Thursday, September 12, 2013

Being eight again.

I'll start talking about the present again tomorrow. But tonight, permit me to reminisce.

In the weeks after 9/11, baseball helped the nation regroup in the midst of evil thousands of miles away. Mike Piazza hit one of the most dramatic home-runs in Mets history, and they played "New York, New York" in Boston, just as the Yankees played "Sweet Caroline" last April after the Boston bombings.

Things were also back to normal with the fact that the Yankees won their fourth straight AL pennant, beating the 116-win Seattle Mariners in five games. When they went to the desert for games one and two, the momentum was on their side. Then Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson shut down the pinstriped guard while the Diamondbacks outscored them 13-1. The only highlight in those two games was Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful."

Everything changed when they went back to 161st and River. Derek Jeter boldly challenged former Texas Rnagers co-owner George Bush to throw the first pitch from the mound, "But don't bounce it, they'll boo ya." President Bush walked out to the mound in his FDNY jacket, gave a thumbs up amidst chants of "USA, USA, USA!" and threw a perfect strike to the plate. Roger Clemens out-dueled Brian Anderson 2-1 in game three. Bob Brenly rolled the dice and started Schilling on two days rest against El Duque. Shane Spencer and Mark Grace each hit solo shots and the two teams took a 1-1 tie into the eighth. The Yankee bullpen imploded and Alfonso Soriano made a terrible throw home as the cutoff man, allowing Arizona two runs.

Then, walking out to the mound, was a young Korean who not many fans outside the NL West had heard of, Byung-Hyun Kim. In 1999, the D-Backs signed the 20-year-old Kim as a free agent prospect.  By this point, he had taken over Matt Mantei's spot in the closer role and racked up 19 saves with a 2.94 ERA that summer. In the bottom of the eighth, Kim struck out Spencer, Scott Brosius and Soriano in order. One inning later, Paul O'Neill slapped a single into left with one out, Bernie Williams struck out and up stepped Tino Martinez.

At 33, Tino was still hitting .280 in the regular season with 10 RBI against Oakland and Seattle in the playoffs, but was having an AWFUL World Series: 0-for-9. Stepping up against Kim with the submarine arm, Martinez connected on the fastball. Back drifted center-fielder Steve Finley, one of the best defensive outfielders in the National League at that time, all the way to the wall. Just like Todd Pratt's NLDS-winning home run in '99, the ball barely cleared Finley's glove and the wall--tie game.

There was nothing, NOTHING, like the old stadium during a big comeback; imagine the place last week when the Yankees scored all those runs against the Sawx? One inning later, the clock struck midnight on the game...and the Diamondbacks. Jeter stepped up with two outs in the tenth, at 12:01 on November 1st, the first November game ever played (now we have them every year!) After fouling off a bunch of pitches, Jeter became Mr. November by flaring a high line-drive into the right-field stands for a 4-3 win.

Series tied...2-2. Now Mike Mussina vs. Miguel Batista in Game Five. Steve Finley and Rod Barajas each hit homers in the fifth...and took the 2-0 lead to the ninth. Once again, a two-run lead. Once again, Kim on the mound; and with Posada on second with two out, once again, the tying run, Scott Brosius, was at the plate. He connected on a fastball and sent it soaring. It was almost the perfect swing; you couldn't even tell where the ball landed in the sea of hands in the left-field seats. In the words of Yogi, "Deja vu all over again!" Only in the old Yankee Stadium folks. Oh, and it ended with a win; it just took a little longer than the night before. Soriano singled to right to score CHUCK KNOBLAUCH from second. Don't forget, he had taken a big dive in value and popularity when he couldn't throw to first anymore; that's why they played him at DH so often.

It's so rare that you'd have three straight classic World Series games. Maybe games 3-5 in Atlanta could count (Coney, Leyritz and the Andy/Smoltz duel); but three heartstopping, emotional games, under the circumstances of a horrible foreign attack and the start of a war? In the cathedral of baseball?

