Aaron Boone’s eleventh inning walk-off home run in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship broke Red Sox fans’ hearts. Gone were the dreams of a World Championship, the joy of the come-from-behind victory over the A’s in the ALDS, and the euphoria of “cowboy up!”
As tough as it was for fans it was even tougher for the ball club. Grady Little, a decent man and an old-school manager, lost his job. Tim Wakefield, a fan favorite for many years, worried all winter that he would be the fan’s scapegoat.
When I asked Trot Nixon how long it took him to get over the devastating Game Seven loss, he responded, “I’m not sure I’m over it yet.”
But he went on to say, “It’s different for the players. The loss stings but very quickly you start focusing on the next season. The fans might have brooded about it all winter, but we were busy working out and thinking about 2004.”
Nixon added, “That loss did take awhile to get over. But when the front office went out and signed Schilling and Foulkie [closer Keith Foulke] we knew we would be in the thick of things in 2004.”
Third baseman Bill Mueller had a similar take on the lingering affect of the loss. “It’s different for the players because your fate is in your hands. You have an opportunity to impact the outcome. You are disappointed after a loss like that but you know you did everything you could to win.
“It’s more frustrating for fans because the game is out of their control,” he points out. “A loss is tougher for them to accept.”
On the fourth day of December, the team announced that 44-year-old Terry Francona would be the 44th manager of the Boston Red Sox. It went unnoticed at the time, but in retrospect the selection of the father of four, with four years of big league managing experience, to manage the club in a year ending in four, was clearly a good omen.
Superstition and numerology aside, the Red Sox were clearly delighted to have Francona as their manager for the 2004 season. General Manger Epstein told reporters, “We were looking for a manager who would embrace the exhaustive preparation that the organization demands. His preparation, energy, integrity, and communication skills are exceptional.”
Terry Francona had managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 1997 through 2000, so he was no stranger to media scrutiny and passionate fans. At the press conference announcing his selection as manager of the Red Sox, he was asked about the unique pressures of managing in Boston.
Francona responded, “Think about it for a second. I’ve been released from six teams. I’ve been fired as a manager. I’ve got no hair. I’ve got a nose that’s three times too big for my face, and I grew up in a major league clubhouse. My skin’s pretty thick. I’ll be okay.”
On February 15, 2004, new manager Terry Francona began the 12-hour drive from his home in Yardley, Pennsylvania, to Fort Myers, Florida, and the following day the Red Sox equipment truck departed from Fenway Park. Terry Francona recalled his thoughts during that long drive nine years ago.
“I like to drive to spring training if I can. It gives me a chance to reflect on the upcoming season and to collect my thoughts. That drive was a long time ago, but I know I was excited,” he recalls. “I was really looking forward to that camp.”
The 2004 Red Sox players were determined to start fresh, to the point of discarding their “Cowboy Up” slogan from 2003, since it hadn’t produced a World Series appearance. Pitcher Derek Lowe told the press, “We’ve made Doug Mirabelli in charge of the ‘Cowboy Up’ police. We’ve got to get it all out of here.”
Terry Francona has fond memories of his first spring training camp as Red Sox manager. “Other than playing in the postseason and the World Series, spring training is my favorite time of year. It’s a fresh start for everyone, and there’s something positive you can find from every game,” he emphasizes.
“I can still remember coming down to Florida as a kid when my dad was playing. I used to shag fly balls in the outfield. That’s a great memory.”
And Francona felt good about his team as they prepared to break camp and head north to begin the regular season. “I knew that we were prepared and that we had accomplished a lot that spring. The injuries [Trot Nixon and Nomar Garciaparra] were a concern, of course, but I had a lot of confidence in the players we were going to use.”
Asked if he ever envisioned the storybook season that his team would put together, Terry replies, “That’s what you set your sights on during spring training, a World Championship. But I never imagined that it would turn out quite the way it did. I stay in the moment, and focus on the next game and the next series.”
While Bill Mueller had largely avoided injuries in 2003, appearing in 146 regular season games, he was not as fortunate in 2004. Bothered by discomfort in his right knee, he was batting around the .250 mark in mid-May. On May 28 he underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee and he was out of action until early July.
He returned to the lineup on July 2 in Atlanta, and he went 10-22 in his next six games. Bill Muller was back and his steady play helped to keep the Red Sox in contention in the American League East. When the Yankees came to town in late July the Red Sox trailed their long-time rivals by 8.5 games.
