#PeakCurse: Reliving the Red Sox's and Cubs' Epic 2003 Postseason Heartbreak

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 8, 2018

FILE -  In this Oct. 14, 2003 file photo, Chicago Cubs left fielder Moises Alou falls back after unsuccessfully reaching into the stands for a foul ball against the Florida Marlins in the eighth inning during Game 6 of the National League championship series in Chicago. Cubs were unable to get an interference call from fan Steve Bartman and lost the game 8-3 to tie the best-of-seven series at 3-3. The documentary 'Catching Hell', by US filmmaker Alex Gibney, based on the 2003 fan interference call that caused The Chicago Cubs to lose the game and ultimately the chance to advance to the World Series
B/R

Grady Little was trying to manage a crisis again last month. Now working as a senior advisor to the Pittsburgh Pirates front office and living near Charlotte, North Carolina, the former Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers manager and his wife opened their home to friends fleeing the coast as Hurricane Florence approached. After the storm passed, Little paused to consider the far less dire tempest in which he found himself embroiled 15 years ago, when decisions made—and not made—conspired to perpetuate two of the most storied curses in sports.

"At the time we were playing the seventh game of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium when I made this thing that's gonna dictate my legacy forever: I left a pitcher in a game a little bit too long," he says. "I think about it every once in a while, and every once in a while I'm reminded of it.

"People who remind me, I tell them: 'At that moment in time, I was sitting in the dugout in Yankee Stadium. Where were you sitting?' I've been asked about it by kids who weren't even born yet. That's the way it is."

In fall 2003, America was caught in Curse overload as October's postseason hayride barreled straight into the intersection where the Curse of the Bambino crossed the Curse of the Billy Goat.

No one's reputation was spared. Four months after publication of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, it was as if the wizards and witches were busy in October 2003. The Chicago Cubs, who hadn't won a World Series since 1908, melted down. The Red Sox, who hadn't won since 1918, blew up. Steve Bartman and Grady Little became household names even to men and women who didn't know a baseball from a bocce ball.

The Red Sox and New York Yankees brawled. A chubby and cherubic man charged out of a dugout looking to gut Boston's ace pitcher, which wouldn't have been that far out of the ordinary except the man was 72 at the time and had metal "buttons" in his head.

The Cubs and Moises Alou howled. A ball that went up never came down because a fan did what so many others would have done in the moment: reached out to catch it. Then the Cubs stubbornly persisted in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory several more times over that game and the next.

Now? Well, time can be merciful, providing forgiveness to some and, at least, distance to others.

Then? It was a distillation of baseball in its purest form, a game that the late Commissioner Bart Giamatti famously wrote is "designed to break your heart."

"It's hard to believe that was 15 years ago and at the time it happened the Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918," says Steve Buckley, the longtime Boston Herald columnist and now a writer for The Athletic. "People of a certain age might not understand that. It seems all cute now. It's amazing. There was no hint they were going to win three of the next [10] World Series."

It wasn't all so cute then. Moments after the Cubs clinched their National League Division Series to set up the drama of the next 10 days, Game 5 winner Kerry Wood was handed a phone in the middle of a celebratory clubhouse. On the line was beloved Hall of Famer Ron Santo, who went into the radio booth upon retirement and who would die seven years later, in 2010.

"Santo wasn't able to make that trip because he was having health issues," Wood says. "It was my first Game 5—here we are back in Atlanta, and it was all emotions and adrenaline. ...

"So I walked down to an auxiliary clubhouse where it was quiet, and he was on the other end in tears, just crying. I spent 10 or 15 minutes immediately after the game on the phone with him, hearing the emotions come out. ... I'll never forget those 15 minutes."

Hop into our bullpen cart for one more ride through the hay, with scenes from yesterday through the eyes of today.

