Every October baseball comes home to its roots. The prodigal game
sheds the laziness of summertime, the wretchedness of No. 5
starters and middle relievers, the forgiving nature of a 162-game
schedule and the hollow attempt to sell a midweek game between
the Detroit Tigers and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as meaningful.
Come the postseason, when runs and a resting pulse are at a
premium, baseball rediscovers the beauty of the sacrifice bunt,
the sublime tension of a low-scoring game and the urgent effort
required by the brevity of a schedule blessed with those two
magic words--if necessary. ¬∂ October does not harbor the
extraneous, especially not this October. In what has played out
as the most riveting postseason since 1986, when the California
Angels and Boston Red Sox each lost a series after they were
within one strike of winning it, the 2003 playoffs featured 17
games decided by two runs or less among the 27 played through
Monday, including eight that were decided in a team's last at
bat. Those 27 games had an average of 7.5 runs scored, a 21%
decline from the regular season.
It was baseball without wriggle room, and that included the
pavement outside Chicago's Wrigley Field. Crowds that would have
passed for great regular-season turnouts at Pro Player Stadium in
Miami jammed Waveland Avenue last week just to be in the vicinity
of the Cubs' National League Championship Series games against
the Florida Marlins. They heard some exciting baseball.
No matter your vantage point, the LCS games in both leagues made
for must-see TV. The setup was perfect: Take the game's two most
accursed franchises, the three most ancient baseball cathedrals
and the two most bitter rivals since Athens and Sparta, and what
you get is 46% more people watching the LCS on television than
tuned in last year. The Cubs were playing in a park built in 1914
while trying to win their first World Series since 1908, or five
years after the Wright brothers' first flight. The Boston Red Sox
were playing in a park built in 1912 while trying to win their
first World Series since 1918, or two months before the signing
of the armistice that ended World War I. And the New York
Yankees, Boston's opponent, were playing in a park originally
built in 1923 while trying to win their first World Series since
2000, which happens to be a drought of Biblical proportions on
the Steinbrennerian calendar.
Crashing this celebration of antiquity were the Marlins, who play
in a football stadium where fans can watch from hot tubs and no
one over the age of 10 can truly claim to be a lifelong fan.
"Everyone wants to see Cubs-Red Sox, but we're going to spoil
that," Marlins righthander Chad Fox said after Game 1. "Not in a
cocky way, but we know what the fans want, what the media feel.
But so what?"
Fox popped off before blowing one of the 29 leads that didn't
stand up in the first 27 playoff games, this one in a pivotal and
strangely entertaining NLCS Game 3 that had cosmic significance.
For one, the game was played under a full moon over Miami. For
another, it was played four days after the 58th anniversary of
the creation of the Cubs' infamous goat curse.
The Cubs were leading Detroit two games to one in the 1945 World
Series when tavern owner William (Billy Goat) Sianis bought box
seat tickets so he could bring his goat to watch Game 4 at
Wrigley. The Cubs would not allow the goat to enter the stadium,
which prompted Sianis to place his infamous curse upon the
franchise. The Cubs gave up four runs in the fourth inning of
Game 4 and lost 4-1. They eventually lost the Series and have not
returned to the Fall Classic since.
The Cubs did appear in the postseason as recently as 1998, but
they hardly created a blip in the TV ratings. This year, a few
days before the playoffs began, Fox Sports president Ed Goren was
studying information from his research department, which
predicted that the Chicago-Atlanta Division Series would attract
slightly fewer viewers in a prime-time slot than the
Yankees-Twins series. Goren, however, anticipated that the Cubs
would be the darlings of the nation and scheduled them to open
the postseason against the Braves in prime time on Sept. 30,
relegating the Yankees to a rare afternoon opener. Sure enough,
the Cubbies have been a hit.
What could possibly be so different about the 2003 Cubs compared
with the forgotten 1998 team? "Three words," Goren says. "Baker,
Prior and Wood."
Manager Dusty Baker and his Nos. 1 and 1A pitchers, Mark Prior
and Kerry Wood (who was on the '98 team but lost his only playoff
start), turned Chicago into a bona fide championship contender.
Sure enough, though Marlins righty Josh Beckett two-hit the Cubs
in a 4-0 victory in Game 5 on Sunday, Chicago needed only one win
to reach the World Series and had Prior and Wood lined up to
pitch at home in two shots to get them there. Entering Game 6,
the Cubs were 5-0 in this postseason when Prior and Wood started
and 1-4 when Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement took the mound.
