From 2002 to ’04, Alex Cora and Dave Roberts were two speedy, defensively sound players part of some fun, if forgettable, Los Angeles Dodgers teams. Cora started at second base and formed one of the league’s finest defensive (and weakest offensive) double play combos alongside shortstop Cesar Izturis. Roberts was a late bloomer, having played just 75 career games in Cleveland before arriving in L.A. at age 30. He lacked power, but Roberts had speed—he stole a combined 85 bases over his first two seasons as a Dodger—and an infectious clubhouse presence.
The two players occupied roster spots during a transitional period for the Dodgers. In January 2004, MLB approved the sale of the Dodgers from NewsCorp to Boston billionaire Frank McCourt, triggering one of the most chaotic ownerships in baseball history that ended with a nasty divorce, years of litigation and a $2 billion sale. In February 2004, L.A. hired 31-year-old Paul DePodesta as general manager, becoming one of the first teams to outwardly embrace the “Moneyball” popularized by Oakland GM Billy Beane, for whom DePodesta had worked.
The Dodgers were built like most teams of the 2000s: they focused too much on batting average instead of on-base percentage while employing plenty of sturdy pitchers, but no aces. Budding MVP candidate Adrian Beltre and rightfielder Shawn Green led a team with a mercurial centerfielder (Milton Bradley), a mishmash of veteran pitchers (Jeff Weaver, Odalis Perez) and a genuine fan favorite (Paul Lo Duca). Most memorably, they had the man who elicited the loudest ovations at Dodger Stadium in a generation; once the opening notes of “Welcome to the Jungle” rang through the stadium's booming, scratchy speakers, Dodger fans exploded for the entrance of closer Eric Gagne, who won the Cy Young award the year prior.
By the end of the 2004 season, Cora had been part of a Dodgers team that won the franchise’s first playoff game since 1988—thanks to a brilliant complete game by the late Jose Lima—and Roberts had etched his name in baseball history … as a member of the Boston Red Sox.
But in an otherwise unremarkable game in May against the Chicago Cubs, Cora and Roberts lit up the screen for one of the best at-bats of the 2000s. I know because I was there.
Rare was the game my family attended on a school night, but my dad agreed to leave work a few minutes early on May 12, 2004 to trek the 30 minutes west from Pomona to see the Sammy Sosa–led Cubs, who had notoriously missed winning the pennant the year before.
From the 7:10 first pitch until the seventh inning, journeyman starters Matt Clement and Wilson Alvarez engaged in a time-efficient pitchers duel high on strikes and low on highlights. The most memorable moment of the game before the seventh came when Alvarez—the portly Venezuelan in his age-34 season—singled off of Clement and eventually slid (with perfect form) into third base in the third inning. Otherwise it was a night full of light contact, quick innings and a generally disengaged audience.
It was in the seventh when Cora, two flyouts to his name thus far, arrived to face Clement with a runner on first base. An injured Roberts sat in the dugout, missing the seventh of 21 consecutive games to injury but unsurprisingly supporting his teammates despite his ailment. The at-bat lacked any initial spark—a ball outside, a called strike over the middle, another ball outside—and then a foul ball. And then another down the rightfield line, then one down the first base line.
And then a spray toward third base before another down first base. A line drive down first, but foul! A weak chop headed toward the dugout. A looping fly ball over the first baseman’s head and into the seats. One off of his right ankle. A line drive to the first base dugout, look out!
At that point, legendary Dodger announcer Vin Scully can only laugh: “Here comes the 15th pitch of the at-bat!” The crowd: my dad, my mom and I among 43,230 others, laugh and whistle along at this entrancing stare down between old starter and light hitter. The crowd is on its feet and howling.
Chopped toward the first-base dugout again! We’re gonna have another pitch. The Dodger Stadium crowd, one of the loudest in baseball once engaged, is further energized.
“Look at Dave Roberts!” Scully says. “Everyone is enjoying this battle!” Known for his smiley disposition, Roberts is caught cackling at the chess match between Cora and Clement and clapping to jolt the dugout. The jumbotron focused on the giddy Roberts as he encouraged Cora and further revved up the Dodger dugout in support.
Clement has now thrown more pitches in this at-bat than he had in five of his six complete innings.
“Here comes the sixteenth pitch!,” warns Scully.
Shot down the third-base line … foul! The crowd roars with approval.
The camera homes to Roberts again, who chomps on his gum and hurries his claps. Cora calls time, presumably exhausted. The entire stadium is now on its feet despite absolutely nothing having taken place except three taken pitches and 13 foul balls.
Number 17 is rolled down the first-base line.
“Foul ball by a hair!” calls Scully. “It will be at least an 18-pitch at-bat.”
The Dodger Stadium DJ cues up “Zorba the Greek”, its mandolin plucks driving some fans to gyrate their hips and wiggle their wrists as if tormenting a bull. My mother, always attentive but often occupied by her knitting to pass time between pitches, is rapt like the rest of the audience.
The eighteenth pitch of the at-bat … Cora drives a high fly-ball to rightfield, back toward the bullpen gate, and gone! The home run provided two insurance runs, but the stadium erupted as if Cora had clinched the pennant.
The first person to jump out of the dugout? Roberts with both arms raised. The Dodgers won 4–0, but it was the at-bat that conquered the night.
"For the fans, it was great," Cora said after the game. "For me, I felt the pressure."
DePodesta would not so much break up the team that witnessed Cora’s at-bat that night as he would completely restructure it. Despite being 17 games over .500 at the trade deadline, the young general manager angered the fans by trading Lo Duca—the perceived heart and soul of the team—to the Marlins on July 30th. One day later, he shipped Roberts to Boston for minor league outfielder Henri Stanley. A southern California native and UCLA alum, Roberts admitted the trade reduced him to tears.
Ironically, Roberts became a Red Sox legend that fall when he completed arguably the most famous stolen base in baseball history: His steal of second off of Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.
He’d score the tying run that would trigger Boston’s unforgettable comeback from 3–0 down to beat the Yankees in the ALCS and, eventually, win their first World Series in 86 years. The trade from L.A. may have temporarily broken him down, but he received a World Series ring and finished playing in 2008. Cora completed his 14-year career in ’11. The two were never teammates after ’04.
Now, Cora dons the Boston B while Roberts opposes him in the city where they once played together. As the first two minority managers to oppose each other in World Series, the two are more than former teammates, they’re two of the game’s savviest tacticians and trailblazers in the field.
Regardless of the outcome of this World Series, the two can recall May 12, 2004 fondly; a time when they were just teammates trying to win, and when one at-bat gave an otherwise regular May evening a hint of magic.