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Out at Home

The Yankees allowed the Red Sox their day of Fenway glory, then dispatched Boston to resume their inexorable march back to the World Series

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Posted: Wednesday March 22, 2000 07:47 PM

By Tom Verducci

Issue date: Oct. 25, 1999

Sports Illustrated Flashback

When rain mixed with soda bottles fell from the sky, when armed police officers stood guard over the field and when the 1999 American League Championship Series turned nearly raucous enough to wake the dead (isn't that exactly what the Boston Red Sox and their Ruthless fans wanted?), Mariano Rivera was the right man to restore order. The Jerry Springer-level nonsense and Game 4 ended on Sunday night at Fenway Park when Rivera, the New York Yankees' righthanded closer, calmly blew one of his famously elusive fastballs past Boston catcher Jason Varitek. That save wasn't the most difficult of his career -- the Yankees won 9-2 -- only the most symbolic.

"He is," New York pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says, "as much of a known factor as anything or anyone we have on this team. You know exactly what you're going to get with Mariano."

Rivera was the one sure thing in a bizarre series in which Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and the umpires traded one outrageous error after another; Boston manager Jimy Williams flipped his lid (literally) and Yankees righthander Roger Clemens lost his head (to Sox fans' chagrin, figuratively); New York lefthander Andy Pettitte joined Rube Marquard of the 1912 New York Giants, Hippo Vaughn of the 1918 Chicago Cubs and Bob Ojeda of the 1986 New York Mets as the only southpaw starters to beat Boston at Fenway Park in the postseason; and even those charged with keeping the peace at Fenway yelled obscenities at the damn Yankees.

Curses? There were plenty to be heard in Boston, where the crowd provided a sometimes witty, sometimes profane Greek chorus to a familiar story. On Monday night the Yankees and Rivera finished off the Red Sox in Game 5, 6-1, for their 36th American League pennant in the 80 seasons since Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

Of more recent vintage, Rivera continued to be a virtually unhittable and unbeatable force in what is now an 18-3 run through the playoffs by New York over the past two years. He has closed out 14 of those 18 wins while allowing no runs in 19 innings, a streak that lowered his career postseason ERA to 0.42, the best ever for a pitcher with at least 30 postseason innings. He has done so with a tranquility that is nearly angelic. So cool is Rivera that he is known to nap in the early innings of games. The only time he exhibits emotion, according to Yankees righthander David Cone, is when he talks about the church he is building in his native Panama. "My arm," Rivera says, "is a gift from God. I am blessed. All of my life is blessed."

Rivera is tougher to hit than the lottery. In 1996 New York won world championship number 23 with Rivera firing high, four-seam fastballs as a setup man to closer John Wetteland. New York then allowed Wetteland to leave as a free agent and handed his job to Rivera. Early in the 1997 season Rivera was throwing in the bullpen when he suddenly noticed that his fastball began darting sharply to the left. "It was just from God," he explains. "I didn't do anything. It was natural."

Armed with one of the nastiest cut fastballs in the business, Rivera learned to harness it. He discovered he could control the break of the pitch by sliding his fingers slightly to one side of the baseball. Then last season lefthanders David Wells and Graeme Lloyd, his teammates on the road to world championship number 24 (both were traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in the off-season for Clemens), taught Rivera he could get even more break on his pitches with balls that happened to get scuffed during games, such as those that had bounced in the dirt.

"I never knew that," Rivera says. "If I had a scuffed ball before, I'd throw it out. One day they played catch with me with two balls. One was scuffed, one wasn't. I saw the way the scuffed ball moved and said, 'Uh-oh. This is fun.' For me it was like learning the letters. You know, first A and then B. I had been on A."

Rivera's cut fastball, which has been clocked as fast as 97 mph, is so vicious that New York bench coach Don Zimmer, 68, says, "I've never seen anybody break more bats of lefthanded hitters. Never. Every time he pitches he gets two, three, four. We count 'em and laugh. It's the darnedest thing I ever saw." The cut fastball is so good that Rivera hardly bothers to throw his slider, his only other pitch. "Hitters know what they're going to get," Yankees catcher Joe Girardi says, "and they still can't hit him." Through Monday night Rivera hadn't allowed a run since July 21, a streak of 38 1/3 innings.

The adventuresome Knoblauch, on the other hand, is the anti-Rivera. If chaos were a communicable disease, Knoblauch would be quarantined. The New York second baseman is a carrier of trouble. It's not just that you could find a more reliable arm on a Vegas slot machine. Knoblauch also happened to be smack in the middle of two flagrantly blown calls by umpires.

The first occurred at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 13, in the 10th inning of Game 1, when Rivera got what looked like a double-play grounder to third base while protecting a 3-3 tie. Knoblauch clearly dropped the throw from third baseman Scott Brosius. Umpire Rick Reed, however, ruled that Knoblauch made the catch and had dropped the ball only when beginning an attempt to throw to first. Reed called the runner, Jose Offerman, out. New York won in the bottom of the inning when Bernie Williams smashed the second pitch from righthander Rod Beck over the centerfield wall.

