I’ve watched hundreds, probably thousands of games in my life. For many of them, I can recall statistics, specific plays, and pivotal moments. But there might be only one game that brought me to the point of unrestrained jubilation, and it happened seven years ago today. Maybe it was because of the situations surrounding the game, maybe it was because what that game signaled for my favorite team, maybe it was who I was watching it with. (my brother, Dad, and Pop-Pop) I don’t know. Regardless, this is the story of the game that started my love affair with sports.
Last weekend, I was at my favorite place on the entire planet: 157 Watkins Shores Road in Casco, ME. My camp on Thomas Pond that we’ve gone to every summer for the last 16 years has everything you could ever want during the summer: A perfectly sized dock for fishing with a mooring for our boat, a rock to leap off of into the cool water, places to play wiffleball, and most of all, little contact with the outside world. There is one TV in the house that gets basic cable, excluding NESN and ESPN. For a sports fan, this is close to cruel and unusual punishment. I went years without seeing the Home Run Derby, and to this day I have never watched the ESPYS. And not having NESN in the summer means no Red Sox games. Summers without Red Sox games are like eating ice cream out of a dish: You can still enjoy it on a hot night, but something wonderful is missing at the end.
Before we leave for Casco, we always check the Red Sox schedule to see if Fox will be broadcasting any Saturday afternoon games. This particular summer, the summer of 2004 there was one game that we could watch: Red Sox-Yankees on July 24. The Boston-New York rivalry had become particularly intense over the past twelve months, thanks to Grady Little and Aaron Boone’s not-so-collaborative effort: 2003 ALCS Game 7. The Yankees went to the World Series; I went to bed in tears. It was rough.
But on this day, the playing field was leveled on the beautiful grass of Fenway Park. With cornrowed crooner Bronson Arroyo pitching for Boston, and Tanyon Sturtze pitching for the Yanks, it had the makings of an offensive explosion. The game certainly didn’t disappoint.
The Yanks jumped out to an early 3-0 lead by the middle of the third, but that was hardly the story of the first two-and a half innings. With two down, Arroyo sent an 87 mph fastball into the left arm of new Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez was tantalizingly close to becoming a member of the Red Sox during the offseason, only to have his contract with the Rangers gobbled up by Steinbrenner and co. Rodriguez, who had the go-ahead hit the night before, did not take kindly to getting plunked, screaming several ‘Fuck You’s’ to both Arroyo and Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek.
For those unfamiliar with Varitek, he personifies everything that make the Red Sox respectable. He never complains, never badmouths teammates, and always shows up for whatever role the team asks him to perform. This is especially true now, when Tek is in the twilight of his career. He has accepted his demotion from full-time to part-time with grace and dignity. Never the most offensively proficient, Varitek leaves his sweat and knee cartilage on the field after every game. As a member of the Red Sox, he will never be forgotten.
On this day, Varitek left his lasting mark on the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry, as well as Rodriguez’s face. Not appreciating being cursed at, Varitek clocked Rodriguez, starting a bench-clearing battle royale that saw players literally bloodied and bruised. (Sturtze cut his ear and was force to leave.) After sorting through the mess of player ejections, the game continued with the Yankees eventually taking a 9-4 lead. As the Sox battled back, they got key contributions from Sox legends such as Mark Bellhorn and and Billy Mueller, the most unlikely batting champion of all time.
Entering the ninth, the Sox found themselves down 10-8 facing the greatest closer of all-time: Mariano Rivera. When Mo steps on the mound, it’s game over. I doubt we’ll ever see a closer as dominant as Rivera in our lifetime. But on this late afternoon, the ‘Sandman’ got a rude awakening. Nomar doubled to lead off the ninth, eventually scoring with help from a Kevin Millar RBI single. Next up was Mueller.
At this point, the game is nearing the completion of its’ fourth hour, and my brother and I have ‘wasted’ a beautiful day of sunshine, with the expectation that Rivera was going to now come in and shut the door. But Rivera’s 3-1 pitch, likely his trademark cutter, exploded off Mueller’s bat with one destination in sight: the Boston bullpen.
When your team has potentially hit a game-winning home run, it’s hard to quantify the emotions you start to feel. For me, a rush of adrenaline that forces me out of my seat is instantly met with a tinge of uncertainty: did he get enough of it? Will the wind knock it down? Can this classic of a game really be ending in such a remarkable fashion? On this day, yes. Mueller’s home run landed in the bullpen, and my brother and I unleashed four hours of pent-up anxiety in the form of high fives and screams, essentially a mini-World Series celebration. My little cousin was asleep in the back room – she didn’t stay asleep for long. My aunt was furious that we had woken her up, but such things couldn’t bother us now: the Red Sox had won the game of the year.
In the same ‘reality-check’ fashion, announcers were quick to note that Boston still trailed the Yankees by 8.5 games in the division. But for Red Sox fans, this game signified that no matter how big the deficit, the team was going to show up, and do their damnedest to scratch, claw, and punch their way to the win column. This group of players wasn’t the most talented, but they had a determination that was unmatched by any other team that year.
Three months and three days later, the Red Sox would be World Champions. The celebration in our house may have been a little bigger that night, but nothing can really compare to that day in July seven years ago. I can only hope that another sporting event can capture me in that same way again soon.