Red Sox leave Yanks looking at a long winter

Friday, October 22, 2004

NEW YORK -- Alex Rodriguez sat in front of his locker, slumped in a folding chair, dirt stains still splattered on his pinstriped pants.

No reason to rush home, no more games to get ready for. Just a long winter left to wonder why he and his teammates couldn't close out this playoff series with the championship poise the New York Yankees used to be known for.

"It's not the same team," captain Derek Jeter said. "We've had teams that have been good at it, but this is not the same team."

No, it certainly is not.

After 86 years of domination in baseball's most bitter rivalry, the Yankees finally folded against the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday night, losing 10-3 in Game 7 of the AL championship series.

Hard to believe this fabled franchise could come apart in such an epic collapse. Right here, at their hallowed home, in the shadow of all that history, all the monuments, all the banners.

"I'm embarrassed right now," Rodriguez said. "Obviously that hurts -- watching them on our field celebrating."

This was much more than a season-ending defeat -- it was an unprecedented choke job. Just three outs from a sweep on Sunday, the Yankees dropped four games in a row, becoming the first team in postseason baseball history to blow a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series.

"I wish my eyes were closed and I could open them now," reliever Tom Gordon said. "It could have been over in four. It's a tough one to bite. ... Just have to get past this."

It's never happened in the NBA. It's happened only twice in the NHL.

And now the Yankees, the most storied team in all of sports, are right at the top of a humbling list.

"I could care less about that," Jeter said. "I don't know how you can rank failure. You win or you lose."

It will be a painful piece of infamy for everyone in pinstripes. And it will certainly bring the wrath of owner George Steinbrenner this winter -- probably sooner.

New York has now gone four years without winning the World Series. Rodriguez is still looking for his first ring, as are Mike Mussina, Hideki Matsui and Jason Giambi.

"It's such a long season and when you're so close to your goal, it's going to hurt all winter," Rodriguez said.

When pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra grounded to second for the final out, the Red Sox rushed to the mound and celebrated their trip to the World Series in the middle of Yankee Stadium. Boston fans chanted and cheered behind the third-base dugout.

It was a sight many New Yorkers thought they'd never have to witness. The Yankees are the team that pulls off improbable comebacks -- especially against Boston.

Not this time.

"It makes it worse. But we've been on the success side of this thing, not just against them. Now I'm getting my share of the losing end," general manager Brian Cashman said.

After winning the first three games of the series, New York just couldn't finish it off. Star reliever Mariano Rivera had his chance -- a ninth-inning lead in Game 4 at Fenway Park. He blew the save, Boston won in 12 innings, then rallied again for a 14-inning victory in Game 5.

When the Yankees returned home, it was no better. Curt Schilling shut down New York in Game 6, and panic began to set in.

New York trotted out all the mystique it could muster for Game 7. The scoreboard played a tribute to Mickey Mantle before the game. Bucky Dent threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Yogi Berra.

A sign hanging high above home plate reminded the Red Sox of the B's who have tortured them, with one hoped-for addition: "Babe, Bucky, Buckner, Boone, Brown!!"

But Kevin Brown was awful, and Boston had a "B" of its own in response -- for blowout. New York dropped to 10-2 in the ALCS.

"History would have told them to give up. It didn't matter to them," Gordon said. "They didn't just fold the tent."

The Yankees were listless in the last two games, managing only five runs and 11 hits.

After taking the big lead, they got complacent. They didn't steal on knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. They didn't try to bunt against Schilling and his gimpy ankle. They failed to move runners in extra innings.

And even with a $183 million opening day payroll, New York ran out of pitching in the end.

"The series obviously turned in that Game 4. Then the momentum started going their way and we just couldn't hold 'em off. We obviously broke down in a number of areas," Cashman said. "We'll start working on our offseason. That's what we do win or lose -- just start earlier than we thought."

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