Knoblauch gained another pardon in Game 4, again while trying to put out Offerman on a double-play grounder. This one occurred in the eighth inning with Rivera called on to protect a 3-2 lead. Knoblauch fielded the bouncing ball and reached to tag Offerman, who swerved slightly to avoid the tag. Umpire Tim Tschida mistakenly ruled that Knoblauch had tagged Offerman. Knoblauch threw to first to complete the phantom double play. "When calls go against you, it makes you think, How many obstacles do you have to go through?" lamented Boston centerfielder Darren Lewis.

Last year Knoblauch blew Game 2 of the League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians when he stood on first base blowing bubbles with his gum while an errant throw to him from first baseman Tino Martinez rolled near his feet. This year he nicked Zimmer's left ear with a foul line drive into the Yankees' dugout in Game 1 of New York's Division Series against the Texas Rangers. Then his notorious throwing troubles worsened against Boston, growing so bad that in Game 4 he fired balls into the Red Sox dugout during warmups between innings. Martinez has had to make so many saves with Knoblauch around that he should get consideration for the Vezina Trophy. "When you play in the middle of the field, a lot of things can happen," Knoblauch said on Sunday night with a shrug.

Garciaparra could vouch for that. The Yankees began the series concerned about his bat. Their scouting report on him included this warning: "Make a good first pitch! Start him off like 0-2 count.... Make someone else beat us!"

Garciaparra wound up with more misplays afield (six) than RBIs (five). He committed two harmless errors in Game 1 and another in Game 3, but he sabotaged Boston more than Tschida did in Game 4. He Knoblauched a throw in the fourth inning, launching into the Red Sox' dugout what should have been the second out. The Yankees parlayed that mistake into two runs and a 3-2 lead for Pettitte. Garciaparra helped the Yankees toward a six-run ninth inning by dropping two throws, though each time the error was charged to the teammate who made the throw.

In the bottom of that inning Garciaparra hit a grounder to third and was called out in a close play at first base by umpire Dale Scott--another blown call, it appeared. Jimy Williams, upon bolting from the dugout in protest, finally lost his composure, not to mention his cap, which he flung in the air in disgust. Scores of fans took Scott's call and Williams's burlesque act as a cue to bombard the field with trash and plastic soda bottles.

"Jimy Williams incited the crowd," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner charged after the game. The Yankees were waved off the field and into their dugout by home plate umpire Al Clark. Once they were there, according to New York manager Joe Torre, a member of the Fenway security force shouted profanities at them while ordering them to remain in the dugout. Yankees relief pitcher Jeff Nelson had to be restrained by teammates from going after the security man, identified by a Red Sox public relations official as Steve Corcoran. Torre also erupted. "It was as angry and as emotional as I've ever seen Joe," Cone said. Giving new meaning to pitching out of trouble, Rivera closed the game under armed guard.

(One hour after the game, Corcoran was eating food from the Yankees' catered buffet in their clubhouse. An incredulous New York first base coach Jose Cardenal chased him out of the clubhouse with a string of profanities. Corcoran refused comment.)

To think the weekend had begun in Boston with such promise for the Red Sox and their fans: a 13-1 rout of the Yankees in Game 3 last Saturday, the worst of 98 defeats in 255 postseason games for New York. Boston's beloved ace, righthander Pedro Martinez, thoroughly outpitched the city's erstwhile one, Clemens. Martinez toyed with the Yankees that afternoon the way he puttered with the begonias in his backyard garden in Chestnut Hill that very morning. Even with a subpar fastball Martinez played with New York hitters, laughing out loud in the third after Knoblauch buckled at the sight of one of his curveballs. "It looked funny because Knobby was running away," Martinez said later.

Meanwhile, a discombobulated Clemens was torched for five runs and departed to gleeful taunts from the crowd only one batter into the third inning. In the seventh the fans broke into a "Where is Roger?" chant, and after the game they stormed a cloth banner inside Fenway that commemorates Clemens's two 20-strikeout games as a member of the Red Sox. Security personnel turned away the mob just as a corner of the banner was ripped from a wall.

The inferior Red Sox had tried gallantly on the field and crassly off it to break the great Curse of the Bambino. They even left tickets to Saturday's game for Wells, whose 4-0 postseason last year for New York haunts Clemens. "That's classless," Steinbrenner said. "It would have been more classless if David had showed. He asked me for my Tampa Bay hockey tickets [Friday] night."

On the coldest and bleakest of New England winter days, Red Sox fans can warm themselves with thoughts of that fabulously clear autumn afternoon when they cheered the humiliation of Clemens and the triumph of Martinez. It is, measured against the usual emptiness of their winters, a veritable bounty. The Yankees, meanwhile, marching on to yet another World Series, have something even more powerful. They have Rivera.

Martinez laughed out loud after Knoblauch buckled at the sight of a curve.

Issue date: Oct. 25, 1999

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