For those New Englanders who believe in the notion of a Red Sox Nation, July 24 must be considered the culture’s independence day.
From a symbolic standpoint, it was five years ago today that Red Sox history altered irrevocably. On July 24, 2004, the Red Sox claimed perhaps the most important regular-season win in franchise history.
The 11-10 victory over the Yankees that day marked not merely a reversal in the standings, but also a change in the culture and psychology of rivals. As such, the slideshow can be recalled with little effort.
A water-soaked field. A hit batter. An angry superstar. A protective catcher. A glove to the face. Benches and bullpens empty. On-field chaos.
A Yankees lead. A Red Sox comeback. A dominating closer. A game-winning homer.
A compelling case can be made that the game between the Red Sox and Yankees that day forever altered the dynamic of the two teams. If not for the fight between Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek and the subsequent Boston comeback that culminated in Bill Mueller’s walkoff two-run homer, there are those who believe that the Sox might still be counting the decades since they won the World Series.
“It was movie script like, really,” recalled Curt Schilling. “That game injected a HUGE amount of momentum. You come to the park different every day for the rest of the season. Many times it’s not immediate, but it has huge impact, and that carried into October for us.”
It came as something of a surprise that the game assumed that sort of significance. The Sox were not supposed to require a jolt of life for their season in late July.
The team endured a startling end to its 2003 season, losing to the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS when Aaron Boone hit a walkoff homer off of Tim Wakefield. That series – which followed a remarkably competitive, nip-and-tuck season between the longtime rivals – escalated tensions between the clubs, most notably, when a bench-clearing fracas in Game 3 featured pitcher Pedro Martinez tossing Yankees coach Don Zimmer to the ground.
“The fight in 2003 with Zimmer and Pedro and all of that, that heightened it to the point where we really didn’t like the Yankees,” recalled former Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler, now with the Tampa Bay Rays. “It was an overall sense that was building, maybe from that point to Aaron Boone’s walkoff to the beginning of 2004 and maybe carrying all through 2004…In 2003 and 2004, I think we hated them and they hated us. That was one of the most important parts, and in some ways one of the most enjoyable parts, of being on that team.”
The Sox quickly tended to their offseason wounds. Manager Grady Little was fired, replaced by Terry Francona. Curt Schilling was brought in to turn the rotation into a force. Keith Foulke was brought aboard to serve as the closer that the team lacked in ’03.
The Red Sox appeared loaded, and their start in 2004 – a best-in-baseball 15-6 record through the end of April – did nothing to dispel the notion. The Sox looked very much like a team capable of taking the next step beyond their near-miss campaign the previous year.
But then, the team commenced a three-month sputter. From May through July 23, the Sox’ season steadily started slipping away, as the team went 37-38 over that span. After jumping to a 2.5-game lead in the American League East by the end of April, the Sox entered their nationally televised game against the Yankees that Saturday staring at a mind-blowing 9.5-game hole.
“There was some concern about whether we were good enough or as good as everybody expected,” said Dave McCarty, a reserve first baseman on that team. “It was just a weird sensation to be going through that kind of a period with that kind of a team.”
McCarty recalled a conversation among six or eight of the veterans in early July that expressed a sudden sense of urgency with the trade deadline approaching.
“It was a huge point in the season for us in July,” said McCarty. “We said, ‘Look guys it’s getting to be make or break time. We better step it up or else they’re going to dismantle this team and trade guys away and look to rebuild for next year. We all know we have enough talent to win the whole thing but we’ve got to pull together and turn this thing around right now or else this season is over.’”
That Sox team was extremely tight-knit. The players were often inseparable, both in the clubhouse and away from the field. By July, an anxious note crept into the exchanges between players.
“I remember the conversation being, ‘What needs to happen?’ said Kapler. “’When are we going to be the team we all believe we are and can be? Why has it not happened yet? When are things really going to click?’”
