The Red Sox were up two games to nothing in the 1986 World Series. They lost the next two games. They won the fifth to take a three games to two lead. Then they lost the next two and the Series. In 1998 the Red Sox won the first game of the Division Series against Cleveland. They lost the next three and their season was over. And of course, in 2003, the Red Sox had a lead in the eighth inning of the decisive seventh game of the ALCS and lost in extra innings to the Yankees. This all happened, and for the relatively few times the Red Sox made it to the playoffs, it seemed to happen enough to feel familiar. It was going to sleep and having that dream where your basement is flooded at 4am because the Velveeta factory next door that you just noticed exploded. It was getting dumped again by that significant other you always pine over. It was hating your job, taking a new one, and hating that one even more.
It’s probably hard for us to remember what it authentically felt like considering the bounty the last 13 seasons have given us and there is no figure more central to that bounty than David Ortiz. But, the home run I remember most of all isn’t the grand slam against the Tigers in 2013, or the game winning homer in Game Four of the ’04 ALCS. It’s the one Ortiz hit in the American League Division Series in 2004 against the Angels. It's a series often forgotten in the face of the dramatic ALCS comeback and World Series sweep, but to get to do those two things, first they had to beat the Angels.
And boy did they! They crushed them 9-3 in the first game, 8-3 in the second game, and were leading 6-1 at Fenway going into the seventh inning of Game Three. The series felt over. It was over! This was a game-long coronation and the Red Sox were going to get another crack at the Yankees, another chance to make things right after what happened in 2003, and all they had to do was hold a five run lead for three more innings.
After walking the first hitter of the seventh, Bronson Arroyo was given the quick hook from Terry Francona, despite the fact he’d only thrown 91 pitches and had given up three hits and two runs in six. The walk had taken the Red Sox chances of winning the game and in turn the series from 96 percent to 94 percent. Mike Myers came in and walked Jose Molina dropping the win probability to 91 percent. Mike Timlin came in and got Curtis Pride to pop up (94 percent), gave up a single to David Eckstein to load the bases (90 percent), and struck out Chone Figgins (95 percent). Then, with two outs, Darren Erstad walked to bring in a run (90 percent) and bring up Vlad Guerrero whereupon this happened.
This was a grand slam home run that cleared not just the fence but the bullpen in right center field. The game was now essentially a coin flip and in a five game series, one game is all it takes to change everything. All those old Red Sox feelings came flowing back, the ones from ’86, ’98, ’03, and all the rest. In one swing the Red Sox had seemingly gone from a sweep to, it felt like, blowing another post-season, another chance to finally win a World Series for the first time in 86 years. They weren’t even going to get to face the Yankees this year. Everything is terrible!
It wasn’t hard to be pessimistic back then. Red Sox fans had good cause to feel that way. If there was a chance for baseball to dump on them in the most painful way possible, they--we--could have been excused for expecting it, even if, in the moment, we never quite saw it coming.
Neither team scored in the eighth or ninth, and the Angels, despite a walk and single in the top of the 10th, failed to score then either. Johnny Damon led off the Red Sox 10th with a single up the middle, but Mark Bellhorn bunted into a force out at second, and Manny Ramirez struck out looking. Up stepped a remarkably young looking David Ortiz. Sensing the moment, Angels manager Mike Scioscia brought in left-handed Jarrod Washburn to face Ortiz. Up to that point, the biggest hit in the game had been Guerrero’s grand slam. If you’re into the numbers, that hit had cost the Red Sox -33 percent of a win (a weighted WPA of -33%), though it sure felt like ten times that. So, with Bellhorn on first and two outs, Ortiz stepped in. Washburn’s first pitch was a curveball intended for the outside corner. It got a bit too much of the plate though, enough so that Ortiz could do this:
With one swing Ortiz erased the impending doom that was Guerrero’s slam and all the dread that surrounded it. It’s remarkable because most players never experience a moment like that in their careers. A game-winning, post-season series-winning home run? Never. Yet that was to be just the first of at least three game-winning hits Ortiz would provide over the next two weeks.
When stacked up against his Game Four and Game Five ALCS heroics that same post-season, even against his three-run homer in Game One of the World Series that season, this probably pales. But after the horror that was the ending to the 2003 season and all the other seasons that had come before it in the last eight plus decades, it was this moment perhaps above all that provided hope, that loudly said this isn’t the old Red Sox, that yelled from the rooftops we won’t let it happen again. It foreshadowed what was to come in the ALCS when Ortiz, to quote Joe Castiglione, "put the team on his back" against the Yankees in the weeks to come.
Mostly though, this was the sign that things could be and indeed were different from what they had been in 86 years. And isn’t that really what David Ortiz’s career in Boston was about?