After losing the first game of the series on Friday night, to drop 9.5 games back, the Red Sox quickly fell behind the Yankees 3-0 in a damp, rainy Saturday afternoon game. In the third inning Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez scuffled along the first base line, and the field at Fenway Park briefly took on the look of a rugby scrum.
Order was restored and then both teams concentrated on offense. When Bill Mueller stepped to the plate with one on and one out in the last of the ninth inning, the Red Sox trailed 10-9.
Looking back at his at-bat against the Yankees legendary closer Mariano Rivera, Mueller says, “In a situation like that you are simply looking for a pitch you can handle. You look for a pitch that you can square up on and drive somewhere. Believe me, the last thing on my mind was a home run,” he laughs.
But hit a home run is exactly what he did: Mueller launched a long drive into the Red Sox bullpen to secure one of the more important wins of the 2004 regular season.
Trot Nixon began the 2004 season on the disabled list and didn’t play until June 16, celebrating his return with a home run in Colorado against the Rockies. Asked if there was a point in the season where he was convinced the team would qualify for the postseason, he says, “When Billy Ballgame [third baseman Bill Mueller] hit his bomb off Mariano Rivera,” referring to that Red Sox come-from-behind, 11-10 win against the Yankees on July 24. “That sold me on the 2004 team.”
The Red Sox swept the Angels in the 2004 ALDS, but after dropping three straight to the Yankees, their backs were against the wall as they prepared for Game Four of the ALCS. Asked about the mood of the Red Sox clubhouse before that game, Trot says, “We were still confident but we knew what we were up against.
“Tek spoke up as our captain and said, ‘We just have to take it one half-inning at a time. Let’s win the top half of the first and hold them scoreless. Then let’s win the bottom half, maybe go up by a run.’ Putting it that way, made it manageable and we didn’t have to think about winning four games.”
In the Game Four pre-game warm-ups at FenwayPark, Kevin Millar told every Yankee who would listen, “You guys had better win tonight. Because if you don’t, we are coming after you and we will win the Series.”
Millar admits that he was playing with the Yankees’ heads, applying a little pressure where none existed. “They were thinking they could relax, no pressure, but I wanted to plant a seed of doubt.”
But Millar insists that he believed what he was saying. “Think about it for a second. Over two full seasons the teams were dead even. We were as closely matched as possible. The only difference over two years was one extra inning home run.
“It didn’t make any sense that the Yankees would sweep us. It was just an aberration that we lost three straight games. It was almost a certainty that it would take more than four games to settle this,” he insists.
Millar’s logic was unassailable, but when he stepped to the plate to face Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning the Red Sox trailed 4-3 and they were three outs from elimination. And what was Kevin’s game plan in this all-important spot?
“I went up there looking to hit a home run,” Millar insists, remembering his classic at-bat against Mariano Rivera. “It was a fastball pitcher against a fastball hitter and we needed one run to tie. But I never flinched on those pitches outside of the strike zone. We needed a base runner.”
Dave Roberts ran for Millar and executed the most important steal in Red Sox history. Then Bill Mueller lined a single to center, scoring Roberts and tying the game.
Looking back nine years later, Mueller has an interesting take on one of the more important innings in Red Sox history. “Everyone in the ballpark knew Dave Roberts was going to try to steal second base. The whole season was on the line, so it doesn’t get any more exciting than that.
“But from a baseball point-of-view, Kevin Millar’s walk was equal to Dave’s steal and equal to my RBI. Kevin knew he had to get on base to start the inning and he managed to draw a walk from Mariano Rivera, one of the great closers of all-time.
“His walk allowed Dave to pinch run and steal the base that led to my RBI.” And he adds, “All three of us did what we were supposed to do in that situation.”
The Red Sox bullpen shut the Yankees down for three innings and Big Papi’s two run, twelfth inning walk-off home run kept the Red Sox hopes alive. More than a few players in the Yankees’ clubhouse must have thought about Millar’s pre-game prophecy.
GREATEST SPORTS COMEBACK
Red Sox relief pitcher Mike Timlin agreed with Kevin Millar’s prediction. “When we beat the Yankees in 12 innings in Game Four, we felt that the momentum had shifted. It had been the Yankees turn and now it was ours,” he insists. “We were the most optimistic 1-3 playoff team in baseball history!”
