It’s 2003 week here at Pinstripe Alley, as we look back at the greatest Yankees team to not win the World Series. In the absence of baseball, let us turn back the clock to the time before iTunes, when 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” topped Billboard’s Hot 100 List, Lord of the Rings and Finding Nemo dominated the box office, and X2 hinted that maybe, just maybe, a Marvel movie franchise was possible.
The 2003 Yankees may have fallen short of the ultimate prize, but that does not mean that the team did not have its share of top moments. Here’s the five greatest moments of that historic season.
Matsui Greets New Home in Style
In December 2002, the Yankees signed an outfielder out of Japan, Hideki Matsui. A ten-year veteran in the NPB, “Godzilla,” as he was called, would become a legend of the mid-2000s Yankees, ultimately winning World Series MVP in 2009, his last season in pinstripes.
Of course, none of that was known on April 8, 2003, the Yankees’ home opener. But in the bottom of the fifth, Matsui announced his arrival to the Yankees faithful and to the league. With one out and Jason Giambi and Nick Johnson on the corners, Twins pitcher Joe Mays walked Bernie Williams to load the bases. Matsui punished their lack of faith by depositing a 3-2 pitch into the right field bleachers, becoming the first Yankee to hit a grand slam in his first game at Yankee Stadium.
Roger Clemens Completes two Milestones in one Game
As the Yankees hosted the St. Louis Cardinals on June 13, ace Roger Clemens stared two milestones in the face. With 299 wins and 3996 strikeouts, he was primed to become only the 21st member of the 300-win club and the third player with 4000 strikeouts.
The Rocket wasted no time reaching that first milestone, striking out the side in the top of the first before getting Edgar Renteria to chase a high 3-2 pitch to join Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton in what Michael Kay called an “exclusive fraternity.”
Clemens dominated all game, giving up two runs in 6.2 innings of work, striking out ten, before turning it over to the bullpen. Chris Hammond, Antonio Osuna, and Mariano Rivera shut the door, and the Yankees won 5-2, giving Clemens his 300th win.
Soriano’s Leadoff Home Runs
On many teams, both then and now, Alfonso Soriano would have found himself hitting square in the middle of the order, a power hitter capable of drilling 50 doubles, 40 home runs, and batting .300. On top of that, he was a veritable stolen base threat, as he was a member of the 30-30 club in both 2002 and 2003, and came one home run shy of the 40-40 club in 2002.
On the 2003 Yankees, however, in a lineup that featured Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, and others, Soriano was the leadoff hitter. In an age where the leadoff guy was still primarily a table-setter, Soriano was in a category of his own, a cleanup hitter challenging pitchers right from the start of the game. And challenge he did, better than anybody in baseball history in fact — his record of 13 first-inning lead-off home runs still stands as the MLB Record today (incidentally, 2007 Soriano holds the NL record, with 12).
The 2003 ALCS
Ah, to relive the glorious days of the modern Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. While some fans of a more northern persuasion may disagree with me on this, but the modern rivalry truly peaked in 2003, particularly during the ALCS.
In truth, we could write a whole article about the ALCS. There’s the back-and-forth nature of the series, tied at 1-1, 2-2, and 3-3. And who can forget the infamous Game 3 matchup between Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens that devolved into a bar fight, hightlighted by Pedro throwing Don Zimmer to the ground and ending, several innings later, with a scuffle in the Yankees bullpen between Jeff Nelson and a Red Sox employee that had Karim Garcia jump the right field fence to join it?
Capping it all off, of course, would be the series’s masterpiece of a Game 7 — Mike Mussina’s three innings in relief of the ineffective Roger Clemens to keep the Yankees within striking distance, Giambi’s two home runs off Pedro Martinez to close the gap, a three-run eighth inning where the Red Sox inexplicably left a tiring Pedro in to face Hideki Matsui with the lefty Alan Embree up in the bullpen, and Mariano Rivera’s three-inning performance that, in my opinion, is the greatest of his career.
Each of these on their own would be enough to make this game, and indeed, the series, one of the most dramatic in baseball history. It is all, however, nothing more than the backstory for one of the greatest moments in Yankee history.
Aaron Bleeping Boone
Babe. Bucky. Buckner. Boone. The Curse of the Bambino may not have lasted much longer after Aaron Boone took Tim Wakefield deep to lead off the eleventh inning and broke the hearts of an entire region of the United States, but boy was its final act something special.
A midseason acquisition, Boone did not play up to expectations, posting only a 90 OPS+ in 54 games (he had a 113 OPS+ with the Reds). His playoff performance was even worse, with only 5 hits in 34 ABs at that time, and only one of them — a double during the ALDS — went for extra bases. In fact, in that pivotal Game 7, Enrique Wilson got the start at third base over him, with Boone entering as a pinch-runner for Ruben Sierra in the bottom of the 8th. His at-bat to lead off the 11th was his first of the game.
One at-bat — nay, one pitch — was all that Boone would need to send the Yankees to the World Series.
To etch his name into the history books.
To become a legend.