   

A's and B's and division series

Kerry Wood suffered numbness in his pitching arm when he hit his funny bone while warming up for Game 5 of the National League Division Series. He recovered and pitched the Cubs to the NLCS with eight one-run innings.
Kerry Wood suffered numbness in his pitching arm when he hit his funny bone while warming up for Game 5 of the National League Division Series. He recovered and pitched the Cubs to the NLCS with eight one-run innings.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Before the Yankees and Marlins came the Oakland Athletics and Braves in the division series to set up this multi-act drama for the Red Sox and Cubs.

Chicago's Wood was masterful in firing eight one-run innings in the decisive 5-1 Game 5 win.

Boston also needed five games to get past the A's after dropping the first two in Oakland. Having made 33 starts in the regular season, Derek Lowe pitched heroically in the series, firing 1.2 innings in relief in Game 1, starting Game 3 (and throwing seven innings) and then working the ninth inning to collect the save in Game 5. But after pitching three times in six days in the division series...plus starting Games 2 and 5 in the American League Championship Series...Lowe wasn't likely to be able to give much more, a reality that would come to help define the series against the Yankees.

Boston: Saturday afternoon at the fights

The Red Sox and Yankees split the first two games of the ALCS in New York, and the increasingly emotional series moved to Boston for Game 3 and a Roger Clemens-Pedro Martinez duel. The tension ratcheted up even higher when New York's Karim Garcia slid hard into second baseman Todd Walker after a Martinez pitch near his head grazed his shoulder. Garcia glared out at the mound, and a moment later, the Red Sox thought the slide was late and Garcia's spikes were too high.

"I don't know if Karim's outburst meant he was under the influence of steroids or not, but it sure rang a bell with me of what people back then used to call ''roid rage,'" Martinez, who politely declined to speak for this article, wrote in his 2015 book Pedro, co-authored with Michael Silverman.

Then as Garcia and Pedro engaged in words after that play, Jorge Posada emerged from the dugout, hollering at Martinez.

Again, from Pedro: "He cursed my mom. He motherf--ked her. ... That's an unforgivable sin with me."

So Martinez hollered back at Posada while pointing at his head.

Martinez wrote in Pedro that he was angrily telling Posada: "'Never forget what you just said, because I won't forget it' ... pointing to my head, because that's where my brain is, and my brain is where memories are kept. ... What I was not saying when I pointed to my head was that I was going to hit him in the head. But a few of the Yankees didn't take it that way."

One of those Yanks had nearly died after being hit in the temple with a pitch in 1953. He was unconscious for nearly two weeks. Holes were drilled in his skull to relieve the pressure of the swelling. Tapered "buttons" made of tantalum were inserted into those holes.

   

Raging Zim: 'I saw this fat, bald guy flying through the air'

The Yankees tend to Don Zimmer after his tussle with Pedro Martinez in the 2003 ALCS.
The Yankees tend to Don Zimmer after his tussle with Pedro Martinez in the 2003 ALCS.JULIE JACOBSON/Associated Press

That man was Don Zimmer, bench coach for Yankees manager Joe Torre. When Manny Ramirez took exception to getting buzzed by Clemens in the bottom of the fourth, the benches cleared, and Zimmer made a beeline toward Martinez, who was standing on the grass in foul territory in front of the Red Sox dugout.

"I saw this fat, bald guy flying through the air, and I thought it was David Wells," says Dodgers radio voice Charley Steiner, who was in the Yankees radio booth from 2002 to 2004. "I looked up, and it's Zim!"

As Zimmer approached, Pedro moved to his side, reached up, grabbed Zimmer's bald head and threw him down.

"I thought Zim was dead," says Orrin Freeman, a Marlins front office executive who was keeping tabs on their potential World Series opponents.

"I'd been charged on the mound before, but never off it, and here came a 72-year-old heading right at me," Martinez wrote in Pedro.

"What in holy hell was happening?

"He was mumbling as he got close to me and just as he got real close he also cursed my mom.

"'I'll tell you what, you son of a bitch!'"

