Thursday, September 22, 2005

Part Deux

So anyway, how good does it feel to say, “The Red Sox are a game behind Cleveland for the Wild Card?” Seriously, how good? Okay, back to the story.

But those thoughts would have to be put on hold, as the 2003 season was at bay. There were few changes to the lineup, though that might not have been the best of signs, considering Raul Mondesi was still part of the picture.

Thankfully, this wouldn’t last. After 98 miserable games, Mondesi was shipped to Arizona in July, his career never to be the same. Between familial emergencies and his sudden whims to not want to play for a team, Mondesi has found himself little employed since his Yankees departure.

Mondesi’s corner outfield counterpart Rondell White had been shown the door (for Bubba Trammell, who went MIA mid-season) in favor of Japanese slugging legend Hideki Matsui. There was a certain air of excitement surrounding the Matsui signing, though every Yanks fan with a memory was a bit uneasy in some way or another. This was the second “Hideki” being imported to the Yanks, and we all know how the first one turned out. Still, Hideki v.2 seemed like a safe bet.

Since the Yanks were “burdened” with six starters, they decided to flip El Duque (?????) to Chicago for, get this, Antonio Osuna. Yes, instead of getting value for Weaver while they could, they dealt a steady facet in the rotation. Oh, and as a side note, the Tigers got the best of the Lilly/Weaver deal, since they received Jeremy Bonderman from Oakland (if you’ve read Moneyball you know the story behind Bonderman and the A’s. I don’t care if you have a system where you don’t draft high school pitchers. You hang on to a kid like this. Period).

Before we get to the beginning of the season, I’d just like to point out that in December the Yanks hit on 18 with the dealer showing seven. Jon Lieber was signed. This was logical in one way, since he was coming off two notable seasons with the Cubbies (20-6, 3.80 – 6-8, 3.70). But, he had just undergone Tommy John surgery, and wouldn’t be available until Spring Training 2004 at the earliest. Still, you can never have too much pitching, and the Yanks were one team in a financial situation that would allow them to take such a risk on Lieber.

And here comes April. We had all the cards in place. That is until Jeter separated his shoulder. On Opening Day, no less. An omen? Probably not. Plus, if it had to happen, better it happen early on. There’s just nothing more debilitating than a stretch run sans a key player.

And it’s not as if Jeter’s return was all peaches and cream, either. The team was in the midst of their worst month in recent memory (what was eventually a 11-17 May). But we were lucky, because even though the Red Sox had a hot start in April, despite the absence of No-mah, they had a staggering May (13-14) followed by a solid (16-10) June and an equally flat (16-11) July. The Yanks, however, rebounded with a 20-7 June, vaulting us into a near insurmountable lead in the AL East.

As it turns out, it was insurmountable (Aside: Dan Shaughnessy, the infamous Boston writer, recently described the Yanks 3-0 series lead in the ’04 ALCS “insurmountable.” I thought editors were supposed to, you know, edit things that are egregiously false. Obviously it wasn’t insurmountable, Dan, because it was surmounted. Maybe it was “seemingly insurmountable” or “near insurmountable,” but it was surmountable nonetheless). The Sox made some noise though, rattling off a 17-9 September and sliding right into the AL Wild Card.

Things were going relatively smoothly for the Yanks, as they were rebounding nicely in June. And then we traded Marcus Thames for Rueben Sierra. D’oh. Sure, you can yell “hindsight!” as much as you want, but this was the problem at the time. We kept shipping prospects for aging vets. Sooner or later, this would catch up with us. Sure, there are worse things than trading Thames (like trading Cano). But it’s not even like we got full value for him (nothing against Rueben, it’s just that he’s old…and ineffective of late).

Then we dished Jason Anderson for Armando Benitez. Another move I was livid with, since video games had attached me to the young Anderson. And yes, this is the same Jason Anderson that you might have seen coming out of the bullpen earlier this year. In the same vein, he’s the same Jason Anderson that still hasn’t gotten a real shot.

Well, at least Benitez was gone less than a month later, dished to Seattle to bring back an old face, Jeff Nelson. Different guys, different styles, same result: ineffectiveness. But I guess we’d rather have Nelson as a shoddy bullpen component than Benitez. Nothing wrong with that.

I know I’m getting longwinded here, but I just wanted to point out that on July 25, 2003, the Yankees designated Al Reyes for assignment. Why do I find this noteworthy? He’s the guy who plunked No-Mah in the wrist in the 2002 season. Now, I’m not a guy who wishes for guys on rival teams to be injured, and it’s not even about the physical act of Reyes plunking Nomar. It was more that he was so incredibly hated in Boston. I wanted Reyes on the team just so we could warm him up as a decoy in the Fenway bullpen and listen to the deranged Sox fans shout obscenities. All in the name of entertainment, you know?

