It took fourteen innings.
Fourteen frames and nearly six hours of do-or-die baseball in America’s oldest and most beloved ballpark.
The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees were knotted up 4-4 with two outs and runners on first and second when David Ortiz stepped up to bat. Plunking the ball into shallow center, Johnny Damon raced home, long locks streaming behind him in the cold October air.
Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS belonged to Boston.
Let’s rewind for a moment.
In 2004, Ortiz was only in his second season of what would be a 14-year Red Sox career, but he’d already made himself indispensable. In the regular season, he’d earned his first All-Star appearance by hitting .301/.380/.603, and he reached 40 home runs for the first time in his then-eight-year career. He’d win his first of seven Silver Slugger awards when the postseason ended.
But Ortiz had never homered in a postseason game when he played for the Minnesota Twins in their ill-fated 2002 run. He notched his first October blasts in 2003, homering twice before the Sox fell to Aaron Boone.
So by the time the 2004 postseason rolled around, Ortiz was somewhat locked in, but no one could predict what was about to happen. In Game 3 of the ALDS, he hit the first postseason walk-off home run of his career to send the defending-champion Angels home and bring the Sox back to the ALCS for revenge.
The Sox quickly fell behind three games to none, and it looked like the Yankees were about to curb-stomp them for the second year in a row. But ahead of Game 4, Kevin Millar famously said, “Don’t let us win tonight,” cautioning that any ounce of momentum would be enough to tip the scales in baseball’s greatest rivalry.
What came next is something that had never been done and has never been done since. Down three games to none, the Sox won four straight to take the series. It started with a stunning Game 4 in which Kevin Millar, Dave Roberts, and Bill Mueller made some magic to tie the game in the ninth. Three innings later, Ortiz hit another walk-off home run in the bottom of the 12th to stave off elimination. In doing so, he became the first player in MLB history to hit two walk-off home runs in the same postseason.
Before that fateful series, nothing was guaranteed for the Sox. There was no such thing as a sure thing for this organization that hadn’t captured the whole megillah since 1918. Even when they came close, the assumption was heartbreak and failure, and the deeper a postseason series got, the more agonizing it would be. The Red Sox took the World Series to Game 7 in 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986, and lost them all.
Looking back on it now, the 2004 ALCS was a contest of mythical proportions. Their victory was as unlikely as Odysseus returning home to Penelope. But once the Sox pulled off the greatest comeback in baseball history, they steamrolled the St. Louis Cardinals, snatching the World Series in four games. Like Odysseus, they returned home as champions.
Ortiz never walked it off in the postseason again. Many more October heroics lay ahead, but those three games in 2004 stand alone in stunning fashion.
What a time to be alive.