An Oral History of the 1999 Red Sox, Part 2: The thrill of the chase
By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Part 2 of a 2-part series. Read Part 1 here.
Jimy Williams had to think outside the box again. After Red Sox closer Tom “Flash” Gordon went down with an elbow injury in June, the manager had to get creative to keep the bullpen rolling through the summer of 1999.
Enter Tim Wakefield, a 17-game winner as a starter the season before, who became the first knuckleballer since Charlie Hough in 1981 to record a Major League save.
Mirroring the 1995 season, when Wakefield magically rose from baseball purgatory to record wins in 14 of his first 15 decisions, the veteran locked down 14 of his first 15 save opportunities.
Jon Wallach: The knuckleballer as a closer – who does that?
Jerry Trupiano: The knuckleball pitcher as a closer wasn’t all that far-fetched – one of the best closers in the history of the game was Hoyt Wilhelm. It wasn’t as nerve-wracking as [former Boston closer] Heathcliff Slocumb.
Dan Duquette: There’s another guy who almost won 20 games as a starter. He’d do whatever it took to help the team. He had a real team-first attitude.
With the Sox scuffling a bit, it was the Jeff Frye’s turn to deliver a memorable moment, swatting a 3-2 pitch for a game-winning home run into the net above left field to beat the Twins after Darren Lewis had done the same thing the previous at-bat. The two combined for 43 home runs in over 2,000 Major League games, but lightning struck twice in the ninth inning on June 14th at Fenway. Frye followed that up with three hits the next night, but they’d come at a cost.
Jeff Frye: I remember it like it was yesterday. I had the walkoff home run and then the next day I legged out an infield hit and felt something pop in my knee. I wasn’t sure; I didn’t say anything. I came in the next day and my knee was hurting.
I’m sitting in the hot tub; Jimy comes in and goes, “Frito! Stupid manager! You’ve had seven hits the last two games and you’re not in the lineup tonight.” Jimy didn’t know about my knee. He just didn’t have me in the lineup. I told the trainer that I felt something and had it looked at. That was a trying time.
With the team’s presence at or near the top of the AL East, going toe-to-toe with the Yankees, the city buzzed. The All-Star Game at Fenway was right around the corner; Martinez tied Clemens’ team record for most wins before the break, and he was halfway to the mythical 30-win season.
Nomar had a 17-game hitting streak, and despite finishing third in a preseason Baseball America poll to determine the game’s best shortstop (behind Jeter and A-Rod), he got the starting nod at the Midsummer Classic over Jeter when Internet voting pushed him over the top.
1999 was the year “The Boston Teens” debuted on Saturday Night Live. More and more people were chatting about baseball on the Web, and now people could share content with Napster, an application launched in 1999 by a Northeastern student that quickly put the music industry on its ears.
“Off the top of the dome, here’s my first offering: MCs are slow on the defense like Offerman,” rapped Boston’s own Akrobatik, whose “Red Sox Freestyle” appeared on Napster around this time.
Akrobatik: It was recorded from the audience by a fan attending a live show I was doing at Bill’s Bar on Lansdowne Street.
The MC would go on to boast he’d “take your girl to third base like John Valentin,” warn the opposition that he’d “throw you on the disabled list like Nomar Garciaparra” – the shortstop was dealing with a hamstring issue – and cautioned, “Step out of place and I’ll catch you like Varitek.”
Akrobatik: Looking back, I would have to say that clip making it to the Internet must have had a lot to do with my “sports rap” niche that got me a ton of gigs over the years to come.
Do I still get feedback on it from fans? I would insert the famous meme here where [heavyweight boxing champion] Deontay Wilder snarls at an interviewer, “To this day!”
The Red Sox were the toast of the sports world on All-Star week, with baseball icon Ted Williams making a memorable appearance at Fenway and Martinez blowing away the competition. Garciaparra participated in the Home Run Derby and received a warm ovation from the home crowd at the game, while Offerman also appeared at his second midsummer showcase.
In his next start after the break, Martinez ceded nine runs, seven of them earned (or 16 percent of the total he allowed all year) to the Marlins in a start at home and wound up on the shelf with what was described as inflammation of the muscles around the rotator cuff. Time to worry.
Trupiano: Saberhagen was not the same. It was hard to expect them to pick up the slack. You knew the Yankees were loaded. So when Pedro went down, it was a great cause for concern.
Even rookie Trot Nixon’s three home runs at Tiger Stadium on July 24th couldn’t seem to get the Sox back into a groove, as they fell as far as eight games back in the East.
