Perhaps the most curious aspect of the Red Sox supremely wonderful and bizarre 2004 postseason is that Game Four of the World Series was less a baseball game than a coronation. It seems odd now to think of a time when the Red Sox hadn’t won the World Series in eight plus decades, let alone a time when the possibility of blowing a three games to none lead felt, if not likely, then certainly possible. But that time existed, and it existed on that day.
Recall the Red Sox had just vanquished the Yankees, overcoming decades of mismanagement, disappointment, outright incompetence, and misery in the process, to say nothing of avenging their Game Seven loss to New York one year earlier. After successfully running through that gauntlet, Boston found a 105-win Cardinals team staring at them, snout to snout. So, naturally, the Sox beat ‘em in three straight games, never trailing in the process. This was certain victory. This was redemption to be! This was HOLY CRAP THIS IS THE GREATEST EVER!
Before you answer, keep in mind the well-earned pre-’04 mindset. Buckner. Boone. Grady Little. Whatever jerk beat the Sox in ’75. Bob Gibson (a different jerk). Every Yankee player ever. Oh, friends, does the list ever go on. If ever that team, the one our grandparents knew, was going to rear it’s hideous head, grab the nearest fire place implement, and take seven or hearty swings at our collective giblets, this was the time. This was as prime a giblet thumping opportunity as had ever existed, and this was the team that lived to thump their fans in the giblets. Up three-games-to-none? Nobody could possibly have thought to protect themselves. We’d all have been too busy throwing up. Giblets were there for the smashing. But, somehow, some way, some something, it didn’t happen.
And the strangest part was that we knew it wouldn’t.
Perhaps that’s too strong. Perhaps, cautious optimism existed for some significant portion of Red Sox Nation going into Game Three. Perhaps it existed at the start of the game, but probably it didn’t go much beyond the first hitter.
Pitch One: fastball, inside corner, strike one.
Pitch Two: fastball, high and away, ball one.
Pitch Three: just like pitch two, ball two.
Pitch Four: fastball, belt high, center of the plate. In play, run(s).
Four pitches. That’s all it took. Johnny Damon, long hair flowing, beard dapperly cut via a two or three setting on the trimmer, got an offer he couldn’t pass up in Jason Marquis’ fourth pitch, a meatball begging to spend some quality time over the right field fence in the Cardinals bullpen. Damon’s swing obliged and, four pitches in, the party was on.
Photo credit: Getty
Oddly for a coronation, Damon’s homer represented a significant amount of the offense the Red Sox would produce that day. The rest of Boston’s three runs came via Trot Nixon’s sweet sweet left-handed swing. The Sox loaded the bases in the top of the third inning on a single by Manny Ramirez, a double by a young-looking David Ortiz, and a four-pitch walk to Bill Mueller. (In between Ortiz and Mueller, Jason Varitek grounded into a fielder’s choice with Albert Pujols throwing Manny Ramirez out at home plate). That brought up Trot, causing 2004 me to loudly exclaim, "My man TROT."
Marquis had been all over the place that game, each new hitter another opportunity for the announcers to note their astonishment at the death-like stillness emanating from the Cardinals bullpen, so it was no surprise when Marquis fell behind Nixon 3-0. The surprise came on the fourth pitch when the extremely patient Nixon of the extremely patient Red Sox swung. The pitch was up and on the outside of the plate but by no means on the black. It was hittable, nigh crushable, and Nixon did so, placing it just below the top of the wall in right center field. He missed a grand slam by thiiiiiiiis much. Ortiz and Varitek scored and despite Mueller standing on third base and Nixon on second, that would be it for the Red Sox offense in that inning and for the game, thanks for coming, please put your garbage in the bins on the way out.
Fortunately, though, Derek Lowe.
Bloody Sock 2 in Game 2
Curt Schilling takes the mound for the last time before he gets non-experimental surgery on his ankle.
Recall Lowe was the guy who had been stripped of his rotation spot before the postseason and relegated to the bullpen. Lowe was the guy who won the last game of the ALDS against the Angels by pitching a clean 10th inning so David Ortiz could play hero by two-run homering in the bottom half. Lowe was the guy who started Game Four of the ALCS and Game Seven of the same series, throwing six innings of one-run ball in the latter and pitching well enough to keep Boston in the game in the former. Lowe was the guy who, through the sheer force of his last three appearances, had turned a lousy season full of unmet expectations, into perhaps the finest of his career. And if that is so, then this game, Game Four of the 2004 World Series, may have been his finest hour. His seven innings of shutout ball were shocking in their normality, beautiful in their ordinariness, and, brutal in their effectiveness. But really, they were the final nail in the coffin of 86 years worth of disappointment. You can almost see old Derek out there with a hammer and a few nails clenched between his teeth, can’t you?