In the cramped Fenway Park seats, Soot Zimmer, married to Don for 63 years until he died in 2014, was sitting among family, including granddaughter Whitney Goldstein.

"I'm looking for Don thinking he had enough sense at 70-something [to stay out of a brawl]," says Soot, now 87 and living in Florida. "Next thing I know, [Whitney] says, 'Grammy, Poppy just got thrown down by Pedro.'"

Soot knew why her husband was vengeful: Because of his own history, Zimmer had zero tolerance for beanballs.

"He went down hard," Soot says. "We had to go to the hospital afterward because the Yankees doctors said that 'At his age, we have to make sure you don't have a broken hip or anything.' Of course, he was OK."

   

Funny Zim: Send the cash

Despite his role in a benches-clearing brawl with the Red Sox, Boston fans showed their appreciation for Zimmer when he went to dinner hours later.
Despite his role in a benches-clearing brawl with the Red Sox, Boston fans showed their appreciation for Zimmer when he went to dinner hours later.Rick Stewart/Getty Images

After it was all over—both the Yankees' 4-3 Game 3 win and Zimmer's jaunt to the hospital—Don and Soot joined the rest of their family for a late Saturday night dinner at Boston's City Table.

"The policeman [escorting] us told us, 'I'll take you into the restaurant,' and we walk in, and it's full of Boston fans," Soot says. "And they gave Don a standing ovation!"

The couple settled in at a table in a back room, and wouldn't you know it: Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was there with another Red Sox player whom Soot couldn't recall, and their families, a couple of tables away.

A waiter approached, informing the Zimmers that "Mr. Wakefield wants to buy a drink for the entire table."

"Don laughs and says, 'Just tell him to send over the cash,'" Soot recalls, chuckling. "Next thing you know, the waiter comes over with Wakefield's wallet!"

Everyone had a good laugh over that.

   

Boston: Mother Nature says hello

Zimmer apologized for his role in the Yankees-Red Sox brawl less than 24 hours after it happened.
Zimmer apologized for his role in the Yankees-Red Sox brawl less than 24 hours after it happened.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

By the next day, Sunday, Oct. 12, the baseball world's spin rate was threatening to toss the sport off its axis.

In Boston, boxing gloves were becoming more essential than Louisville Sluggers. And in Chicago, the Cubs were one win from the World Series. One!

Clearly, Mother Nature recognized this and sent the Yankees and Red Sox into timeout by raining out Game 4. This served the rare double benefit of giving both teams a day to cool off while simultaneously raising the anxiety level even higher during the nearly unbearable wait. Who says there are no baseball gods?

Nevertheless, at a wet (and virtually empty) Fenway Park and against the wishes of the Yankees, who were afraid he would incite things even more, Zimmer held a press conference. It lasted, oh, one sentence, long enough for him to tearfully apologize.

"I'm embarrassed for the Yankees, the Red Sox, the fans, the umpires and my family. That's all I have to say. I'm sorry," Zim blubbered before walking away.

"He was embarrassed," Soot says. "He apologized, and that was the end of it, we hoped.

"And now I see it so many times on TV."

Indeed, it stayed with Zimmer through the end of his life. And in case you think that's hyperbole, check out this headline from the Los Angeles Times in June 2014: "Don Zimmer dies: Watch him try to fight Pedro Martinez in 2003." Say what?!

"Every time we'd see the highlight, I'd say, 'There you go again, you just went down again!'" Soot says, laughing. "I'm glad we got to the point where we can laugh about it now."

   

Chicago: Enter the billy goat

Amy Sancetta/Associated Press

On that Sunday, the Cubs, leading the NLCS three games to one, took their first crack at clinching their first pennant since 1945.

But Josh Beckett fired a brilliant complete-game shutout, striking out 11, to beat the Cubs 4-0 in Game 5 in Miami and pull the Marlins within three games to two.

Uh-oh.

The Cubs still had two chances to win one game, and the idea of a Cubs-Red Sox World Series was still very much in play.

