October 17, 1999: the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Game Four

On the subway to Fenway (yes, I know, they call it the “T” here) two Red Sox fans wearing red face paint board a car and spot a guy sitting next to them wearing a Yankees pullover. One of the Sox guys, more excited than taunting, says to the other, “Hey, look, a Yankees fan!” The girlfriend of the Yankee fan, a little jumpy, tries to defuse things before they even get started. “It’s just a joke,” she says. The Red Sox guys aren’t starting trouble. “That’s okay,” one says. “He’s got a strange sense of humor,” says the girlfriend. But the Yankee guy can’t help being hostile. “It’s no joke,” he says of his Yankees wear. “It’s the Red Sox who are a joke!” Now the girlfriend’s really squirming, but the Red Sox guys go back to talking to one another.

The builders of Fenway Park, which opened in 1912, didn’t envision Darryl Strawberry playing here. Not just because Strawberry is black. But because there weren’t many home runs hit in baseball in those days, and certainly not many six-foot-six-inch guys with biceps rippling like the flanks of thoroughbreds standing in the batters box 325 feet from the Green Monster. Batting practice is pretty meaningless when it comes to winning and losing games, but man, watching Strawberry take BP in Fenway is an awesome show. He hits balls off the wall, of course; but he also hits them off the light tower behind the centerfield end of the wall, directly above the 379 foot sign, but much, much farther back. Strawberry hits line drives so hard into the stands behind that funny little rightfield corner that fans are ducking for cover. When they stand up again, they cheer Darryl’s display.

–7:30 p.m., October 17, 1999

Alright, maybe sometimes batting practice IS meaningful. Strawberry’s home run was curving foul, but it was hit so hard it didn’t have time. The foulpole here in rightfield is the closest to home plate in the majors, just 301 feet, and Darryl used all those feet and no more. The ball clattered off the third section from the top of the pole; the crowd went silent as the ball approached, making the collision loud and clear, a metallic splash, like a chain slapped against a cement sidewalk.

Alright, so Strawberry’s homer probably wasn’t the big story tonight. The horrible, horrible calls by two umpires; Andy Pettitte pitchingmasterfully; the textbook Williams to Jeter to Girardi relay that cauterized an early Red Sox rally; the Yankees, as always, jumping on anysmall opportunity and taking advantage; the Boston fans throwing bottles, cans, and whatever else they could find onto the field until the umpires pulled the players into the safety of the dugout–yes, it’s never dull around the Yankees. There were plenty of ugly moments, particularly when Paul O’Neill had to field a double near the rightfield wall and was pelted with debris. The umpires spotted one miscreant and pointed him out to cops, easily their best call of the night.

After the game, the bizarre scene in the tiny Yankees locker room included players detailing the abuse they took, and Jeff Nelson suggesting Yankee fans should retaliate if the Red Sox make it back to New York. That’s helpful. There’s fragments of violent incidents flying all around the room; apparently Nelson was sticking his head out of the Yankees dugout to see what was going on when a Red Sox security guard told him to “Sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up.” Nelson tried to attack the guard.

In one corner of the room, a big-screen TV booms out Joe Torre’s words from his press conference upstairs; Torre’s incensed, spitting out the words as he says the head of security for the Red Sox has “absolutely no class whatsoever.” Now, as the players dig into their meals, reporters hoveraround them, jammed into the backs of Jeter, Bellinger, and others as they gobble forkfuls of chicken parmesan. In another corner, a second giant TV shows ESPN’s highlights of the game; when Knoblauch’s phantom tag rolls in slo-mo, Derek Jeter tries to keep a straight face as he says, “Oh, Offerman was out of the baseline.” The players, of course, are more concerned abouttheir safety; Jeter describes a scary moment when three Red Sox security guards and two Boston cops pushed Bernie Williams down a flight of stairs,apparently trying to protect him. The chaos also included Chuck Knoblauch standing at his locker, his forehead pressed against one of the cubicle’swalls as he answers the interrogation. Knoblauch is such a psychological wreck on the field that he’s almost pitiable. He’s now trying to throw tofirst base sidearm, even though Joe Torre asked him not to before the game. “It’s the only way I feel comfortable right now.” Before the bottom of the first inning, as the Yankees warmed up, Knoblauch heaved a ball fifteen feet over Tino Martinez’s head and into the Red Sox dugout.

To his credit, Knoblauch doesn’t attempt to claim he tagged Jose Offerman. “I have no idea,” Knoblauch says. “Sometimes you can’t feel it when you tag a guy. No, I haven’t seen the replay. I guess you have; probably about 50 times.” Knoblauch is wearing a grey T-shirt with blue letters on the chest. They read, HIT ME.

George Steinbrenner, between shouting, “Let my boys eat!” blames the nastiness on everything from the long day of pro football, to the TVschedule, to Boston manager Jimy Williams. “The manager of the other team, when he kicked dirt and threw his hat, he incited the fans,” Steinbrenner says. “It’s been a long day. All that football, two baseball games today, everyone’s uptight.” Steinbrenner answers a few questions; moves a few steps, dragging the horde of reporters with him; everyone crashes into half-naked players; then Steinbrenner answers a few more questions and moves again.

But by far George’s funniest pronouncement came when he was asked about the blown call that killed the Red Sox eighth-inning rally. “Those things happen,” the owner says. “But I never complain about umpires’ calls.”

Is George worried about his own safety tomorrow? “Well, how can you hurt me?” he says with a laugh. “I’ll be sitting right down in front, so they’ll know where I am if they want to get me.”

To the Yankees credit, they put the Red Sox away tonight in the midst of all the mayhem; tomorrow, bottles or bad umpires won’t slow them down mucheither. Only Pedro Martinez has the Kryptonite, and he can’t pitch again until Thursday. Right?

Let’s end today with a happier episode. Between pitches, I stare at the upper-right corner of the scoreboard on the Green Monster, where theBraves-Yankees score is posted. For hours, the only thing that changes is the inning number; it moves, like an odometer clocking a glacier, through 11, 12, 13… . The suspense, the not knowing, is killing me. Finally, Tom Boswell goes online and passes along details: Keith Lockhart is thrown out at the plate, but he knocks Mike Piazza out of the game; then Lockhart drives in the go-ahead run for the Braves in the top of the 15th. Or did Lockhart score the run? The imprecision is excruciating as word is passedbetween screams and cheers, the fans all around us wrapped up in the riveting Yankees-Red Sox game unfolding in front of us. We’re all trying to pay attention to that too, but now a reporter from the Asbury Park Press dials his office and gets someone on the phone to give him pitch-by-pitch reports. The Mets load the bases in the bottom of the 15th… Todd Pratt takes ball one, ball two, ball three… . There’s a delay… strike one… a terrible pause… ball four! Game tied. There’s no cheering in the press box; it’s a sportswriter sin. But when the Asbury Park reporter, with one finger pressed in his right ear, his left ear pressed tight to the phone, yells that Robin Ventura has hit a grand slam, I can’t help whooping good and loud. There’s at least five more innings of baseball and strangeness we can’t anticipate still ahead, in person, at Fenway, and now the Mets are going back to Atlanta, having won not just two games, but having broken their Braves mental block.

And people say baseball is a boring game.

–1:15 a.m., October 18, 1999

October 17, 1999: the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Ga […]