It looked as if the division was all but a foregone conclusion. The Sox had slipped a half-game behind the White Sox in the wild-card standings, and continued to struggle to tread water at a point in time when other teams (most notably, the A’s and Angels) were finding their stride and jumping into the thick of the wild card.
The first game of the series featured a devastating defeat for the Red Sox. With Schilling on the hill, the Sox carried a 4-2 lead into the sixth, but then the contest quickly unraveled. The Yankees plated five runs in the sixth to take a 7-4 lead.
Although the Sox came back to tie that game (thanks to Kevin Millar’s three homers), New York pushed across the winning run in the ninth for an 8-7 win. The Yankees had a 9.5 game in the division. Though more than two months remained, sentiment was near universal: the division race was over.
As such, most observers rolled their eyes when Schilling said after the game that, if his teammates played with that level of intensity on a nightly basis, the Red Sox would win the World Series. Even the pitcher now recalls most vividly his own failure to preserve the lead that night, describing it as “one of the hardest regular season losses I suffered here. Was in total control of the game and it just slipped away.”
The Sox’ season seemed to be moving in the same direction.
TO PLAY OR NOT?
The weather the next day was miserable. A downpour flooded the field and dugouts during the morning of that game. The lakes that stretched across the outfield suggested unplayable conditions.
The Sox were a veteran team, and so the conversation was not merely as simple as whether the team wanted to play or not. The Sox thought that Bronson Arroyo, in the middle of a breakout season as a member of their rotation, would not be intimidated by his stage.
At the same time, the team saw a potentially easy mark in the form of Yankees starter Tanyon Sturtze, a pitcher who had spent the season in New York’s bullpen but who was being pressed into starting duty for just the second time of the season.
“A situation like that, especially with the middle relief that the Yankees seem to perpetually struggle with and certainly did at that point in time,” observed McCarty, “we want to play that game, get the starter out as early as possible and get into that middle bullpen.”
Rumors swirled around the ballpark – and in the clubhouses – that the game would be rained out. Even when the rain relented in the early afternoon, it appeared as if it might be difficult to play. But Red Sox players had no interest in a cancellation.
“We wanted to play, the front office did not,” recalled Schilling. “They were very concerned about the ‘gate’ and we were dead set on playing. I remember a “[expletive] that, we want to play” response when they came and told us they wanted to bang the game.”
Under such circumstances, while umpires have authority over rain delays and cancellations when a game is in progress, the home team is in charge of the decision as to whether the contest should or should not be started. Eventually, the Sox opted to proceed with the game, which started after a rain delay of just under an hour.
Even so, the team’s eagerness to do so seemed misguided in the early innings. The Yankees jumped on Arroyo for a pair of runs (one of them, in a common refrain for a Sox team that featured horrific infield defense, was unearned) in the second inning, and then another in the third. The Yankees were up, 3-0, and the season seemed to be slipping just a bit more out of the Sox’ grasp.
“They come out and take that early lead and its kind of like, ‘Ah, (expletive), here we go again,’” McCarty recalled. “Not that anybody was giving up or that we couldn’t come back and win that game. It was almost a sense of frustration like, ‘Can’t we get a break here?’ Because during that time where we were playing the .500 ball, it just seemed like if something could go wrong, it would.”
ENTER THE VILLAIN
It would be difficult to find someone who more perfectly fit the role of the villain than Alex Rodriguez. His ridiculous gifts on the field meant that he would be subject to unique scrutiny. That was particularly the case in Boston given the fashion in which he had been injected into the Sox-Yankees rivalry in 2004.
The Sox made a deal for Rodriguez following his MVP season in 2003, agreeing in December to a swap with the Rangers that would bring the shortstop to Boston in exchange for Manny Ramirez and young prospect Jon Lester. But the deal was vetoed by the Players Association, which refused to approve salary reductions to which Rodriguez had agreed.
It appeared that Rodriguez would remain stuck in Texas in 2004, until the Yankees swooped in after third baseman Aaron Boone blew out his Achilles in a pick-up basketball game. On Valentine’s Day – just prior to the start of spring training – the Yankees acquired Rodriguez in exchange for Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named.