So, Game 6.

The Cubs were five outs from the World Series, leading 3-0 with Mark Prior dealing.

In the dugout, Wood was locking in on his next start.

"Mentally in Game 6, I was thinking I would be facing the Yankees [who had taken a 3-2 series lead over the Red Sox earlier in the day]," Wood says. "I'm going over the Yankees lineup in my head. It was like, 'Oh crap, I'm going to start Game 1 of the World Series!'

"I get to about the fifth hitter, and all of a sudden we were losing. And I was like, 'Oh, OK, that's what I get for thinking ahead.'"

Then, with one out in the eighth, a runner on second and a full count to Luis Castillo, the Marlins second baseman launched a pop-up foul down the left field line. Moises Alou drifted over to catch it against the wall. Bartman, sitting at the end of the row, reached out and deflected the ball away from Alou's glove.

In the moment, Alou angrily threw his arms down in disgust. He and Prior argued for fan interference. They were denied.

The next pitch was ball four—and a wild pitch that skipped past catcher Paul Bako, allowing Juan Pierre to advance to third. Instead of two outs and a runner on second, there was one out and runners on the corners.

Next, Pudge Rodriguez cracked an RBI single on an 0-2 pitch to make it 3-1.

"I think about the 0-2 curveball to Pudge," Prior, now the Dodgers bullpen coach, says. "I think about that a lot. Not so much that he hit it, but that I didn't bury it enough. That still kind of haunts me.

"It's something you've been taught since you were younger, and it's something I've taught: With two strikes, in your execution you can't give him anything where he can get the bat on the ball."

Rodriguez was a damage guy, and Prior was a strikeout guy. Score one for Pudge.

But Prior rebounded with what could have been an inning-ending double play ground ball off the bat of Miguel Cabrera. But shortstop Alex Gonzalez botched it to load the bases.

Then Derrek Lee launched a game-tying double, manager Dusty Baker went to his bullpen, and the Marlins hammered Kyle Farnsworth to seize an 8-3 lead and the game.

In the chaotic final innings of Game 6, as the television broadcast persistently focused on Bartman, fans turned ugly, chanting and throwing things at him. Security had to escort him from Wrigley Field for his own safety.

Yet in the Cubs clubhouse afterward, there was zero talk of him.

"We got boat-raced in that game," Eric Karros, then the Cubs first baseman and now an analyst for Fox Sports, says. "If we had lost by one run, I'm sure there would have been more emphasis on that. But we still had Game 7, and it was Kerry Wood vs. Mark Redman. No one figured Beckett would come back.

"It was like, 'Shoot, we got this.' Maybe the fans in the stands and the faithful in Chicago were thinking, 'Oh no, here we go again.' But as players we didn't think that."

Wood and Prior echo Karros.

"One hundred percent," Wood says. "It was: 'Hey, this sucks. It was a heartbreaking loss; obviously we had it. But I'm going against Redman. We're in a great spot. We have a great team. No big deal.'"

   

Chicago: Like going to the dentist

Brian Banks and his Marlins World Series jersey greet his young patients now in Mesa, Arizona, 15 years after his pinch-hit walk sparked the Marlins to rally past the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS.
Brian Banks and his Marlins World Series jersey greet his young patients now in Mesa, Arizona, 15 years after his pinch-hit walk sparked the Marlins to rally past the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS.Photo courtesy of Brian Banks

The Marlins had taken a 3-0 lead in the first inning of Game 7, but the Cubs scored three in the bottom of the second, the final two on Wood's epic two-run homer.

"In the dugout with the fans on top of you, it felt like the whole city was going to come down on top of us," then-Marlins utility man Brian Banks says. "Even as a visitor, that was a cool moment."

Three innings later, it was Banks in the box, leading off the fifth inning with a pinch-hit walk that ignited the game-deciding rally.

