Former Red Sox closer Keith Foulke was the unsung hero of the 2004 World Series. Keith was on the mound to close out all four World Series victories, earning the win in Game One and the save in Game Four to clinch Boston’s first World Championship in 86 years.
But Foulke’s postseason heroics in 2004 weren’t limited to the World Series. He pitched in two of the three games in the sweep of the Angels, with a save in Game Two, and he appeared in five games during the dramatic victory over the Yankees in the ALCS.
In total, Keith pitched in 11 of the 14 Red Sox postseason games in 2004, and he surrendered only one earned run in fourteen innings. His earned run average of 0.64 is the stuff of legends.
“I was just happy to be part of the team that brought the World Championship back to Boston,” Keith says during a recent interview at Fenway Park. “I’m proud of my contribution but everyone stepped up to get it done. Every major leaguer plays to be part of a championship team, but not everyone is lucky enough to enjoy it.”
DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS
Keith Foulke was born at the Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, on October 19, 1972. He grew up in Huffman, TX, a community of about 10,000 located about 30 miles northeast of Houston.
“We moved back to Texas when my dad’s time in the Air Force was up and I was about five years-old. My dad was a deputy sheriff in Harris County and I grew up in Huffman. My dad encouraged me in athletics, playing catch and going to my games, but he never pressured me.”
Keith played all sports as a youngster and did well at baseball, but football was his first love. “Every boy in Texas wants to grow up to be a football player. I wanted to be a linebacker. But when I finished high the only scholarship offer I had was for baseball at Galveston Junior College, so that’s where I went.”
After two years at Galveston Junior College Foulke pitched in the Alaska Summer league, where he pitched well against top-flight talent, and then he enrolled at Lewis-Clark State College for his junior year. “I was behind developmentally in those early years. I had to work constantly to evolve into a top-flight pitcher.”
FROM STARTER TO RELIEVER
Following a strong season at Lewis-Clark, Keith Foulke was selected in the ninth round of the June 1994 amateur draft by the San Francisco Giants. After signing with the Giants, he advanced rapidly through the Giants minor league system. In 1996 he was promoted to Shreveport, LA, in the AA-Texas League. At Shreveport his catcher was future Red Sox teammate Doug Mirabelli.
“It wasn’t too hard for him or anybody else to see he was going to be a good pitcher,” Mirabelli told reporters when he was reunited with Foulke on the 2004 Red Sox. “He was a very confident guy, he threw strikes and he had three good pitches.”
Foulke made his debut with the Giants on May 21, 1997, and he pitched in 11 games for the Giants that season. Asked what he recalls of his first stint in the major leagues, he says, “Not much to be honest. I was pretty overwhelmed and that was a pretty tough environment,” he recalls referring to the Barry Bonds-led clubhouse.
At the trading deadline in 1997, Keith was traded to the Chicago White Sox where he was moved from the starter’s role to the bullpen. And how did Keith Foulke feel about this transition to relief pitcher? “To this day I would still rather be a starter,” he emphasizes. “But I loved to pitch and moving to the bullpen was my ticket to a big league career so I did it.”
Foulke was a workhorse out of the bullpen for the White Sox, averaging 65 pitching appearance per year from 1998 to 2002. In 2000, he was named the closer for the White Sox and he earned 76 saves during his two years in that role. Following the 2002 season he was traded to Oakland, and he took over as the Athletics’ closer in 2003.
Foulke led the American League with 43 saves in 2003, helping the A’s to the AL West division championship and a match-up with the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. Asked what he remembers about the Red Sox dramatic five-game win over the A’s in the 2004 ALDS, he answers succinctly: “Losing. I hated losing and that’s all I really remember about that series.
WELCOME TO BOSTON
Keith Foulke became a free agent after the 2003 season and he had a number of offers to choose among. He says he picked the Boston Red Sox because they offered the best chance to play for a World championship team.
“When you play at the major league level you are playing to be on a World Championship team,” Keith says. “You start working towards that goal in spring training and you focus on it until you are eliminated. I loved to pitch and I loved being part of a winning team. The Red Sox represented a chance for both.”
And he was also influenced by the Red Sox commitment to success. “I met with Theo [Epstein] and he convinced me that the team was committed to building a winner. And as hockey fan, it didn’t hurt to find a message on my answering machine from Bobby Orr saying he hoped I would come to Boston.”
Foulke was pleased by what he found at the Red Sox spring training camp in Fort Myers, FL. “It was clear that everyone on the Red Sox was focused on winning that championship,” he remembers. “That was real easy for me to buy into because I am very competitive and that’s why I signed with the team.”
And he felt right at home with his new teammates. “I had played with Mirabelli and Bill Mueller with the Giants and after seven years in the American league I pretty much knew who everyone was,” he says. “There was a core of players who had been together awhile, and they knew I was the closer they needed so they were glad I was there.”
The 2004 Boston Red Sox got off to a strong start and Keith Foulke played an important role in their early success. At the end of May they were in first place in the East Division and Foulke had converted ten of his eleven save opportunities.
Keith Foulke doesn’t remember any of his early season triumphs in great detail. “I remember my setbacks,” he insists. “I expected to be perfect every time I pitched. That was my standard. I was my own toughest critic.”
But he does remember the July 24, 2004, game against the Yankees when Jason Varitek confronted Alex Rodriguez along the first base life after the Yankee third baseman was hit by a Bronson Arroyo pitch. “I was in the Red Sox clubhouse getting ready to head for the bullpen,” Keith recalls.
“When I saw on TV what was going on I raced for the field and almost ran head-on into Johnny Pesky! I had to get out there to be with my teammates, but I kept thinking, what if I had put Johnny Pesky in the hospital?”
