The respectful Fenway sendoff for Derek Jeter made me wonder: If New York and Boston fans had to collaborate on picking an all-star team from the Sox–Yanks rivalry, who would make the cut?
Before I list my roster, I’ll briefly explain the criteria I used:
• I used only players from the rivalry’s modern era, starting with the 2002 season, when the Sox’ current ownership group took over.
• I kept players in their natural positions. No using Jonathan Papelbon as a setup man or a late-in-his-career Bernie Williams in right.
• I limited my picks to players who performed at their peak while wearing either the Boston or New York uniforms, rather than fading stars who joined the rivalry late in their careers. That eliminated, among many others, Ichiro, Randy Johnson, and John Smoltz.
• Players had to have enough “standability” (to steal a phrase from Andy Rooney) to be acceptable to the opposing fan base. So: No A-Rod, who doesn’t appeal to either fan base.
Here’s the 25-man roster I came up with:
• Johnny Damon, CF
• Derek Jeter, SS
• Manny Ramirez, LF
• David Ortiz, DH
• Kevin Youkilis, 1B
• Dustin Pedroia, 2B
• Jorge Posada, C
• Mike Lowell, 3B
• Nick Swisher, RF
Starting Rotation• Pedro Martinez
• Curt Schilling
• Jon Lester
• Andy Pettitte
• Mike Mussina
• Tim Wakefield, long relief/spot starter
• Mike Timlin, middle relief
• Hideki Okajima, middle relief
• Mike Myers, lefty specialist
• David Robertson, setup man
• Mariano Rivera, closer
• Jason Varitek, C
• Jacoby Ellsbury, OF
• Mark Bellhorn, utility infielder
• Kevin Millar, right-handed pinch-hitter
• Hideki Matsui, left-handed pinch-hitter
A few explanations:
• Manny Ramirez is probably the most controversial pick. But despite his stormy departure from Boston and multiple PED violations, he remains a beloved figure among a certain segment of Red Sox fans, not to mention some Yankees fans who secretly wished Ramirez could have played in New York, where he’d gone to high school.
• The toughest call was Jorge Posada over Jason Varitek. Sox fans loved Varitek for the mitt in A-Rod’s mug (a gesture Yankees fans can appreciate retroactively) and his handling of the pitching staff, but Posada put up better numbers longer.
• Nick Swisher in right? Seriously? Yes. Every other prospective candidate had an asterisk of some kind. Shane Victorino would be the perfect “character” guy, but he just hasn’t played enough to qualify. Trot Nixon had some good years but was hurt too much. Ditto J.D. Drew. Bobby Abreu? Meh. In four full seasons in New York the-switch-hitting Swisher never played fewer than 148 games and averaged 26 homers. In this lineup, that’s all you need from your No. 9 hitter. And his frat-boy personality would make him a better fit than glowering Gary Sheffield, whose big numbers carried a Mitchell Report asterisk.
• Damon, Youkillis, Myers, Ellsbury (who edged out Curtis Granderson), and Bellhorn all got points for playing on both sides of the rivalry. So did Lowell for being a former Yankees prospect.
One of the pleasures of researching a project like Boston’s 100 Greatest Games is to learn startling things, even if they don’t make it into the book. Like the story of an obscure pitcher named Carl Mathias.
The Red Sox, as I noted in the book’s introduction, once rallied for eight runs with two down in the ninth for a 13–12 win over the Washington Senators. That game, in June 1961, didn’t make the cut. But a detail from that game became lodged in my mind. While cross-referencing various sources, I noticed that Carl Mathias, Washington’s starting pitcher, was still in the game when the Red Sox started their historic rally. Then I noticed Mathias’s lifetime record: 0–2.
In other words, the poor guy was on the mound at Fenway Park with a seven-run lead in the ninth inning, one out away from picking up his first win in the major leagues … and he never got it.
It had to be the bitterest cup of coffee in baseball history.
Further digging revealed that Mathias was still around, living near his hometown in Pennsylvania. I couldn’t imagine how he had lived with such a crushing disappointment for half a century. I still remember disappointing moments from Little League after more than 40 years.
So I gave him a call to see how he was coping. And I’m glad I did.