Now a pediatric dentist ("Serving tiny teeth with a big heart," his website says) in his boyhood home of Mesa, Arizona—the Cubs' spring training home—Banks grew up a Cubs fan.

"Not to be disrespectful, but I don't even remember that guy on the roster," Prior says. "Amazing. Wow. I wouldn't bring that up to Woody. That's funny."

Wood's memory wasn't any better.

"Oh, I kind of wish you hadn't told me," says Wood, chuckling, who had no recollection of either Banks' name or the walk until he was prompted. "Now I remember him; he was with the Brewers for a while."

Banks played six seasons in the majors, the first four with Milwaukee, 273 total games. He tore up his knee in spring training 2004, rehabbed, played a bit in the minors and then decided to go to dental school.

"Kerry Wood was someone I'd faced a number of times, so in the moment it wasn't a stressful situation," Banks says. "You played your whole life to be in that situation. Once you step in the box, everything slows down. It's weird to say, because as a fan I think, How was I not nervous in that situation?

"I remember working the count. I think I had only one pitch to hit in that at-bat. It was a 3-1 count. A few pitches were close. I do remember thinking with the horses we had, if I could get on, anything could happen. We just went on from there."

As a bench player, Banks made several trips from the dugout to the clubhouse during the games, and he vividly remembers seeing clubhouse attendants wheeling champagne toward the Cubs clubhouse—and then away from it—late in Game 6.

It never did pop on that side of Wrigley Field. The Marlins scored three in the fifth—Banks scored on a Rodriguez double—to take a 6-5 lead and won 9-6.

Though he did make it into the on-deck circle during the World Series, Banks never came to the plate again in the majors. But his Fall Classic jersey is framed on the wall of his dental office.

"A lot of people ask a lot of questions about those days," he says.

   

Chicago: Crushing confusion

CHICAGO - OCTOBER 15:  A somber Ted Zegarski hangs out with others Chicago Cubs fans in front of Wrigley Field near the end of the game as the Chicago Cubs were defeated 9-6 by the Florida Marlins in game 7 of the National League Championship Series Octob
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Shockingly, the Cubs were eliminated.

"There was disappointment and confusion," Prior says. "Probably in some respects, though, a feeling like, All right, that was great, let's just do it again next year. The core of us was there: myself, Woody, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Clement was going to be back.

"From my perspective, there was confidence we'd be back. Nobody knew the fate of what I'd go through in the next three or four years and what that did to the organization. Woody struggled with his health, too. That's huge. I know more now than I did back then what that can do to an organization."

   

New York: 'I got nothing'

Grady Little sensed his Red Sox were in trouble in Game 7 when Derek Lowe told him he was too worn out to pitch.
Grady Little sensed his Red Sox were in trouble in Game 7 when Derek Lowe told him he was too worn out to pitch.CHARLES KRUPA/Associated Press

Next up, on the day after the Cubs' crash: Game 7 at Yankee Stadium...and Boston's late-innings dilemma was still lurking.

"It's about 2 o'clock in the afternoon in Yankee Stadium, Grady is there in his long johns, and he and I are standing on the mound along with a bat boy named Sparky," Steiner says. "Grady and I are talking, and he's not a happy camper.

"He's not happy for a lot of reasons. One, his contract status was uncertain [Little was not signed beyond 2003], and it was getting to him. What more must he do to be appreciated by ownership? We talked about that.

"And then he said, in that old, slow drawl—and I had no idea how prescient and clairvoyant he would be—'We're f--ked tonight. I got nothing in the bullpen. Nothing. I even called Derek Lowe in his hotel room this morning and said, 'Can you give me an inning?' and he said, 'I can't even brush my teeth.'

"One of his pitchers, I don't even remember which one, Grady said, 'He's so nervous he's got canker sores in his mouth.' I hadn't heard the term 'canker sore' in I don't know how long. I got nothing."