The Red Sox won the skirmish and the game, and Keith Foulke earned the save in the following game. “That was an important series,” he agrees. “We knew we had to get by the Yankees to win anything and that weekend showed we could handle them.”
The Red Sox went 45-20 after that Yankee series, and they clinched the Wild Card with a 7-3 win over the Rays in Tampa Bay on September 27. “We didn’t celebrate that much,” Keith says. “I was on the mound for the final three outs and we were all happy. But that was just the first step to a Championship and that was our focus.”
The Red Sox swept the Angels in the 2004 ALDS and Keith Foulke pitched in two of the three games. He earned a save in Game Two in Anaheim and he held the Angels scoreless in the eight and ninth innings of Game Three with the score tied 6—6. David Ortiz won the game in the tenth inning with a walk-off home run to clinch the ALDS for the Red Sox.
Foulke clearly remembers the mood in the Red Sox clubhouse before Game Four of the ALCS against the Yankees. “We were one game away from elimination but no one was panicking. We knew we were as good as the Yankees and if they could win three straight so could we. It seems funny when I say it now, but we really thought the pressure was on them.”
Keith helped hold the line in the exciting extra inning Red Sox wins in Games Four and Five, pitching in both games for a total of four innings. Then he shut down the Yankees in the ninth inning of Game Six to earn the save in the 4-2 Red Sox victory.
How tough was it for Keith Foulke to pitch three straight games when every pitch could make the difference in the series? “I love to pitch and my personal life was in turmoil at the time. Baseball was the only thing going right in my life,” he says. “I wanted to pitch every day.”
Keith Foulke agrees that the team was on a mission after their once-in-a-lifetime comeback win over the Yankees. “We knew the Cardinals were a very good team, but after beating the Yankees nothing could keep us from the World Championship.”
Keith got his wish to pitch in every game during the World Series. He got the win in Game One, shutting down a Cardinal’s rally in the eighth inning and pitching a scoreless ninth for a 11-9 Red Sox victory. Then he was on the mound to finish out Red Sox wins in Game Two at Fenway and Game Three at Busch Stadium.
In Game Four Keith took the mound in the ninth inning with the Red Sox holding a 3-0 lead, just three outs from the World Championship. With two outs Cardinals’ shortstop Edgar Renteria hit a one-hopper back at Foulke who grabbed it, took a few steps towards first, and tossed the ball to Doug Mientkiewicz for the out that gave the Red Sox their first World Championship in 86 years.
Within seconds catcher Jason Varitek jumped into Foulke’s arms and the Red Sox began celebrating. “I was so excited when I saw the ball coming right back at me, that I jumped higher than I need to,” Keith remembers. “It seemed like everything moved at light speed. That is a moment I will never, ever forget.”
Manny Ramirez was voted the World Series MVP but many observers felt Keith Foulke deserved the award. “I agree,” the ever-candid Foulke says. “Besides, I really wanted the car that goes with that award. I was going to get the license plate “World Series MVP” to put on it!”
The New York Baseball Writers Association did vote Foulke as the Babe Ruth Award winner as their MVP of the World Series, but Keith says, “That was an honor and I have a nice plaque around here somewhere. But I really wanted the car!”
When Keith Foulke reported to spring training in 2005, team physician Dr. Thomas Gill told him that he needed knee surgery. “I told him, no, I’m not going to do that,” Keith says. “My off-field life was still a mess and baseball was all I had.
“To this day that was the stupidest decision I ever made,” he insists. “I injured my elbow and had to have the surgery eventually anyway. That decision essentially ended my career as an effective pitcher.”
After two disappointing years with the Red Sox, Foulke signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians for the 2007 season. “I had passed their physical, made all my arrangements for training camp, but in my heart I knew I couldn’t pitch at the big league level.
“I called the Indians the day before I was due in camp to tell them I couldn’t pitch and I was retiring. The Indians were shocked that I was walking away from $5 million,” he remembers. “But you know what? I felt 1000% better after I made that call.”
Foulke’s arm improved enough that he appeared in 31 games for the Oakland A’s in 2008. In 2009, he pitched for the Newark Bears in an independent league. “I thought I could help someone and I love to pitch. I turned down some minor league offers, which was probably a mistake,” he acknowledges.
SAFE AT HOME
Today Keith Foulke lives in Phoenix, AZ, where he enjoys being a full-time dad to his three sons. “My son Kade is 10 now, Kyler is 6, and Kasen is 4. I love spending time with them and they all enjoy sports,” Keith says with obvious pride. “I love watching them play but there is absolutely no pressure.
“Kade is old enough to know a little bit about my major league career, but I’m sorry they never got to watch my pitch.” Asked about a comeback, Keith responds, “Trust me—I’ve thought about it. But only so my boys could see me pitch.”
Keith acknowledges that he has a much greater appreciation for the 2004 Championship year now that ten years have gone by. “You are so caught up in the game at the time that there isn’t much chance to just enjoy it. But now, looking back, and still getting thanks from the fans, you realize what you accomplished.”
And how he feels about Red Sox fans looking back on his years with the teams? “Boston fans and Red Sox fans in particular, are the greatest fans in the country. I love their passion and I love the fact that they understand the game.
“I’m a very direct guy and what I said to the media didn’t always come out the way I wanted. But people still stop me on the street in Boston to thank me for what I did in 2004,” he marvels. “I enjoy coming back to Boston every chance I get.”
Portions of this article appeared in the July edition of Red Sox Magazine. To subscribe to Red Sox Magazine click here.