The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Marlins Slighted, Yankees and Red Sox remain over-hyped

The plan for today was to hand out The Book of Mike’s official mid-season awards. However, last night’s introduction to the Home Run Derby got me fired up about something completely different, so that’s what I’ll be ranting about today.

To warm up for last night’s festivities, ESPN showed some of (in their eyes) the greatest home runs of all time. On Sportscenter later there was even a top ten list. The list was pretty much what you’d expect: Carlton Fisk’s home run to win game 6 of the 1975 World Series for the Red Sox, limping Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run off of Cy Young Winner Dennis Eckersly to win game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Bill Mazeroski’s shot to win the Series for the Pirates, and Bobby Thompson’s shot heard round the World. Other lesser known dingers also made the list, such as: Kirby Puckett’s game winning home run in game 6 of the 1987 World Series, Joe Carter’s walk-off home run in the 1993 Series against the Phillies, and Bucky Dent’s homer into the net above the Green Monster which won a one game playoff for the Yankees.

What was left off the list completely – not even shown in the montage of decisive home runs in meaningful games – was a recent homer that changed the course of one team’s World Series fate. It was a walk-off, game ending home run hit by a lesser-known player in extra innings. For some reason though, it’s not even as well known as a similar shot hit a round earlier in last year’s playoffs – Aaron Boone’s dramatic blast to win the ALCS against the Red Sox last year.

Of course the forgotten home run is Alex Gonzalez’s line drive blast in the twelfth inning of game four of the 2003 World Series. This game lacked for nothing in terms of drama. More than 65,000 fans were on hand on a balmy night at Pro Player Stadium. Future Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest pitcher of all-time (or the modern era) Roger Clemens was slated to make his last start in the Major Leagues for the Yankees (although that later changed, as Clemens will start for the National League in tonight’s All-Star Game). The Yankees entered the game with a two games to one series lead, and a win in game four would nearly cement a series victory for the New Yorkers.

The unexpected came from Marlins starter Carl Pavano, who pitched a gem of a game (8 innings, 1 earned run, 0 walks). Pavano’s performance bettered Clemens (who went 7 innings and allowed 3 earned runs), and appeared to position the Fish to even up the series at two games apiece. However, in the 9th, it appeared that Pavano’s mastery might be lost forever (and maybe it has been anyway) when the normally solid Ugeth Urbina entered the game for the Marlins in the 9th and squandered the lead by allowing a two-run triple to Ruben Sierra (a triple to Ruben Sierra!). Even before these late inning dramatics, baseball fans everywhere knew that they would remember this game for a long time, if only because most felt that it was to be the Rocket’s last appearance in a Major League game, because of the flashbulbs that pulsed on every potential last pitch from the Rocket, and the standing ovation from the fans and players when the Rocket came off the field after the seventh and it was clear to everyone that he would not return.

But the real drama was still to come. By this point most everyone knew that the Yankees, winners of four of the previous seven World Series titles, had not lost an extra inning World Series game since 1964 (well before any current Marlin player was born – heck, before having a Major League Baseball team in Florida was even conceived of). To all in attendance (myself included) it appeared that Pavano’s mastery and the Fish’s early lead was just part of the storyline. You know how it goes: Yankees face adversity, Yankees continue to struggle, Yankees fight back and win. Everyone expected to go home that night with the Yankees having taken a commanding three games to one lead over the Marlins.

However, after failing to score in the tenth, the Yankees loaded the bases with one-out in the eleventh inning – and were still somehow unable to score. The Marlins’ Braden Looper continued to hold the Yankees scoreless in the 12th, which brought the Marlins to the plate in the bottom half of the inning with a chance to win the game. Contrary to popular wisdom (even amongst Marlins fans), Yankees manager Joe Torre left enigmatic pitcher Jeff Weaver in the game for a second inning to start the twelfth.

Weaver did not enter the game with anywhere near the pedigree of Yankees starter Roger Clemens, but no one does. He also wasn’t fit for the role of Dennis Eckersley, then of the Oakland A’s, as the closer brought in to wrap up a game that was well in hand for his club. A mid-season acquisition for the Yanks, Weaver was a talented youngster who just hadn’t been able to put it together in New York. Torre was giving him a chance for redemption now though. And with the Marlins sending slick-fielding shortstop Alex Gonzalez to the plate (a man who was barely batting .100 in the post-season at that point), it seemed like a pretty safe gamble.

But it wasn’t. Gonzalez quickly stepped in an promptly lined a pitch from Weaver down the left field line. Although I haven’t seen the replay recently, I recall having two initial thoughts when it happened: one, I hope that ball gets up a little more – so that it isn’t caught, and two, I hope it stays fair if it’s going where I think it’s going. Gonzalez’s blast did stay fair, and it did keep climbing. The ball nearly struck the Marlins banner for their 1997 World Series Championship, meaning that it had cleared the fence and signaled a win for the Marlins in the game. A walk-off home run from the most likely source to win a World Series game and swing the momentum in the Series 180 degrees. From that point forward the Fish never looked back – easily taking game five at home and game six on the road to claim their second world title in six years.

Somehow though that home run is relatively forgotten, even though it is less than one year away. In many ways, it’s similar to the Red Sox Carlton Fisk’s dramatic game six home run in the 1975 World Series. Both homers were of the walk-off, extra inning variety and caused huge momentum swings for their clubs. Fisk’s home run had the advantage of coming later in the series. Fisk was also a star before he hit that ball and his dramatic dance down the first base line surely helped to cement the blast in everyone’s mind.

More likely though the reason that we remember one home run more than another is the uniform that was being worn when the homer was hit. Fisk’s home run is part of Red Sox nation lore. The Red Sox set up their fans for the end of the curse, only to come back in game seven and lose to the Big Red Machine. That last part – that the Sox lost the Series – is almost always forgotten. Sure, it won the game, but that was about it for the Sox. It delayed the end of their season by one game.

Gonzalez’s home run, hit in a jersey trimmed in teal, turned around the Marlins fortunes in the series. Instead of looking at a three games to one deficit, the Marlins were now even at two games apiece. This huge swing is lost on most fans though. Marlins fans will remember it with the same reverence that Red Sox fans recall Fisk’s homer, or that Yankees fans hold for Bucky Dent’s blast, or that Dodgers’ fans hold for Gibson’s pinch-hit drama against the best pitcher in the game at the time.

It’s a shame though. If it doesn’t happen in New York (for the Yankees, Mets, Giants, or Dodgers - even Babe Ruth's famed called shot, which has in recent years been proven on film to have not taken place, still lives on as one of baseball's greatest feats), in Boston (for Peter Gammons and the rest of Red Sox Nation), or sometimes in other major media markets (like Chicago – Cubs only – or Los Angeles), it doesn’t seem to count. That’s a shame. One South Florida example struck a chord with me. I’m sure there are plenty of others in places like Kansas City (where only a home run that was taken away because of Yankee protests is nationally remembered), Cleveland and Seattle. The world has become a much more globalized place with information available instantaneously everywhere. Hopefully some of us can start to use that to recognize achievements – in life and in sport – that occur outside of the New York metropolitan area (which apparently includes Bristol, Connecticut).


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