The night that turned the tide in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry

July 24th, 2023

The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is the most storied one in baseball, and among the fiercest in professional sports. But it never has been, and almost surely never will be, better than it was from 2003-04.

For one, the star power was off the charts. Papi. Jeter. Nomar. Posada. Pedro. Mariano. Schilling. Sheffield. Manny. And joining the Yankees in 2004, after a trade to the Red Sox fell apart, was A-Rod.

Secondly, it had the playoff pedigree that any top rivalry should have -- and then some. Both 2003 and 2004 culminated in seven-game ALCS classics between Boston and New York, with each team winning once. To this day, that’s the only instance of those two franchises meeting in the playoffs in back-to-back years. In fact, it’s one of only four instances of any two teams having a seven-game series in two straight years (1991-92 Pirates-Braves, 1957-58 Braves-Yankees, 1955-56 Dodgers-Yankees).

But lastly, and most importantly, it had the animosity. And that was never more evident than it was on July 24, 2004.

To be fair, heated tempers were nothing new to the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry at this point. Both teams were still less than a year removed from the infamous Pedro Martinez-Don Zimmer skirmish during Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS -- a series that ended with current Yankees manager ’s extra-innings walk-off home run in Game 7.

But those tempers heated up a few more degrees when stepped up to the plate while the Yankees held a 3-0 lead in the top of the third inning on that fateful July night. With a 1-1 count, Red Sox starter hit Rodriguez in the left arm with a slow curveball, leading to some words between Arroyo, Rodriguez and Boston catcher .

While some very basic lip-reading can give you at least a decent idea of Rodriguez’s words, we do have some more detailed insight years later, thanks to this oral history from The Athletic (subscription required):

“I just remember him mouthing at me, ‘Throw that [crap] over the [bleeping] plate,’” Arroyo said in 2019. “That’s what he said to me twice.”

“‘Tek says, 'Hey dude, we don’t hit .260 hitters,'" Schilling added. "And then that’s when you see Alex look at him and go, 'F--- you. F--- you.'"

The benches-clearing brawl led to a a bevy of fines and suspensions, including four games apiece for Varitek and Rodriguez -- who, as Rodriguez claimed in 2021, still haven’t spoken since that night despite being teammates for Team USA at the 2006 World Baseball Classic. As such, it’s understandable why the fight is all that most people remember.

What might get lost is that, after both teams returned to their dugouts, the remainder of the game turned out to be an instant classic.

Boston quickly overcame that initial 3-0 deficit, scoring a pair of runs in both the third and fourth innings to take a one-run lead. The Yankees then broke through in the sixth, getting five hits off Arroyo in that frame before he was pulled, and eventually finishing that half-inning with a 9-4 advantage. The pendulum continued to swing in the bottom half of the inning, as Boston batted around and got four runs before struck out with the bases loaded to keep New York ahead by one. 

After a comparatively tame couple of innings, the Yankees entered the bottom of the ninth with a 10-8 lead, and it was Sandman time. Facing the eventual all-time MLB saves leader at the peak of his powers, with a two-run deficit, usually meant game over for the opposing team.

But not on this magical night in Boston.

Garciaparra doubled to open the bottom of the ninth, his third hit of the day. After a flyout, singled Garciaparra home, cutting the deficit to one. From there,  cranked a 3-1 pitch into the right-field bullpen to send Fenway Park into hysteria:

With an 11-10 final, this is still one of only four games in Red Sox-Yankees history where the game was decided by one run, both teams scored at least 10 runs and the winning team trailed by at least five at some point. It was also one of only four blown saves that Rivera had in the 2004 regular season, as he finished with an MLB-high 53 saves. Including the playoffs, four of Rivera’s seven blown saves in 2004 came against the Sox.

As that last nugget suggests, the drama between these two teams was only just beginning, as that back-and-forth win sparked a late-season rally for Boston. The Red Sox entered July 24 in dubious playoff position at 52-44, having lost seven of their last 10 games and trailing the White Sox by half a game in the race for the AL’s lone Wild Card spot. But Boston surged to an AL-best 46-20 finish to end up at 98-64, not quite enough to catch the Yankees for the division title but enough to secure the Wild Card bid.

After dispatching the Angels in an ALDS sweep, the Sox quickly found themselves down 3-0 to the Yankees in the ALCS. But all that did was set the stage for one of the most legendary comebacks in sports history. The Dave Roberts steal, followed by none other than Mueller knocking him in. The Big Papi Game 4 walk-off … which came one day before the Big Papi Game 5 walk-off. Curt Schilling’s heroic Bloody Sock outing in Game 6.

After a 10-3 Game 7 drubbing, the Red Sox became the first, and still only, team in MLB history to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a series. A week later, they had swept St. Louis to finally break the Curse of the Bambino and take home Boston’s first World Series win since 1918.

When all is said and done, it’s fair to say there’s no Four Days in October without that one night in July.