Mathias, as you would expect, vividly recalled every grisly detail of that Fenway nightmare. Until the last of the ninth, it had been a glorious day for the 25-year-old lefthander, who had joined the Senators in the expansion draft after coming up with the Indians in 1960. That Father’s Day afternoon, in his first big-league start, he had surrendered five runs, but just three had been earned. And he had contributed to a five-run rally in the top of the ninth with his first (and only) major league hit, a single to center off Sox reliever Billy Moffett. Now, with two down and Sox shortstop Don Buddin at first, Mathias had only to retire Boston second baseman Chuck Schilling (“C. Schilling” in the box score) to get his first win.
But Schilling singled to center. Then left fielder Carroll Hardy (starting in place of struggling rookie Carl Yastrzemski) singled to center, scoring Buddin. That was cause for annoyance but not concern. It was still 12-6, Washington. Up next was center fielder Gary Geiger, a left-handed batter that Mathias had struck out twice already. But Mathias was laboring now, and he committed an unpardonable offense. He walked Geiger to load the bases. That brought Washington manager Mickey Vernon out to the mound. He took the ball.
Despite having had five decades to obsess over that fateful decision, Mathias refused to second-guess his manager. “Let’s face it,” he said. “I left with the bases loaded. I’d thrown quite a few pitches. I was running out of gas. Jackie Jensen was coming up and [Vernon] didn’t want him to clonk one off of me.”
Jensen, Boston’s right fielder, was a right-handed power hitter. He’d been the American League MVP in 1958, with 35 homers and a league-leading 122 RBI. With Fenway’s left-field wall just 310 feet away, why risk damaging a tiring young lefty’s confidence? Better to bring in a veteran righty like Dave Sisler (seven saves and a 1.67 ERA in 21 appearances) to finish the job.
But Sisler didn’t finish the job. He walked Jensen to force in a run, then walked third baseman Frank Malzone to force in another. Now it was 12-8, with Sox catcher Jim Pagliaroni coming up. And although he’d hit just seven home runs so far in his budding career, at 6’4” and 210 pounds, Pagliaroni put the potent in the phrase potential tying run.
Mathias, who had taken a seat in the dugout rather than hit the showers, anticipated my next question. “Yeah,” he said, drawing the word out, “I seen it go.”
Pagliaroni, a right-handed batter, turned on a 2–1 slider and drove it to deep left. The ball landed in the net atop the wall, taking Mathias’s precious W with it.
Sisler, who issued another walk before departing, became the loser after Marty Kutyna, Washington’s third pitcher, gave up a pair of singles, including the game-winner to pinch-hitter Russ Nixon.
At this point in our conversation Mathias made a startling revelation. He told me that that Fenway nightmare wasn’t even the worst moment of his career. “There was another one,” he said. “In Cleveland. I came in against the Yankees in relief.”
Mathias put the moment in context. It was September 1960. The Yankees were en route to their eleventh World Series appearance in fourteen years. And Mathias, like many other kids who had grown up immersed in baseball, had been a fan for much of that time. “I had rooted for the Yankees from about ’47 on,” he said. “And now all of a sudden they’re standing 60 feet away.”
The first-place Yankees had begun a Sunday doubleheader at Cleveland Stadium with just a one-game lead (over the Orioles) in the American League. New York had won the first game 5-0. The second game was tied 1-1 after nine innings. Yankees third baseman Bobby Richardson singled in the go-ahead run off of Indians starter Bobby Locke in the tenth. Then, with runners on first and second and one out, “[Yankees manager Casey] Stengel, in a bid for more runs, withdrew [pitcher] Luis Arroyo, who had replaced Jim Coates in the eighth, for a pinch hitter,” according to the next day’s New York Times.
And, the Times noted, “The move almost backfired.”
That’s because Carl Mathias, a little-known left-hander, retired pinch-hitter Yogi Berra and shortstop Tony Kubek to end the threat. In the last of the tenth, the Indians tied the game and had the bases loaded with two outs. Utility outfielder Marty Keough, a left-handed batter, pinch-hit for catcher Red Wilson against Yankee righty Eli Grba. He ripped a line drive that seemed destined for the right-field grass and the game-winning RBI.
