Aaron Freakin’ Boone. A fringe player lifted the best team in baseball over its biggest rival in a crucial Game 7 in the 2003 American League Championship Series. That moment is what makes us love baseball. No one expected Aaron Boone to play or contribute, much less become a folklore hero. Boone batted a paltry .254 in the regular season with an uninspiring six home runs; somehow, he found a moment to become a hero for Yankees fans all over the world.
Setting the scene, the ’03 Yankees finished the regular season with the best record in the American League with 101 wins. They easily dispatched the Twins in the first round, outscoring them by a combined 10 runs and winning three-straight after a Game 1 loss at home. They entered the ALCS against the rival Red Sox as favorites, as Boston squeaked past Oakland in the Divisional Series.
The series did not go nearly as expected. Mussina continued his playoff struggles against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, losing both Game 1 and 4. Luckily, mostly strong starts by Andy Pettitte, David Wells and Roger Clemens got the Yanks to a Game 7 in New York. A Clemens vs. Pedro finale was a fitting end to a back-and-forth series for the ages.
Game 7 didn’t start as Yankees’ fans would hope. The ragtag pairing of Trot Nixon and Kevin Millar got the Sox out to a quick 4-run lead, quieting the New York crowd early in the game. The previously shaky Mussina stopped the bleeding, posting three scoreless innings in relief of Clemens. Frequent gym-rat Jason Giambi hit a pair of home runs to close the gap to 4-2. After food-veteran David Ortiz hit a solo shot in the 8th, the game entered legendary mode.
Boston manager Grady Little made the later-maligned choice to leave Pedro in the game for the 8th inning. Jeter started the comeback with a double, followed by a Bernie Williams single. "Godzilla" Matsui and Posada both doubled, driving in three runs to tie the game at 5.
Aside from the finish, Mariano Rivera’s dominance always sticks out in this game. While he was a complete and utter God on the mound, he was most vulnerable against Boston and while pitching beyond one inning. In this crucial game, Rivera only allowed 2 baserunners in three innings while keeping the dream of the AL Pennant alive. His performance was legendary, even as the greatest reliever in baseball history.
After 2.5 scoreless innings, Aaron Boone led off the 11th inning. Boone previously entered the game as a pinch runner for Ruben Sierra. I remember shaking my head as he walked to the plate, wondering why he was still in the game; unfortunately, Joe Torre didn’t have many options left on his bench. Facing the previously unbreakable Wakefield, I had no hope.
I looked across the couch at my father and said it was probably a good time to head to the bathroom if he needed to. As he was standing up, Wakefield floated a knuckler towards home plate and Boone blasted it to the left field bleachers. I immediately stood up and jump-hugged my father in the living room with tears welling in our eyes. The Yankees’ players joined us in our exhilaration on the field, punctuating a proper finish to a rollercoaster of a finale.
This was the same season that Pedro Martinez hip-tossed Don Zimmer to the ground like Humpty Dumpty. The rivalry between Boston and New York was as fiery as it ever was. Although we didn’t win the World Series against the Marlins that year, winning the ALCS in that manner stuck with me more than any championship in my lifetime. The fact that I was able to share that moment with my father, a Yankee fan since the days of Mickey Mantle, made that moment that much sweeter.