There are times in life where something you don’t think can happen happens and you want to say something about why or how it happened, but the words keep escaping you and what you come up with never sounds quite like what you really wanted to say. This is one of those times for most Red Sox fans.
It wasn’t that we didn’t think the Red Sox could beat the Yankees. Everybody (or mostly everybody) else thought that. Everybody else thought the uniform was too heavy, the opponent too blessed, the history too ugly. We thought it could happen. We thought so in 1999, when it wasn’t realistic. We thought so last year, when it almost happened. And we thought so again this year, more strongly than ever.
So, we kept believing as long as we could. Through Curt Schilling’s ankle giving out on him. Through Mike Mussina looking perfect. Through the rally coming up short. Through Pedro Martinez giving up the home run to John Olerud. Through Jon Lieber making mincemeat of the Boston lineup. Through Bronson Arroyo falling apart. Through Boston’s first lead of the series not even lasting an inning. Through all of that.
Until Gary Sheffield hit his three-run shot and the Yankees kept tacking on, and the series sat at 3-0. And then we agreed with everybody else. The Red Sox couldn’t beat the Yankees. Not from 3-0 down. It’s just too much to ask. Beliefs can only be stretched so far before you stop and say, “I hope so, but I’m going to need to see it to believe it.”
The thing is, after the Red Sox lost those first three games, everybody else couldn’t write them off. They already had. The only thing they could do is make fun of them. Call them overrated, make fun of their looks and attitude, mock the team’s reliance on statistics and employment of Bill James, question their heart and desire.
So we Red Sox fans hoped. Not for a series win, but for a win. In Game Four, so that the Yankees and their fans couldn’t say they swept Boston out of the playoffs. We hoped, and the Red Sox delivered. Derek Lowe delivered a better start than expected. Dave Roberts delivered maybe the biggest steal in Red Sox history. Bill Mueller delivered his second stake of the year through Mariano Rivera’s aura of invincibility. And David Ortiz delivered another game.
We had life again. We had reached the bottom, the precipice of elimination, only to be pulled up and given a clean slate. Not in the series, which was still a longshot, but a clean game. Another game the Red Sox could win because they hadn’t lost this one. And he might not be what he was, but we still had Pedro Martinez starting and we conjured up visions of him rising to the occasion with the stuff of five years ago and throwing the series back to New York with a masterpiece.
And at first, it looked like we might get our wish. Pedro struck out Derek Jeter, walked Alex Rodriguez, struck out Gary Sheffield and flied out Hideki Matsui. He had a hitless first inning on just 12 pitches, and the Red Sox got to Mike Mussina in the bottom of the first inning.
But just like in last year’s ALCS, Mussina left us feeling like we should have had and would probably need more runs than we got. And Bernie Williams cut the 2-0 lead in half with a homer to lead off the second. But Pedro recovered and reach the sixth inning with the score still 2-1. Until he loaded the bases with two outs for Jeter, who dumped a double down the line for a 4-2 lead.
And suddenly, it looked bad yet again. Especially when Manny Ramirez grounded into a double play to end the seventh, and Miguel Cairo led off the eighth with a double.
But Game Four had sunk in and revived any part of the Red Sox fan in me that might have died for the year — only, of course, to eventually be reborn from the ashes of previous failures more fervent than ever — over the first three games and I believed again. I believed that the Red Sox would still win this game and could still win this series.
And so my heart fluttered when Ortiz unloaded on Tom Gordon. And it fluttered again when another Kevin Millar walk allowed Roberts to start dancing off first once more. And it leapt for joy when Trot Nixon singled and Rivera came in one hitter too late. That Jason Varitek’s sacrifice fly was all Rivera allowed didn’t matter.
The game was tied, and I could wait as long as it took for the win. And wait we did. Through a ground rule double and a caught stealing in the ninth. Through Arroyo’s amazing inning and a wasted Boston double in the 10th. Through two lefties striking out the side and the Red Sox botching two on with no outs in the 11th. Through Cairo getting stranded in scoring position again and Ortiz getting caught stealing in the 12th. Through three passed balls and a silent Boston inning in the 13th.
To the 14th and Ortiz and two men on and two men out and a ball and two strikes and two fouls and another ball and three more fouls and a broken bat. And a win. And a ticket, for a plane ride and another game.
