For the Boston Red Sox, Game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series was a disaster. Despite the New York Yankees 2-0 series lead, the Red Sox and their fans fully anticipated righting the ship at Fenway Park, but the Evil Empire systematically ripped the heart out of Boston, piling up 19 runs and 22 hits. Just like that the Yankees were one game away from sweeping the Sox on their home turf.
Game 4 plodded along and the Yankees eventually grabbed the lead, 4-3, in the sixth inning. The score held into the ninth and Mariano Rivera trotted out of the bullpen, needing just three outs to advance to the World Series.
With Kevin Millar at the plate, then Red Sox manager Terry Francona readied Roberts, his fastest man on the roster. If Millar could find a way to reach base, Dave Roberts would be installed as a pinch-runner.
Millar walked, and right in cue, Francona called on Roberts, who remembers his manager winking at him as he left the dugout. The veteran utility player knew what his skipper was implying.
Perched on first base, Roberts stared down Rivera while summoning the wisdom of Maury Wills, the Dodgers legend who led the league in steals six straight seasons (1960-1965). When he was with the Dodgers, Roberts would spend hours working on the back fields of Vero Beach during spring training. That’s where Wills would remind him again and again that his dedication would one day pay.
One of these days you’re going to have to steal an important base when everyone in the ballpark knows you’re gonna steal, but you’ve got to steal that base and you can’t be afraid to steal that base.
This is my moment, thought Roberts.
At that moment, Red Sox first base coach Lynn Jones leaned in and let Roberts know the bunt sign was on.
Roberts remembers thinking to himself, I didn’t come in to pinch run so someone else could drop a sacrifice bunt.
“Hey, I’m going to steal,” Roberts told Jones.
“Do what you do,” said Jones.
And that’s exactly what Roberts did. On the next pitch he took off, stealing second base.
Roberts would eventually score the tying run and the Red Sox would go on to win Game 4 in 12 innings — and the next three games, the ALCS and the franchises first World Series title since 1916 (86 years earlier). Sports Illustrated celebrated the Sox by naming the team Sportsmen of the Year.
Tonight, Roberts returns to the scene of the crime; the place where he stole that base which set in motion a seismic shift in momentum and a miraculous comeback.
“It is great coming back to this great city,” he said in his pre-game press conference. “I’ve got nothing but great memories, even flying into Logan … then you drive up to Fenway Park and it all just kind of comes back to you, 2004.”
Since that night, Roberts has been approached over and over again by Red Sox fans from across the country, each sharing their story of where they were and what it meant to them, their family, even lost loved ones.
“I think the key that I’ve really grown to appreciate is it’s not about me,” said Roberts. “I understand that it was a big play for me, for the Red Sox and our club in 2004, but understanding that everyone has a moment. That moment is special to them or whoever they’re with, and however they identify that play with that particular moment. And for to them to want to share that with me, that’s pretty humbling. I’ve heard stories of parents on their deathbed and got to see it, and then finally gave way once they saw us win a championship. And it doesn’t get more impactful or heart warming than that.”