Remembering a spectacular postseason

From terrific games to magical moments, the 2003 playoffs were certainly an enjoyable time.

Originally Published: October 28, 2003
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Whew. I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. And all I did was write about the postseason. I can't imagine what the players feel like (though I suspect the Marlins won't feel much of anything for quite a while).

The past four weeks provided some of the most exciting, memorable, promising, disappointing and, ultimately, rewarding baseball in the game's history. This was the 100th anniversary of the World Series and baseball delivered a fitting gift with probably the best postseason ever (the only years that compare are 1981, 1986, 1991, 1992 and 2001 -- years before 1969 didn't provide enough games to even be considered). Each round provided at least two games worthy of being called Autumn Classics and the phrase "Most exciting game of this postseason'' had a shelf life shorter than Atlantic salmon (or marlin, for that matter). By the time the postseason finally ended with Josh Beckett tagging out Jorge Posada, the ball wasn't the only thing gripped securely in his glove. So were we.

Josh Beckett
Josh Beckett pitched two complete-game shutouts in the postseason.

The games were so compelling that we developed bedsores because we couldn't leave the couch. The games were so good that we not only didn't care if we ever got back, we stayed long enough to reach the front of a Yankee Stadium concession line. The postseason was so good that at one point, one team stood and applauded the other team's pitcher.

In all, there were seven extra-inning games, 12 one-run games, 11 two-run games and 10 games in which the winning run scored in a team's final at-bat. The tying run was on base or at home plate when the game ended 18 times or in almost half the 38 games played.

Our fingernails may never grow all the way back.

Baseball packed so much into four weeks that the postseason resembled a suitcase at the end of a four-week vacation, while we looked as if we had spent the entire month in the Yankees bullpen at Fenway Park. You couldn't possibly see it all -- not with some games being played at the same time -- but here's a short list of highlights:

  • Eric Byrnes missing home plate, Miguel Tejada stopping in front of it and Alex Gonzalez sliding across it safely. Ivan Rodriguez jarring the ball loose in a home plate collision to score a run and Pudge holding onto the ball in another collision to tag out J.T. Snow to end a series. Ramon Hernandez's game-winning squeeze bunt in the 12th inning and Sammy Sosa's 500-foot blast at Wrigley Field. Trot Nixon's game-winning home run in the 11th inning at Fenway, Aaron Boone's game-winning home run in the 11th inning at Yankee Stadium and Alex Gonzalez's game-winning home run in the 12th inning in Miami.

    The ivy turning colors at Wrigley Field and George Steinbrenner turning colors in the owners box. The Showdown in Beantown between Pedro and Zimmer. The Battle of the Bronx between Pedro and Roger Clemens. Ferris Bueller's Night Off starring Steve Bartman. Grady Little managing New England into a regional depression and himself out of a job. Clemens walking off the mound for possibly the final time and Beckett walking onto the national stage for the first time.

    The Red Sox and the Cubs each falling five outs short of presenting us with a dream World Series. Curses.

    Rivera
    Rivera

    And let's add one more memorable moment to the list: Mariano Rivera racing onto the field after Boone's home run, throwing his body onto the mound and attempting to hug it in his arms.

    We all knew that feeling this fall. A Rawlings regulation ball measures just under three inches in diameter, but sometimes baseball is so big that the best we can do is spread our arms as wide as possible and hold onto whatever bit we can.

    Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 110 days. And we're going to need each and every one of them to fully recover.

    Plenty of capable replacements out there for Sox
    Can the Red Sox possibly find a manager to replace the man who guided them to 188 victories in two seasons and within five outs of their first American League pennant in 17 years?

    Of course they can.

    After all, the Yankees fired Buck Showalter in 1995 after he had taken them to the postseason for the first time in 14 years and replaced him with a man who had been fired three times and only once won a division title ... and then won the first of four World Series in Joe Torre's first year.