After Mondesi was shipped out on the 29th, THE trade(s) happened on the 31st as I was vacationing down on Long Beach Island. I picked up the morning paper there, and caught the news on the front page of the sports section: Ventura was gone, as we got two guys I’d never heard of in exchange (Bubba Crosby and Scott Proctor. That deal is looking better by the second), and we had roped in Aaron Boone from Cincinnati for Brandon Claussen. I hadn’t followed Claussen in the minors, so the only experience I had with him was his shaky performances for the ’03 Yanks, so I didn’t mind the deal in the slightest, despite his age (24). I was more relieved after I talked to my buddy Clay, who attended the University of Tennessee at the time. Said Clay: “Well, his last name is Claussen. And since I got to U Tenn, I know a lil somethin’ somethin’ about Claussens. You have nothing to worry about.”

Sure, Brandon isn’t related to the QB brothers from U Tenn, but his speech was consoling nonetheless. Some other smaller moves were made during the August waiver season, including picking up Felix Heredia (d’oh!), and somehow getting value for Jessie Orosco, sending him to Minnesota for Juan Padilla (who, in retrospect, we should have hung on to).

And then came the ALCS. Yes, I’m fast-forwarding a bit, but this was seriously one of the top five series I’ve witnessed in my life. I can say that I’d never been so nerve-wracked over seven baseball games ever, and that includes the 1996 World Series (I wasn’t as nerved wracked because I was convinced it was over after Game 2, and everything from there was icing…without the cake. Mmmmm. Icing).

Down 0-1 after Moose got beat in Game One, Andy Pettite was called upon to do exactly what it is Andy Pettite does: win a big game. And, more specifically, pick the team up and win a game following a loss. This was the most underrated aspect of Pettite: he always came out and won games following losses, which makes him perfect for the Ace slot. Sure, he may not be a dominant pitcher in the mold of Clemens or Unit in their primes, but if you wanted a guy to pick up for a lackadaisical start from your fifth guy, Pettite was the guy to do it.

Final line for Pettite: 6.2 IP, 9H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 K. Not dominating material, but he did his job, and the bats and Derek Lowe did the rest. This game was especially scary because of Lowe, who had a breakout 2002 season, his first as a full-time starter, going 21-8, followed by a 17-7 mark in ’03. But we prevailed in one of those “not really a must win, but Jeebus do we have to pull this one out” games. I couldn’t imagine what would have transpired had we gone into Fenway down 0-2. Pandemonium. Sheer pandemonium.

Does anyone not remember Game Three? Seriously, it was the match-up of the century. Roger v. Pedro. This one had Red Sox written all over it. They despised (and that’s a light term) Roger for his antics when he split after ’96, and they loved, and I mean LOVED Pedro. It’s like the city had one collective man-crush on him. And to put a cherry on it, the Yankees absolutely feared Pedro. The fact that Boston put up a two spot in the first didn’t help matters.

Enter the Captain, who silenced Fenway when he tied the score with a dinger in the third. And then the fourth. THE FOURTH! Obviously frustrated that Matsui got the better of him and put the Yanks in the lead, Pedro plunked the next batter, Karim Garcia (a/k/a Fat Giambi), which nearly cleared the benches in what would have been the greatest bench clearing brawl in playoff history.

Feeding off all this energy, Soriano stepped into the batters box…and yes, grounded into a friggin’ double play that thankfully plated a run. You take what you can, I guess. But I was already becoming impatient with Soriano’s lack of patience (hypocritical? I think not), so this was just sending me through the ceiling (and I was living in a frat house at the time that had a 15-foot ceiling on the ground floor. I was up there).

Oh, and then the bottom of the fourth. Manny leads off, and with Clemens on the mound, it’s know by all what’s going to happen. Up and in, clearing the benches again. Zim, knowing Pedro started this whole shebang, confronts him in the only manner he knows, head first. And Pedro, instead of just sticking his hand out and holding Zim at bay, tosses him to the ground. This is what the rivalry was coming to, and fans couldn't be happier. We wanted blood, and we were beginning to taste it.

Those four runs would hold up, despite Heredia giving up one run in zero innings pitched, leaving him with one of those INF ERAs that leaves you wanting to strangle a pitcher in fantasy baseball. Aside: Heredia had one function, and one only. Get Ortiz out. That’s all he could do, and he was actually decent at that task. Seriously, Torre should have been swapping his pitcher into the outfield and brought in Heredia to face Ortiz in a big spot, then swapping the pitcher back to the mound after the AB. Yeah, I know it sounds ridiculous, but when you have a guy on your roster who serves a singular purpose, you kinda want to use him any time that spot comes up.

Game Four was going to Boston, and we (well, I) knew it. This wasn’t going to be a cakewalk series. And it’s not like Moose was off or anything. His final line: 6.2 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 10 K. Yes, Mussina struck out 10 in a game, and it didn’t hold up against Wakefield, who was indescribable. 7 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 4 BB, 8K. We almost got to Williamson in the ninth, but the Baseball Gods wanted a nail biter of a series, so they decided right then and there to send the series back to the Bronx.

The story in Game Five wasn’t David Wells, who pitched a stellar seven innings, but Mo Rivera, who showed his first signs of weakness against the Sawks, yielding a run in a two-inning save. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Big deal, one run, right? But this was Mariano Effing Rivera. The Sandman. Lights out when he enters the ballgame. Thankfully, that would be the only one he allowed all series. But still, it wasn’t pretty seeing the invincible Mo give up even one run to those stinkin’ Sox.

