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Celebrating David Ortiz’s Greatest Moments: 2004 ALCS Game 5

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David Ortiz cemented his legacy with his second walkoff hit of the series, and gave hope to a weary Red Sox Nation that the best was yet to come.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

This is a story about hope.

While the main action took place during Game 5 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, for me the story began on the Saturday night before that. That was the night of Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS—the 19-8 thrashing of the Red Sox at the hands of the New York Yankees that shattered all kinds of postseason offensive records sometimes referred to as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

A friend of mine and I were having dinner at one of the sports bars near Fenway Park as the game unfolded—neither of us were either lucky or rich enough to be able to get tickets to the game (nor, in hindsight, would we have wanted to!). But my friend saw the carnage unfolding in the seventh or eighth inning, and loudly proclaimed, “This series is going to be over in twenty-four hours.” He left no margin for doubt, accepting just like everyone else that a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven was totally insurmountable.

But then Game 4 happened, with The Steal and then Big Papi’s walkoff homer. So there would, in fact, be a Game 5. And what a game it would be, although no one would have guessed just how dramatic it would be after the emotional marathon that was Game 4.

Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS was, at the time, the longest postseason game ever played: it went on so long that the blimp providing aerial shots had to go home because it ran out of gas. Red Sox fans fared little better, though, and it’s unlikely that anyone managed to get through the game without a few additional grey hairs, nervous twitches, or moderate-to -severe alcohol poisoning.

While the game was “only” fourteen innings long, it might as well have been fourteen years. You can find extensive play-by-plays elsewhere, but the most terrifying moment must have been the top of the thirteenth inning, when Jason Varitek let three Tim Wakefield knuckleballs become passed balls, setting up the Yankees with runners on second and third with two out, and the potential for disaster with any sort of base hit—or even just another passed ball. However, through some miracle or twist of fate, Wakefield managed to strike out Ruben Sierra to end the threat. (You can read much more about that remarkable half-a-frame in Matt Sullivan’s reminiscence from earlier this year.)

Wakefield would go on to pitch a clean top of the fourteenth inning, but the sense of “now or never” was steadily building: how much longer could the Red Sox’s bullpen stave off the Yankees’ lineup? After all, they had already pitched nearly a week’s worth of work—14.2 innings, surrendering just one run—in only 26 hours. They surely could not be expected to keep up such a streak of excellent work for too much longer.

So the Boston bats came up against Esteban Loaiza, and for a while, it seemed like a fifteenth inning was headed our way. Both Mark Bellhorn and Orlando Cabrera struck out swinging, while in between Johnny Damon (the future traitorous Yankee!) managed to work a walk. But with the likelihood of three more walks or passed balls seemed infinitely remote. Or it did, until Loaiza let his second free runner onto base in the form of Manny Ramirez. Suddenly it was runners on first and second with two outs, and the possibility of winning the game fell on the shoulders of one David Ortiz.

The at-bat did not start out very promising: swinging strike. Ball. Foul. Then another foul, and another. And then Loaiza uncorked a second ball, and something changed.

There is an old cliche in sports that, for the best athletes, the game can “slow down” in its biggest moments. As someone with the athletic grace of a newborn giraffe, the visual acuity of a baseball umpire, and the hand-eye coordination of a tuba, I figured that this would be the kind of statement that I would only hear others talk about. And yet, after that second ball, something “locked in” for Ortiz. I would never be able to explain it, but in my gut I knew that Ortiz was going to make something happen in this at-bat.

So, after fouling off three more pitches, he finally got his bat on a pitch he wanted, and sent a line drive to shallow center, where no Yankee could reach it, and brought around Damon to eke out a 5-4 victory after 14 thrilling, exhausting frames. Joe Buck’s banal call that Damon “could keep running all the way to New York” seems to barely scratch the surface of what that hit, along with the Game 4 walkoff homer, did for Red Sox fans.

In hitting that second walkoff hit on the same day, he gave us what we had longed for: hope. Hope that the Sox’s decades-long futility in the face of a wealthier rival could finally end. Hope that miracles sometimes really do happen. And this was not just a platitude: you could actually feel the difference in Boston that week. We believed in our beloved Sox, and in ourselves.

The feeling even reached my pessimistic friend, who in the hours after the win, when needled about his earlier prediction, unapologetically replied (paraphrasing from a dimly remembered email!):

The Yankees are done. They had 3986502357 chances to win it in Game 4 and Game 5, and they couldn’t do it. They’re going to lose this series.

My friend believed that, and so did I.