    The 2001 Diamondbacks hired a broadcaster who had never managed before ... and won the World Series in Bob Brenly's first year.

    The 2003 Marlins hired a 72-year-old who had been fired four previous times, who had never managed a big-league team to a first-place finish and who hadn't been in the majors in three years ... and won the World Series five months later under Jack McKeon.

    And the Red Sox themselves hired a man who had never managed in the majors and nearly reached the World Series in Grady Little's second year.

    So, don't worry about the Red Sox finding an adequate replacement for Little. There are plenty of potential managers out there with the ability to lead the Red Sox to the World Series, just so long as they have enough talent surrounding them. The names Glenn Hoffman and Bud Black might not instantly inspire excitement and confidence, but neither did the names Torre, Brenly or McKeon when they were hired -- and those men did just fine.

    So did Tom Kelly. The Twins hired him at the end of the 1986 season, but still lacked so much confidence in him that they brought in Ralph Houk as a consultant/monitor/insurance policy the next year. Kelly quickly proved he didn't require any such shadow and the Twins won their first world championship in his first full season.

    Besides, it's not like the Sox are losing Sparky Anderson or Earl Weaver. While Little lost his job specifically for his disastrous decision to stick with Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the ALCS when all evidence pointed against it, he didn't exactly prove his merits at other points in the postseason, either. Had it not been for Oakland's colossal baserunning blunders, the Red Sox would have been swept in the Division Series, but somehow overcame Little using two of his starting pitchers in Game 1 and yanking his No. 3 hitter in the sixth inning of Game 5.

    Little is given credit for fostering a clubhouse chemistry that helped such players as Kevin Millar, David Ortiz and Bill Mueller to career years, and Little might very well be quite skilled in getting the most out of certain players. But Johnny Damon and some others didn't play any better under Little than they had under previous managers. And Little didn't exactly light any fires under Manny Ramirez.

    Whatever his skills and deficiencies, the problem in the end for Little was that he was managing not just against Boston's opponents during the postseason, he also was managing against the Red Sox long, frustrating history. To blow a chance at the World Series is a serious mistake anywhere else, but to do it in Boston is indefensible and unforgivable. A managerial mistake that cost Boston the World Series just when it finally was again within grasp virtually required his dismissal.

    We'll find out who Little's replacement will be, but whoever it is will do fine -- as long as Manny hits, Pedro pitches and Nomar stays healthy -- even if he doesn't come with a long and impeccable major-league resumé.

    Remember, before Torre proved he may be the best manager in baseball with the Yankees, one New York newspaper ridiculed his hiring with the backpage headline, "Clueless Joe.''

    Boxscore line of the week
    David Wells once again linked himself with his fellow Point Loma high school alumnus when he joined an ultra-select club of starting pitchers to leave a World Series game without allowing a hit. Unfortunately, unlike Don Larsen, who threw a perfect game in 1956, Wells lasted only one inning before leaving Game 5 of the Series with a bad back. His line:

    1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K

    Boomer wasn't the first starter to not allow a hit since Larsen -- John Tudor left with an injury after 1.1 innings in Game 3 of the 1988 Series, as well.

