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Looking Back on the ALDS and 2002

This is the story of how I went to New York for Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS in 2002, and spent most of the time in my car. As you all know, the Yankees won the first game and lost the second (though they had their chances), and no miracle occurred for them on the West Coast this time, and they were out of it. But I didn’t know that would be the outcome when I set out from Massachusetts in my dinged up 1990 Saturn Coupe. And even if I had known how it would turn out, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere but there at Yankee Stadium during the season’s last gasp.

View of Stadium from the Macombs Dam bridge

It had been a fun season, but fraught with the sense that an era had ended when Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, and Chuck Knoblauch all left. It was a new team, a new era starting, and there was no telling how it was going to work out. David Wells was back and received the loudest cheer for his introduction on Opening Day. Jason Giambi was the new All-Star masher, who received the loudest boos for making out.

Oh sure, Giambi was going to hit, and everyone knew it. But the crowd wanted to proof. Those boos were “give us a reason to love you.” There were some days of brilliance, like April 12, Fenway Park, where the Yankees lost 3-2 but Giambi went four for four and the next day was hit by pitch in his first two trips to the plate. The Red Sox knew he was a monster just waiting to break out, too.

Giambi heard the boos in Oakland, much the way Alex Rodriguez had heard them in Seattle on his first trip there with the Rangers. A-rod had been psyched into two strikeouts and an error that first game back. Giambi responded going two for four, with a run scored in a pitcher’s duel that El Duque won over Tim Hudson 2-1. Giambi had gotten to Hudson leading off the seventh, running the count to 3-0, then taking two pitches to bring the count full, before doubling. Jorge Posada then promptly homered. The next day Giambi had two RBI hits, a walk, and had a hit stolen from him in the 8th on a dive by the man who replaced him on the A’s, Carlos Pena. (A few months later, Pena was gone, traded away.) Maybe the pressure in Oakland made the pressure in New York seem not-so-bad. The defining moment for Giambi as a Yankee came on May 16th.

Actually it was May 17th by then, as a game against the Minnesota Twins in the Bronx had dragged on for five hours. The game was very indicative of the type of club the Yankees had become. Mike Mussina had the Twins on the ropes, down 8-3, but then the Twins went 7-for-7 in the in the sixth (the outs coming on two sacrifices and one on the basepaths). It was his worst outing in years. But a little thing like a team batting around doesn’t hurt as much when you have a lineup that has hit 20 homers in the past five games. Robin Ventura homered into the “the black” in centerfield (only the 23rd in Stadium history to do so). Alfonso Soriano homered into and out of the glove of Jacque Jones, who went over the wall trying to bring it back but couldn’t quite. Bernie Williams, who had been suffering with shoulder pain for a few weeks until he received cortisone shots (ouch) hit his second home run of the game in the bottom of the ninth to tie it up. But the Yankees stranded runners in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth–and Giambi himself was thrown out at the plate in the thirteenth trying to score on a Posada double. The Twins scored three runs off Sterling Hitchcock (who had his worst season ever and isn’t even worth detailing) in the top of the fourteenth and doom looked certain. But Shane Spencer and Derek Jeter singled, and Bernie Williams drew a walk off Mike Trombley. With one out and rain pouring down, Giambi came to the plate.

You know everyone was thinking it. With one blow, he could win the game. But what are the odds? Only twenty three players in history have won a game with a grand slam in extra innings with their team down three runs. What are the odds?

But of course you don’t play the odds at Yankee Stadium. What were the odds that the Yankees would win both Game 4 and Game 5 of the 2001 World Series on home runs in the team’s last at bat? Giambi hit his grand slam as the clock was edging toward one in the morning. Apparently he was only the second Yankee to ever perform the feat. The first one was Babe Ruth.

The team had other shining moments as well. David Wells, immune to pressure and just ecstatic to be back in pinstripes thanks to a back of a napkin deal George Steinbrenner offered him, had an excellent year, starting 31 games and going 19-7, 3.75 ERA. He and Mussina pitched back to back shut outs in Fenway Park in August (after the Sox had knocked the Yankees around in April and May). Bernie Williams had an unbelievable streak of 11 consecutive hits. Robin Ventura hit a game-winner against his old team, the Mets, giving fans a thrill.

Speaking of the Mets, who could forget Shawn Estes throwing a ball behind Roger Clemens, who laughed it off sheepishly? It would have been funnier for Yankees fans if Estes hadn’t also hit a home run that day, giving the Mets the win. Estes, his duty done, was soon gone from the Mets, anyway. Ted Lilly showed he could really pitch, but he must have had some kind of a jinx on him, losing two one hitters, one to Seattle and one to Toronto! It must be the jinx that got him traded to Oakland.

The Giants came to play in Yankee Stadium for the first time, and it felt a little like the World Series in June, when Mariano Rivera faced Barry Bonds (and beat him) and Clemens clipped him on his body armor. How could we have guessed that we’d never make it that deep into October?