   

New York, four hours later: 'We're going to win the World Series'

"So now fast-forward to 6:30," Steiner says. "We'd seen the Red Sox so often, and I'd known Grady for so long, I went downstairs to wish him good luck. And then he said, 'Sit down.' So in that tiny old Yankee Stadium visiting manager's office, I sit down, and he closes the door."

There, Little revealed his intention to go out in a blaze of glory.

"Grady says: 'Let me tell you what's going to happen tonight: We're going to win this game. We're going to win the World Series. And then on the morning of the parade, I am going to go from one talk radio station to the next and tell them they're a bunch of freaking geniuses, and then I'm going to retire.'

"He had the backing of his team. The players liked him. It was an hour-and-a-half before the first pitch of the seventh game, and he was sad, he was motivated, he was angry, he was excited, and he said, 'Sit down,' and he just vented. I'll never forget that. I was really lucky to have known him, to be doing the game in that moment.

"So now the game unfolds, and Pedro is pitching his ass off, one of the most dramatic playoff games between these two ancient rivals. And now, what we had talked about at 2 in the afternoon is coming home to roost: What to do about Pedro. He is clearly on fumes. Very few people outside of the Red Sox players knew of his dilemma. He had nobody to go to."

   

New York: 'One of the great atrocities in baseball history'

Little relieves Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the ALCS after the future Hall of Famer had allowed the Yankees to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Little relieves Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the ALCS after the future Hall of Famer had allowed the Yankees to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth inning.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The Red Sox led 4-2 when Martinez obtained the last out of the seventh inning with his 100th pitch, walked off the mound, patted his chest and pointed at the sky. Everyone knew what that meant. Done.

As with Lowe, the Red Sox had leaned hard on Pedro in the postseason: Martinez had thrown 130 pitches in Boston's 5-4 loss to the A's in Game 1 of their ALDS. He came back with 100 more in the decisive Game 5 and then threw 98 in Game 3 of the ALCS.

In his book, Martinez explains how, thinking he was finished, he exhaled in the dugout, closed his eyes and opened them to Little asking if he could get one more hitter, Nick Johnson, to start the eighth.

"[Alan] Embree's never gotten him out. So far, you've handled him pretty well," Little told Pedro.

So after David Ortiz's homer in the top of the eighth boosted Boston's lead to 5-2, Martinez induced a pop-up to shortstop from Johnson on his 107th pitch.

"I don't recall a sense in our dugout where we were shocked he stayed in the game," says Aaron Boone, then about an hour from stepping into Yankees lore. "I definitely felt we sensed he was tiring and we had a chance to get to him. But it wasn't, 'Oh, they're leaving him in?' I don't recall that."

In the press box, Buckley, the Herald columnist, turned to a seatmate and double-checked that nobody was warming up. This is going to be a disaster, he said.

"There was a very, very well understood, carved-in-stone thing with Pedro," Buckley says. "After 100 pitches, he was done, and you didn't send him back out. I think Grady was set that Pedro was going to be a Hall of Fame pitcher and He'll get us to the World Series.

"He committed one of the great atrocities in baseball history."

Pedro surrendered a double to Derek Jeter, an RBI single to Bernie Williams, a ground-rule double to Hideki Matsui and then a game-tying double to Jorge Posada.

"If I had it to do all over again ... we had an outstanding bullpen down there, outstanding bullpen of setup men," Little says. "And that's mostly what my decision hinged on: We went through that season with no closer."

Little notes the earlier conversation with Lowe, who was a no-go.

"Later in the day things started getting exciting, and I went with what I thought was the best I had. And they recently put him in the Hall of Fame."

   

New York: Boom!

Boone now belongs to the ages.

The 5-5 game sailed into the bottom of the 11th after Mariano Rivera's third inning of shutout relief, and Boone stepped in to face Wakefield, Boston's fourth pitcher of the night.

The Yankees had obtained Boone at the July trade deadline from the Cincinnati Reds for pitchers Branden Claussen and Charlie Manning and cash. He was slumping that autumn (he batted only .170/.196/.302 for the '03 postseason), which is why Torre had started Enrique Wilson at third base. Boone entered as a pinch runner in the bottom of the eighth.