    Lies, damn lies and statistics
    Does anyone else find the Yankees' Seventh Inning Stretch Spectacular a little over the top? What with Ronan Tynan's extended dance mix of "God Bless America,'' the stretch lasts a ridiculous six minutes. Heck, it took 40 seconds just to introduce the "world renowned Irish tenor'' during Game 6 Saturday night. It's already to the point where we don't know whether to stand for "God Bless America'' or "Cotton-Eyed Joe'' or both. The stretch is not only overblown, it's affecting the game. As Twins manager Ron Gardenhire complained during the Division Series, the lengthy delay affects the starting pitcher -- the Yankees scored eight runs in the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium during the postseason and one run in the seventh inning at other ballparks. Enough is enough. It's the seventh-inning stretch, not halftime. Showing some patriotism is great, but put a reasonable time limit on it before Steinbrenner adds the Rockettes, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloons and a flyover from the surviving Mercury astronauts next year. Sing "God Bless America'' or "Take Me Out to the Ballgame'' or "Cotton-Eyed Joe,'' but not all three, and let the opposing pitcher warm up during the song so that it doesn't disrupt his routine. Besides, a better, more meaningful show of patriotism than standing in a stadium in October would be standing in a voting booth in November. ... Let the Marlins championship offer proof that low-revenue teams not only can compete -- they can win it all. Let the postseason further show that teams do not need new stadiums to win championships. Three of the four final teams play in stadiums older than commissioner Bud Selig and the fourth plays in a football stadium. As for Bud's assertion that new stadiums bring success? Half the last-place teams played in those cash cow retro-stadiums, including the 119-loss Tigers. ... And a final addendum -- the only division champ that had its division's highest payroll was the Yankees. None of the other division top-spenders reached the postseason. ... Pity the Cubs. They haven't been to the World Series in 58 years and haven't won it in 95, and in the past six years, they've seen the expansion Diamondbacks win the World Series in their fourth season and the expansion Marlins win it twice despite never finishing closer than nine games out of first place. ... Another reason to remember Game 7 of the Yankees-Red Sox series: there were 1,184 career victories on the mound that night (Roger Clemens, 310; David Wells, 200; Mike Mussina, 199; Pedro Martinez, 166; Tim Wakefield, 116; Mike Timlin, 51; Jeff Nelson, 46; Mariano Rivera, 43; Felix Heredia, 27; and Alan Embree, 26). ... The Yankees used 20 relievers this year. ... Look for the Mariners and Athletics to open the season in Japan next year, replacing this year's series that was canceled due to the war in Iraq. ... Hideki Matsui might wind up as this year's AL Rookie of the Year, and shortstop Kazuo Matsui is the leading candidate to win it next year. Little Matsui filed for free agency Tuesday and is expected to sign with a major league team. With power and speed, Matsui might be better in the U.S. than Godzilla. Look for the Dodgers and Mariners to make a strong run at him, among other teams.

    From left field
    Florida showed it's never too late in baseball. The Marlins were 10 games under .500 as late as May 22 and in last place in mid-June before becoming the ninth team in major league history to reach the postseason after being that far under .500.

    That's quite a turnaround, but not unprecedented. Eight other teams rallied from 10 games or more under .500 to reach the postseason, including the 1973 Mets who were under .500 as late as Sept. 20.

    The nine postseason teams who were at least 10 games under .500 at some point, including most games each was under .500 and the last day each was under .500.

    Down, but not out
    Games Team Last Day
    16 1914 Braves July 31
    14 1974 Pirates Aug. 11
    13 1973 Mets Sept. 20
    13 1981 Royals Aug. 8*
    12 1989 Blue Jays Aug. 13
    11 1984 Royals Sept. 3
    10 1951 Giants May 25
    10 2001 Athletics July 6
    10 2003 Marlins June 29

    * The Royals were 13 games under .500 at one point before the strike and under .500 when the strike began. They had a winning record in the second half of that split season, but were never 10 games under .500 during the second half when they qualified for the playoffs

    (Source: Elias Sports Bureau, Florida Marlins and BaseballReference.com)

    Win Blake Stein's Money
    This week's category: Post-Retirement Jobs That Beat Being A Greeter At Wal-Mart.

    Question: Who was the last previous manager to win the World Series with a team he didn't start the season?

    Answer: Bob Lemon, who took over the Yankees midway through the season after George Steinbrenner fired Billy Martin.

    Infield chatter
    "Many of you love and remember Angela Lansbury, from 'Murder, She Wrote.' She turned 78 today and as a special treat, Pedro Martinez grabbed her by the head and threw her on the ground.''

    -- David Letterman

    Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    Jim Caple | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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