Kevin Appier, Scott Erickson and Chuck Finley were the rumored targets at the trade deadline, but only one of those pitchers (Appier, to the A’s) changed teams. Instead, Duquette chose to fortify an offense that ranked in the back half of the American League, nabbing Butch Huskey, a former Mets standout, from a middling Mariners team.
Huskey was brought in to mash lefties (he hit .301 against them in his career), and the utility man paid dividends from the jump, going 5-for-9 with two home runs (including a grand slam) and six RBI in his first two games, both wins in Toronto.
Duquette also injected Kent Mercker, Bryce Florie and Rod Beck into the pitching staff, and added veteran Lenny Webster as a parachute for Varitek behind the plate.
Duquette: Huskey gave us a right-handed power bat against left-handed pitching and we knew we were going to face some left-handers in the playoffs.
Rod Beck had some good success in the National League. He didn’t have the strength on his fastball, but still made a contribution. He was a great player.
Trupiano: Rod Beck – “Six Pack” – he was a trip. A good guy. Remember late in his career, when he lived in a trailer right near the ballpark?”
Perhaps foreshadowing the competition still to come, the Sox took two of three at Yankee Stadium to close out the month. John Valentin had a game-winning home run against the Bombers on July 31st.
Frye: I had a great respect for Val. He was a grinder, man. He was so obsessive about his at-bats that if he came up to you after the game, you weren’t getting out of your locker for another 30 minutes. You’d be standing there and he’s like, “OK, so my first at-bat, I had him set up 2-0 and he threw me a slider away…”
John Harrington: We fought George Steinbrenner and the Yankees tooth and nail – always with great respect – but we were competing with them on and off the field, trying to get ever so close to them.
In 25 years, from when free agency started, to the sale of the team in 2002, we had the second best record in all of baseball…second only to the Yankees.
With Martinez back to anchor the pitching staff, Daubach was a house afire, hitting .408 after the break with 10 homers in 16 games. He capped the run with a game-winning double off the Green Monster against Oakland, who were now nipping at Boston’s heels in the Wild Card chase. For his efforts, the rookie was named AL Player of the Week.
Brian Daubach: It was amazing. You didn’t have MLB Network. At the time, you just had SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight, and it seemed like I was on there a lot. To go through the ups and downs – that weekend was very special.
The first baseman’s spectacular rookie campaign would soon be commemorated with a t-shirt reading “Daubach Is My Daddy.”
Daubach: I know when my son was born, he had the shirt. I don’t know where it came from, but it was definitely something for a little bit there.
By the end of August, the Sox would lose Valentin to a knee injury, and it became clear that Saberhagen was laboring. The righty hit the injured list yet again.
Bret Saberhagen: I don’t really recall a specific moment where my shoulder blew up, but halfway through the season, I started pitching on painkillers. I think it was Darvocet that I was taking to get out there and pitch. It didn’t keep me alert. It was another great year, but toward the playoffs, my arm was torn up. I ended up tearing my supraspinatus again and after the season was over, they had to go back in and have the bone shaved down and have a couple anchors put in to reattach it.
With six wins in a row to close August, the Sox were doing more than just hanging in there. Martinez eclipsed 20 wins on Labor Day weekend and, despite the time off, was still lapping the competition for the AL Cy Young Award (with 313 strikeouts, he’d finish with 113 more than the next closest starter, Finley).
Wallach: Pedro struck out over 300 guys that year and maybe only one other guy on the entire staff had over 100 (Tim Wakefield had 104).
A sweep over the Yankees in the Bronx pulled Boston to within 3.5 games of first, as Martinez submitted yet another all-time performance, striking out 17 batters in a one-hitter on September 10th in the Bronx.
Tony Massarotti: The game Pedro pitched in New York was indisputably the greatest game I’ve ever seen pitched. Consider the quality of the competition. I’ve never see a pitcher toy with the opposition like that. It was riveting. They were cheering for him at Yankee Stadium.
The same road trip took the Sox to Seattle, Oakland and Cleveland. They kept winning. By mid-September, they’d won 20 of 25. But Garciaparra was nailed on the wrist by a pitch in a wild one against a going-nowhere Orioles club and sat all but one game the rest of the way.
Boston came away with the Wild Card for the second consecutive season, and would again meet the Cleveland Indians in the Division Series.
Wallach: How many Hall of Famers were on that roster?
Duquette: The Indians had a good team. We faced them in the playoffs in ’95 and ’98 and finally beat them in ’99.
In Game 1, Pedro couldn’t make it out of the fourth inning, leaving with a pulled lat muscle. The Sox dropped the contest in a bottom-of-the-ninth heartbreaker and were neatly dispatched, 11-1 in Game 2 to face a speedy 0-2 series deficit.
