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"I was excited to be drafted by the Cubs," Prior says. "But I got called up in a year we lost 95 games, and you start hearing all the time about the negatives. It gets drilled into you. Even while we were winning last year, people were bringing up 1908 or 1984 or 1969 over and over again. It wears on you."
The Cubs' first-year manager, Dusty Baker, had left a successful 10-year run in San Francisco to change the culture in Chicago. He was the embodiment of cool, grooving to Coltrane or Miles Davis in his tiny office while munching on a toothpick and speaking a language of optimism that sounded Greek to the Windy City. Winning baseball seasons in Chicago were treated like mild winters, totally unexpected flukes that surely meant hell to pay the next year.
"It was probably my most difficult year managing," Baker says. "Toward the end of the year I was psychologically worn out. I thought at the end of the year we were pretty close to getting the mind-set turned around."
Pretty close. Five outs from the World Series, and one strike away from whiffing centerfielder Juan Pierre, Prior fired a 96mph fastball. Pierre swatted the pitch hard, just inside the leftfield line, for a double. Alou fielded the ball in foul ground, near the brick wall of the stands. A few feet away, in the front row of those stands, a 26year-old man raised in the religion of the Cubs--in his lifetime the team had accrued only seven winning seasons, none consecutively--wished hard for those five outs.
The man looked like a Sibley Guide version of a Cubs fan, if the bird experts ever expanded their artistry into the domain of sports spectators. Well, he looked the part without the beer cup, anyway. Bespectacled, he wore a Cubs cap with earphones atop it, listening to the broadcast of the game. Over a green turtleneck he wore a black sweatshirt emblazoned with renegades, the name of the youth baseball team he helped coach. He was unaware that the quiet life he knew was about to end.
The Red Sox held a 5-2 lead. Martinez was still throwing hard. He knew, however, that the radar gun was an inadequate indicator of how he was feeling.
"Even when I'm fatigued, I can still throw hard," he says. "My arm speed may be there, but location is where I suffer, and that's because my arm angle drops. I throw three quarters, yes, but it's three-quarters steady. If I start to get tired, my arm drops a little more, and that causes the ball to stay flat over the plate. My velocity doesn't change, but I can't spot the ball as well when I'm tired. That's what happened."
Martinez had not slept well on the eve of Game 7. He was anxious, sure, but his body clock was off: He'd flown from Boston to Tampa (where the Red Sox had ended the regular season) to Oakland (where they had opened the playoffs) to Boston to Oakland to New York to Boston to New York in the previous 20 days.
The fallout from Game 3 had also taken its toll on Martinez. That epic, six days earlier at Fenway Park, had been the sizzling prelude to Game 7. New York had knocked Martinez around for four runs on six hits before the righthander was even out of the fourth inning. So emboldened were the Yankees by the hard swings they took at Martinez that they yelled at him from the dugout, "You've got nothing!"