Suddenly, we were a game away from being even and we had our horse on the mound. Of course, there were questions, lots of them. How long could the horse run? And would his pain affect his performance? Schilling answered some questions immediately, rearing back and hitting 90, 93, 94 in the first inning. A quick first inning, followed by a quick second inning and a small blip in the third inning.
Unfortunately, the Red Sox were squandering opportunities against Lieber. They stranded a runner in the first, grounded into double plays in the second and third and made two quick outs starting off the fourth. But Millar pounded the next pitch to the left field wall. Varitek took two strikes, Millar went to third on a wild pitch, Varitek fouled off a pitch, worked the count full, fouled off three more pitches and lined a single into center.
Finally, Schilling had his lead, however slight. But the lead wouldn’t remain slight, thanks to Orlando Cabrera’s single and Mark Bellhorn’s fly ball to deep left field. It was ruled a double, but once the umpires huddled, I had no doubt they’d correctly call it a home run and a 4-0 lead, and they did.
So Schilling gutted out a two-hit scoreless fourth to preserve the lead and then got six quick outs in the fifth and sixth before finally surrendering the shutout to Williams with one out in the seventh. When he got Ruben Sierra on three pitches to end that inning, I was in awe. Just hearing what they did to allow him to pitch made me queasy, and he poured his heart and soul into a win I’ll never forget.
But first they actually had to win, and Cairo once again was an annoyance, doubling with one out in the eighth off Arroyo and scoring on Jeter’s single. And then I had my first real moment of weakness since Game Three. When Alex Rodriguez hit that ground ball and it came out of Arroyo’s glove and rolled into right field and Jeter scored and A-Rod went to second, I pleaded with the TV. Why? Why can’t the Red Sox just hold on?
And then I saw the replay, and I saw the umpires huddle, and I knew everything would be OK, and it was. When Keith Foulke came out of the pen with nothing in the tank and walked Matsui, I felt nervous. When he then walked Sierra with two outs, I felt nervously excited. When he went full on Tony Clark, I followed the ball past the swing and into the glove and pumped my fist. It was done, and I was drained.
I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. I finally went to bed at 6:30 in the morning, after reading stories, writing stories, watching stories and just soaking in the fact that 0-3 had become 3-3. When I woke up Wednesday morning, I could barely think straight. The lack of sleep combined with the extended periods of extreme emotion left me little to work with.
But as Game Seven approached, something strange happened. I got calmer. When the game started, I hardly felt nervous at all. After all, the comeback was complete. The Red Sox rallied from three games down to start fresh. A loss wouldn’t erase the joy that I felt while the series was being evened. And a win wouldn’t change the fact that they still have to win the World Series. So I just sat back to enjoy the game.
I barely even had enough time to complain about Johnny Damon getting thrown out at home plate before Ortiz deposited his third homer of the series into the stands. And Lowe was barely even on the mound before he was off it again and the Red Sox were back to work against Kevin Brown. And then the bases were loaded and Brown was done and Javier Vazquez came in and Damon hit a fly ball and would it? Would it? Would it? Yes! It would.
Lowe looked amazing, so good that the run — Cairo and Jeter again — didn’t bother me at all. And it wouldn’t have had much time to bother me anyway before Damon yanked another first pitch from Vazquez into the stands and it was 8-1. And there wasn’t a thought of a Yankee comeback in my mind.
Even when Terry Francona pulled Lowe after six innings and decided to bring in Pedro, I couldn’t get properly angry. While other people were worrying about taking out a cruising pitcher and giving the Yankees and their fans an emotional lift, I was worrying about who was going to start Game One of the World Series.
Pedro gave up the two runs, but he was seriously dealing to Olerud and there was no danger of him giving up more. And then Bellhorn got one of them back anyway and — after Mike Timlin cruised through the historically-painful eighth — the Red Sox got the other one back.
A single and a walk in the ninth were enough to summon Alan Embree, but not enough to cause any real concern. And there it was — a ground ball to Pokey Reese — and the thing that four days before I thought could not happen had happened.
And I smiled, a lot. And as the night wore on, I stared into space and thought. About how — with Ramirez not driving in a single run, among other things — this happened. About why — after all these years of failure — this happened. And I decided I don’t want to know. I just want to enjoy it.
So I will. Until Saturday night, and then it’s back to work.
Never stop hoping. Try to keep believing. Bliss is worth it.