(An often-overlooked aspect of the trade: Baseball America reported at the time that the Rangers could have picked one player from the group of Rudy Guillen, Joaquin Arias, Jose Valdez, Bronson Sardinha and Robinson Cano. The Rangers chose Arias, rather than Cano.)
Red Sox players already had their reservations about a player who seemingly had morphed into “A-Rod, Inc.” over the course of his career. The human element had all but vanished from his carefully polished public persona, replaced by something that seemed like it had been hatched in an advertising executive’s drawing room.
Rodriguez, Schilling observed, was “[p]robably as disliked as anyone in the game. [There was] profound respect for the on-the-field talent, but there was so much weird [expletive] that always was present.
“We always looked at him as someone forcing himself to look comfortable when he clearly wasn’t. It was weird. There was almost pity in that we watched the immense effort he would put out to make himself appear like ‘one of the guys.’ We had a bunch of guys that knew him, and some that had played with him, so we knew the guy.”
The fact that Rodriguez had nearly become a member of the Red Sox, only to turn around and declare the arrival of a dream scenario when he became a member of the Yankees, was irksome to his almost-teammates on the Sox.
“He certainly wasn’t a guy who was super popular in Boston or even in that clubhouse,” said McCarty. “It might have been resentment too of the way he’s almost there and wasn’t. It was a weird situation and I think that a lot of the guys didn’t like the way he carried himself. He rubbed some guys the wrong way.”
That said, Rodriguez had not been a difference-maker to that point in the year. His inaugural season with the Yankees was strong but not spectacular. He entered the July 24 game hitting .278 with 24 homers, a .369 OBP and .888 OPS.
For most of the season, he had been a complete non-factor against the Red Sox. He entered that late-July series with a .225 average, .715 OPS in 10 games against the Sox. He had hit the same number of homers (1) as he had obliterated helmets in frustration in his introduction to the rivalry.
“His major weakness is the strike outs. That many K’s always meant there were holes,” Schilling wrote. “There was no one way to pitch him, but you knew and know he was a HUGE guesser then. You could watch his K’s and know that.”
Still, Rodriguez had gone 3-for-5 with the game-winning hit in the ninth inning the previous night. He proclaimed the development a significant one.
“That,” Rodriguez told reporters at the time, “was my first official big hit as a Yankee.”
Rodriguez, seemingly, was emboldened.
“THE WILSON SANDWICH”
Following a run-scoring double-play, the Yankees had jumped to a 3-0 lead with two outs and the bases empty in the top of the third against Arroyo and the Sox. Up came A-Rod.
Arroyo’s 1-1 pitch was an 87 mph offering, according to the Fox broadcast, that looked like a slider up that didn’t break. It caught Rodriguez on the left side of his back, a bit below the shoulder.
In fairness to all parties involved, it must be said that the atmosphere surrounding Red Sox-Yankees games, particularly at that moment in time, lent itself to confrontation. The fans of the two teams hated each other, and were very vocal about that fact. The tension between the sides had been inching up ever since the previous year.
“You’ve got that adrenaline going and the excitement from the crowd that you feed off of. I think it’s very easy for emotions to run high,” said McCarty. “When Bronson’s throwing a pitch, he’s probably all jacked up and it could be easy for a ball to get away from him. Alex is up there trying to get a big hit and justify his contract and its easy for him to get hit by a pitch and look out there and say what the hell is going on.”
Rodriguez, apparently feeling that Arroyo was trying to deliver some kind of message, took issue and started yelling at the pitcher. Even acknowledging the emotional setting, the superstar’s conduct puzzles many members of the Sox to this day.
“Maybe there’s a history, but [the reaction] seemed a little overblown…It just seemed like there was a little bit more emotion that there probably should’ve been with someone getting hit by a slider,” suggested Bill Mueller. “If someone goes over your head with a heater, then I can see that type of emotion.
