Dignity, even the final fragile thread of it, still has its value. Especially if you are the Boston Red Sox and have had your franchise-wide sense of self-esteem shredded for generations by the New York Yankees.
So, faced with a four-game sweep by the Yanks that would have been a regional badge of baseball shame in New England for years to come, the Red Sox managed to extend the American League Championship Series for another day with a 6-4 win in 12 innings in Game 4. The final victorious blow for the Red Sox was a David Ortiz game-ending homer off Paul Quantrill.
However, if this game has any lasting impact on the Yankees it will be the way they lost their lead -- with a pennant in their hands -- in the ninth that will haunt them. Trailing 4-3 and down to their last three outs, the Red Sox faced the personification of their perpetual baseball doom: Mariano Rivera, the all but unbeatable reliever whose gaunt implacable visage evokes grim images of finality. Especially hereabouts.
This time, however, in a gesture which will probably prove futile, but certainly felt symbolic, the Red Sox prevented Rivera from saving yet another pennant for his Yankees. Ironically, Rivera blew the save and set up the Red Sox eventual victory despite being in a perfect spot for any reliever -- two full days of rest after saving the first two games of the series.
The Red Sox' luck finally changed at exactly midnight. The center field clock clicked to 12:00 with Kevin Millar at bat. Moments later, Rivera issued an uncharacteristic leadoff walk. Pinch runner Dave Roberts stole his 38th base in 41 attempts this year, though only by an eyelash. Then Bill Mueller, whose three-run, game-ending homer beat Rivera in an 11-10 battle here on July 24th, ripped a line drive back through the box. Rivera nearly snagged the bullet but barely missed. As the ball trickled into center field for an RBI single, Rivera pumped his fist -- but this time in disgust, not victory.
After a sacrifice bunt, the Yankees finally showed their first hint of fallibility in this ALCS. On a routine grounder to first base by slumping Johnny Damon, 6-foot-8 reserve first baseman Tony Clark had a simple play to shovel the ball to Rivera, who had Damon beaten to first by more than a stride. But Clark choked, bobbling the ball in a universal gesture of nervousness common to anyone who has ever tried to perform a simple act just a split second too hurriedly.
Given that one precious extra out, the Red Sox should have finished Rivera. But the Yankee fanned Orlando Cabrera as though he were a child, on three pitches. After a walk to load the bases, Rivera got Ortiz to pop up, reminding the Red Sox that, even at his worst, they only tied the Yankee closer. They didn't beat him.
To add spice to this series, though perhaps not yet real drama, Game 5 now provides Pedro Martinez a chance to start here on Monday against his New York daddies and their ace, Mike Mussina. No team has ever come back from a three-games-to-none deficit in all of baseball history -- or pro basketball either, for that matter. Still, the rematch of these two wealthy, talent-choked teams has been awaited with such relish for so long that anything that extends it is a bonus.
Now, fantasies of a sixth or even seventh game in Yankee Stadium this week are technically permissible, though discouraged for anyone who wishes their judgment to be taken seriously in the future on any subject.
What a long weird trip this season has been -- almost strange enough to imagine Washington getting back a big league team.
To sense the bizarre magnitude of this series in baseball's recent history, and appreciate how many in the sport hope that the Red Sox can, at least, recreate some semblance of competitiveness, we need to go back in time just a bit.
When the Yanks and Red Sox first met this season in spring training in Florida, the sense of hyperventilating excitement was so great that Major League Baseball actually authorized the issuance of commemorative pins for the Grapefruit League game. For $8 you could have a memento of a meaningless game with a palm tree as a logo.
Even the teams were stunned as they looked across the field at their transformed, improved and enriched lineups. Suddenly, the Red Sox had Curt Schilling to compliment Martinez. Their bullpen vacuum was filled by one of the best closers: Keith Foulke. To compensate for losing four-fifths of their rotation, the Yankees added starter Kevin Brown, slugger Gary Sheffield and, of course, Alex Rodriguez -- the highest paid man in the game who'd openly preferred the Red Sox yet ended up a Yankee.
Around the batting cage that day, there were chuckles of disbelief. What deeds would be produced by 19 blood-feud regular season meetings between these teams, not to mention what seemed an almost inevitable October rematch?
Ever since that meeting, the entire American League season has had only one plot line. It wasn't hype. It was simply reality. Not since the Giants and Dodgers hated each other and focused every moment of their attention on each other half a century ago has baseball seen such a genuine bad-to-the-bone rivalry. Before that, you might have to trace back to the blood feud days of Frank Chance's Chicago Cubs and John McGraw's Giants for comparable combustion.
Finally, in the last six days, the fuse reached what seemed like one of the biggest kegs of dynamite that baseball had ever provided for our fireworks enjoyment. Every iota of tingling anticipation was merited. The Yankees won a few more regular season games, 101 to 98, but the Red Sox won the brawl-and-bile-filled, head-to-head battles, 11-8, and outscored the league by far more runs than New York (181 to 89). You could make the case that either team might win. You could even claim that the Red Sox were the hotter team with the better starting pitching.
Perhaps only one scenario was utterly unexpected, despite the fact that the Yankees have torn the Red Sox hearts out of their chests repeatedly for the past 86 years. Pure domination by the Yankees? Another Boston Massacre: 10-7, 3-1 and 19-8?
Until midnight tolled for Rivera and the Yankees, it seemed that humiliation would be completed in Game 4. Rodriguez put the Yankees ahead early with his second titanic home run in two nights -- both far over the Green Monster and onto Lansdowne Street.
And the two-run rally that put the Yanks ahead, 4-3, was ignited by Hideki Matsui, the most scalding-hot of all the incendiary Yankee hitters, who is now 11 for 20 with eight extra-base hits in this series, including a double and triple on Sunday night.
This ALCS has been given breath once more, but not yet life, not in any true baseball sense. But if Martinez, without those "Who's your daddy?" chants in his ears, can help the Red Sox to a victory on Monday, then this series will suddenly be exactly where everyone always thought it would be at this juncture: headed back to Yankee Stadium amid the mounting insanity of a Game 6.