Ten years ago today, one of the most famous games in the history of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry occurred. That’s right, today is the anniversary of the Aaron Boone Game. Or, the Aaron F. Boone Game, if you’re a Boston fan.
Though I imagine Boston’s success in 2004 and 2007 has dimmed the pain of that night in 2003 for the Red Sox faithful, that doesn’t mean it hurt any less that night. And, of course, a Red Sox fan had more than one target for his wrath. Aside from Boone, there was also Grady Little to get upset about.
Oct. 16, 2003, was the all-important Game Seven of the ALCS. It had been a tightly played series. Games Three, Four, and Five all were decided by one or two runs. In Game Six, the Red Sox rallied from a 6-4 deficit late in the contest to triumph, 9-6, and force the Game Seven showdown.
On paper, you had to like Boston’s odds to overcome their nemesis. Okay, so the Yankees had home field advantage, but Boston already had won two of the three games in Yankee Stadium so far in the series. And yes, the Yankees had Roger Clemens, one of the greatest pitchers ever, starting. But Clemens had posted a 3.91 ERA in 2003; he was hardly in his prime.
But you know who was in his prime? Red Sox starting pitcher Pedro Martinez. All he had done in 2003 was lead the AL in ERA for the fourth time in five years with a 2.22 mark while fanning 10 batters every nine innings. Though he wasn’t the most durable stud out there (he threw more than seven innings just five times all year), when he was on, he was awesome.
And it was clear Martinez brought more to the table than Clemens on this night. Boston blitzed Clemens for an early 4-0 lead. It could’ve been even worse, but Yankees skipper Joe Torre moved aggressively and yanked Clemens with no outs and two on in the fourth. Mike Mussina, in his first major league relief appearance ever, came in and squelched the Boston rally and kept Boston off the scoreboard in the middle innings.
Martinez was marvelous against the mighty Yankees. The only hitter who could figure him out was slugger Jason Giambi, but boy, did Giambi figure out Martinez. Giambi clubbed a pair of solo homers off Martinez, but that was all the Yankees could muster.
In the seventh, it looked like New York finally might get something going against Martinez. With two out, Giambi hit his second dinger, and then Martinez allowed back-to-back singles. Seven innings was typically Martinez’s limit, and he’d surrendered just three hits prior to this inning. But Martinez struck out young second baseman Alfonso Soriano to end the frame.
On his way off the mound, Martinez pointed to the sky, something he often did when he left a game. After seven innings, exactly 100 pitches thrown, and signs of wearing down, he had every right to think he was handing off the lead to the bullpen.
But, of course, that was not the case.
In the bottom of the eighth, despite Martinez’s creakiness and the fact Boston had a 5-2 lead, Little asked his ace to bear the load for another frame. It was the decision that cost Little his job.
It started off fine. Martinez coaxed a pop up from young Nick Johnson, but it was a battle, taking seven pitches, and Martinez didn’t have many pitches left to battle with. Next up, Derek Jeter slashed a double to right, and then moments later scored on a single by center fielder Bernie Williams. Now it was 5-3 with the tying run at the plate.
That would-be tying run was Hideki Matsui. He didn’t tie it with one swing of the bat, but he didn’t miss by much. He punched out a ground-rule double. Now the tying run was in scoring position. And score is exactly what he did when Yankees catcher Jorge Posada belted a double to tie it up, 5-5.
That was four straight hits, three for extra bases. My favorite story of the night came from a writer who said he was next to a semi-intoxicated British man at a bar watching the game. Watching the debacle unfold, the Brit inquired if it was against the rules to substitute the pitcher, because that bloke on the mound looked to be fried. But what a drunken Englishman with no knowledge of baseball could notice had not registered with Little.
A little too late, Little finally dove into his bullpen, and the relievers stemmed the tide. The inning ended on a bases-loaded ground out by Soriano, but it was still 5-5. Neither side seriously threatened in the ninth, and the game went into overtime.
There is something extra special about an extra-inning Game Seven. All extra- inning contests have the appeal of uncertainty. You never know which inning will be the last; it could always be this one. And Game Sevens are the final confrontation. Nothing builds the pressure like going beyond the ninth in a game like this. Even if these teams weren’t famous rivals and even if you didn’t have the famous Martinez fiasco, this game still would be a classic.
For the first bonus inning and a half, there wasn’t much action. David Ortiz doubled in the 10th, but it came with two out, and he quickly was stranded.
The impressive thing was the pitching. The Yankees asked their super closer Mariano Rivera to shoulder an unusually long three innings. He was known for handling two-inning saves in the postseason, but three innings for a 21st-century closer was practically unheard of.
Rivera shut down the Red Sox in the ninth, 10th, and 11th frames, but that most likely would have been it for him. All Boston had to do was get to the 12th, and they’d get to face a far more mortal man from the New York bullpen. But first then had to retire the Yankees in the bottom of the 11th.
You know what happened. We all know how this played out. Boston reliever Tim Wakefield—not typically a reliever, but when it’s the 11th inning of Game Seven it doesn’t matter who is a starter and who isn’t—faced Yankees infielder Boone. In a lineup littered with stars, Boone was likely the least prestigious. In fact, he began the day on the bench, only entering as a pinch runner in Boston’s hellish eighth inning.
This was Boone’s first at-bat of the game. And it didn’t take long for Aaron John Boone to earn a new middle name from Boston fans. On the first pitch from Wakefield, Boone swung and connected, knocking one well out of the park. Faster than you can say “Aaron Effing Boone” the ballgame—and ALCS—was over. The Yankees had done it.
The Red Sox would get their revenge the next year, but this night was all for the Yankees, and that night was 10 years ago today.