An Oct. 21 Sports article incorrectly indicated there have been 101 seasons of postseason play in baseball. Because there were no World Series in 1904 and 1994, this year marked the 100th season of postseason play. (Published 11/2/04)
My father-in-law, Irving "Sheik" Karelis, was born in 1920 in New England, the very year the Red Sox sent Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. By the time Karelis was 6, he was a devoted Red Sox fan. In his twenties, he pitched his way to the top of the Red Sox farm system, but never quite got to Fenway Park. Since then, like millions of others, he has spent an entire lifetime hoping, dreaming, moaning and waiting. Waiting for what? Waiting for Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, that's what.
The pennant that the Red Sox won here with a 10-3 victory, becoming the first team in 101 years of postseason play to come back from a three-games-to-none deficit, was a victory for Sheik and the millions of fans like him who have trekked to Fenway, listened to thousands of games on radio and watched thousands more on TV, then spent the next day analyzing every managerial move or trade. And always hoping. This one is for every fan in every New England town, such as Sheik's -- Haverhill, Mass., where the Red Sox are an integral part of daily life, an equal measure of passion, frustration and tormenting pleasure.
Now, their generations-old inferiority complex to the Yankees is over. Now, the single biggest postseason flop in baseball history does not belong to some Red Sox team or Boston goat such as Bill Buckner. Instead, the new and uncontested champions of the October gag are the New York Yankees. And the greatest, gutsiest, most nearly impossible comeback to steal a pennant in all the annals of baseball now belongs to the self-proclaimed "idiots" of the '04 Red Sox.
The hero of the night, even more than ALCS MVP David Ortiz and winning pitcher Derek Lowe, was Johnny Damon, the hair-down-the-back free spirit who symbolizes the wacky Red Sox clubhouse. Damon, the epitome of all the Boston anti-Yankees, had the game of a lifetime in this game for the ages: two homers and six RBI.
His first homer, a grand slam, left the park at 9:11 p.m. for a 6-0 lead. However, as Damon's second blast flew directly over my head into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium, a.k.a. headquarters of the Evil Empire, it was time to call Sheik on the cell phone.
"The Red Sox have exploded," said Sheik, relishing the word as the Boston lead stood at 8-1 in the fifth inning. "All of New England is going crazy."
Then he paused, because it has been so, so ridiculously unjustly long -- literally a lifetime in his case without a single Red Sox championship or even one truly glorious humiliation of the Yankees franchise that has lorded over the Red Sox with all their babbling about "curses" as they've bought 26 titles since 1920.
"Let's just hope we can hold the lead," said Sheik.
They held it, 10-3. Just this once, a huge lead was actually enough. Between innings, the Yankees boomed their center field scoreboard with every conceivable highlight from their glorious past, trying to incite their fans and intimidate their guests. But this time it didn't work. And there is a reason why this season was different.
Finally, Red Sox familiarity with the Yankees has bred a healthy contempt.
That process of demythologizing the Yankees, and all their pretentious baggage of tradition and mystique, was at the core of an historic game on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium that not only won a pennant for the Red Sox but drove a permanent stake through the notion that the Yankees have some eternal mastery of the Red Sox, based in magic, money or moxie.
The two ancient enemies have now played each other 52 times in the last two seasons, including 14 times in two incendiary championship series. Each game has been treated by fanatic partisans on both sides as tantamount to a World Series game. No punches have been pulled or strategies held back. Every gift that every player has to offer has been laid on the table countless times. Teams have been able to study opposing stars in nearly 250 at-bats. No secret, tendency or flaw remains hidden.
As a result, the Red Sox now know to the bone that Derek Jeter does not get a hit in the clutch every time and that some silly Ghost of Ruth doesn't really haunt Yankee Stadium as soon as midnight tolls. Like small children suddenly discovering adolescence and their parents' human flaws, the Red Sox have, at last, opened their eyes and seen the Yankees for what they are -- a very good baseball team. But nothing more. And this season, not as good a team as the Red Sox, not even with Boston's ace Curt Schilling hobbled with an ankle injury.
Not only is the so-called "curse" now reversed, but its real roots have been revealed, like the curtain being drawn to expose the frail Wizard of Oz. For generations, the Yankees have assiduously cultivated a quasi-religious form of self-worship that leaves its pinstripe players with a conviction of their superiority and all other teams with vague issues surrounding their own inadequacies. Every banner, pregame tribute to past stars and endless celebration of Yankeeness is the brilliant and conscious work of a franchise that knows the power of its hegemony since 1920. Now, at least one team sees through it. And they play in the same AL East.
"Stick with us," said Damon. "Never count us out."
One local tabloid here had a huge front-page picture on Wednesday of Ruth with the headline, "Put me in." In the past, that might have spooked the Red Sox. But in the last two years, they hold a 27-25 lead in games over New York, including 15-11 this year. So they know the true meaning of that front page. To win this seventh game, the Yankees didn't need some fanciful ghost of Ruth but, rather, the real Ruth -- both pitching and hitting. The Bambino would have done a lot better than Kevin Brown, the wall-puncher, who allowed five runs in 11/3 innings. And he'd have hit better than the comatose Yankees who managed just one single in the first six innings off right-hander Derek Lowe -- a desperation Red Sox starter -- who was working on only two days' rest.
The moment when this ALCS turned, and an 84-year Yankees-Red Sox saga began an entirely new phase, was precisely midnight on Monday. Yankees superstar reliever Mariano Rivera needed three ninth-inning outs to clinch another pennant and add another ignominious chapter to defeatist Red Sox lore. But Rivera blew that save. And another one 22 hours later.
From the moment of that first squandered save, the Yankees became a different team. After that, New York has gone into a complete clutch-hitting coma. Excluding Jeter, all the rest of the Yankees are 4 for 41 (.098) with men on base without any RBI. That constitutes a monumental team-wide clutch-hitting choke. Only Jeter, with a three-run double and two RBI singles, has driven in any base runners since Rivera's failure. The other two Yankees runs through the first seven innings of Game 7 -- a span of 33 innings -- were on solo homers by Bernie Williams.
So, the old Hall of Fame-bound Yankees who helped win four World Series -- Jeter and Williams -- have hit under pressure. But the newer Yankees, about whom Jeter has asked skeptical questions for the last four years, haven't earned their stripes.
In fact, those pinstripes may never look quite the same, quite so special and fearsome again -- at least to one team who now has their number.
Who would have dreamed just four days ago that the team in question would be the Boston Red Sox.
Go on, New England, explode. You're entitled. But don't forget. The World Series starts on Saturday. While you're at it, why not get all these ancient Red Sox issues resolved at once.