But with Nomar on the bench for Game 3 at Fenway, the offense got going.
Pat Bonner: Mo was gone. You weren’t waiting for him to come up to bat to save the game.
Dan Roche: I think of John Valentin. I remember going to the playoffs in Cleveland and (the Red Sox) had like three runs those first two games. Then they exploded for 44 runs over the final three games. The 23-7 win they had (in Game 4)…it seemed like Valentin had 12 home runs (he had three) in Game 3 and Game 4. He had been battling injuries. He was a good player here.
Duquette: We wouldn’t have beaten them if we didn’t have Pedro’s brother, Ramon.
Indeed, the elder Martinez had pitched effectively into the sixth inning of Game 3 before the Boston bats exploded for six runs in the seventh, and then an incredible 23 the following day. With the series unfathomably tied at two games apiece, the Sox charged into Cleveland for Game 5.
Saberhagen got the nod but was ineffective. Lowe replaced him in the second inning and yielded three more runs. The two teams plated a combined 15 runners over the first three frames. With his back against the wall, Williams summoned the previously injured Martinez from the bullpen. What followed could only be summed up with a Seinfeld reference.
Josh Wilker (as told to The Replacement Players podcast): The score is tied and it could still go either way. Manny’s on first, Thome’s up – he’d hit two monstrous home runs and is just like this ferocious figure to that point. Pedro goes down 3-0 to him, so he’s in trouble.
On that 3-0 pitch he throws a 93 mph fastball on the outside corner – just a Pedro laser. To that point he hadn’t really thrown a pitch that fast. So he was feeling out what he was capable of, and when he got to that point he was like, “OK, it’s now or never. I’ve got to throw this pitch.”
There’s a Seinfeld episode where the Costanzas turn George’s bedroom into a rec room with a pool table in there. It’s a very small room – Kramer and George’s father are trying to play pool in there and they can’t because it’s too small. They’re like bashing the wall every time they move their pool cue back, and it’s kind of like the first few innings of this game – it’s a fiasco.
The character, “The Maestro” shows up, and he’s this dude who’s a maestro, you know, he conducts orchestras, and he drops off his little baton, and Kramer picks it up and this is the tool that he needs in this short space. He knocks in the first ball, and he’s like “This table’s mine.”
When Pedro found that he had that fastball and could paint the corner against Jim Thome with it, he’s like “This table’s mine.” After that pitch, he comes in with this killer Pedro breaking ball for a called strike.
With the count at 3-2, Pedro rears back and blows a swinging Thome away.
Wilker: The ball goes to the backstop, but the key factor is that pitch is so unhittable, it’s uncatchable. It’s this inside corner fastball that Thome can’t hit, Varitek can’t catch, and he’s out of the jam. At that moment, Pedro realizes – not only does he have all these pitches, but he’s also got his fastball. The table was his.
Trupiano: He wasn’t a big guy – he’s a guy Tommy Lasorda said wasn’t going to make it as a starter because of his build. But like the old cliche, you can’t measure a guy’s heart. Just going by a guy’s determination, I’d put Pedro among the very best. I’m talking guys like Gibson, Marichal, Drysdale, Schilling…
Daubach: That game was back and forth for the first three innings and then Pedro, who wasn’t even supposed to pitch, comes out of the ‘pen and throws six no-hit innings. Then you really start believing. Cleveland had a powerhouse lineup – they didn’t have the pitching that the Yankees did at the time but their lineup was unbelievable. To come back from down 0-2 against those guys really made us believe we had a shot.
Boston prevailed 12-8 to take the series. Following Valentin’s lead, O’Leary had a signature offensive performance in Game 5.
Duquette: That was a great thrill. A grand slam and a three-run homer in a clinching game.
Roche: He had the career year (28 home runs, 103 RBI) and then that grand slam you’ll never forget in Game 5. Along with Pedro’s performance.
Martinez broke the spirit of Cleveland sports fans that evening.
Wilker: [The TV broadcast shows] these guys at the beginning of the game when everybody’s excited, a couple dudes with their Indians jerseys on, and they’ve got full face paint, of a morally dubious nature. Just think of those guys glumly walking through their neighborhood after the game. It’s brutal.
As TV sets clicked off and the autumn night advanced across my deserted hometown of East Dennis, Mass., and throughout New England, fans went to bed thrilled with Boston’s first postseason series win since 1986. So were the players.
Trupiano: When the Astros won [the division] in ’86, I flew two hours on the team charter in champagne soaked clothes. So I learned my lesson.