“I think if you’re going to hit someone, you’re not going to throw an off-speed pitch if it’s intentional. I don’t know if he was just trying to spark his club by overreacting that much. Or maybe he wanted to pick on Bronson because he wasn’t a Schilling or Pedro, and wanted to show him up. I don’t know. I don’t know what his thoughts are or why he reacted the way he did.”
The notion that Arroyo was throwing at Rodriguez, Schilling suggested, is the “stupidest thing ever, no chance. Look at the score, count, situation – no chance. The guy was SCREAMING for a situation to ingratiate himself there, and it presented itself, sort of. The yelling B.S. though, that was funny. The only thing between a hitter and the mound is air and opportunity, he had both.”
Rodriguez did not charge the mound. He shouted at Arroyo as he made his way to first.
Jason Varitek stepped in front of Rodriguez, with home-plate umpire Bruce Froemming doing his best to screen the two players from one another. Professional lip-reading is unnecessary to see that Rodriguez had choice words for Arroyo and then for Varitek.
A challenge was delivered: “Come on,” Rodriguez said with a gesture inviting a swing.
“Jason told him to shut up, and go to first,” said Schilling. “Then the exchange of F bombs, then the Wilson sandwich.”
“I remember that Tek had taken on the strongest of all leadership roles in that moment, kind of like a protector of our team,” said Kapler. “That moment, for me, personifies who he is as a teammate and a leader and a friend. In that moment, it was kind of his hero shot. That was his movie moment.”
Varitek’s glove and open bare hand arrived in Rodriguez’ face. As Froemming would suggest later, the seal had been broken. The Sox – with Schilling leading the charge – streamed from the dugout to join a scrum that was spreading down the first-base line. The Yankees did the same. Bullpens emptied. Chaos spread.
Members of the Sox look back with some elation at that moment, as if a great catharsis was taking place. The team’s history against the Yankees, as well as its 2004 season, had been so frustrating to that point, that the cork seemed eager to fly from the bottle.
“It was just kind of a perfect storm of all the excitement, the intense pressure of the rivalry and the game, as well as where we were in the season. Those games were huge for us,” said McCarty. “You throw in the fact that Alex was not a very popular guy in our clubhouse, and I think the emotions just got the best of everybody.”
There is at least a hint of curiosity that exists in some corners of the Red Sox: was there anything intentional about Varitek’s “Wilson sandwich”? Did the Sox captain want to spark his club?
“I’ve talked about it with different players at different times. As I recall the story, I’ve kind of wrestled with that a little bit. More than anything else, I think that he may have reached an emotional boiling point,” said Kapler. “I can’t say for certain, but if I was a betting man, I’d say that he was very frustrated, maybe knowing in the back of his mind that a confrontation at some point was not going to hurt our team, and if anything could help our team.”
This was not merely a brawl in which the primary combatants were pulled from one another and order was restored. There was a ferocity to the confrontation that made it memorable.
In particular, at the periphery of the scrum, it appeared that Sturtze grabbed Kapler from behind and put him in a choke hold. A pair of Kapler’s teammates – David Ortiz and Trot Nixon – rushed to his defense, Ortiz finding air with an uppercut swing, and Nixon then jumping on the pitcher and leaving him with some blood running down the side of his face.
“That was the minute we realized Sturtze was a 6-foot-8 inch [expletive],” Schilling said. “We were all wishing some how, some way, Trot would have had a cleaner, clearer shot. That would have been worthy of some sort of cage fighting highlight.”
Eventually, order was restored, but for nearly all the players (but not quite all – more on that in a bit), senses were heightened dramatically. Adrenaline spiked in the dugouts. Prior to the resumption of play, players darted back and forth between the dugout and clubhouse to peek at replays of the brawl and identify the combatants who should be targeted for revenge.
When play resumed, most of the players stood poised in the dugout, ready to run back onto the diamond should another incident follow. Inside the clubhouse, those players who had been ejected – Kapler and Varitek for the Sox; Rodriguez, Sturtze and Kenny Lofton for the Yankees – remained on high alert, wondering if they would have to run back to the field in case of another brawl.