I packed up my car with my usual regalia and equipment: my lucky Mike Mussina jersey, digital camera, clipboard and scorecard, beef jerky and bottled water. I am the type of person who likes to arrive at the Stadium at five o’clock for an eight o’clock game. But unfortunately real life interfered, and at five I was still almost two hundred miles from the Bronx.

But happy. Every radio station I turned to was talking about the game. The Twins and A’s were playing that afternoon, and I listened to some of their play by play, interspersed with sports talk radio from Connecticut and New York. As I cross the New York border, the traffic thickened, and I switched to news radio to hear the reports. Of course. The Deegan was terrible, the Cross Bronx a mess. I scooted onto the Henry Hudson, hoping to take the side way across Harlem and the Macombs Dam Bridge.

Traffic is traffic. i grew up in New York and know better than to rail against it. At least the cars were moving in Harlem. I had my windows rolled down and my radio blaring when the National Anthem came on. The roar of the military jets who flew over rattled my windows and blotted out the music. I could see the glow of the Stadium lights in the sky–so close! and yet, so far! I was tempted to just park and walked the two miles or so to the Stadium, but I didn’t want to walk through Harlem alone, even on a game night.

I was on the Macombs Dam bridge when Jeter hit his home run in the first. Every car around me was packed with fans and we honked our horns and waved out our windows at one another. Silly me, i should have taken some photos from the bridge, the Stadium fully visible now and the cheers from inside audible even over the sound of the radio. That’s our Jeet, we were saying. One commentator last year, I forget who, had said, half-amazed, half-derisively, “It’s October, it’s Derek Jeter, just wind him up and let him go.” Jeter already has an incredible (and well-deserved) reputation for being an October warrior. Who cares if his average dipped to .297 this year? October is his time.

I didn’t have my camera out, but I did have my scorecard. With the traffic stopped as dead as it was, I had plenty of time to fill in the lineups. I even had time to write notes. After the Jeter home run, Giambi singled to left. “Through shift” I wrote in tiny pencilled letters.

I crept around the Stadium in the gridlock, being turned away from lot after lot as full. I eventually made my way all the way around to a lot I’d never been to before. I pulled up, intending to ask if he had any suggestions for where I should go. They were full, too, but the attendant standing at the edge of the driveway eyeballed my car, then the sidewalk. “Put it right here,” he said. “Back it in.” I backed up onto the sidewalk, sandwiched between the driveway and a fire hydrant. I gave him twenty bucks, he put a parking number on my dash, and off I went.

I missed some action while I fiddled with my portable radio and headphones, but I was there! I was walking to the Stadium! The street here was deserted. Everyone was either inside the building or gone home to watch it on TV. Then I was under the elevated tracks passing Stan’s and the bowling alley, and then I was at the bleacher entrance.

I had two tickets for the left field bleachers, an area where I had never sat. I was so late, there was no one left to sell or give the extra ticket to. When I sat down in my seat, it was 9:20 pm. I had missed a full hour of the game. It was the first time I had been late to a game since the late 1970s, when my parents and I had gotten a late start to see a Yankees/Red Sox game. What saved us that time was the game the night before had been called off for the curfew, and they continued playing it the next day. So it took several innings to wrap that game up before the game we were there to see started. If I remember right, we didn’t miss any of our actual game.

View from the left-field bleachers

That wasn’t the case for the ALDS, but I didn’t care. I was there, it was warm out, I was surrounded by Yankees fans. So what if it was the worst seat I’ve ever had in Yankee Stadium? I didn’t care. It didn’t even matter. I was there. By then it was tied 1-1, I think. My god, I know I’ve waited too long to write this because I can’t remember now if I was in my seat or still walking to the park when Jeter walked to lead off the fourth, and then Giambi hit a two-run bomb to put us up 3-1. I think I missed it. I either missed it, or in the giddy rush of being there and the relief of not being in the car anymore, I somehow obliterated the memory. I have no idea if it was a shot to left, to right, or what. That’s what I get for waiting until February to record what happened in October.

The damned Angels (is that an oxymoron?) tied the score in the top of the fifth. But then Rondell White hit a homer in the bottom of the inning to put us up 4-3. That one i am sure I was there for. Being in the bleachers reminded me of being a kid. When I was little we went to the Stadium a lot, and many of the most exciting moments what I remember is the crowd. I was too small to see over anyone when everyone stood up, even standing on my chair. Well, I’m not exactly a towering giant now (five-foot-four) and it’s easy for people to leap up in front of me since I’ve got the scorecard on my lap. The bleachers were one happy mosh pit of high fives and victory fists every time something like that happened. And this was three home runs in a game already!

We didn’t jump up like that, of course, when Troy Glaus hit one in the sixth, and we especially didn’t when he did it again in the eighth to make it 5-4 Angels. Man, remember the good old days, when we used to hold the hard-hitting Texas Rangers to one run in three games?

