Hard to believe

The last post I wrote was a celebration of the career accomplishments of Mariano Rivera. He’s been great, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer when the time comes, and I don’t think we’ll see another one like him again. But, having said that, there’s at least one instance where he didn’t come up big. So naturally that’s what I’ll be discussing here.

The 2001 World Series, where Arizona came back at home in Game seven to snatch the Series from the Yankees, doesn’t really count. That Series, from the games being played in November to the fact that the home team won every single game, feels like an aberration on some level. And the idea that it was the end of the Yankee dynasty seems a bit overblown to me.

Instead, it was the Yankees’ unprecedented collapse in the 2004 ALCS that sticks out in my mind. Rivera was certainly at the heart of it, and the player on the other end for the Red Sox is Dave Roberts. The extremely limited extent of Dave Roberts’ career with the Red Sox is worth delving into for a few paragraphs.

At the trading deadline in 2004, the Red Sox shook their fan base by trading away Nomar Garciaparra. But also made another move that received far less attention. They traded a prospect named Henri Stanley–who never played a game in the majors–to the Dodgers for the unheralded Roberts.  Roberts had speed, and that’s why the Red Sox acquired him at literally the last moment.

Roberts played in some of the Red Sox’ games down the stretch, but he seemed to disappear during the playoffs. He pinch ran in Game Two of the ALDS against the Angels, but did not play in the first and third game of that series. Nor did he play in games 1, 2, or 3 in the ALCS against the Yankees. By the time Game 4 rolled around, he hadn’t played in 10 days. But his time was actually close at hand.

With Rivera on the mound in the ninth, especially in the postseason, the game was usually over. But walks can be a killer, and Rivera walked Kevin Millar. Roberts came in to run for Millar, and everyone in Fenway knew what he would do next. Rivera did too, because he threw over to first several times. Roberts’ intentions were certainly no secret to Rivera.

Roberts had run against Rivera once before, in September, and he made some mental notes about the closer’s delivery.  It took a lot of stones to take off toward second with the season on the line, but Roberts did it, and it paid off. It was such a big moment that it’s now known simply as “The Steal.”

I remember seeing it as it happened, and I thought at the time the call could have gone either way. The umpire made his call, but a different call would have made him the most hated man in Boston since King George III. But let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that it was a home town call. My cynicism could power a major city for weeks on end, but I’m actually not that cynical.

Roberts came in to score on Bill Mueller’s single, and the Red Sox had new life. Rivera had failed to nail down the win, as he had done so many times before, and has done so many times since. The Red Sox won that game, and the next three as well to capture the series and the AL pennant. No team had ever surrendered a 3 games to zero lead in the postseason before, much less the Yankees with Rivera on the mound. But it just proves that anything’s possible.

Dave Roberts played one more time in the ALCS, when he pinch ran and scored the tying run in the eighth inning of Game Five. He did not play in the World Series against the Cardinals, and was traded away to the San Diego Padres in November of 2004, while some World Series parties were probably still going on in New England. If ever you see a Dave Roberts card in a Red Sox uniform, take it because there just can’t be too many of them to be had.

Dave Roberts never came to bat in the 2004 postseason, and he never took the field, either. But he was voted a full postseason share by his teammates, has a ring to show to all who want to see it, and enjoys a celebrity-style name recognition among the Boston faithful. You won’t ever find him in Cooperstown along with Rivera and Derek Jeter, but I’m pretty sure what he has is special enough.

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