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October 15, 2003

A Day to Remember--and the Yankees and Red Sox Played, Too!: New York 4, Boston 2
by Larry Mahnken

I don't believe in curses. Boston and Chicago have failed because of bad management, bad luck, and quality opposition standing in their way, not one bad trade or a stupid goat. It doesn't matter if the Red Sox and Cubs never win, or how they lose, I won't believe in curses. It belittles the teams that do win.

But I do feel bad for the Cubs, and their fans, and one fan in particular. Sure, he was stupid to stick his hand out there, but if the Cubs lose tonight, that man will have to live the rest of his life with the burden of blame, that he might have cost his team a Pennant, and a World's Championship. Sure, it wasn't a certain catch, and it wouldn't have ended the inning, but it would have changed things, and if everything else had gone the same, Jeff Conine's fly ball would have ended the inning, and it would have been 3-2 Cubs going to the ninth. We saw his face on national television several times--will ultimately see it thousands of times--and his face will be printed in every sports section and on websites, and columns will be written in ever paper about how he cost the Cubs the pennant. And he will have to live with it until the day he dies. It is a terrible, terrible burden, and nothing he hears from any fan will be worse than his inner torment.

We've seen his face, but I hope that the media has the good taste to not seek out his name, and if they find it, not print it. There is no need for any of us to ever know that man's name. But I'm sure that some reporter somewhere will be making calls and asking around, trying to find out that man's name, so he can help his own career. And dozens of other reporters, not wanting to get scooped, are making the same effort. And there's no need for it. It's despicable, making an active effort to ruin a man's life for a tiny, irrelevant scrap of information that adds nothing to the story.

So was this 1986? 1929? 1984?

Cubs fans have to hope that it's 1975, when the Reds came back from Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk's dramatics to clinch their first title in 35 years. With Kerry Wood on the mound against Mark Redman--remember, the Cubs kill lefties--they have a chance. I don't believe in curses, and momentum is only as good as your starting pitcher. The Cubs can overcome this. I hope they do.

* * *

In 1998, the Yankees had about as perfect a season as a team could have, winning 114 regular season games, sweeping the World Series, winning a record 125 games in total. They had a great lineup, a great bench, a great rotation, a great bullpen, and their defense was actually pretty good back then. They were quite possibly the most perfect team ever assembled.

But they almost lost in the ALCS. Looking back, a 4-2 series win doesn't seem that closely contested, but the Yankees entered Game 5 of that series trailing 2-1, having lost on a stupid play by Chuck Knoblauch in Game 2, and getting smacked around a bit in Game 3. (By the way, if the Yankees had lost that series, considering the ridiculous importance people place on the postseason as a measure of a team, would the 89-win Indians have been considered better than the 114-win Yankees? Anyone who thinks that should be lobotomized.)

The Yankees avoided falling behind 3-1, and perhaps saved their season, behind the brilliant pitching of "rookie" Orlando Hernandez, who allowed only 7 baserunners and no runs in over 7 innings. El Duque's heroics are remembered by Yankees fans, but often forgotten is the game that followed, which was nearly as crucial for the Yankees as Game Four. David Wells, the Yankees' best pitcher that season, wasn't as perfect as Hernandez, giving back two of the three runs he started the game with right away in the first inning. But he held the Indians to only three runs into the eighth, and struck out 11 (Boomer actually used to strike out some guys back then). The Yankees won 5-3, and came back to New York and finished the Tribe behind David Cone, and moved on to beat the Padres.

Yesterday, David Wells faced a situation just as--probably more important than the one he faced in 1998. He isn't the same pitcher he was five seasons ago, but with the Yankees' season on the line, he came through once again, and was probably better than he was back when he was the ALCS MVP.

Four hits, two walks. Eight baserunners in seven innings, and one run--and that was off of a home run by Manny Ramirez.