For Game 5 against Cleveland, I was prepared to close them out. That morning, before the game, I went to a sporting goods store and bought black sweats and a sweatshirt, just in case.
They got a good lead, so I changed clothes in the back to the booth to my celebration outfit – black sweatshirt, black sweatpants. We knew we’d be going to New York for the next series, so I had dry clothes for the plane.
Roche: I’ll never forget that locker room. I’ve never seen Pedro as happy as he was that night. Pedro was yelling at [longtime reporter] Jonny Miller, “There’s a rumor you’re getting married, Jonny – I’m buying the ring!” He was so proud of what he was able to do, despite the injury.
It’s one of the greatest postgame feelings I’ve ever felt in the clubhouse.
Waiting for the Sox in the ALCS were the 98-win, defending World Series champion Yankees who, despite losing some dramatic one-on-one matchups, kept the Sox at arm’s length, as they had most of the previous 80 summers.
Roche: The sobering thought was, “Uh oh. You wish you could have [Pedro] start Game 1, 4, and 7.” So now, you were starting off the Yankees series and had to wait for Pedro’s turn. They didn’t have the pitching to go up against the Yankees.
Glenn Stout: You always have a chance in a short series. In a short series, Pedro gets to pitch twice. If you got lucky in another couple of games, guess what, you won!
Brian Rose: The Yankees were stacked – how many Hall of Famers did they have in that lineup?
Midseason reinforcements Mercker and Ramon Martinez pitched effectively in the first two contests, but the Yankees got through to the Boston bullpen in each, with Bernie Williams hitting a walkoff homer in the 10th inning of Game 1.
Daubach: We had two winnable games in Game 1 and 2. If we win either of those, the series is a whole lot different. We had leads going to the bottom of the seventh in both of those games and couldn’t hold on.
Duquette: Giving up the home run in extra innings really cost us. Our bullpen needed to be stronger if we wanted to win the pennant.
Game 3 saw the series return to Fenway, with Martinez on the mound, to be opposed by former Red Sox ace Roger Clemens.
Bonner: The Herald ran a “Brawl in Beantown” fight night style promo on the back page that I still have framed. I loved Roger Clemens. I loved what he could do with a baseball and a bad attitude. But the ’99 Sox – I loved that team. They lit him up. It was the only game they won that series; the last game they won that year.
Daubach: Everything was “all-century” that season. Pedro vs. Clemens was like the all-century pitching matchup.
That was a wild atmosphere. The place was jammed. The crowd was intense. I think it was in the middle of my at-bat, in the third inning, when they took out Clemens. Roger owned me. I didn’t get a hit off him until later in my career. That year, I hadn’t had any success. I hit a ball down the left field line, squared it up, hit it hard, but it was well foul. Joe Torre was probably buying time, but he took him out after the first hard-hit foul ball. The fans were chanting and it seemed like it lasted until the end of the game. It was just really loud and we kept pouring it on.
Wallach: We were chanting “Roger, Roger.” In typical Clemens fashion, he blamed it on an injury. It wasn’t, “The Red Sox beat me.” Some injury prohibited him from pitching well. We just knew that Pedro was much better. So then we started chanting, “Where is Roger?”
With Clemens headed for the showers, Daubach promptly smashed a two-run homer off reliever Hideki Irabu.
Daubach: We won that game 13-1. Pedro did his thing. You look back and it’s like, “Man, we could’ve spread out those runs a little bit more to help all of the pitchers.” Instead of scoring all those runs for Pedro.
Wallach: Game 4, Sox fans started chanting “Andy, Andy,” but Pettitte was twice the gamer Clemens was in the playoffs and he just shrugged that off.
Saberhagen started Game 4 and put the Sox in position to tie the series, twirling six innings, giving up five hits and three runs, just one of them earned.
Saberhagen: As a baseball player, you do what you can and give ‘em as many as you can. Nowadays it’s changed where they’ve got everybody on a real short leash. I think the Yankees motivate anybody to be at your best. I was glad that I could do a little bit, but in the back of my mind, I felt like my last few times in the postseason I wasn’t completely healthy.
Roche: The one thing I wish that they had was a healthy Saberhagen. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was one of the best you’d see in the history of the game. At the end of the year, you’d look at him in the training room and over the course of an hour you’d just hear, “Does this feel good, does this feel good?” Almost as if they were trying to lock his shoulder into a place where it didn’t fall off.
Saberhagen: When you can’t do something you’re accustomed to doing, and you go out there and you try to do it but you’re not 100 percent, you still give it 100 percent, but you wish that you had more to give for the fans or your teammates or the organization.
