Sunday, October 17, 2010

October 17, 2004: The beginning of the end

BOSTON - Dave Roberts heard his name called, grabbed his helmet, and ran out to first base, a pinch-runner. He stretched, looked over at the third-base coach, waited. Everybody in the ballpark knew he was in there for one reason, and one reason alone: to steal second base. Kevin Millar had just opened the bottom of the ninth of game 4 with a hit off super closer Mariano Rivera, and now Roberts was in. He eyed Rivera. He glanced around at the hitter, the infielders, his third-base coach, but for the most part, he kept his eyes glued to Rivera. On the first opportunity, he was going.

Rivera threw over to first. Then he did it again, and again. For all his greatness, for all his postseason brilliance over the years, Rivera's one major flaw had been his susceptibility to the stolen base. That flaw never really mattered much, as you have to first reach base against Rivera to have a chance to steal on him. Behind the plate, Jorge Posada had never been great at catching base stealers, especially now in the later stages of his career. With Rivera being slow to the plate and Posada with a below-average arm at catcher, the Yankees knew their best chance was to try to pick Roberts off. Roberts knew that, too, so he wasn't having any of it. He got back safely all three pickoff attempts, hoping that he was alert enough to break for it when Rivera finally went to the plate.

It takes an incredible amount of timing and skill to successfully steal second. You have to break at the exact moment the pitcher starts his motion toward the plate; if you're a moment too early, you're easily picked off, and if you're a moment too late, you have no prayer of beating the throw. You also have to get to full speed incredibly quickly, probably in no more than three steps, and you have to go from standing still to full speed without even the smallest slip. You have to maintain that speed for the entire 13 or so steps it takes to get to second, then you have to time your slide just right so that it doesn't slow you down, yet doesn't cause you to slide past the bag. Then, you have to be alert enough to know if you have to contort your body one way or another to avoid a tag. And you have to do all of this in about three seconds.

One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, slide.

After the third pickoff attempt, Roberts peered at Rivera, took his lead. Rivera nodded at Posada's sign, dipped his shoulders and stood up in his exaggerated stretch motion. He glanced over his shoulder at Roberts. Was another pickoff coming? No, he went home. Roberts took off for second.

There was 86 years of back history in the three seconds it took Dave Roberts to run from first base to second base in that pitch. The Curse of the Bambino, which the Red Sox and their fans wore like an albatross around their neck for generations, was still in full effect. The Yankees were leading the ALCS 3-0 and game 4 4-3, and with Rivera on the mound, it looked over. But then Millar singled, and Roberts pinch-ran, and he tried to steal second. If he made it, the there was still hope, no matter how remote. If he was caught, the dream was certainly over. Eighty-six years would turn into 87, and the curse would live on.

While it takes a lot of coordination to steal second, it also takes a lot to prevent a stolen base. A pitcher's first job is to keep the baserunner guessing - is he going to throw over? Is he going to pitch? How long will it take him to make his move? Then, he has to be fast, getting the ball to the plate with the least amount of wasted movement possible. But the pitch still has to be good, fast enough and in the right location to give the catcher a chance. And then there's the catcher: when he sees the runner going, he starts to turn his body slightly. You can't stand up too early for the pitch, because then you'd most likely have to reach down for the pitch, costing precious milliseconds. So you catch the ball still in your crouch, then stand, spin, cock, and fire in one motion, throwing a ball as hard as you can toward second, aiming for the spot in the dirt directly to the right of the bag, so the runner can slide into the infielder's tag. Remarkable precision.

For once, Rivera was quick to the plate on Roberts' steal attempt. The slide-step had worked perfectly, and Posada got a pitch he could easily handle, making a strong, crisp throw to second. Derek Jeter was in position, and it looked like Roberts was dead in the water. But at the last moment, Jeter had to reach across his body, to the left-field side of second. That slight imperfection, the throw that was inaccurate by less than a foot, was all it took. Roberts was safe.


It's not often that a stolen base can change a franchise forever, but Roberts' seemed to do exactly that. Fenway Park was electrified by his steal, and after two more pitches, Bill Mueller drove Roberts in to tie the game. David Ortiz's two-run home run in the 11th made it a series again.

On the surface, Roberts' steal and the Red Sox win could have been seen as inconsequential. After all, they were still down 3 games to 1. But this one immediately felt different. The simple fact was they had not just beaten the Yankees, but had beaten the great Rivera, the true symbol of the Yankees' postseason dominance. They had gotten the ball rolling, and once the momentum starts, it's hard to stop. They had regained the mental edge, had regained their swagger.

And they never lost again in 2004. The Curse was over, shattered after 86 years. And the first crack had come not as the result of a mighty blast, but from a stolen base. The most important three seconds in Red Sox history.

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