Roberts on The Steal, and how Mo helped it happen

'I knew he wanted to delay, delay, delay what we all knew was coming'

March 31st, 2020

, who manages the Dodgers now, was talking on Monday afternoon about what is still the most famous stolen base in baseball history, Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, Red Sox against the Yankees, bottom of the ninth, the Red Sox that close to being swept.

Mariano Rivera walked Kevin Millar, and Roberts ran for him and stole second base and scored the tying run on Bill Mueller’s single. By the time Oct. 17 had become Oct. 18 and the game was in extra innings, David Ortiz hit a walk-off home run at old Fenway, and that was the beginning of the greatest postseason comeback of them all.

“I understand why people always talk about Game 4,” Roberts said. “I get that. But nobody ever talks about Game 5.”

More about Game 5 later.

First, Game 4.

Roberts hadn’t played in 10 days. He said he spent the first few innings of Game 4 in the dugout, then went back to the Red Sox clubhouse from the fifth inning to the seventh, and watched video of Yankees relief pitchers who might be in the game if he went in to pinch-run, which he knew he would do in the late innings if the Red Sox needed a run. Roberts did some stretching, too. He ran back and forth from the clubhouse to the dugout.

In the eighth inning, with the Red Sox down a run, Roberts was back to the dugout.

“Waiting for an opportunity,” he said.

He says that when Rivera fell behind in the count against Millar, he put his helmet on. Millar finally walked. Roberts looked over at his manager, Terry Francona.

“Tito just winked,” Roberts said. “That’s all he had to say.”

Roberts said: “Even with Mo on the mound, and as bleak as things looked, we felt as if we were still in the game.”

Then Rivera, who along with everyone in the world knew why Dave Roberts was in there, started throwing over to first.

“Three times he threw over,” Roberts said. “But the great thing about that is that I felt as if he was getting me into the game. The first time he threw over, he calmed my nerves a little. The second time, I felt like I was getting my legs back. By the time he threw over the third time, I felt as if I’d played the previous eight innings.”

Rich Pilling/MLB via Getty Images

“I’m sure Mo would have never thought about it this way, but the more he threw over, the more he was helping me. And I knew he was going to try to hold the ball and hold the ball and hold the ball between throws. He’d done the same thing in a game at Yankee Stadium in September. So I was ready for that, too. I knew he wanted to delay, delay, delay what we all knew was coming.”

Finally he took off with Mueller at the plate. Roberts said on Monday that somebody in the Red Sox clubhouse told him later that it was the fastest Jorge Posada, the Yankees' catcher, had gotten the ball to second base all season.

“Pop time of 1.7,” Roberts said, meaning the time elapsed from the ball hitting Posada’s glove until reaching shortstop Derek Jeter’s glove.

The play at second base was close. Roberts said he was surprised at how close. But he knew he had beaten Jeter’s tag.

Rich Pilling/MLB via Getty Images

“[Umpire] Joe West was in great position,” Roberts said. “I praised him afterward for being in great position. Even today, umpires come up to me and thank me for acknowledging that.”

I asked him if Jeter said anything to him. Roberts laughed.

“He said, ‘How the ---- did you just do that?’” Roberts said. “Years later he told me that he wanted Mo to throw over there one more time. And guess what? If he had? He might have picked me off.”

Mueller singled up the middle. Roberts said he was going on contact, and if Rivera had gloved the ball -- which he nearly did -- Roberts would have been caught between second and third. But Rivera didn’t glove the ball. Roberts scored. Game tied. Ortiz won it. The Red Sox had lived to fight another day.

Then came Game 5.

Red Sox were behind again, in the bottom of the eighth, by two runs. Ortiz hit a home run off Tom “Flash” Gordon to bring them to within one. Millar was next up for the Red Sox. Gordon got ahead of him, 0-2. And then threw him four straight balls. In such a huge moment for his team, Millar had walked again. Here came Dave Roberts. Again. Pinch-running again. His team down a run again, just not in the bottom of the ninth this time.

“Flash was slow to the plate,” Roberts said. “But now I could see him trying to be quick, and out of his rhythm. Then he got behind Trot Nixon, 3-1. And even though it was 3-1, I decided to go.”

Roberts was going, all the way, on that 3-1 pitch, and Nixon hit one hard up the middle. Ball got through. Roberts made it to third. If he hadn’t been running, he would have stopped at second. And he would not have scored the tying run in Game 5.

“I go first to third, and Tek [Jason Varitek] hits a sacrifice fly and we’re tied,” Roberts said.

In the 14th inning, Ortiz knocked in Johnny Damon. The Sox were going back to New York. You know what happened there. The Red Sox changed the course of their own postseason history. They changed the course of baseball history. Doesn’t happen without a couple of walks to Kevin Millar in one magical 24-hour stretch for the Boston Red Sox. And the two biggest baserunning plays of them all.