On October 20, 2004, the Boston Red Sox became the first team in professional sports to win a seven-game playoff series after losing the first three games. They would win Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS against their rivals, the New York Yankees, on the hallowed grounds of the old Yankee Stadium.
Sitting on the train en route to Yankee Stadium, it felt like the outcome of this historic Game 7 had already been determined. After taking a commanding 3-0 lead in the 2004 American League Championship Series, the Yankees lost two dramatic, extra inning affairs in Boston, and another close one just hours earlier in the Bronx. The Red Sox were now within one game of history.
There wasn’t much optimism that night among those dressed in midnight navy blue jackets and hats. There wasn’t much excitement either, just thousands of us filing into a decisive Game 7 less out of desire than sheer obligation.
Having grown up a Yankees fan in the late 1990s, this was an unusual feeling. The Yankees were perennial winners, running off an incredible four World Series championships in five years. If anything, the impending fate of tonight’s game was something better suited to the team in the opposing dugout.
I soon found myself, thanks to an improbable series of events, sitting just six rows behind the Red Sox dugout in the historic ballpark of my youth. To my immediate left was a retired, Yankee season ticket owner.. To my right were three generations of Red Sox fans: grandfather, son, and grandson.
Within a few pitches, a quiet resignation spread throughout the crowd. An early David Ortiz home run set the tone, and a Johnny Damon grand slam, his first of two home runs that evening, would be the early exclamation point. Kevin Brown, the Yankee starter who famously cut his hand punching a door earlier in the year, wouldn’t make it out of the second inning.
For Yankee fans, the remaining eight innings played out like the longest funeral procession in history. The end of a season. The end of a dynasty. And the end of the one-sided dominance that had come to define this storied rivalry for so long.
For Red Sox fans, however, it was nothing short of nirvana. By the eighth inning, of the original 56,129 fans in attendance, all that remained was a swarm of Red Sox fans occupying the lower bowl like an insurgent army.
When Ruben Sierra finally grounded out to end the game, the dugout in front of me exploded in celebration. I remember the sheer joy on the faces of these players, and outfielder Trot Nixon sprinting to the outfield with a bottle of champagne to celebrate with the few remaining fans in the bleachers.
The energy of the triumphant Red Sox fans in the stadium was palpable, a unified wave of joy, celebration, and release. In turn, the players returned the love, making an effort to connect with every single one of them, celebrating on the diamond for what felt like an eternity.
A well deserved eternity.
At this point, I was very likely the only Yankee fan left in the building. Most had left in the fifth inning, while the rest made a mass exodus after Pedro Martinez’s brief, rocky relief appearance in the 7th inning (good only for one last “Who’s Your Daddy?” chant).
I couldn’t leave. I didn’t want to. I knew this was something bigger than rooting for laundry. Sure, the Red Sox had just made my hometown team a footnote in history, doing something absolutely unprecedented on the same spot where Bath Ruth once played. And true, their fans had suddenly turned The House That Ruth Built into Fenway Park South.
But, wasn’t that all the more reason to take it in?
It was perfectly fitting that the Red Sox had to exorcise their demons by vanquishing their rivals in the house of the man for whom “the curse” was named after. The Red Sox may have gone on to quickly sweep the Cardinals in the fall classic a week later; but, make no mistake about it, this was their World Series.
You could certainly see it in the eyes of the Red Sox fans to my right. They were still there, of course they were, sharing a tearful embrace. What once seemed more improbable than anything else in sports had just unfolded in front of their eyes. They weren’t going to let the moment go.
They allowed me to share it.
We talked about growing up a Red Sox fan, the agony of Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone, and how they’d seen people live their entire lives without feeling what they were feeling now. They weren’t just celebrating for each other, they were celebrating for those who never got the chance. It was something, they said, you wouldn’t understand unless you were a lifelong Red Sox fan.
But, in a way, I could.
Despite being a Yankees fan in my youth, I was also a Cubs fan, and knew all too well the pain that could come with rooting for a “cursed” team. Just a year earlier, Cubs fans experienced their very own version of the Aaron “Bleeping” Boone game, and it would be another 12 years until we could bask in the kind of unbridled joy these Red Sox fans were currently enjoying.
And that’s why, even as October 20th turned into October 21st, I simply couldn’t leave Yankee Stadium that night. In a weird way, it became my transition into sports adulthood, where I left behind the immature, irresponsible, and arbitrary hatred of other teams.
It’s when I first fully realized why sports matter so much in this country, serving as a beacon of hope across a bleak horizon. It is why we continue to ride the wave of emotion of nine innings of playoff baseball, marvel at LeBron James in the NBA Finals, and spend our Sundays among friends cheering on our gridiron gladiators. It is why we still wax poetic about the Jordan Bulls, why we always have one eye on the leaderboard when Tiger Woods is in the mix on Sundays, and why we still can’t believe what we just saw.
At its best, sports provides us a sense of connection and community that so few things remain capable of. We live and die with each pitch, each pass, each shot, each game, and each season. And even when we can’t be in the same stadium, the same bar, or the same living room, we rarely do so alone. It is a uniquely shared experience.
But, when we can celebrate together, it is among the most euphoric feelings imaginable. I may have been at the new Yankee Stadium when the Bombers won the World Series in 2009, or ran onto the field with thousands of other disbelieving Rutgers fans in 2006, or celebrated Michael Jordan’s unbelievable career at his final NBA game in Philadelphia, but the “in the building” experience I treasure most was the one I witnessed that night in the Bronx all those years ago.
We live for those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that only sports can provide, when we can look at the people next to us and say, “Did that really just happen?”
For the Red Sox fans in the building that night, it’s possible they still don’t believe that it happened.
But, it did.
And I will be forever grateful that I was there to witness it.