Lowe’s sinker turned the Cardinals bats to putty, which was St. Louis’ last hope as the middle-of-the-road pitchers the Cardinals had used to run up wins after wins after wins that season were no match for the Red Sox patient and powerful lineup. The Red Sox could easily have scored four, five, six, or more runs that game, but doing so would have been inelegant. Three was just enough to keep the pressure off. Three was just enough to show dominance. Three was just enough, and no more were necessary.
For a World Series game featuring the Red Sox in the early aughts, this one went by in a remarkably quick 3:14. It seemed peaceful, even easy. Like, how did we not do this a billion times before? Like when someone shows you the answer to a puzzle or explains a riddle that had befuddled you. It was so simple. How did we not win before this?
Relive the entirety of Game 4 by watching the entire thing right here.
We didn’t because winning was really hard. But that was the great trick of the 2004 Red Sox. They made hard things, scary hard things, that had overwhelmed, flummoxed, and reduced previous teams, look like fun. Hey, 86 years whatever, man, let’s grow our hair out! That likely helped them deal with what otherwise may have been crushing pressure. But the thing that mustn’t be forgotten above all is that, hair or not, carefree attitudes or not, playful personalities or not, this team was really, really good. And that’s why they won. That’s why they swept the Angels, that’s why they didn’t give up against the Yankees, and that’s why they embarrassed perhaps the best regular season Cardinals team ever.
And then, in the ninth inning, Keith Foulke.
And then, two outs later, Edgar Renteria.
Albert Pujols was on second base but who cares or even bothers to remember that. I’ll never forget Renteria’s stance, closed, legs apart, bat held up high, waiving back and forth like a flag, bouncing up and down uncomfortably on his front foot. And Foulke, slightly hunched over in the stretch to get the sign, then rocking back slightly and somehow shot-puting the ball to the plate.
These images are etched by a diamond in my memory. I swear to you I often forget my parents’ birthdays but I remember exactly how Renteria looked standing in the batters box on October 27, 2004.
It was a two-pitch at-bat. The first was outside. The second was… heaven.
"Back to Foulke! Red Sox fans have longed to hear it… the Boston Red Sox are World Champions!"
Did I just quote Joe Buck? You’re damn right I did. It was a great call and, one I wish I’d heard at the time. But, probably like you, I never heard much after the "Back to Foulke!" part. Who can bother to listen when their team has just done what we had all previously assumed was unreachable, inaccessible, impossible? I yelled. I jumped. I fell. I got up again. Someone picked me up and carried me around. We both roared. Other people roared. People in Boston roared. Boston itself roared. New England roared. Red Sox fans around the country roared. Fans stationed in Iraq roared. We all, together, roared, and man did it feel good.
I’m not sure I ever thought it would happen until that day. Beating the Angels was great, but certainly didn’t portend immortality. Beating the Yankees was enough impossible for one season, as if the baseball gods had consulted with Red Sox fans before writing the 2004 ALCS script. (Yankee fans didn’t get any rewrite privileges.) But, though most people act like beating New York was the final act, really it wasn’t. If the Red Sox had lost to St. Lous, beating the Yankees would have been devalued, a .406 batting average or 20-strikeout game to put in a frame somewhere while the real winners celebrated. "They came back to beat the Yankees and STILL couldn’t win the World Series. What a bunch of chokers!" That would’ve been the storyline forever had the Red Sox not won the 2004 World Series. But they did so we don’t have to put up with that filth, and it was Game Four on a cool October night that made it all real.
Varitek, Millar, Mueller, Pedro, Schilling, Manny, Ortiz, Bellhorn, Foulke, Roberts, Damon, Cabrera, and all the rest. These are names carved into the psyche of every Red Sox fan as long as we live. For as long as we take breaths, we will know the 2004 Red Sox were World Champions, and somewhere inside us we will trust that anything is possible because we saw it with our own eyes.