MLB General

Legends of the Fall: Part I of V

Sports couldn’t exist without opposing forces. Here is the story of two teams destined for no greater glory than to define each other. Here is one legend of the fall, among many others. In a time of ultimate apprehension, this beautifully arching blast was never a doubt, right off the bat.

Aaron Boone raises his arms in disbelief, a hero of fate and circumstance.

Tim Wakefield traces from the mound, resigned, his head tilted downward, wounded but not slain. He’ll rise to fight again.

The Yankees are delirious, relief and disbelief exploding into unbridled joy.

A battle had been waged between the two rivals, legendary, revolting, riveting.

It had bought out their best. It had bought out their worst.

This is the journey, of two teams, and the people who formed them.  


There was a new sheriff in town, ready to rock the establishment. Armed with new age statistics and a progressive mindset, Theo Epstein entered his post as general manager of the Boston Red Sox with complete confidence in his convictions. He implanted a new organizational strategy, vowing to replenish and protect the farm system, creativity backed by ingenuity.

 The Red Sox had squeezed 93 wins out of their 2002 season. They possessed an extremely talented, yet fundamentally flawed roster. Epstein sought to iron out the nagging deficiencies that had doomed his predecessor, Dan Duqutte. Depth became a priority.  

 With this in mind, in the winter of 2003, Theo inauspiciously signed third baseman Billy Mueller, an excellent glove man, and David Ortiz, a lumbering designated hitter, to complement his starting nine.

 The impact of these two signings would reverberate years after their announcement, especially in the season ahead.

 Renewal was in the year at Yawkey Way.


 By the time the 2002 New York Yankees had seen their end, under an avalanche of Anaheim Angel hits in the American League Division Series, their fan base had already averted sight from the October nightmare, eyes trained toward 2003.

2002 had been a long, strange trip.

 There was a new offensive style, driven by the home run, death on the dredges, susceptible to excellence.

There was the puzzling trade for Raul Mondesi, a sulking master leading the league in unrealized potential.

There was the questionable acquisition of Jeff Weaver, who became a gopher ball machine upon his arrival into the Yankee rotation. Weaver, 25, was expected to be an anchor, present and future. Instead, by the end of the season, he had degenerated into an enigma. The team had to commit to Weaver for 2003, despite his shaky showing in Pinstripes, in the simple interest of organizational continuity. They had callously included steady, homegrown lefty Ted Lilly as a key piece in the Weaver trade, and needed to justify what had become a potential misfire orchestrated by General Manager Brian Cashman.

And finally, there was the decided shift in the team’s overall philosophy. Winning smart was no longer on the agenda, shoved aside, taking logic along for the ride.

Desperation overwhelmed the Yankees, bought on by both Steinbrenner’s renewed meddling, and the team’s gluttonous payroll, burgeoning by the year.

Obtaining a championship used to be a goal. Watching winning baseball used to be a privilege, something to savor.

Now, it became a right.

The change was apparent in the players, the fans, and the front office.

 Considering these variables, the Yankees’ off-season was relatively serene. In this hot stove campaign, internal strife wouldn’t yet provide debilitating turbulence. The franchise would be drawn, unified, into a bidding war, for the services of Cuban pitching legend Jose Contreras.

 The organization’s primary opposition in the Contreras sweepstakes would become fatefully familiar, throughout the life of a season just over the horizon.  


The tabloids had a field day.

Urban legend became readily accepted fact.

Whispers that the Red Sox hierarchy had bought out every room of the Nicaraguan hotel holding Contreras, nasty rumors that Theo Epstein had ripped a chair to pieces upon learning of Jose’s definitive decision to spurn Boston, it was all so ridiculous, yet, so utterly plausible.

This was Yankees-Red Sox, after all.

The rivalry, which had cooled in the early nineties, had been undeniably renewed.

 In 1999, a tenacious Red Sox team fell to the dynastic Yankees in a hotly contested five game American League Championship Series.  

 Certain series snippets offered a glimpse toward the frenzied future to come.

Bernie Williams sealing a dramatic Yankee victory in Game One with a walk off homer, Roger Clemens receiving vicious reprisal from the Fenway faithful during a Game Three flogging, these moments sparked pure, uninhabited emotion.


By the end of 2002, second place had become hell for the Red Sox.

They needed to make a statement.

They needed Contreras.

