ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeff Ziegler received the early-morning call from the Rays' front office on Sept. 9, 2008 -- five years ago Monday. The gist of the message informed the team's traveling secretary to get Dan Johnson to Boston in time for him to play against the Red Sox that night.
"Ziggy" got busy making travel arrangements for Johnson, who played for Triple-A Durham. Since the Bulls were in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the task appeared routine. Only this day brought multiple challenges. By the time the saga of that day had run its course, the face of Rays baseball would be changed forever.
Ziegler could not arrange a direct flight. The best he could do was route Johnson through Philadelphia. Logistics were one thing, weather brought a bigger challenge.
"The weather was bad all over Pennsylvania, and it was sketchy in Boston," said Ziegler, who remained in contact with Johnson throughout the day. "He told me, 'You're not going to believe this, my flight's delayed.' So he gets stuck in Philly. One flight got cancelled. Then I start trying to look at options, but essentially, when it's weather, there's a hold. You can't just run to another airline and get out. When it's locked down, it's locked down.
"So basically I remember telling him that we were out of options and that we were just going to have to wait a little bit until he could take off. He ended up getting on the plane and flying out of there about two hours later."
Once Johnson's plane finally landed in Boston, he had less than an hour to get to Fenway Park before the game started. Ziegler told him to take a cab and "get here as quick as you can," knowing that the traffic would bring yet another challenge.
"I don't think there's any time, particularly around Fenway, when the traffic is not a mess right at game time on a home game," Ziegler said. "It was comical."
As per his instructions, Johnson had the driver take him to the corner of Yawkey Way and Van Ness.
"That's the closest gate to the field," Ziegler said. "They block traffic on Yawkey Way at Boylston Street, so they won't let any cars come down that street. We at least got Boston PD to let the car come down that street. And then we met him at the corner, got his gear bag and got him into the building as quick as we could."
Johnson laughed recalling the final maneuver orchestrated for his arrival.
"It was completely strange, because the clubbies jumped out and it was like they grabbed my stuff and we walked the other way," Johnson said. "Getting to the ballpark was the craziest moment of the day."
Though Johnson had arrived at the park, he had to navigate a different kind of traffic to reach the visiting clubhouse.
"You've got to walk right through the fans," Ziegler said. "If you show up at 7 o'clock you don't have any choice. There's no real option. We come right through Gate D, which is the same gate people come through when players leave their tickets. Walked in, probably got about 75 yards through the sausage stand to get to the clubhouse. He came in, got dressed real quick and got out there."
Rays manager Joe Maddon wanted to start Johnson. "We thought Danny matched up well against [Daisuke] Matsuzaka."
But Johnson had not reached the clubhouse prior to Maddon's 6:45 p.m. deadline, so even though Johnson was in uniform before the game, he did not start.
"Once he got in the building, we just said, 'Be ready for the latter part of the game, I won't be afraid to pinch-hit with you,'" Maddon said
Circumstances for this particular game were dire for the Rays, who had occupied first place in the American League East since July 18. The Red Sox had won the first game of the three-game series at Fenway Park on Sept. 8 to creep to within a half-game of first.
"It was like a do-or-die situation for us as far as winning the division," first baseman Carlos Pena remembered.
Most figured the Rays had finally reached the end of their rope and that the Red Sox would likely win the final two games of the series to move into first place to rid themselves of pesky Tampa Bay. For the season, the Rays were 0-7 at Fenway Park heading into the Sept. 9 affair watched by a sellout crowd of 37,573.
"We really had to beat them in their own ballpark to prove it to them that we could, and also to prove it to ourselves," Maddon said.
Talk about a roller-coaster ride. The Rays carried a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth and they had the pitching matchup they wanted with Dan Wheeler going against Jason Bay with a runner aboard and two outs. Bay had been 0-for-18 in his career against the veteran right-hander. This time he hit a 1-1 pitch over the Green Monster to give the Red Sox a 4-3 lead.
Making matters worse, Jonathan Papelbon stormed from the bullpen to pitch the ninth accompanied by the Dropkick Murphys'
Maddon called Johnson's number to lead off the inning despite his 0-for-15 mark in the Major Leagues as a pinch-hitter.
Papelbon fell behind in the count, 3-1.
"I started off 3-0 before he threw a strike," Johnson said. "Now I've seen three pitches, then he throws strike one. I fouled off the next one on 3-1."
Johnson laughed to himself after the pitch, enjoying a moment of gallows humor at his own expense.
"I'm like, 'Man, that's what you go up there to try and hit,'" Johnson said. "It was the pitch I was looking for. Like, 'What are you coming up here for if you can't hit that one?'"
Johnson did not miss the next one, powering a drive into the right-field stands to tie the game at 4.
"I remember the pitch being a little bit away," Johnson said. "I was just trying to get some good wood on it. And the adrenalin kicked in and took over for me. Got my hands in a good position to hit. I mean, it wasn't exactly the greatest pitch to hit. I think everything kind of slows down. My hands were active and got to it."
Johnson then received the best possible salute a visiting play could be accorded in Fenway Park: silence.
"It got so quiet then," Johnson said. "It was so quiet that I could hear all the guys on the bench. It was crazy how loud it was to how quiet it got. It was almost eerie it got so quiet. And here's all the guys on the bench yelling and screaming, and the rest of the place is quiet."
John Farrell served as the Red Sox's pitching coach from 2007-10. He became their manager this season.
"Every player's reputation precedes them," Farrell said. "So you know what the strengths are. You knew Dan Johnson was a very good fastball hitter. Regardless of the velocity or part of the plate, he was always looking to cover one pitch. At the same time, that's Pap's strength. So you can say he beat him at his strength, which may have been even more of a kick-start for them."
The Rays were not done. Rookie Fernando Perez followed with a double off the Green Monster, and he scored on Dioner Navarro's double for a 5-4 lead.
Maddon entrusted closer Troy Percival to protect the lead in the bottom half of the inning and, as was the custom of the veteran, he made things interesting.
Mark Kotsay drew a leadoff walk. Percival then struck out Jason Varitek to bring up David Ortiz, who had entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning. Fenway Park's energy felt palpable at this point. Red Sox Nation sensed a bit hit. But Percival retired Ortiz on a flyout to right.
Jacoby Ellsbury entered the game to pinch-run for Kotsay with Coco Crisp stepping to the plate, and he stole second and moved to third when Navarro's throw skipped into center field. Now the tying run stood 90 feet away from home plate.
Percival ended any hopes of a comeback when he got Crisp on a popout to second base to end the game and earn his 28th save of the season.
The Rays followed with a victory the next night in extra innings to take the series and leave Boston with a 2 1/2-game lead. They would go on to win the division and advance to the World Series by beating the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series.
"I think that series was instrumental, because it made us believe that we actually could," Pena said. "After that it was like, 'Hey, we can beat these guys.' And they know it, too. So that was a huge, powerful thing to grasp, whereas before there was some doubt."
Farrell noted that whether it was that one specific game on Sept. 9, 2008, or just one team against another, athletes and teams are "always looking for ways to maybe break through a psychological barrier."
"You walk into a certain ballpark and sometimes it's like, 'What is it about this park or this team that doesn't give us a crack to break through?'" Farrell said. "You know what, maybe the fact it was a guy that took our closer deep to grab a game, where otherwise it would have been another loss … maybe that boosted the confidence in that moment and helped jump-start, maybe, the run that they got on."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less