Sometimes, you simply need to hit rock bottom first. Look at the 2004 Red Sox. A year of great hype and hope had suddenly come crashing down around them when they were bludgeoned by the Yankees, their forever rivals, 19-8, in Game 3 of the ALCS.
Another long, cold winter was coming all too quickly for Boston, a notion that was only reinforced when Mariano Rivera, perhaps the greatest closer of all-time, had a one-run lead and needed just three outs to put the Yankees in the World Series.
But the course of history started to change innocently enough, when Kevin Millar led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk.
"My initial thought process was just [to] try to get one mistake, middle in, and try to hit a homer. That's it. I was just going to try to pull a homer. You're not thinking walk," said Millar. "[Rivera] doesn't walk people. But at that point, the one positive facing Mariano is he doesn't throw a split finger or a changeup like that devastating scene that most closers have. He just has the scene where you don't square up balls very often because he never hits the middle of the plate.
"He threw a 1-0 fastball that was the only hittable pitch, that I pulled and yanked foul. Other than that, most of them were up and in, which was surprising, because I thought, if anything, I thought they'd attack me down and away. The only place he could really get hurt was up and in. I think I had five home runs to right field in my life."
So as Millar ran to first, he knew he'd be exiting within seconds. Back on July 31 of that 2004 season, the Red Sox made an unheralded move to get speedster Dave Roberts from the Dodgers. It was a trade that barely got any notice, given the blockbuster deal that had sent one-time franchise icon Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs on the same day.
And as Roberts got to first and started to size up Rivera, the voice of legendary base stealer Maury Wills rang in his ear. When Roberts was with the Dodgers, Wills would often impart baserunning wisdom to him in Spring Training.
"I remember Maury Wills on the backfield in Vero Beach," said Roberts. "He said, 'DR, one of these days you're going to have to steal an important base when everyone in the ballpark knows you're gonna steal, but you've got to steal that base and you can't be afraid to steal that base.' So, just kind of trotting out on to the field that night, I was thinking about him. So he was on one side telling me 'this was your opportunity'. And the other side of my brain is saying, 'You're going to get thrown out, don't get thrown out.' Fortunately Maury's voice won out in my head."
Rivera spooked Roberts by throwing over to first three times, nearly picking him off on the second attempt. But in so doing, he also helped get the baserunner into a rhythm. Roberts had not been on the field in 11 days, not since Game 2 of the AL Division Series against the Angels.
But his legs were now churning, and he was ready to go. As Rivera finally went to home, Roberts bolted to second. The pitch was perfect for Yankees catcher Jorge Posada -- high and a tad outside. Posada came forward with the fastest release time Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills had ever timed him. The throw was a good one, and shortstop Derek Jeter slapped down the tag. Roberts went head first and was safe -- barely. Fenway Park had gone from the quiet optimism provided by the Millar walk to pure excitement.
Roberts was at second with nobody out, but a hit would likely still be needed to get him home. While the steal by Roberts is without question the iconic moment from this historic game, the bullet that Bill Mueller smashed up the middle on a 1-1 cutter by Rivera to bring home the tying run is often forgotten.
"It was out over the plate and I was able to make contact," said Mueller. "And that's what I was hoping -- that [Rivera would] make a mistake. Very fortunate that I was able to put that ball in play. I was thinking more of moving [Roberts] over and doing my job and getting him to third base, almost to the degree that it would be a positive out because of how tough Mariano is. I was fortunate to find a hole."
Roberts easily beat the throw home by Bernie Williams, and pumped his fist while Fenway Park rocked with bedlam.
And then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein's mind went somewhere else entirely.
"When Roberts stole the bag, I flashed back to July 31," said Epstein, who is now the president of baseball operations for the Cubs. "We were swamped with the Nomar trade and had put our pursuit of a pinch-runner on the back burner. Earlier in the day I had asked [then-intern] Zack Scott to come up with a list of possible pinch-runners we could acquire -- guys who could steal us a base when we absolutely had to have one. Roberts was one of the names at the top of Zack's list, and he suddenly became available when the Dodgers traded for Steve Finley right before the [Trade] Deadline.
"Right in the middle of the mayhem of the four-way Nomar trade talks, we were able to acquire Roberts for Henri Stanley. As Roberts came around to score, I thought of Zack's list and all the great teamwork and camaraderie in our Baseball Operations department. It was a nice little moment during a really big moment."
The teams would remain tied until the bottom of the 12th, when an emerging legend named David Ortiz pummeled Paul Quantrill's two-seamer into the visiting bullpen, setting off a mob scene at home plate. The Red Sox still trailed, 3-1, in the ALCS, but it suddenly felt like everything had changed.
"There wasn't a bigger RBI guy going than David Ortiz, period," said Millar. "You knew that in any situation, he was going to do something special. That's just the way he was. We knew at that point he was a superstar. The stuff that he did doesn't make sense."
With one flick of his wrists, Ortiz had averted a sweep for the Red Sox. And nobody knew for sure at the time, but the win in Game 4 started a string of events that would change Red Sox history forever.