It should’ve been the cap on a magical postseason run. The 2003 New York Yankees had just staged an epic comeback in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox, propelled into the World Series by Aaron Boone’s instant-classic 11th inning walk-off home run. All that remained was to beat the upstart Florida Marlins, who needed a Steve Bartman assist to punch their ticket to the Fall Classic.
So what went wrong? How did a seeming inevitability turn into a frustrating disappointment?
One common narrative is that the Yankees took their foot off the pedal, looking past the Marlins toward a parade down the Canyon of Heroes. The World Series did feel a bit anti-climactic following the fireworks against Boston. Perhaps they took another title for granted.
Another theory is that the Yanks were mentally, emotionally and physically drained after the Red Sox series. Indeed, the image of Mariano Rivera collapsed in a heap on the Yankee Stadium mound after Boone’s homer illustrates just how exhausting the experience had been. Perhaps his teammates were feeling equally spent.
However, neither of these explanations is completely satisfying. A closer look at the World Series shows the Yankees played well. As a team, they scored 21 runs and had an OPS of .743 over six games. The Marlins scored 17 runs and had an OPS of .582. Yankees pitchers had a 2.13 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP; the Marlins had a 3.21 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP.
Ultimately, the Yankees still lost. Baseball is a cruel and fickle mistress, a game of inches, a series of crap shoots. Pick whatever metaphor you like. In a number of pivotal spots, the Marlins simply had more things go right.
The biggest turning point came in Game 4 at Pro Player Stadium. After the Yankees narrowly dropped Game 1 in the Bronx 3-2, they rebounded to take 6-1 victories in Games 2 and 3. They seemed poised to steamroll their way to victory, a sentiment that was only bolstered in the ninth inning of Game 4. Down by two runs, midseason addition Ruben Sierra (embarking on his second stint with the club) hit a pinch-hit two-out, two-run triple to tie the game and send it into extras.
Mystique and Aura had apparently made the trip to South Florida and the Bombers were on the precipice of a 3-1 stranglehold on the series. The Yankees just couldn’t finish the job, however. After loading the bases with one out in the 11th inning, Aaron Boone struck out and John Flaherty hit a pop-up to third. The Yankees had squandered a golden opportunity to take the lead and they’d pay the price. Leading off the bottom of the 12th, Alex Gonzalez took Jeff Weaver deep and that was that. The series was even.
It seemed in the moment that the Yankees could regain the momentum. A 2-2 series with two out of the next three games in the Bronx? Surely the Yankees still felt good about their chances.
Unfortunately, those good feelings didn’t extend to David Wells’ back. The stout southpaw started Game 5 but left after one inning because of back spasms. In came Cuban import Jose Contreras, who’d pitched two scoreless innings the night before. Joe Torre wasn’t only asking a starter to pitch out of the bullpen, but on consecutive days. It didn’t go well. Contreras got tagged for four runs over three innings.
Down 6-2 entering the ninth, the Yankees staged a mini rally, scoring two runs. With a runner on second, Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui both came to the plate as the tying run, but were unable to conjure another Yankee miracle. They were retired and the Yankees found themselves with their backs to the wall, down 3-2 as they headed back to New York.
Only two words are needed to describe what happened in Game 6: Josh Beckett.
The 23-year-old right-hander stepped on the Yankees’ necks and didn’t let them up, tossing a complete game shutout, allowing just five hits and two walks while striking out nine. Andy Pettitte pitched well, but not perfectly and, unfortunately, perfection was required. Beckett clinched not only the Marlins’ second championship, but a World Series MVP for himself. The Yankees’ magical postseason ride had ended with an abrupt thud.
It would be ungenerous to say that the Marlins got lucky. Beckett was brilliant in his two starts. Juan Pierre was at peak peskiness, playing so well that George Steinbrenner became infatuated with the archetype of the speedy lefty-swinging leadoff hitter and signed Kenny Lofton to an ill-fated contract just months after the World Series ended.
But it would also be inaccurate to say that the Marlins outplayed the Yankees. They didn’t, really. They just did what virtually every World Series-winning team must do: seize the moment when it’s presented to you.
They certainly did that and stamped out what could have been another fairy tale ending in the Bronx.