The game came unhinged in the eighth inning, when Offerman was called out on the basepaths by umpire Tim Tschida on a Chuck Knoblauch tag attempt that appeared to get nothing but air. Williams was tossed in the ninth arguing a call at first, and the fans rained bottles and cans onto the field in disgust.
Trupiano: I hate criticizing umpires or officials. I think he missed the tag. I don’t know if you make that call at that time.
Daubach: I think everybody’s seen replay enough that they have their own opinion.
Rose: Maybe things would’ve changed if they had instant replay way back when. There were a couple of questionable calls that could’ve gone the other way. It would’ve made things interesting.
The Sox were down, three games to one, for Game 5 at Fenway.
Adam 12: After the Pedro performance in the ALDS, everything was electrified. Even though they were down against the Yankees, there was still the feeling of, “What if they pull it off,” or, “Who’s going to be the hero this time around?”
Obviously, it winds up being a crushing defeat. They lose, the series is over. They’re not going to the World Series.
My enduring memory is leaving the ballpark and being surrounded by Yankees fans. They’d taken the ballpark over. We stayed the whole game and by the time we left, a lot of other people had left already. I’m leaving the ballpark, trying to keep my head down and getting heckled and yelled at. On the T as well; there were Yankees fans everywhere and they were in the face of Red Sox fans. Trying to pick fights and just getting on everybody.
That kind of lead-up through the season – the All-Star game, Pedro’s 23-4 season, all the offensive fireworks with O’Leary and Garciaparra. Having it all that lead up to that – I was like, “Damn it, I’m such a fool. I bought into it again. What the hell is wrong with me?”
It was part of the mentality that Red Sox fans carried with them for generations: Root for them, like them, but don’t get too attached, because you know how this is going to end. They’re going to break your heart.
Harrington: It was a good year all-around, except for the end.
Duquette: A disappointing end to the season but a terrific season. The organization had a lot of work to do to compete against the Yankees, and we took a big step in ‘99. We were knocking on the door, and then eventually the team had another couple of opportunities and ultimately won the World Series. But ‘99 was a step in the right direction.
A lot of baseball is about creating memories for people and that year, with the All-Star Game, was a thrill for everyone who was involved with it.
Daubach: The whole ‘99 season to me was just surreal and I felt like I was living a dream. I wish it would’ve turned out better, but it was really cool to be there.
It was my rookie year and I’m going, “Are you serious?” Nomar’s winning back-to-back batting titles, the first right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio. Pedro’s doing his thing. We had a bunch of grinders, but we believed in each other. It was really a step toward the ’04 team.
Roche: They were the bridge to those 2003-2004 teams. You look at Varitek and Nixon. That Duquette trade was probably one of the greatest in baseball history. Heathcliff Slocumb “If You Got ‘Em” for Varitek and Lowe. You never see something like that in terms of getting two quality young guys…it was like Parish and McHale, with Red Auerbach doing the Joe Barry Carroll trade.
Massarotti: If you look at the moves that he made, a lot of those guys were foundational pieces to the team that won the championship in 2004. He made some mistakes; he wasn’t perfect, but if you look at that championship team: Pedro, Varitek, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez – they were all Duquette guys.
Saberhagen: I was so ecstatic in 2004, but I was so envious because I know how that had to feel for the fans. It was a dream come true. To go on and get to a few more postseasons, win a few more championships – now, they’re expecting it. It’s tough to get to the postseason and even tougher to win the championship.
I would’ve loved to be a part of a championship in Boston.
Adam 12: It was a team that had personality that you kind of fell in love with. And you take it and put it in the middle of the season where you have the All-Star Game at Fenway Park, the moment with Ted Williams, Pedro striking out five of the six guys he faced. It was such a magical season. It kind of swept me back up in it again. And it got me back to where I was when I was nine years old like, “This team could win the World Series again, this is awesome.”
Bonner: God, I loved that team.
Stout wrote in Red Sox Century that the 1999 club “won more than they had any right to,” and that Williams lived by the principles of going with the hot hand, platooning, and hoping for the best. It is at once a blunt assessment and a way of preparing the reader for the end result.
But what the ’99 team lacked in hardware, they made up for in wonderful intangibles.
They introduced a generation of fans to a level of success with which they were previously unfamiliar. Even if it meant winning just a single round in the postseason, a slew of tremendous performances were baked into that recipe. And if this exercise was cause to scratch at old wounds, it’s inevitably a reflection of a flickering commitment to a 20-year old fever dream where the Sox pushed past the Yankees and finally won it all.
It didn’t happen in ’99. It would happen five years later. But there’s a thrill in the chase, and the 1999 Boston Red Sox season was definitely a thrill.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.