Dale Long was playing first base for New York. He had entered the game in the second inning for starter Moose Skowron. “Don’t ask me why,” Mathias said.
He explained the significance of the move. Skowron, who threw with his right hand, wore the glove on his left hand. Long did the opposite. “And because Dale had his glove on his right hand, he caught it,” Mathias said. “Skowron would’ve never caught it.”
So instead of walking off with a win over the mighty Yankees, Mathias returned to the mound. He struck out Grba to start the eleventh and got Roger Maris on a liner to right. Then Mickey Mantle stepped to the plate. “There was only one way to throw him,” Mathias said. “That was up and in. And I couldn’t quite throw hard enough.”
Mantle blasted a home run deep to left-center that made the Yankees a winner and Mathias a loser.
But again: How many American kids who grew up in that era would have loved even the chance to face Mickey Mantle with the game on the line in a pennant race? The experience gave Mathias an even greater appreciation of just how good the Yankees slugger was. “He hit all three [pitches] that I threw,” Mathias said. “Curveball, fastball, changeup.”
He’s not kidding. Mathias faced Mantle four times in his short career. The results: a double and three home runs, none of them cheap.
The last two homers effectively ended Mathias’s major-league career. On July 1, 1961—less than two weeks after his Fenway meltdown—Mathias got a start at Yankee Stadium. Again, the Senators jumped out to a good lead, 5-1 after 2½. The Yankees’ lone run had come on a Mantle solo shot leading off the last of the second that had landed ten rows deep in the bleachers, to the left of the 457-foot sign. In his next at-bat, Mantle blasted another tape-measure homer to left, this one a three-run bomb that tied him with teammate Roger Maris in their season-long home run race. Although Washington still led, 5-4, Mathias got the hook in the third inning. (Maybe it was just as well. The Senators suffered another stunning loss, 7-6, when Maris hit a walk-off two-run homer against Sisler.)
Hard to believe a pitcher who threw just 29 innings in the big leagues could have suffered so many emotional letdowns. But Mathias’s rough ride through the majors did nothing to diminish his lifelong love of baseball—a love that he passed on to his grandson, Wade. And as a high-schooler, Wade made a gesture that acknowledged his grandfather’s star-crossed big-league career. “He said, ‘Look what number I got,’” Mathias told me.
Was it No. 30, which Mathias wore when he’d made his debut with the Indians in 1960? Or was it No. 24, which Mathias had worn with the Senators in 1961?
Uh, no. It was No. 7—Mickey Mantle’s number with the Yankees. “My grandson liked to rub it in,” Mathias said.
After a baseball career that would have made a lot of men cry, Carl Mathias could look back and laugh.
To my surprise, the top of my list was easier to pick than the bottom. I settled on the top five early on and never wavered. But those bubble games at the back end were a challenge. Here are a few that almost made the cut:
• The 1999 MLB All-Star Game
The 70th Major League Baseball All-Star Game was supposed to have been played in Milwaukee. But when it became apparent that Miller Park wouldn’t be finished in time, Fenway Park moved up in the rotation from its 2001 slot (for what was widely perceived to be its last hurrah before being torn down early in the 21st century). In the process, Boston benefitted from one of the many Y2K commemorations held throughout the sports world in 1999. Major League Baseball had compiled a list of the 100 Players of the Century; 31 of them were at Fenway that night. The Sox couldn’t have assembled a better welcoming committee for Ted Williams, whose dramatic arrival via golf cart from center field brought the pregame ceremonies to a standstill. With Fenway still aglow, Pedro Martinez then punched out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Jeff Bagwell (who had combined to hit 210 home runs the year before—52 more than the ’27 Yankees) in the first two innings. But ultimately I decided that this was more a great moment than a great game.
• Patriots 27, Jets 24, OT, September 14, 1997 (Tuna Bowl I)
In hindsight it’s hard to grasp the level of hype leading up to the return of former Pats coach Bill Parcells after his defection to the Jets. This was the most-anticipated regular reason game in Foxboro Stadium history. The fact that the Patriots pulled it out in dramatic fashion—defensive lineman Mike Jones blocked a chip-shot field goal at the end of regulation and Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winner in overtime—made it a viable candidate for the top 100. But despite superior talent, New England played a sloppy, undisciplined game—Drew Bledsoe in particular. And I decided that, even though the Patriots won, this game mostly showed what a step back it was for the franchise when Pete Carroll replaced Bill Parcells.