While Boomer was shutting down the Greatest Offense Ever™, the Yankees were getting the job done against Derek Lowe. They didn't pound him--they didn't even get an extra base hit--but they took advantage of opportunities, scoring three runs in the second with two outs, and tacking on an insurance run in the eighth--though Hideki Matsui did his best to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Torre's decision to use Rivera for two innings with a three run lead was questionable, Jose Contreras and Gabe White were perfectly capable of shutting down the Red Sox for an inning--maybe even two, if needed--but Torre decided not to take any chances, and went to his ace reliever to start the eighth. Rivera wasn't untouchable, but he was still damn good, giving up only two hits and a run, and sealing the Yankees' third win. The ultimate impact of Torre's choice of Rivera won't be determined until tomorrow night, when Rivera will certainly be available for one inning, perhaps four outs, but probably not more than that. With Andy Pettitte starting against John Burkett, and Contreras and White having been plenty rested, the game shouldn't come down to Mo in the eighth, but if it does, then Torre might have follied.

I don't have a major problem with Joe's pinch-running for Giambi in the eighth, either. Giambi has a very sore knee, hasn't hit at all in the postseason, and David Dellucci was far more likely to score an insurance run on a ball in the gap than Giambi was. Normally, when Giambi is close to healthy, or at least hitting well, this is a decision that I would jump all over Joe for, but in this case, it's an understandable move. I probably wouldn't have made it, but I won't criticize Torre any further than that.

And, of course, I owe an apology to Torre for a previous criticism that, as it turns out, was unfair.

In late September, as it became obvious that the Yankees were going to win the AL East, it was also becoming obvious that David Wells was going to be Torre's fourth starter in the postseason, over Jose Contreras, who, save one disastrous start in Fenway, had been far better than Wells down the stretch. I believed that Joe was going with Wells because of his veteran status (and perhaps that was the case), but that Contreras would be the superior option. With the back problems that Wells had experienced in the second half, and the fact that his pitching relied on the Yankees' horrid defense to turn balls in play into outs, rather than Contreras' style of keeping the ball out of play, that Wells was a far riskier choice than Contreras. I felt that Joe Torre was making a bad decision based on irrational distrust of Contreras, and an undeserved trust of Wells.

I was wrong. I was completely and totally wrong.

If David Wells's back was bothering him, it is true that he could have been crushed. But I'm just a guy in Upstate NY following the team on television and in print. Joe Torre deals with Boomer on a day-to-day basis, and deals directly with the trainers that monitor Wells's back. He knows far better than I do how Wells feels on gameday, and who's to say that he wouldn't pull Boomer from a start if his back was sore? If it wasn't, then he was probably right to go with Wells in the postseason, despite the fact that his style of pitching was unsuited to the Yankees' defense--or the artificial turf and roof of the Metrodome.

And that's because both Minnesota and Boston were appreciably worse versus lefthanded pitching than they were versus righthanded pitching, something that has become apparent in every game David Wells and Andy Pettitte have pitched. I can't imagine Contreras pitching as well as Wells has if he had started instead.

But that's not the only reason the decision was the correct one. Torre put Contreras in the bullpen, and didn't use him in the Division Series, but his lack of hesitation in bringing him into crucial situations in Games One, Two and Three of the ALCS shows that he never lacked any confidence in El Titan, but rather had a great deal of confidence in Wells. Contreras has become a valuable reliever in this series, and the decision to place him in the pen rather than Wells may be one of the deciding factors in the Yankees' favor.

So, bravo, Joe. I criticize you a lot, but you made absolutely the right decision in this situation, and I was wrong. My criticism was unfair, and I apologize.

This afternoon, Andy Pettitte looks to reprise his Game Two performance, or at least the least the second half of it. This is by no means a certain win--John Burkett is capable of shutting down the Yankees' bats (remember the late July start in Fenway...), Bad Andy might make an appearance, and Burkett is sure to be on a short leash anyway. They are unlikely to get more than a couple of runs off of him before seeing a different pitcher. The pressure is quite obviously on Boston, facing elimination with their worst postseason starter on the mound, but the pressure for the Yankees to finish itexpeditiouslyy, and avoid Pedro in Game 7 is enormous, too.

I will make no prediction, except for the fact that I sit in many uncomfortable positions on my couch, and at least once, swear quite loudly. And hopefully, I'll get a phone call from my Dad at game's end, and I'll spend the evening writing about the World Series--and hopefully how the Yankees match up against the Cubbies.