinbrenner set upon by ravaged hyenas.

I always get a charge out of people who say, "I wish I had your job ... you get to watch sports for free ... drink free beer ... eat free food ..."

I will admit it's a nice job sometimes. But in the interest of balance, let's also understand this: The game was to begin somewhere in the vicinity of 8:30 (maybe even later than that). That meant getting to the park around 5 p.m. -- just to set yourself up, have something to eat, and catch all the pre-game press conferences. There's ritual to baseball unlike any of the other major sports.

For example, could just imagine Bill Belichick coming out of the bunker to address the media two hours before a Patriots game? How about Doc Rivers (well, he probably would, if he were allowed to; Doc, God bless him, loves to talk)? I didn't notice Claude Julien waxing philosophical about the Bruins' precipitous slide into the Choke Hall of Fame as they blew their playoff series to the Philadelphia Flyers.

But MLB makes the managers available, and also the scheduled pitchers for the next game. You're also allowed to go onto the field prior to the game and hobnob with other writers, watch batting practice up close and personal, and corral any players willing to be corralled.

Good deal! And it's generally when you get your best stuff too. I remember, earlier in that series, sitting in the Red Sox dugout as they all filed onto the field -- with skinheads (all but Nomar Garciaparra and Johnny Damon, that is). It was also on the Yankee Stadium tarmac, a year later, that I corralled Dr. Tom Morgan, the team physician, who explained Curt Schilling's ankle injury to me ... and why Big Mouth was longer going to be able to pitch.

Morgan was wrong about that ... as we soon saw. He was the author of "The Bloody Sock," who sutured Schilling's injured tendon in place so he could pitch two more games and inspire the Sox to finall win the World Series.

By the way, just talking about being on the field at Yankee Stadium gives me goosebumps. Sometimes, in this business, you take it a little for granted. But then you're standing behind home plate at Yankee Stadium and you feel a little like those guys in "That Thing You Do" when they realize they're four kids from Erie, PA, who have made it to the "Ed Sullivan Show," (or at least the fictional equivalent thereof), and ask "How'd we get here??"

I've stood on the field at Fenway Park more times than I can count. Walked in and out of the clubhouse. Gone up and down the stairs from the clubhouse to the dugout to the field ... sat on the bench (next to Joe Morgan, Johnny Pesky, Ralph Houk ...) and never really contemplated how I got there. I just did. But for whatever reason, standing on the grass at Yankee Stadium overwhelmed me.

But it requires getting to the ballpark three hours (or more) prior to the game. So that's when the clock starts ticking. Generally, the clock starts ticking for me when I leave the house at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning to go to a 1 p.m. Patriots game. It stops ticking when I finally pull up into my driveway -- past 8 p.m. on most game days. Night games are, well, a nightmare.

Grady Little, the Red Sox manager, is an affable kind of guy. He speaks with a kind of sleepy southern drawl (well, he's from North Carolina, so that follows), and -- as far as I know -- is one of the more even-tempered guys who have sat on the Red Sox bench.

During his tenure, his easy-going way was popular with the players, but we hardened, cynical media types pegged him as being somewhat simple, In fact, he was often called "Grady Gump."

Little was at his affable, relaxed best in the pre-game press conference. He'd also shaved his head (he looked ridiculously funny, too) and, when someone asked him what his wife thought, he laughed and said she liked it fine enough ... so long as he brought the check home every two weeks. It got a good laugh. And seriously, you couldn't help but like the guy personally. And even today, still, I feel kind of bad about the way I savaged him after this game.

Yankee Stadium is like The Staples Center in Los Angeles (or, prior to that, the Forum). The stars come out in droves. On the elevator up to the press box, I noticed this little guy standing in between two other really big guys. I had to look for a few seconds before it dawned on me. It was Billy Crystal (who looked nothing like he looked on the screen when Harry met Sally). The other two guys were -- I guess -- bodyguards (or a facsimile thereof).

Remember how I said, in another of these articles, that objectivity is key? And that you must not root in the press box? I lied. When you've grown up with the words "Red Sox" and "Futility" being pretty much synonymous, you root. I don't know if that you root for them as much as you root for yourself ... that you're going to be there when history is made and they finally beat these goddamn Yankees when it counts. Perhaps it's a little of both.

Pedro Martinez started for the Red Sox, with Clemens going for the Yankees. In Game 3 of this series, Pedro got himself into several dustups with the Yankees, and ended wrestling 70-something-year-old Don Zimmer to the ground during one of them. It was hardly the most shining moment in Red Sox history, and this was New York's first chance to tell Petey (as he was called by Grady) how they felt.

Petey, however, had it going that night. He was giving the Yankees nothing. Meanwhile, Trot Nixon and Kevin Millar hit home runs to knock Clemens (who, as he did so often when he was with the Red Sox, came up small in big moments) out of the game by the fourth inning. It was a real turning point, too.