• Patriots 27, Dolphins 24 (OT), December 29, 2002
Since winning their first Super Bowl the Patriots have missed the playoffs just twice. Each time, they were still in contention after playing their final down of the season, pending the outcome a later game. And each time they lost out because Chad Pennington kicked Brett Favre’s ass under the lights at the Meadowlands. In 2008, with Matt Cassel as quarterback, the Pats routed Buffalo in their last game to finish 11–5. But they lost a tiebreaker for the division title to Miami. (Behind Pennington, the Dolphins knocked off the Jets 24–17 in their finale, thanks in large part to Favre’s three picks.) 2002 smarted even more. New England, reigning Super Bowl champions for the first time, overcame a 24–13 deficit against Miami in the last three minutes of their season finale to keep their playoff hopes alive. But Pennington (then with the Jets) thoroughly outplayed Favre (then with the Packers) as New York routed Green Bay 42–17 to win the division on a tiebreaker. And because the Pats failed to make the playoffs, that great ’02 comeback failed to make the top 100.
• Red Sox 4, Senators 0, June 23, 1917
Sox pitcher Ernie Shore can claim the distinction of throwing the only pluperfect game in major league history. In the first game of a Saturday doubleheader at Fenway Park, Shore recorded 27 outs while facing just 26 batters. And for years Shore—who entered the game when starter Babe Ruth was tossed for arguing balls and strikes after walking leadoff batter Ray Morgan—was credited with a perfect game. Sox catcher Sam Agnew erased Morgan on an attempted steal, and Shore allowed no one to reach the rest of the way. But in 1991, an eight-man bureaucracy from MLB accomplished what nine Senators from Washington could not: It spoiled Ernie Shore’s “perfect” game. A Major League Baseball rules committee reclassified Shore’s feat as a combined no-hitter. Considering Ruth’s contribution to the feat, it has to be the most inequitable shared record in sports.
• Red Sox 9, Mariners 7, April 10, 1998
The greatest home opener in Fenway history. The Seattle Mariners, defending AL West champs, were in town on Good Friday, with A-Rod and Junior Griffey in the lineup and Randy Johnson on the mound. The Big Unit was at his imposing best: fifteen strikeouts and more hit batsmen (three) than hits allowed (two). With Seattle holding a 7–2 lead in the ninth, Mariners manager Lou Piniella lifted Johnson and began an Easter parade of relievers, starting with former Sox closer Heathcliff Slocumb. They didn’t record a single out. All seven Sox batters scored—the last four on Mo Vaughn’s walk-off grand slam.
• Lynn Classical 38, Nashua 6, December 6, 1947
I was willing to include a high school game among the top 100 if I found a viable candidate. The 1914 Everett High team, for example, won the “national championship” by outscoring its opponents 600–0 en route to a 13–0 record. Great team? No doubt. Great games? No way. Even the so-called championship game was a howler: an 80–0 romp over a team from Oak Park, Illinois, coached by the legendary Robert Zuppke. The Lynn Classical teams from the 1940s that featured Harry Agganis—probably the best-known Boston high school player ever—also achieved national recognition. Classical beat a team from Norfolk, Virginia, 21–14, at the Orange Bowl on Christmas Day 1946. That wasn’t a national championship game; it was an invitational. Classical was supposed to return to Miami in 1947, but they were disinvited from the invitational when the Orange Bowl committee learned that the Lynn team had two black players, Paul Pittman and Tom Smith. “We don’t play our boys against Negroes,” Orange Bowl director Robert B. Mulloy told the Associated Press. “Lynn Classical has two and so Classical is definitely out.” Lynn coach Bill Joyce’s response: “We don’t play anywhere without our full squad, much less without our two Negroes.” And so Classical stayed home and instead played Nashua, the New Hampshire state champion, in a hastily arranged game at Lynn’s Manning Bowl. That game—dubbed the “Shoe Bowl” because of the importance of the shoemaking industry in each city—didn’t make the cut for my list, but it deserves honorable mention.