CAPTION: Every Yankee fan remembers this picture. So does Tim Wakefield.
March 18, 2009
Before the New York Yankees and Houston Astros started their preseason matchup today, one of the Astros announced his semi-retirement from baseball.
Aaron Boone is set to have open-heart surgery later this month to repair a congenital heart defect—a bicuspid aortic valve—and has likely played his last game.
Boone, 36, a third generation ballplayer and brother of three time All-Star 2nd baseman Bret Boone, had a rather mediocre 12-year career with the Reds, Yankees, Indians, and Marlins. But in New York City, he'll be remembered forever as the author of the last great October moment of the Joe Torre Era.
October 16, 2003—ALCS: Game Seven
It was the game everyone had expected. Even after the Yankees took two games out of three in Boston to take a 3-2 lead in the American League Championship, nobody really expected the series to end in Game Six. And after a 10-7 slugfest the night before, the fiercest rivalry in sports was going to come down to two of the greatest pitchers of a generation—the most hated by either opponent.
Boston's Pedro Martinez had started a brawl in Game Three by throwing inside one too many times, made a gesture that looked like he was threatening to hit Jorge Posada in the head, and had thrown the Yankees' 70-something-year-old bench coach Don Zimmer to the ground. Opposing him on the mound for New York was former Red Sox ace Roger Clemens, now a three-time World Champion with the Yankees and public enemy No. 1 in Massachusetts.
Both pitchers were still dominant—the 41-year-old Clemens less so, but still the natural choice for a do-or-die game against anyone the Yankees might face. Yankee fans could recall his brilliant, gutty performance in their last Game Seven—a heartbreaking World Series game snatched from their grasp in the bottom of the last with the untouchable Mariano Rivera on the mound. Clemens had lasted long enough to give the Yankees a lead. Nobody expected anything less from the veteran this time.
The Red Sox had become the real thing, finally, in 2003 with the addition of surprise slugger David Ortiz and good enough pitching to play the Yankees to a standstill through 19 regular season games and six more in the playoffs. Ortiz, along with Manny Ramirez and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, gave the Red Sox arguably the best 3-4-5 tandem in any lineup in the league.
The Yankees had added Hideki Matsui and Jason Giambi to a lineup that had struggled to score runs in 2000 and 2001, but the Red Sox were thought by most to have the superior offense. It was six-to-five and pick 'em; the only advantage the Yankees had was home field and, if they got that far, Rivera.
(You'll notice, dear reader, that I've not mentioned our hero once yet in this flashback. If you haven't heard the story before, it's hard to imagine just how insignificant the addition of Aaron Boone appeared to be at the trade deadline—he was barely an upgrade over the departed Robin Ventura, and certainly wasn't well-loved enough to be any kind of replacement for the recently retired Scott Brosius. He was on the bench for the start of this game. Enrique Wilson was the starting third baseman, for Chrissakes!)
Three innings in, Pedro Martinez was as good as advertised, and Roger Clemens was not. Down 4-0 in the fourth inning, with nobody out and two runners on base, Joe Torre replaced Clemens with Mike Mussina—the loser of Games One and Four. It was, potentially, an ignominious end to a storied career.
Clemens walked off the field with his head down. The stadium was quiet. The Yankees were screwed.
But Moose got out of it, somehow, and too slowly a comeback began. Jason Giambi led off the fifth with a home run, and hit another solo shot two innings later. Mussina held the Red Sox scoreless through four innings. It was 4-2 after seven innings, and momentum was slowly turning...
David Wells entered the game in the eighth and promptly gave up a solo home run to Ortiz, who began his run as a Yankee-killer in this series.
The Red Sox were six outs away from the World Series with a three-run lead, and Martinez was still going strong. Other than the two Giambi homers, he'd been unhittable. Vintage Pedro.
But as good as he was, his surgically-repaired arm was starting to age, and the trick to beating Martinez was to outlast him—his ERA was a full three runs higher once he'd thrown 100 pitches. And when Grady Little sent him out to start the botom of the eighth, he had thrown 102.
And so this is how it went down:
A double by Jeter with one out. An RBI single by Bernie Williams. 5-3. And here comes Grady...and now he's sitting down again! Everyone remembers this part. Pedro has talked Little into letting him keep pitching.
Let your best guy win or lose the game for you. Old school.
But every Yankee fan knew we had him right there. It was beautifully inevitable. Double by Matsui into the right field corner. Runners on second and third, still one out. And finally, Jorge Posada on a 2-2 fastball, bloop double into the triangle between second, short and center. Both runners score. Tie game.
(I know. Still no Boone. He doesn't even sub in until after Martinez gets taken out. Bear with me. He's coming.)
Alam Embree comes in and gets Giambi to fly out. Ruben Sierra pinch-hits for Enrique Wilson and draws a walk. Our hero pinch runs for him and gets all the way to second (on another walk) before Soriano grounds out to end the frame.
Here comes Rivera. The Red Sox make him work to get out of the ninth, the 10th and the 11th. Three innings. Fifty-two pitches. No runs. ("There's no way I was coming out," he will say later, drenched in champagne. The kind of thing you expect to hear from the Greatest Of All Time.) We're still tied. Tim Wakefield—the winner of Game One and Game Four—and his knuckleball are still doing what they're supposed to do.
Bottom of the 11th inning starts with little fanfare. Everyone on both sides is looking to the 12th to be the deciding inning. The top of the Yankees order is almost up. They might even come up this inning if Wakefield's suspect control disappears for a...OH MY GOD!
Look at the picture on top of this article. Here's what the caption could say: "The first pitch of the bottom of the 11th is a knuckleball that doesn't knuckle, and everyone knows it's gone the moment it leaves the bat. Oh, by the way, the batter is Aaron Boone."
The 2003 Yankees did not win a championship, and Aaron Boone was released in February 2004 after tearing an ACL in a basketball game. The guy who replaced him is far, far more talented, and will forever be more famous—even if only for his flaws.
Boone won't make the Hall of Fame. He won't be remembered as anything more than an average ballplayer. But he earned a nickname that night—really, a middle name. (It's not fit to print, so we'll go with "Effin'.")
He shares it with superstars like Joe D. and the Mick, and fellow also-rans like Bucky Dent. He shares it with all the pinstriped heroes of the past hundred years who time and again brought the Boston Red Sox to their rightful place—second.
Yankee fans never forget their heroes. Best of luck, Booney. And thanks for the memory.