AN UNASSUMING HERO EMERGES
From that point, most of the participants recall the details of the game in only hazy detail. The Sox briefly took a lead after scoring two runs in both the third and fourth innings. The Yankees responded with a six-run sixth to take a 9-4 lead. The Sox whittled away in the bottom of the inning, scoring four to make it a 9-8 contest.
But after the Yankees plated an insurance run in the seventh on Ruben Sierra’s solo homer against Mark Malaska, the topsy-turvy affair suddenly became stable. The Yankees bullpen stifled the Sox in the seventh and then, after Ortiz reached on a two-out single in the eighth, New York closer extraordinaire Mariano Rivera entered the game and promptly retired Manny Ramirez.
Rivera was amidst an overpowering run. In the previous night’s game, he retired the Sox in order on just nine pitches to improve to 35-of-36 (97.2 percent) in his save opportunities that year. His ERA stood at 0.89. He had given up just one homer in 50 innings.
His entry music – “Enter Sandman” – usually served as a harbinger of doom for his opponents in a season when he would eventually record a career-high 53 saves en route to a third-place finish in Cy Young voting and a ninth-place finish in the MVP race. Of course, that was no great departure from any other season by the indomitable closer.
Rivera had given up just one walkoff homer in his career, that on July 12, 2002 to Bill Selby of the Indians. Comebacks against him just didn’t happen.
And yet, the Sox did not see reason to despair.
“Mo, and there is ZERO disrespect intended because he’s the greatest ever, but he never intimidated or set us back mentally,” said Schilling. “Mo was who you had to beat in late game situations and we had done that enough to know we could. We didn’t need ‘that guy’ at the plate, we had many guys who were and are okay facing him.”
For the 2004 Red Sox, Bill Mueller was not considered “that guy.” Somehow, lost in the shuffle of a team of superstars – among them Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Schilling and Pedro Martinez, to name a few of the team’s potential Hall of Famers – it became easy to miss Mueller.
At Fenway, he resided in a corner locker closest to the exit door, and would often slip in and out unnoticed. On a team that gained a reputation as “The Idiots,” Mueller seemed the embodiment of no-nonsense, blue-collar professionalism. The development is treated with the former Sox third baseman with a mix of amusement and bemusement.
“I’m pretty vanilla when it comes to certain things. I’ve always just tried to keep things really simple in my mind and in my approach and everything because if I leaked in the emotion then I wasn’t a very good player,” said Mueller. “So I always tried to keep the emotion out of things and stick to my game plan and my mechanics.
“I really did want to open up more but I just didn’t allow myself to…My wife always says I wish people could see more of your personality, I wish you would just let it go. But I can’t, I’m just trying to stay focused so I don’t screw anything up,” he added. “I’m really kind of a childish guy. I’m a big kid and in that atmosphere I didn’t want that kid to come out too much because I wouldn’t have been able to play as well in my mind.”
Indeed, Mueller might be the only person involved in that game who suggests that once the fight was over, he separated himself from it emotionally. Mueller’s playing persona demanded that he return to the rhythm of the game, rather than getting caught up in the swirl of adrenaline and testosterone.
Nomar Garciaparra led off the ninth with a double. After Trot Nixon flied out to deep right, Kevin Millar singled home his teammate, and the Sox were suddenly within a run. Millar was replaced at first by pinch-runner McCarty, and Mueller stepped to the plate with one out, looking to sustain the rally.
Mueller had some limited success against Rivera, with two hits (both singles) in six at-bats. Even so, he drew no arrogance from that history.
“If anything those two hits might have been, well one might have been broken bat blooper and the other might have been a 47-hopper through the infield,” said Mueller. “To hit a home run that’s probably the furthest thing from my mind facing a Mariano Rivera. I think at that time you’re just trying to get as many people on base, get on base, maybe drive in a run but nothing as big I’m going to go up there and hit a homer. That’s just ridiculous.