Back to New York for Game Six, the first big scoring game of the series. But we weren’t coming off a loss, and this wasn’t a must-win, though you always want to close out a team when they’re on the brink. This was a big game yes, but not big enough to put Pettite in “The Zone,” thus rendering him mortal, surrendering four runs in five innings of work and paving the way for Jose Contreras to make an appearance. And what did he do? Yes, he promptly gave up three more runs in an inning and a third, squandering the Yanks comeback efforts. Final score, Red Sox 9, Yanks 6. Game Seven awaits.

Thursday night. Game Seven. I remember talking to my buddy Andy on the phone prior to the first pitch, saying “Pedro v. Clemens, Take II. Is there anyone else you really want out on the mound?” He pondered Moose, but then threw that away after reviewing his series history. Clemens was our guy for the series, and we damn nearly embraced him for the game. It was as close as Yankees fans came to embracing Clemens during his tenure in New York.

I started the game with a 30 rack of Keystone light, sitting in front of a mobbed 54-inch TV. We had a split crowd, Yankees fans and Yankees haters. The beers were disappearing at a normal rate through the first, but during the top of the second, I must have sucked down four. 3-0 Sox. It would be 4-0 before Clemens was yanked in favor of Moose, and we had this sense of impending doom. The haters were reveling while the faithful continued the heavy drinking.

It was in the fifth, right after Giambi’s homer, when we had to go do our thing with the pledges. No, we weren’t one of those frats that made our pledges screw a donkey. It was more of a drinking thing, getting them all drunk and full from beer. I don’t know why, but at the time it was fun, watching them screw up and subsequently having to chug a few beers (sometimes with a hint of tequila). But I was so dejected that night, I couldn’t even say anything. I just sulked in the background, not even able to pound beers at the time.

I had called my buddy Andy before disappearing into the basement and told him that I was going to funnel a beer for every Yankees run after the Giambi homer. About 40 minutes after we went downstairs, I got a text message saying, “start funneling.” I couldn’t leave the basement at this point, no one could. You know, a tradition thing. So I sat, anxiously awaiting more texts. And yes, everyone thought I had four heads when they saw me go from sulking to funneling.

When we finally emerged, it was Sox 5, Yanks 3, and I realized that I had another beer to funnel. Bernie was standing on first, Matsui was up, and wham! Double to right-center. Second and third, one out, Jorge digging in. And to my amazement, Pedro was still in. In the eighth? With two on and one out? Are you kidding me?

Jorge followed in similar fashion, plating Matsui and Bernie. 5-5. My official reaction: “Okay, I’m only funneling one for that. Gotta pace myself.” I can’t emphasize how terribly slurred those words came out.

To the bottom of the ninth, where you could just feel the energy. Johnson, Jeter, and Bernie due up. Come on, we HAD to be able to squeak out a run with those three, right? Wrong. 1-2-3, and we’re headed for bonus cantos (thank you, Michael Kay).

The biggest surprise of the night: Mo’s arm didn’t fall off. After watching him go from Zeus to Hercules in Game Five, you didn’t know what to expect from this one. But he held them, and kept holding them all the way through the 11th. And then it happened.

I was on my way to take a much needed piss (15 some odd beers will do that to ya), when I heard the crack of the bat. Immediately, I was back to the couch, watching Boone’s shot drop into the seats. All the sudden, I didn’t need to piss anymore. In fact, I don’t think I could feel my bladder at that point. Or any other part of my body. Yanks 6, Boston 5, and it was OVER. O-v-e-r.

So what did I do? You got it, I bolted out of the house and began skipping – yes, skipping – down College Ave., screaming “The Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win!” in my best drunken Sterling voice. I could have been hauled off in a straightjacket at that point, except I wasn’t the only one participating in such charades. I remember flying by the Phi Delta Theta house, watching a Red Sox flag burn on their porch. The line for Fat Sandwiches was riddled with borrachos like me, all craving a sandwich with chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, french fries, and marinara sauce and bubbling about the Yanks.

It didn’t matter that we lost the Series to the Marlins. Well, it did, but Yanks fans everywhere were vindicated by the ALCS. Not only did we beat Boston, but we let them get within two innings of victory, and then squashed them like bugs. It’s like the big brother letting his little bro get a few good shots in before laying him out. We defeated our rivals in dramatic fashion, and that apparently took everything the Yanks had. There wasn’t enough left in the tank – especially Wells’s tank – to finish the job.

But there was always next year. That’s the great thing about being a Yanks fan: next year is always a possibility. But we had a big off-season ahead of us. Vladdy Daddy was up for free agency, and he seemed a shoe-in for the Bronx. Pettite’s contract was up, and there was a lot of talk about him heading to Houston, but how could he? He’s a Yankee, dammit!

TBC…

Update
Yes, I realized that I spelled Pettitte's name wrong the entire time. Sorry.