Game Five at Fenway began just 16 hours after the conclusion of Game Four, and in some ways it was an extension of, and almost a replay of Game Four. The Red Sox got to Mariano Rivera again, tying the game 4-4 in the eighth inning, and Big Papi had a walk-off extra inning hit again, this time a single in the fourteenth for a 5-4 Red Sox win.
When the two teams squared off in Game Six, their record against one another over the past two years stood at 25-25. And during those 50 games the Red Sox had outscored the Yankees by exactly two runs.
Game Six was played before 56,128 disappointed fans at Yankee Stadium. It will be remembered for Curt Schilling’s bloody sock and his gritty seven innings of shutout pitching, Mark Bellhorn’s controversial three-run homer that bounced back on the field after striking a fan in the first row in of the leftfield bleachers, and Alex Rodriguez’ playground trick of knocking the baseball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove.
Forty helmeted New York police officers surrounded the field as Keith Foulke set down the Yankees in the ninth inning for a 4-2 Red Sox win. It was not clear if the police presence was to protect the umpires or to protect the Yankee players from their disgruntled fans.
Any Game Seven is supposed to be filled with drama and the home team always holds a significant edge. But when Johnny Damon hit his second home run of the game to give the Red Sox an 8-1 lead in the fourth inning, it was clear that the Yankees were ready to surrender. The Red Sox completed the greatest comeback in sport’s history with a 10-3 victory, proving that Kevin Millar was indeed a prophet!
WORLD CHAMPION BOSTON RED SOX
After defeating the Yankees in four straight games, the Red Sox faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2004 World Series. Looking back, Trot Nixon, who batted .357 during the Red Sox sweep of St. Louis, says emphatically, “There was no way the Cardinals were going to beat us. There was no way anyone could have beaten us. We were unstoppable after we beat the Yankees.”
The Red Sox were unstoppable in Games One and Two at Fenway Park. An 8th inning, two-run home run by Mark Bellhorn gave the Red an 11-9 win in Game One. And Curt Schilling pitched six strong innings in Game Two, while Jason Varitek, Orlando Cabrera and Bellhorn each drove in two runs to give Boston a 6-2 victory. The club was headed to St. Louis needing two wins for their first World Championship in 86 years.
Matching up with the Cardinals had a special meaning to Red Sox third baseman Bill Mueller. Mueller, who grew up in a St. Louis suburb rooting for the Cardinals recalls, “It was really a big deal for me and my family to be playing in the World Series in St. Louis at Busch Stadium. It was very special for us,” he remembers. “And even though they are all Cardinal fans, I had a lot of old friends who were rooting for me to do well.”
And Bill Mueller did well indeed in Game Three. He scored in the fourth inning on a Trot Nixon single to put the Red Sox up 2-0, and his single in the fifth inning scored Cabrera to give Boston a 4-0 lead. Pedro Martinez pitched seven scoreless innings to earn the 4-1 win, and the Red Sox were only one win away from their World Championship.
Fittingly, Trot Nixon was the offensive hero of the Game Four victory with three doubles and two RBI. Nixon had been a first round draft choice of the Red Sox in 1993, and he had been part of the organization for longer than any other player on the 2004 Red Sox. Derek Lowe shut out the Cardinals for seven innings and he earned the 3-0 win to go along with his wins for the ALDS and ALCS deciding victories.
Looking back, Nixon recalls, “Winning that World Championship was my biggest thrill in baseball. To be able to stand as 25 brothers and an entire nation—Red Sox Nation—made it very special.”
And what was Trot thinking when the World Championship trophy was presented to the Boston Red Sox? “I thought about how the reporters had laughed and smirked at the press conference when I signed with the Red Sox and I said I wanted to help bring a championship to Boston. We were able to quiet that laughter with our World Series win.”
The World Championship was especially meaningful to St. Louis native Bill Mueller. Mueller, who hit .429 during the World Series, said, “It was so special, winning the World Championship in front of my family and friends. It was one of the top moments in my baseball career.”
And how about Kevin Millar who never stopped believing in the 2004 Boston Red Sox: what is his lasting memory of the 2004 Boston Red Sox season? “I would have to say my lasting memory is of the World Championship victory parade when one million Red Sox fans came out to celebrate with us.
“I said it then and I’ll say it again: Red Sox Nation is a family of Red Sox players and their fans,” Kevin says with strong emotion. “I will always remember that parade and the outpouring from our great fans.”