“As far as my approach at the time it was just to eliminate stuff, go to my strengths at that time, and that was something a little more middle and away on the plate than it is in because his cutter is just unbelievable to hit – you just don’t hit it.”
Rivera’s cutter, uncharacteristically, was not crossing the plate against Mueller. The closer fell behind, 3-1, and then left a cutter up and over the inner half of the plate. Mueller jumped on it, and launched it towards right-center.
“Anytime I hit the ball in the air I’m automatically thinking, ‘Gosh darn it, I flew out again! I gotta keep the ball out of the air!’ So my first reaction is never going be, ‘Wow, I got all that, it’s a bomb!’ I never thought that when I hit the ball,” said Mueller. “I can recall running around the bases and talking to myself going down the line my, ‘Please somebody fall down! Please carry one time!’”
That it did. The ball landed in the Red Sox’ bullpen. For the Sox and Mueller, a mixture of bedlam and elation ensued as players streamed on the field from the dugout and clubhouse to enjoy a wild celebration at home-plate following an 11-10, walk-off victory.
“I think what I really love about that moment now that I’m done playing is like I’m almost getting to second base, touching second base and I’m looking at the crowd and everyone is standing up and cheering and it’s like, ‘Wow – these people are so excited,’” Mueller recalled. “And as I’m rounding second, going past shortstop I look at home plate and all our guys are running out to home plate and going crazy.
“That’s a really cool feeling seeing all your guys running out to home plate and then as you’re getting to third base again all those people standing up, going crazy and cheering. That’s really kind of cool. It’s almost like you can’t hear anything going down the first base line and you round first. Then once you kind of almost start getting to second then you can hear the crowd again and all the people and you can hear all that excitement. It’s pretty cool and that’s what I remember most about it.”
Mueller does not have that ball as a memento, nor does he have a picture of that moment on his wall. Nonetheless, for both the third baseman and his teammates, the image of that round-tripper remains fresh, indelible.
So, too, is what happened afterwards. The Sox won the next day, and though they split the 10 games following July 24, the team felt different after that day. There was a bolstered sense of camaraderie (something that was furthered when Nomar Garciaparra was traded a week later) and confidence.
The team began its push in earnest about two weeks later. Starting on August 7, the team put the peddle down and went 40-15 down the stretch, nearly closing the gap on the Yankees in the division before finishing the regular season with 98 wins and the wild-card berth.
“From our team perspective I think it was a great thing that happened. It was kind of the spark that really united the team,” said McCarty. “I think if that brawl doesn’t happen that really sparked us and fired us up, then we go on to lose that game and maybe we continue to play .500 ball and they dismantle us or we just underachieve. That was a huge spark for us.”
The memory of that moment was not lost on the club as it proceeded that year. The team referenced the game at times during the postseason, particularly when the Sox faced the daunting 3-0 deficit in the best-of-seven ALCS against the Yankees that October. Then, it was Mueller who once again delivered a key blow against Rivera – driving in a game-tying run in the ninth-inning of Game 4 – to spare the Sox from elimination.
Would the Sox have made the playoffs that year but for the course of the game on July 24, 2004? Would they have become the first team in history to erase a 3-0 deficit in October without the monumental comeback in the regular season?
It is, of course, impossible to say. All the same, it is hard to argue with those who insist that history could have looked very different without the Sox’ version of Independence Day five years ago. And so now, the date stands as one of enormous symbolism in franchise history.
“I don’t see the 2004 season unfolding like it did without that moment – without Billy’s home run, without us winning that game and without the spark from the altercation,” said Kapler. “I believe those moments propel a team to bond and to stand shoulder to shoulder, to root for one another and work in the same direction.
“As much as I believe in statistical analysis – and I do, as much as I believe in analyzing a season’s numbers – and I do, I believe that emotion, adrenaline, chemistry are all huge factors that exist. What we did following that game, I think that was a good indication that that’s true.”