And the Yankees stole him from their grasp.


 The venom spewed. Boston Team President Larry Lucchino flippantly commented that the Evil Empire had “extended [their] tentacles into South America.”

 The comment would generate hot ink for a couple of cold winter weeks, as the stakes underlining 2003 grew higher.


 Meanwhile, the Yankees newly minted prize wouldn’t even take the fifth.

 Contreras was expected to mop the floor with Jeff Weaver in Spring Training, safely securing the final spot in a loaded rotation.  

Instead, a resurgent Weaver demolished Contreras in the open competition. Jose seemed nervous in his exhibition performances, displaying erratic control, utilizing questionable mechanics.

 All of the sudden, Contreras had become a question mark.

Soon enough, he’d be a source of acrimony, further splintering a fractionalized front office.

 Joe Torre and Brian Cashman were in favor of sending the wayward ace down to Triple A, where he could polish his game in live competition.  

 And, just as the decision appeared final, George Steinbrenner interceded, infuriating Torre, but more importantly, undermining him, in sending Contreras to work personally with Tampa Pitching guru Billy Connors, a noted Boss lackey.

 Contreras never found a place with the Yankees in 2003, despite his excellent statistics. He struggled with the implantation of a new arm angle, and with his maddening shift from the rotation to the bullpen. Being separated from his family, still in Cuba, was a severe emotional detriment, draining the passion from the Yankees’ latest investment.  


The Red Sox’s regular season was marked equally, by devastating defeat and unbelievable recuperation. Every so often, these Sox would appear to suffer a deathblow, often an unbearable blown save by an unreliable bullpen, only to press on, time after time.  

 This unrelenting resilience was attributable to the increased level of camaraderie shared within the locker room. Exceedingly boisterous first baseman Kevin Millar provided levity and leadership. Millar’s irrepressible presence allowed mercurial stars Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez to focus completely on mashing in the middle of the Sox’s potent lineup, which they ably did.

 Also radically altering the Sox’s composition was the stunning output produced by Bill Mueller and David Ortiz, projected bench players who became lethal in 2003.

Ortiz had his long swing retooled by hitting coach Ron Jackson, who sculpted the massive designated hitter into a force. After riding the pine for much of the first half, as Shea Hillenbrand, Bill Mueller, and Jeremy Giambi tussled for playing time, Ortiz was finally given his shot after the dismissal of Hillenbrand, whose low on base percentage was never a fit with Epstein’s vision.

 Ortiz flourished in the second half, finishing the season with 31 homers. Bill Mueller, his slashing hitting style perfectly suited to Fenway Park, would corral a batting title, barely outlasting a recuperated Derek Jeter in the season’s final week.    

The Red Sox lineup was loaded. Their starting pitching was suspect.

 Behind ace extraordinaire Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield enjoyed his best season in years, but Derek Lowe, a 20 game winner in 2002, appeared overwhelmed by high expectations. He often responded belligerently to inquisitive reporters after rough starts, patronizing them with acidic sarcasm.  

 At the back end, the aging John Burkett provided innings and gutted out wins, but couldn’t be counted on as anything more than a number five starter. With this in mind, Epstein made what was, in retrospect, an overly aggressive move, swapping promising third baseman Freddy Sanchez for Pittsburgh Pirate right-hander Jeff Suppan, the top starter on a thin trade market. At the time, the move was considered a worthy gambit, a message to the Yankees.

 Epstein had already strengthened the team’s weak link, a lackluster bullpen, by outmaneuvering the Yankees for lefty reliever Scott Sauerbeck, and acquiring former rookie of the year Scott Williamson. In exchange for the deposed Hillenbrand, Epstein gambled on Arizona Diamondback closer B.K. Kim.  

  The wheeling and dealing would not pay immediate dividends in the regular season. Mirroring Suppan, both Williamson and Sauerbeck struggled. And Kim was never truly given a clean slate, his reputation wrecked, irrevocably, by the 2001 World Series.

But Epstein had made one fact undeniably certain:

The Red Sox were in play.


As Derek Jeter writhed on the Skydome turf on Opening Night, clutching his shoulder in agony, an entire season suddenly seemed in jeopardy.  

 Jeter had always been the silent pulse, the quiet identity defining these Joe Torre Yankees. His game had flaws. His range at shortstop was decidedly average. His power numbers lagged behind the likes of Miguel Tejada and Nomar Garciaparra.