Red Sox fans, wherever they are, break out in a sweat at the mention of 1986 and Bill Buckner. But one of the more unheralded aspects of that series occurred in Game 7, when Sid Fernandez shut the Red Sox down after they'd pounded Ron Darling early to go up 3-0 (why is it that 3-0 leads and Boston sports don't go together?).

While Fernandez was mowing the Red Sox down, the Mets came back and eventually won.

Mike Mussina was the 2003 Yankees' version of Sid Fernandez. He came into the game with runners all over the bases, and with the Red Sox in a golden spot to break the game ridiculously open. Instead, he got Jason Varitek to hit into a double play that ended that inning and kept the score 4-0. The Sox could do nothing with him after that while Giambi hit to solo homers -- one in the bottom of the fourth and another in the seventh -- to make a game out of it.

Still, heading into the top of the eighth, it was 4-2, Sox. Six more outs. And when David Ortiz hit one out off David Wells, it was 5-2 and things were looking great.

This was the season when genius general manager Theo Epstein decided that "bullpen by committee" was better than "closer." While the Yankees had Mariano Rivera at the end of games, the Red Sox ran pitchers in and out of there with little distinction. But they'd finally found a combination that worked ... they'd use either Alan Embree or Mike Timlin as setup guys (depending on the situation) and Scott Williamson, who'd been acquired from the Cincinnati Reds at the trading deadline) would pitch the ninth.

For the entire playoffs, up to that game, Little used these guys. And for the entire playoffs, they'd been lights out. So when Martinez got through the seventh (getting himself out of a jam by blowing a fastball by Alfonso Soriano), we all figured "good job, Petey, take a shower and let the bullpen guys bring it home.

Only Grady Gump brought Petey back out in the eighth -- when every scouting report available to him said that, by this time in his career, Martinez was not the same pitcher when he'd climbed over 100 pitches ... which he had).

So let's just say I squirmed in my seat a little. He got Nick Johnson without any trouble and it was, "whew. Five outs." But Jeter -- and it figures it had to be Jeter -- got him for an opposite-field double.

I was sitting almost directly above where Nixon was playing in right field (that's where the auxiliary press box was), and could see, clearly, that he turned the wrong way on that ball and couldn't recover. I mean, right field at Yankee Stadium is like left field at Fenway. There's not a tremendous amount of ground to cover.

So all right. Runner on second one out. But when Bernie Williams hit a single (knocking in Jeter) and Hideki Matsui followed with a bullet of a double right down the right field line, and there was still only one out, unrest turned into panic.

Little came out to the mound, and you just knew it was to get Petey. But dammit all if he didn't leave Martinez in the game! Let me just say I wasn't the only Boston sports reporter in that press box having conniption fits. One of the city's more eminent broadcasters at the time -- Teddy Sarandis -- was sitting in front of me. And he was jumping out of his skin too.

And while it's true Little had to use his arsenal the night before, it was also a case of "pick your poison." Do you stick with the guy who was clearly, visibly gassed? Or do you put a fresh arm in there, even if he pitched the night before.

I'd have taken my chances with the bullpen.

Next up was Jorge Posada. Now, for all I know, Martinez made some great pitches to Posada. He's a good hitter, but he seemed overmatched. But this hideous chain of event was already starting to unravel. First it was the Cubs the night before, losing bizarrely because they couldn't get over a muffed foul ball.

Now it was the Red Sox, about to done in by this simplton manager who reminded people of Forrest Gump.

Posada didn't really put a good swing on the ball, but it didn't matter. He got enough wood on it to loft a flair that fell between second baseman Todd Walker and centerfielder Damon. I'm convinced Damon didn't have a chance in the world at catching it, but it should be noted that, in the previous series, he'd suffered a bad concussion after a violent collision with Damian Jackson on a similar type of hit, and couldn't even play in the first two games of the ALCS. So while I don't think he had a play on the ball, you couldn't blame him if he were just a tad gunshy about going all out for it.

Making things worse, Walker went out so far in his attempts to catch it that nobody covered second base. Posada, who runs about as fast as I do, had an easy double. Two runs scored. The game was tied. There was bedlam at the ballpark. And if there was ever a single moment in my life when I wanted to punch 55,000 people individually, that was it.

I thought Teddy Sarandis was going to jump out of the mezzanine seats and attack Little all by himself, he was so incensed. I can't say I was too far behind.

One of these days, someone is going to do a comprehensive, psychological study of what I call the "fan mentality." You could probably write a book as thick as "War and Peace" about it. But suffice it to say, when your team loses, you're not mad, or you don't feel badly about it, out of any concern for the athletes. No way. You're mad because they did this to you! They robbed you of your chance of seeing them win. They robbed me of my chance to witness history.

