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BOSTON -- The image of Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek shoving his mitt into the face of Alex Rodriguez has become an iconic symbol of the storied rivalry between Boston and the New York Yankees.
The picture hangs in sports bars, restaurants and man caves all over New England. It is sold in memorabilia stores -- even though both players refuse to add their autographs to the print -- and it represents to Red Sox Nation all that went right that season.
It's been 10 years since those two players ignited a bench-clearing brawl on July 24, 2004 at Fenway Park. The Red Sox, who had fallen to the Yankees in a heart-wrenching seven-game ALCS the year before, were trailing 3-0 with two outs in the top of the third inning when pitcher Bronson Arroyo drilled Rodriguez on his heavily padded left elbow with an inside fastball.
|For all the hoopla generated by the 2004 incident involving Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek, the principals remain reluctant to discuss it.|
As Rodriguez slowly started toward first base, he stared down Boston's pitcher and had words for Arroyo.
"Throw that [expletive] over the [expletive] plate," Arroyo recalled in a phone interview. "Then he said the exactly same thing again."
Rodriguez then turned his attention to Varitek, who was telling the Yankees' cleanup hitter to shut up and go to first.
"I told him, in choice words, to get to first base," Varitek said at the time. "And then it changed from him yelling at Bronson to [us] yelling at each other, and then things got out of hand."
That included Rodriguez throwing out a string of profanities to Varitek.
The Red Sox captain, who was still wearing his mask, had heard enough and shoved his catcher's mitt into Rodriguez's face. The benches and bullpens emptied. Varitek and Rodriguez were ejected from the game.
As the scrum escalated, Arroyo remained focused on his job. He remained in the game and finished 5 2/3 innings, allowing eight runs (six earned) on 10 hits, with zero walks and four strikeouts.
"For me, my brain was always thinking about just winning the ballgames, so to be honest with you, the fight to me was a total distraction," Arroyo said. "I remember being in the middle of the fight and getting hit in the back of the head, and having somebody's shirt in my right hand. I was hanging on and I remember just letting go, thinking, 'I can't afford to be burning any energy right now. I can't afford for my right hand and forearm to be getting tired right now.' It was only the third inning and I could've cared less about the fight. It was all about how I am going to conserve myself and beat the Yankees."
Earlier in the day, the weather was miserable and the game was nearly postponed. In the visitor's clubhouse, Yankees players had already showered and thought there would be no game. At the time, the Red Sox were 8 ½ games behind the first-place Yankees in the AL East, so the Red Sox desperately wanted to play.
The game began after a 54-minute rain delay. Three hours and 54 minutes later, Red Sox third baseman Bill Mueller hit a two-run homer off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning -- the Red Sox scored three runs in the ninth off the future Hall of Famer -- to give Boston an 11-10 walk-off victory.
And when Mueller crossed home plate, the Red Sox players celebrated as though they had just won the World Series.
Meanwhile, Varitek watched from the clubhouse.
"I was biting my nails the whole time," Varitek said at the time. "It was the hardest game I've had to watch. I think my head almost hit the ceiling in the locker room. It was awesome."
Since that day, Varitek has tried not to talk about that incident, only saying once a few years back during spring training that he was protecting his pitcher.
"Everybody knows how Tek was," explained then-Red Sox manager Terry Francona in a recent phone interview. "Those things just happen. Tek goes out to get in between them and Alex says something to him and Tek takes offense to it, so sometimes those things happen. I don't think Tek set out to start a fight. He was just trying to protect Bronson."
Multiple attempts to reach Rodriguez, who is serving a season-long suspension for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, were unsuccessful.
Some believe that game was the defining moment of the 2004 season, which culminated in the Red Sox erasing 86 years of misery by winning the World Series on Oct. 27 with a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.
However, many of those who were involved don't think that's necessarily the case.
After that game, the Red Sox went 5-5 over the next 10 before they turned things around on Aug. 7. Only five days after the brawl with the Yankees, then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein pulled off one of the most daring deals in team history, a four-team trade that sent shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs for first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz from the Minnesota Twins and infielder Orlando Cabrera from the Montreal Expos.
"We didn't start playing that great for a little bit after that [July 24 game], but I thought it was good in that, that was the day we were going to cancel that game because the weather was terrible and the players really responded," Francona said. "They were really adamant that we were going to play, even though our pitching staff was on fumes. So, I thought it was a good rallying point and then the way the day ended up with Tek and A-Rod going at it, and Billy Mueller getting the walk-off.
"I mean, there were a lot of good things in that day itself, but it really didn't transfer to wins until we kind of got our team together. Theo made the trades and we got the better defensive guys where it was a good combination."
Starting on Aug. 7, the Red Sox went 40-15 in the final 55 games of the regular season to win the wild card. The rest is history.
David Ortiz is the only member of the '04 team still with the Red Sox. Since July 24, 2004, Ortiz has won three World Series titles in Boston. When asked what that day meant to the organization and its fans, it took Ortiz a few minutes to recall exactly what happened (to be fair, the guy has played a lot of meaningful baseball games since then).
"I can't really remember how we played from the beginning of the season until that point, but what I can really tell you is that, the way we handled [losing to the Yankees in 2003] I was having good thoughts about . We pretty much had the same team and then we went out and got a little bit of help [at the trade deadline]. It was a hell of a year. I mean, offensively we just killed it that year and the year before. That fight we had with the Yankees, back then, it was pretty much a series you don't walk away from.
"When things like that go down there's a lot of adrenaline kicking and next thing you know, sometimes teams need that to get themselves going," Ortiz said. "I can't really remember how things were at the time back then, but it gave us a little kick afterwards.
"We got hot. We got hot, man. We had a really good team. The Yanks had an unbelievable team at that time, too. You remember how the playoffs went down, too. That team that they had, offensively, was unbelievable and we ended up coming back and beating them [in the ALCS]."
Whether the fight between the Red Sox and Yankees made an immediate impact for Boston on July 24, 2004, it was the foundation for a Red Sox team that was essentially out of the pennant race to begin a monumental comeback that led them to a World Series championship.
"Whatever happens during the year, that's so in the rearview mirror. You've got to win and [that fight] had nothing to do with anything," Francona said. "In our game, you move on pretty quick. Things happen, but you move on. Whether you win, lose, draw or fight, you move on."
The Red Sox did move on, and three months later they won the World Series, after falling behind the Yankees three games to none in the ALCS and rallying for a historic comeback.