By Marshall Hook, Special to 985TheSportsHub.com
It was an unusually cool afternoon for late July when the Red Sox hosted the Yankees in the second of a three-game set in Fenway Park on July 24, 2004.
Sixty-five degrees was the temperature when Bernie Williams lifted a fly ball to centerfield off Bronson Arroyo’s first pitch of the game. You could argue these two teams were battling for the American League’s Eastern Division, but the Yankees were 9.5 games ahead of second place Boston. The Red Sox fandom were still certainly demoralized from the previous October.
Just the list of names tells you all you need to know: Jimy Williams, Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, and Aaron Boone. It mattered little that New York moved on to lose to the then-Florida Marlins. It was another gut-ripping postseason collapse for the Red Sox that summoned memories of Bill Buckner.
In that prior offseason, the Red Sox were poised to make a big power move by acquiring then-Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez in a series of deals which would have sent away both Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra (and a youngster named Jon Lester), but also netted slugging outfielder Magglio Ordonez. The trade was dependent on A-Rod agreeing to a restructuring of his contract to reduce his pay.
Rodriguez was willing, but the player’s union was not. The deal was scuttled. The following January, 2003 ALCS hero and incumbent New York third baseman Aaron Boone blew out his knee in a pick-up basketball game. The Yankees moved swiftly to make the trade for Rodriguez, requiring no change to his deal, and installed him at third base.
Thus Boston entered the 2004 season having essentially lost painfully to the Yankees twice, both thanks to Boone. Their lineup featured David Ortiz before he was Papi, Manny Ramirez, a steadily more disgruntled Nomar Garciaparra, and a group of unheralded guys like Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller. The Yankees had just added the reigning MVP and home run king to an already star-studded line-up.
This is when Larry Lucchino famously dubbed them the “Evil Empire.”
The season proceeded along expected lines. The Yankees had the best record in baseball on July 24, 2004, while the Red Sox were a half-game behind the White Sox for the Wild Card. Boston had lost seven of their last 11. New York had won four in a row and 10 of their last 13. Curt Schilling had gotten waxed the night before, but the team had managed to tie it before Keith Foulke blew it in the ninth when Rodriguez drove in what proved to be the game winning run. Everything was continuing to go the Yankees’ way and Boston had the look of a whiny little brother standing behind them.
Arroyo was opposed by the forgettable Tanyon Sturtze. The battle of fifth starters probably not a huge draw at the gate yet over 34,000 fans were there. New York was leading 2-nothing in the top of the third and had just added another run when Alex Rodriguez stepped to the plate. What happened next is the stuff of Boston sports legend.
A-Rod was hit on the elbow by Arroyo’s 1-1 pitch. He immediately stared back at the mound and started a slow walk towards first base that would never be completed. Boston catcher Jason Varitek was jawing back at Rodriguez while positioning himself between the slugger and his starter. The two only made it as far as the on-deck circle before Rodriguez turned his full attention to Varitek who, while officially just an inch shorter than him, looked dwarfed in the confrontation. You needn’t be an accomplished lip reader to decipher the invective A-Rod spit at Varitek three times over.
Rodriguez motioned for Varitek to come at him and Varitek obliged. The ensuing rumbled quickly cleared both benches and wasn’t just your typical baseball conversation. There was real anger and some actual violence involved. You can watch the video in about 400 different ways on YouTube but most people remember it for the iconic image that captured Varitek shoving his glove straight into Rodriguez’s face.
The aftermath included ejections for both Varitek and Rodriguez. The was plenty of scoring left in the game; six runs by New York in the top of the sixth were answered by four from Boston in the bottom. The second most memorable part of the game was Bill Mueller’s two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth. It came off a 3-1 pitch from immortal Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. A bellwether of what was to come in October?
Most fans will point to this fight as a turning point in the Red Sox season that, obviously, culminated in their first World Series title since 1918 and the death of the Curse of the Bambino. That, though, is a tad apocryphal. The team went 5-5 after this game and still finished the regular season behind New York. There was also the trade deadline deal that finally sent Nomar packing. They memorably were down 3-game-to-none to New York in the ALCS before storming back.
What is true is that it reenergized a Boston fan base that was continually beaten down by the mighty team and its fans to the south. They embraced, again, the team that had let them down so many times before. The squad had dubbed themselves “idiots” in the most positive of ways and the fans followed. While that magical season gets further in the rear view mirror – with other titles to follow – that image has never really faded.
Now a full 14 years later, the Red Sox and Yankees are again engaged in drive for the division. Only now it’s Boston that has won three World Series since that afternoon to the Yankees one. The Sox are the team with the best record in baseball while the Yankees bumbled their way to a loss last night and sit six games back. Boston has easily the largest payroll in the game, spending nearly $60-million more than that “Evil Empire.”
The Yankees will be back in Fenway next week for what could be a series very similar to, but also the opposite of, that one in 2004. New York once again acquired a reigning MVP and home run king in the offseason, but it’s Boston’s J.D. Martinez who is ultimately doing the most damage in 2018.
Will Gary Sanchez end up shoving his glove in Martinez’s face before a brawl breaks out? Probably not. But should it happen, Red Sox fans ought to stand aware of how that, just maybe, could change the course of history.
You can hear Marshall Hook on the air on various 98.5 The Sports Hub programs. Follow him on Twitter @MarshallHook.
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