Baker has been riding Prior, 23, and Wood, 26, the way Arizona
Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenley rode Randy Johnson and Curt
Schilling to the 2001 championship. For instance, beginning on
Sept. 16, Prior had thrown 124, 131, 133, 133 and 116 pitches,
respectively, in his five starts heading into Game 6. Baker even
left Prior in to start the eighth inning of NLCS Game 2 with a
Wood actually stood to be the losing pitcher in Game 3 before
Chicago rallied. The Marlins led 3-2 in the eighth inning--six
outs from taking a 2-1 series lead--when their lack of lefthanded
relief pitching was exposed. Fox, a righthanded reliever, had to
face the lefthanded-hitting Tom Goodwin and Randall Simon.
Goodwin tripled and Simon homered to give the Cubs a 4-3 lead.
Florida tied Chicago with a run in the bottom half of the eighth,
but the Marlins lost in the 11th on the first triple of the
season by Cubs pinch hitter Doug Glanville. No matter how the
series turned out, the National League was set to send its sixth
different team to the World Series in the past six years, an
unprecedented bit of competitive balance. Moreover, either the
Cubs or Marlins would become the 10th team in the past 16 World
Series to get to the Fall Classic the year after finishing with a
The Yankees, meanwhile, appear as if they have this October thing
down pat. They trotted out their usual totems for the ALCS:
Challenger the bald eagle (who blew his landing before Game 1
and, at $10,000 per day, wasn't asked back for Game 2); Ronan
Tynan the Irish tenor (whose lengthy version of God Bless America
during the seventh-inning stretch ices opposing pitchers--every
one who started the seventh in the four games at Yankee Stadium
this postseason was knocked out of the game that inning); Babe
Ruth (whose image was available on T-shirts and bobbleheads to
scare the bejesus out of Red Sox fans who believe their team has
been cursed since Boston traded him to New York in 1919); fans
who won't let the Red Sox forget the last time Boston won a World
Series (they regularly chanted "19-18!"); and 72-year-old Don
Zimmer (the lawn gnome of a bench coach who once managed the Red
Sox and the Cubs).
Yankee Stadium has a reputation for being a tough place to play,
but it wasn't until last Saturday, when the series moved to
Fenway Park, that the ALCS went Jerry Springer. Boston ace Pedro
Martinez gave his reprise of the F-14 pregame flyover when he
buzzed the back of Karim Garcia's head with a fastball in the
fourth inning (box, page 41). Martinez then gave what the Yankees
interpreted as the international symbol for threatening to hit
someone else in the head--a finger pointed at his temple--while
he was shouting into the New York dugout at catcher Jorge Posada.
In the bottom of the inning New York righthander Roger Clemens
threw a high fastball that was closer to the plate than it was to
the hitter, Manny Ramirez, yet the Boston outfielder took a few
steps toward Clemens with bat in hand. Both dugouts and bullpens
emptied. The charge included Zimmer, who rushed as best he could
on his 72-year-old legs and lunged at Martinez, raising his left
hand at him. Martinez grabbed Zimmer's head and threw him to the
ground. Zimmer toppled headlong and rolled over, suffering a cut
on the bridge of his nose. (Martinez was fined $50,000 by the
commissioner's office on Monday, while Zimmer, who apologized for
his behavior on Sunday, was hit for $5,000.)
Martinez suffered his own sort of wound: his first postseason
defeat, and an unseemly one at that. He blew a 2-0 lead while
getting outpitched by Clemens in a game that was bizarre even by
Red Sox-Yankees standards. In the ninth inning a fight broke out
in the New York bullpen after reliever Jeff Nelson took exception
to a Boston grounds crew member's cheering for the Red Sox.
Garcia, the rightfielder, scaled the outfield wall, cut his left
hand in the skirmish and had to leave the game, which the Yankees
won 4-3. No lasting damage was done, though. After rain washed
out Game 4 on Sunday, both players were available on Monday
night, when the Red Sox beat the Yankees 3-2 to even the series
at two games apiece with Game 5 scheduled for Tuesday.
"When this series began, everyone knew it was going to be quite a
battle," Little said after Game 3. "It was going to be very
emotional, a lot of intensity. But I think we've upgraded it from
a battle to a war."
At the moment in the war when Nelson and the grounds crew member,
Paul Williams, were mixing it up in the bullpen, the clock on the
scoreboard above them read 7:18. That's 19:18 in military time.
Nineteen-eighteen? Only in Boston. Only in October.
"Everyone knew [this series] was going to be a battle," Little
said after Game 3. "I think we've upgraded it to a war."