In the 11th, he took his first at-bat of the night. And he swung at the first pitch, a Wakefield knuckleball.

"I remember running off the field from third after Mo's last inning and kind of having a feeling that I was going to do something," Boone says. "And as I walked to grab my bat to go on deck, Joe Torre says to me: 'Stay through the middle. It doesn't mean you won't go deep, but just stay through the middle.'

"So I'm on deck, and I'm thinking I'm going to take the first pitch. And as I'm walking to home plate I change my mind, and I'm like: Just get a good pitch to hit. Whether it's the first one or whether it's the seventh one, just get a good pitch. And here we go."

   

New York: 'It was a f--king disaster'

Nomar Garciaparra reacts after striking out in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium.
Nomar Garciaparra reacts after striking out in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium.Al Bello/Getty Images

Inside the Red Sox clubhouse, the atmosphere ranged between funereal and inconsolable. Reporters scrambled to put the pieces together. As Martinez softly recapped his part of the evening, the media crowd was so enormous around his locker that not everyone could hear. His deadline minutes away, Buckley rushed upstairs in the middle of one of the biggest stories in Boston sports history to file his story.

As Buckley was exiting the clubhouse, a Red Sox official approached in full spin mode.

"Was this season a success, or was it a failure?" the official asked.

"He was speaking from the perspective that the team had gone all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS," Buckley says. "I looked at him and said, 'It was a f--king disaster.' He looked back at me and says: 'Fascinating. Fascinating.' Like he just couldn't believe that was my take."

   

New York: Enter the Bambino

Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein greet each other a few years after the 2003 ALCS left the Yankees GM at a loss as to how to congratulate Epstein on Boston's season.
Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein greet each other a few years after the 2003 ALCS left the Yankees GM at a loss as to how to congratulate Epstein on Boston's season.Josh Reynolds/Associated Press

But wait, that wasn't all.

"I leave the clubhouse," Buckley says, "turn the corner, and there's [Yankees general manager] Brian Cashman standing by himself. I asked, 'Brian, what are you doing?' He said, 'I kind of want to congratulate [Red Sox GM] Theo [Epstein], but I don't know how to do it.'

"So I said, 'Do you want me to go get him?' And so I go back in and tell Theo that Brian Cashman is out in the hallway and wants to congratulate you. Theo says, 'This hallway?' So I walked him out.

"All that happened within seven minutes."

Epstein, now the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, writes via email: "I actually don't remember that! Was probably numb from the walk-off. I remember walking into the clubhouse and just hearing the sobbing. It was a tough scene."

Clearly at that middle-of-the-night hour, the Curse of the Bambino and the Curse of the Billy Goat were somewhere together toasting the crushing blows dealt to the Red Sox and Cubs.

   

Aftermath: Culture changes

The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, 2007 and 2013. The Cubs finally broke through in 2016. Some of the '03 Cubs say that removed some sting from their loss but not completely. They also universally view their run as a significant step to the title 13 years later.

"I like to look at it as our group changed the culture from lovable losers, raising the bar for expectations for our organization and for our fanbase," Wood says.

Epstein also says the '03 near-miss was transformative in Boston.

"2003 was one of my favorite years in baseball, even though we didn't win it all," Epstein says via e-mail. "We had a bit of a 'buy-low' winter that year, lowering the payroll and bringing in players like Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller et al, who were relatively unknown to our fanbase. ...

"We didn't win it all, but I think that year transformed the attitude around the clubhouse and the whole organization, really."

   

Fifteen years later: Forgiveness

Little was not retained by the Red Sox after 2003, but he managed for another two seasons with the Dodgers.
Little was not retained by the Red Sox after 2003, but he managed for another two seasons with the Dodgers.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

"That poor kid with the glasses and the Cubs hat and the Walkman headset," Steiner says. "He became this iconic figure through no fault of his own. He just wanted to go to a ballgame.