Speaking of Andy, he had probably the worst World Series performance of his career, getting out- pitched by Randy Johnson twice in Arizona, 4-0 and 15-2 in games two and six, respectively. So now one more showdown at the OK Corral. It would be Schill against the Rocket in Game Seven. They matched zeroes for five innings. In the sixth, Danny Bautista doubled home Steve Finley before being thrown out at third (great relay by Jeter and a beautiful catch-and-tag by Brosius.) The Yankees tied it in the seventh, and then Soriano, AGAIN, hit a long shot to left to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead. (Arizona, if you remember, is one of the deepest parks in baseball.)

Just like Eli Manning with two minutes and the ball, everyone knew when Mariano came on in the ninth, up a run, with 50 saves that year, and the bottom of the order up, that it was over. Instead Bob Brenly painted a masterpiece. No bombs, no flair, just old school National League baseball.

Mark Grace singled. David Dellucci pinch-ran, went to steal second on the bunt by Damian Miller and got in on Mariano's bad throw. Jay Bell grounded back to Mo, who threw the runner out at third, and then Brosius almost got the double play to first.

Now two on, one out. A ground ball would've won it. Instead Tony Womack doubled home the tying run and sent Bell to third. Craig Counsell (who homered in Game One and then did absolutely nothing the rest of the series) was hit. Bases loaded, one out, for Luis Gonzalez (whose 57-homer year was average compared to Barry Bonds.) Again, get the double play, go to the 10th. But, probably in an effort to throw the runner out at home, Joe Torre pulled the infield in on the grass. Then this happened.

Yeah, if Jeter was playing at normal depth, it would've been a pop-out. Then who knows? Maybe Matt Williams gets caught looking at an inside cutter and we got to the 10th, or he singles and Arizona wins anyway. You can shoulda, coulda, woulda for 12 years, it doesn't matter. It still stings all us Yankee fans; a fourth straight series was within reach. Maybe Tino and Scotty stay around for an extra year; try to win another. Soriano would've been BY FAR the MVP, with what would've been two game-winning hits in the series. Maybe his value soars, if it hadn't already, and the Yankees never trade him. History happens for a reason, and for whatever reason...we got stuck with A-Rod.

There was never a World Series quite like that. It was a Shakespearean tragedy on the diamond. You had the favorite also play an underdog role; everybody's team. For once, EVERYONE outside of Arizona was rooting for the Yankees. The Yankees represented the country coming together and getting up from its knees. They played baseball while the first bombs were going off in Afghanistan, while smoke still billowed out of the remains of the World Trade Center, while they were still trying to find people. They played baseball while America feared the worst; a dirty bomb, anthrax, another attack. They played baseball, and America tuned in now more than ever, for it was a welcome distraction.

There was never another World Series quite like that, with so much going on the field and off it. In the midst of a two-run deficit in the ninth in Game Five, the Yankee fans stood up and saluted their right-fielder for nine seasons of hustling, knocking down coolers, competing and playing his ass off. He was a Pete Rose type; he'd play hard for one dollar or one million dollars; gotta love those Ohioans.

Everything changed after that season. The tightest Yankee group of all-time disbanded. I don't know if we'll ever see the same scrappy, hard-nose toughness and chemistry in pinstripes again. Yes, this was long, but this was the only way this story could've been told. It's no longer the 11th, it's September 12th at 12:42 am. I thought I'd bring everyone back to being eight years old again. These last few weeks, with how the Yankees are rebounding in Baltimore, could be, as Vin Scully put it, "one last day of summer." Those were the most fun three games in my home-away-from-home I can recall.

Two defining childhood memories were on top of the Twin Towers with my dad, twice. I'll never forget. By the way, that series ended on November 4th. Eight years later to the day, the Yankees won the 2009 World Series. Yes Curt, there is mystique and aura.

Neil Dwyer @neildwyer1993

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Sorry for the Capatcha... Blame the Russians :)