Did I mention Jeter hit the first pitch of the sixth for a single? Just wind him up and let him go. In the eighth, now down one run, Rondell White and John Vanderwal (pinch hitting for Juan Rivera) made out, bringing 30-30 man Alfonso Soriano to the plate. Soriano very nearly had 40-40, and also had over 40 doubles, but what we really wish is that he’d have 40 walks. Not likely, but he did it here, coming back from an 0-2 count to look at four straight balls. Ben Weber didn’t want to give him one of those pitches like Curt Schilling did last October, and see it go over the wall, and figured the free swinging Soriano would chase at least ONE of his offerings. But no. Sori walked. Then Jeter came up, and HE walked. Giambi, facing Scott Schoeneweis, singled through the shift AGAIN and brought Soriano home with the tying run. Jeter to third.

And then Bernie Williams came to the plate. He had hit the ball hard all three times up, banging into a double play, singling, and flying out to center. The hair on my neck was standing on end. I was reminded of the 1999 ALCS, when the Yankees faced Boston, how Bernie came to the plate in the late innings with a chance to win the game. The story has it that Peter Gammons, a lifelong follower of the Red Sox, turned to the others in the press box and said something like “oh well, here it goes.” Bernie of course then hit a homer that crushed the Sox. This time it was a three run shot , scoring Jeter and Giambi and bringing on Mariano time.

Yankee Stadium scoreboard showing final score at 11:47 pmGiambi snared the final out, a liner into his glove, off the bat of Garrett Anderson, and sent the fans home happy. The Yankees had eight hits, four of them home runs. The Angels meanwhile had twelve hits and had not looked the least bit intimidated by the experience.

That night I slept over at a good friend’s in Riverdale and drove a considerably shorter distance to get to the Stadium. And yet, despite the fact that I arrived at Lot 1, my favorite lot, before 5:30 pm, it was full, and I was sent off into the already-growing gridlock around the Stadium to try my luck elsewhere. There were still spaces in other lots, but it took an hour to get turned around the right way to the next garage entrance, and another hour to actually get into the garage itself and park. (I guess I was just lucky in 2001 when I had no trouble before games 2 and 5 in getting parked in a timely fashion?)

But I made it well before the first pitch. This time my seat was in the loge. Unlike the bleachers, I had sat in the loge before, when I was a kid with my family. I remember going to one game where my dad bought loge tickets at the door because there was rain in the forecast. It turned out to be a good move since we stayed dry under there until the rain stopped. There was no rain to worry about for this game, though. It was again nice and warm (shocking), almost like California, you might say. Would some chilly weather have been to our advantage? Doubtful.

Six o’clock and still not parked…

This time it was the Yankees who banged out twelve hits. Six runs. In just about any other post season game they have played since 1995, that would have been plenty to win. Who could have predicted what happened?

Tim Salmon touched Pettitte for a homer in the first. Jeter almost answered it with a manufactured run in the bottom of the inning, scratching out an infield singe, moving to second when Giambi walked, and then tagging up and moving to third on a long fly ball to the centerfield wall off the bat of Bernie Williams. But he was stranded there. Scott Speizio got a round-tripper off Pettitte in the second, and then Andy gave up three straight singles while he struggled to find himself. He never did. Next inning the Angels scored another run on three singles and were up 4-0. Jeter, who had not made an out yet in the month of October, then homered, his second in two days. If anyone ever doubted that Jeter goes to a different level in October… well, more the fool them.

El Duque was almost the hero. He then pitched four scoreless innings, in which only one man reached (Erstad, single in the seventh). You had to wonder if things might have gone differently if he had started the game. But who could have guessed that Pettitte would have to be lifted after only three innings? The Yankees scratched back to even the score at 4-4, with Ventura crossing the plate in the fourth (singled, walk, RBI double by Juan Rivera), and Soriano homering in the sixth (there’s number forty!) with Rivera on base (E-4). Now what we needed was the bullpen to slam the door like usual and let the Yankees late inning lightning do its thing.

You should have seen the determination on every batter’s face as he went to the mound to face Troy Percival in the ninth. Okay, from where I was in the loge, I couldn’t see their faces. i could only see them hit. Giambi led off with a single the other way (so much for the shift!). Bernie struck out. Ventura singled, and then Posada hit the first pitch for an RBI base hit that knocked in Giambi. They got one run off Troy Percival! Yeah! But a pyrrhic victory, as the Angels had finally gotten to El Duque.

After how he had cruised and mowed them down for four innings, who could have predicted that Garrett Anderson and Troy Glaus would go back to back off him to lead off the eighth? Then Karsay, the only pitcher not to give up a hit the night before, gave one up on single, stolen base, single, sacrifice. Even Jeff Weaver got touched up for a run giving up two singles and a double. When the dust cleared it was 8-6 Angels and the Yankee comeback had fallen short. The Angels had cranked out seventeen hits and the entire pitching staff was left shaking their heads.

As we know, the Angels went and did that to every opponent they faced in October, and ended up the World Champions. I guess for once good pitching did not stop good hitting. The Yankees go into 2003 with every pitcher itching to atone for his October performance. And I’m itching to get back to the Stadium. I don’t care where I sit. But this time, maybe I’ll take the train.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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