"Grady and Bartman."

Each was castigated as if one's life can be reduced to a single moment, as if the sum of the rest of their actions was wholly insignificant—and as if nobody else in the vast cast of Cubs and Red Sox characters could have affected a course reversal at any point that autumn.

"You've gotta understand that, man," Little says. "You've got the Boston Red Sox with the Ghost of the Bambino, or whatever it was called, you've got the goat over in Chicago. These fans are no different than anybody else; all they want to do is see their team win."

Little, who was not rehired when his contract expired after that season, managed the Dodgers in '06 and '07. Bartman, whose family for a time was under police protection, has not publicly talked to this day. Wood says he reached out a couple of times, but Bartman "didn't want anything to do with it. I respect that. He's had the opportunity to write books, sell his story, and he didn't want to do it. You feel bad about that."

When the Cubs, in a class move, issued Bartman his own personalized World Series ring last summer, he issued a statement that read in part:

"Although I do not consider myself worthy of such an honor, I am deeply moved and sincerely grateful to receive an official Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Championship ring. ... I humbly receive the ring not only as a symbol of one of the most historic achievements in sports, but as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today's society. My hope is that we all can learn from my experience to view sports as entertainment and prevent harsh scapegoating, and to challenge the media and opportunistic profiteers to conduct business ethically by respecting personal privacy rights and not exploit any individual to advance their own self-interest or economic gain."

How we should treat each other in today's society.

Over the years, Baker, then the Cubs manager, has taken shots for wrecking the careers of Prior and Wood by carelessly handling them.

"I loved playing for Bake," Prior says. "I know he takes a lot of criticism of whether he overpitched us and the way he managed games, but at the end of the day, you look back, and what do you remember? I remember having fun playing for him."

After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, the team created a personalized championship ring for Steve Bartman last summer.
After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, the team created a personalized championship ring for Steve Bartman last summer.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Soot Zimmer still keeps a bag of letters the Zimmers received after her husband's tearful press conference.

"Some were from teachers that used it as an example to students that you're never too big to make an apology. No matter who you are," she says. "I thought that was very classy that a teacher wrote that he was so classy."

In his book, Martinez called the Zimmer incident the biggest regret of his career, and Soot heard him say it on television, too.

"I thought that was pretty nice," she says. "Somebody comes charging at you, what are you going to do? You think maybe they're going to punch you. I have no qualms about that. He didn't know what Don was going to do."

Still living in Chicago and working for the Cubs, Wood would like to believe there has been forgiveness for all and some hard lessons learned.

"I ultimately think as much play as [the Bartman incident] got over the years, Chicago should feel bad about the way they handled it," Wood says. "It's not indicative of the way our organization wants fans to perceive it. For Chicago as a town, that was a black eye. It wasn't our finest moment. The death threats. He had to move. It was a bad reputation for us as a fanbase.

"Winning helps. I think we've all moved on."

   

'These jobs in baseball come and go, but good friends that you develop, that lasts'

He slips into town infrequently, but he does go back to see old friends and share the good memories over dinner. And in restaurants and other public places, he says, folks are cordial.

"For sure," Little says. "You know, these jobs in baseball come and go, but good friends that you develop, that lasts. This was a few years after 9/11 when this blunder was made, and after I made that decision, there's probably a small percentage of people in the New England area who had me on the most hated list right underneath Osama bin Laden. Know what I mean?

"It might have been 5 percent of the people, and that's not very many."

Meanwhile, at her home in Florida, a framed picture of her husband with Billy Crystal is displayed on Soot Zimmer's nightstand. The two friends are sitting on a bench somewhere, laughing.

"Billy wrote in silver pen, 'Are we laughing because Grady left Pedro in too long?'" Soot says, also laughing. "That wasn't probably what they're laughing about, but that's what he wrote in the caption."

   

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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