 But, despite these slight deficiencies, Jeter was unassailable. The media fawned over his every footstep, on the diamond and in his personal life.

 They had good reasons.

 Jeter had been a hyped prospect, rising through the ranks of the Yankee system, a genuine supernova. He was promoted aggressively and never stumbled, possessing the cool composure of a seasoned veteran on every step of his journey.

 Simmering beneath Derek’s icy exterior was a fiery competitor. The man found absolute abhorrence in defeat.

 For his talent, he was a prodigy, for his toughness, he was a leader.

 Jeter took the next step in 1996, his arrival karmic perfection.

 On a team consisting of veterans sharing his combative disposition, he could slip within, a mere piece of the puzzle. He wouldn’t have to lead. He wouldn’t have to contort his personality into a persona, something he wasn’t. Being Derek would be good enough.

 Hit .250, Joe Torre gently prodded.

 Jeter responded with .314.

Just make the routine plays at shortstop, coaches advised.

Jeter flashed his athleticism, consistently reaching the highlight reels.

Just make the playoffs, Yankee fans begged.

Jeter would cop his first ring.

For Derek Sanderson Jeter, surpassing expectations had become a formality.

 There would be superstar caliber seasonal performances. There would be championships, postseason heroics. There would be swooning from scribes, undying loyalty from fans, and due respect from teammates.

Through all this, Jeter seemed to be simply fulfilling a predestined course.

 Nobody ever expected Ken Huckaby to get in the way.


 But there he was, blocking a previously vacant third base, crunching Jeter’s left shoulder under his shin guard, knocking the untouchable one out of action for several weeks.

 The Yankees’ response was heartening. An outfit that had its toughness questioned after ’02 responded to the adversity, launching 2003 with an impressive 18-3 start.

 They would not keep up the scintillating pace, faltering in May and June.

 However, the star quotient populating the 2003 Yankees would always bubble to the surface, when absolutely necessary.

 Roger Clemens secured his 300th victory en route to another campaign worthy of his Hall of Fame credentials. The meticulous Mike Mussina would deliver as well, winning 17 games. Rotund lefthander David Wells chipped in with 15 wins, though his numbers suffered late in the season. The polar opposite of fitness freaks such as Clemens and Andy Pettitte, Wells basked in his gluttony, boasting that his annual reliability proved that a wide waistline would never inhibit his productivity, especially in big games.  

 Undoubtedly, the Yankee pitching star of 2003 was Andy Pettitte. Pettitte followed up a sparkling 2002 by garnering 21 victories, after a substandard start to the season.

 Under the tutelage of workout buddy Roger Clemens; Pettitte became a power pitcher, imposing his will on hitters.

 It would take time for Pettitte to refine this new style, but a second half surge validated his philosophical shift.    

Before, Pettitte often nibbled at the strike zone, preying on hitter’s aggressiveness and inducing a cavalcade of ground balls, thanks to his nasty cut fastball.

 Now, Andy attacked, remaking himself one pitch at a time.  


 Carrying a heavier workload due to Joe Torre’s obvious distrust in the setup corps, Closer Mariano Rivera was better than ever in 2003, though he did suffer the occasional lapse, reminders of his humanity.    

   Rivera’s numbers were staggering. A 1.66 earned run average. Ten walks in seventy innings.  

 The Yankees felt they still owned the edge on Boston purely because they had Mariano, and the Red Sox didn’t.

 Kim, despite his World Series nightmare, was still an effective reliever, and an above average option for Boston at closer.

But, was he Mariano?

Was anyone?

As they nervously shuffled their roster in the summer months of 2003, the Yankees were silently banking on the fact Kim wasn’t anywhere close.  

– Matt Waters

By mw2828

Matt Waters is a screenwriter currently living in New York. He has been writing about sports since age seventeen, about the time when it became painfully apparent that his athletic dreams would go unfulfilled, due to terrible luck and an obscene lack of talent. His favorite movie is “The Thin Red Line”. His favorite band is “Modest Mouse”. His favorite sport is baseball! With an exclamation point.

4 replies on “Legends of the Fall: Part I of V”

nice Because of you, I will never have any hope to win the monthly contest. As always, great job.

A minor issue. The word “compliment” means to praise or shower with affirmations.

The word you were looking for was “complement.”

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