By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A lot has happened for the Boston Red Sox since July 24, 2004, but it’s a day that will forever live in the team’s history.
It’s been 14 years since one of the most memorable moments in Red Sox history played out at Fenway Park, when Jason Varitek shoved his mitt into Alex Rodriguez’s face and sparked a benches clearing brawl between the Sox and Yankees. It was a time when the Yankees still reigned supreme in the American League, and the Red Sox were still a bunch of lovable losers (later redefined as “Idiots”). Many point to that day as the turning point of the 2004 season, when the Red Sox would go on to break an 86-year-old curse and bring a World Series title back to Boston.
When the Red Sox and Yankees took the field that Saturday afternoon, after a 54-minute rain delay, New York owned an 8.5 game lead in the AL East. The Yankees jumped out to a 3-0 lead by the top of the third when Rodriguez stepped to the plate against Bronson Arroyo. The Sox righty went inside with a 1-1 pitch and plunked Rodriguez on the elbow. Rodriguez was not happy, and let Arroyo know with a few choice words as he made his way slowly down the first base line.
Varitek stepped in and told the Yankees slugger to take his base. Rodriguez didn’t like that either, and turned his attention to the future Boston captain. After a few more choice words, Varitek had had enough and planted his catcher’s mitt where those naughty words were coming from. Benches and bullpens cleared, a brawl ensued between the rivals, and the already heated rivalry up taken up to 11.
It’s an image that will live forever in Red Sox lore and MLB history. The picture hangs in sports bars and basements all over New England, a reminder of the wonderful things that would happen just a few months later. After years of being the little brother to the Yankees, it was that moment that showed the Red Sox were not going to be pushed around by the “Evil Empire” in pinstripes anymore. It was that moment that the Red Sox fought back.
That tilt took nearly four hours to decide a winner (it was a Red Sox-Yankees game afterall), and it was only fitting that it would end in dramatic fashion. The Red Sox scored three times in the bottom of the ninth, with Bill Mueller taking Mariano Rivera into the bullpen to give Boston an 11-10 walk-off win. That punch, and the one delivered by Varitek, gave the team a new level of confidence whenever they matched up against the Yankees the rest of the season.
Five days after the brouhaha, Theo Epstein showed similar stones when he traded away shortstop Nomar Garciaparra in a four-team deal that brought Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz to Boston. Gone was the face of the franchise, albeit a bitter face at that time, but the daring move vastly improved the team’s defense. The Red Sox would go 40-15 to close out the regular season and win the AL Wild Card, setting up even more dramatic moments to enter into team history.
When the team went down 3-0 against the Yankees in the ALCS, they didn’t just roll over and quit. With their backs against the wall, Boston won Game 4 on a David Ortiz walk-off homer in the 12th inning. Then they won Game 5 on another Ortiz walk-off, this time an RBI single in the 14th inning. They won Game 6 in the Bronx, 4-2, on a gutsy performance by Curt Schilling and his bloody sock, and made baseball history by pummeling the Yankees 10-3 in Game 7, completing the first-ever comeback from a 3-0 series deficit. They went on the sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series for their first title since 1918.
Does all of that happen if Varitek didn’t smack ARod right in the kisser a few months prior? Maybe. But it was that July afternoon at Fenway that transformed the way just about everyone felt about the Red Sox. After years of getting pushed around by the Yankees, the Red Sox pushed back, and it changed everything.