They didn't fail themselves. The desecrated the honor of Boston in its eternal struggle over arrogant New Yorkers.

It's like Michael said to Sonny in "The Godfather." It's all personal. Every bit of it.

What happened next was numbingly predictable. Little finally got Pedro out of there, and the bullpen -- just as we'd all known it would -- shut the Yankees down until the bottom of the 11th. Meanwhile, the Yankees squeezed three innings out of Rivera (which may have actually hurt them in the World Series).

This got us to the bottom of the 11th. This being a Game 7, and with all hands on deck, Little turned to Tim Wakefield, the knuckball pitcher, who doesn't throw hard enough to get a sore arm after he pitches. Wakefield, who has been with the team since 1995, was a warrior in this series. He'd already won two games in the series (Embree had the other victory) and he was, because of his overall attitude and willingness to do whatever the management asked him to do, a fan favorite.

All it took was one pitch. One goddamned stinking, rotten pitch. I was on the phone, talking to my son, telling him to make sure no one was on line, because deadline was approaching and -- at the time -- I had to file through AOL and we only had that one account. One way or the other, I was going to have to file something. And soon.

I never had a chance to finish the conversation. I hadn't even noticed that Aaron Boone was ready to hit. I didn't even see Wakefield throw the pitch. I just saw the ball fly off Boone's bat, heard the roar of the crowd, and knew -- instantly -- that it was gone. Home run. Bucky (Bleeping) Dent redux.

My son tells me I screamed obscenities into the phone. I probably did. And if I didn't, I'll never understand why. You get yourself worked up so much. Half of you becomes a 10-year-old boy, crushed beyond belief that your heroes let you down (again). Another part of you becomes The Adult, The Professional, the "I have to get a story done now" guy. You go into "pro mode," as I call it.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, that works. This was the one percent of the time it didn't. Even today, I go back and re-read what I wrote after that game, and I can safely say I was unkind to Grady Little. Very unkind.

I remember reading "The Boys Of Summer," when Roger Kahn, who covered the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald-Tribune, was taken off the beat for pouring too much emotion into his story after the Bums lost the 1953 World Series to the Yankees. The Trib people said that Kahn -- the author of the book -- had lost his objectivity.

Well, I certainly lost mine that day. Nobody at my paper seemed to care either. They'd all lost their too ... even our managing editor, who is a Yankees fan. He had a great time rubbing it in.

I've never lost it at a sporting event since. The closest I came after that was in 2008 when I was in Arizona to see the Patriots choke away the Super Bowl and the immortality of a 19-0 season to the New York Giants. In fact, I came up with what I considered a pretty good line, which I shared all over the place, as time as winding down ... History Defeats Itself. I should have patented it, the way Pat Riley tried to patent "Three-peat." It's been used enough times since.

I didn't get out of there until around 2 a.m., and wanted no part of partying Yankee fans on the subway. So I paid $40 for a cab to take me back to Manhattan, got to my hotel, dropped my stuff off and went back down to the lobby and headed out the door.

"Where are you going?" the doorman asked me.

"I'm going to take a walk in Central Park," I said.

"I wouldn't do that, sir," the guy said. "It gets dangerous there this time of night."

I told him I didn't care. And I didn't. If anyone had mugged me, it wouldn't have mattered. I wouldn't have felt anything. I was too numb.

About halfway up Seventh Avenue, something must have slapped me back to my senses, because I turned around and walked back to my room ... and called some people (waking them up, of course) to help me get it out of my system.

My friend Gordon told me, much later, that he was really worried for me that night ... afraid they'd find me hanging from the shower rod in the bathroom. He wasn't that far off. After all, I'm the guy who fumed in front of Gordon for a solid hour after Carl Everett made one of the most boneheaded baserunning plays in the history of baseball to lose a Friday night game in August. No wonder Gordon was concerned for my welfare.

The next day, a bunch of us took the early Acela train back to Boston, where we sliced, diced and digested what we'd seen the night before. And it helped. By the time I got off the train, and back into civilization, I had a pretty good cold, but was OK otherwise.

The following Sunday, on a beautiful fall day, I was watching the Patriots game in Miami. The Pats, who had been kind of in-and-out at that point, came back to tie that game in regulation. They won it in OT when Tom Brady hit Troy Brown with an 82-yard TD pass ... with Brown -- not the fastest guy ever -- outrunning two Miami defenders into the end zone.

I screamed. Now, I never scream when the team does well. Only when it sucks. I take the good in stride; the bad like a 10-year-old.

But on this day, I screamed. I think it's because, finally, something good happened, and I saw it. The Pats never lost again that season, and beat the Carolina Panthers to win their second Super Bowl. And I always credit that play with jolting me out of my depression over the Red Sox.

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