Thursday January 20th, 2005

NEW YORK -- He walked out of the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, dressed appropriately in black, with October's guardian angel, Reggie Jackson, at his side. It was a little more than the first official hour into the 85th year of tortuous misery when Pedro Martinez left the scene of the latest Boston Red Sox crime.

"For your club to win," Jackson told him in Spanish, "you have to pull the chain, and the rest of your club has to be right behind. That's what the special ones do."

Martinez thanked him, and after the pitcher walked on toward the team bus, Jackson gazed around the dark hallways in the bowels of Yankee Stadium and said to a bystander, "Man. There's something in this old barn, isn't there?"

It has been, for the supernaturally inclined, a hoot of a postseason. You have the Cubs and the Red Sox, the twin sources of cruel amusement for the baseball gods, each standing five outs from the World Series with a three-run lead and the baseball in the hands of their best pitcher. In other words, the perfect setup to have the rug pulled out from under them again. And you have the Yankees and Yankee Stadium, where, to paraphrase Curt Schilling, Mystique and Aura appear nightly.

All the talk of curses and ghosts makes for great entertainment and, in Boston, a cottage industry devoted to the pride of misery. But if you want to find the real reason why the Red Sox didn't finish off the Yankees in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series, you need not look to the curse of a dead fat man but instead to the gray matter between the ears of Boston manager Grady Little. Bring a flashlight and a divining rod.

Little took his place among Harry Frazee, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Sprowl, Mike Torrez, Calvin Schiraldi, Bill Buckner, John McNamara and any of the many other Red Sox anti-heroes whose names Sox fans rattle off as easily as the alphabet. A murderers' row of hopes and dreams.

"I know we'll have this game in the back of our minds for the rest of our lives," center fielder Johnny Damon said. "It might just be as close to the World Series as you might ever get without actually getting there. We wanted to, we tried to erase a curse. It seems that curse will be around for another year.''

It should not have turned out that way. All Little had to do was get the ball out of the hands of a tiring Martinez and into the hands of Mike Timlin. It was the sensible thing to do. The practical thing to do. But Little decided to manage with his heart, just as McNamara did when he decided the leave Buckner on the field against the Mets in the 1986 World Series so he could be in the middle of the celebration -- the celebration that still hasn't happened. Little wanted Pedro to finish when everything told you that he was done.

"His tank was empty,'' Jackson said. "He did what he could do.''

Little allowed Martinez, up 5-2 and holding the weight of a jittery franchise in his impossibly long fingers, to give up four straight hits to lose every bit of the lead. All the hits came with two strikes. He couldn't put a hitter away. The world saw it. Little missed it. Maybe he thought he was looking at the Pedro of two or three years ago. But this was the Pedro of the 2003 postseason, the one with the mediocre fastball, the one who cannot hold his stuff into the late innings of a game.

The downward spiral began with one out and an 0-and-2 fastball that Derek Jeter hammered off the wall in right field for a double. Pedro was at 110 pitches. Everybody on the coaching staff knows that Martinez is running on fumes when he gets in the 110-115 pitch zone. Anything after that, especially in this kind of stressful game, is an invitation to trouble.

Trouble answered the call.

Martinez had Bernie Williams 2-and-2, but again could not finish the job. Williams dumped a single into center field. Now it was 5-3. Alan Embree and Timlin were ready in the bullpen. There was some discussion between pitching coach Dave Wallace and Little about what to do. Little came to the mound. Surely he was going to change pitchers. Writers in the press box began notating a change of pitchers in their scorebooks. Maybe it was Embree to get the lefty, Hideki Matsui, and then Timlin, who had retired 25 of the 26 batters he faced in the postseason. He was as close to automatic as you can get.

Little asked Pedro if he had enough left to get through the inning. It's a terrible question to ask any pitcher, especially an ace. Honesty is hard to come by when pride gets in the way. Little should never have asked Martinez. His eyes and head should have told him what to do before he left the dugout.

"Pedro wanted to stay in there,'' Little said, apparently mindful of passengers who wished to remain on the Titanic as it began taking on a bit of water. "He wanted to get the job done just as he has many times for us all season long, and he's the man we all wanted on the mound.''

"Yes,'' Martinez said. "I wanted to stay. I tried hard. I did whatever was possible to try to win the ballgame.''

So Grady came back to the dugout without his pitcher. The baseball gods chuckled at him.

Once again, Martinez worked to a two-strike count, this time 0-and-2. Again he did not have the strength to finish the hitter. Matsui hit a ringing double down the right-field line, the ball bouncing off a fan's hand. Now it was second and third. Now, surely, Timlin would be in the game.

But Little remained in the dugout, frozen by ... what? The curse? His belief in Pedro? The voice of John McNamara? The song of those two sirens, Mystique and Aura?

Jorge Posada stepped in. You remember Posada, the guy to whom Martinez gestured in Game 3, pointing to his head in a menacing manner. Martinez later explained he meant only to tell Posada, "I will remember what you are saying.''

At this moment he apparently forgot. Once again, two strikes. Once again, Pedro could not finish the hitter. At 2-and-2, on Martinez's 123rd pitch, Posada blooped a double into center field. It fell softly in the grass, but at that moment you could hear the sound of hearts breaking all across New England.

Then, and only then, when hope, if not yet the game, was lost, Little came to get Martinez. Aaron Boone would end the game in the 11th with a home run off Tim Wakefield, but the opportunity for Boston was gone in the eighth.

"Pedro Martinez has been our man all year long, and in situations like that, he's the one we want on the mound over anybody we can bring in out of that bullpen,'' Little said.

Martinez gamely tried to keep Little off the hook.

"I am the ace. You have to trust me," he said. "I wasn't thinking about a pitching change. There's no reason to blame Grady. Grady doesn't play the game. I was the one playing. I was the one who gave up the lead. I'm responsible for the pitches I make.''

It's a brave face, but it doesn't absolve the manager. I have seen Tommy Lasorda pitch to Jack Clark with a base open, costing the Dodgers a trip to the 1987 World Series. I have seen McNamara leave Buckner in the game. But I have not seen a more blatant, more crucial lapse in judgment with so much on the line as I saw from Little. It may well turn out to be a fireable offense, given the resources and emotional energy the Boston front office has sunk into defeating the "Evil Empire.''

In any case, Little will never be forgotten.

Years and decades from now, in the dead of a cold New England winter, one Boston fan will look up from his chowder and, apropos of nothing, shake his head and say quietly, "I can't believe Grady left Pedro in.'' And the all other members of Red Sox nation present will immediately know exactly what is being said and they will bow their heads in silence, as if mourning the loss of a loved one.

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