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Thinking the Unthinkable: What If Dave Roberts Didn't Steal 2nd Base?

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Dave Roberts stole second base.

And everything changed.

The single most important and transformative play in the modern history of the Boston Red Sox.

It began baseball's greatest comeback. That ended nearly nine-decades of scorn at the hands of the Yankees, which ended a World Series drought that had lasted longer than nearly all of us had been alive.

Today, on the 10th anniversary of that glorious evening, we ask a simple yet perplexing question that has no right answer:

"What If Dave Roberts Was Thrown Out On That Play?"

To set it up, Mariano Rivera [still inexplicable to this day] somehow walked Kevin Millar to begin the bottom of the ninth in Game 4 of the ALCS. The Yankees were up 4-3 in the game and 3-0 in the series.

Roberts came in to pinch-run.

Rivera then made three throws to first as Roberts stood half-way between the bag and New England immortality. As soon as Rivera motioned toward the plate on his first pitch, Roberts was off. He sprinted toward second base and clutched the bag barely ahead of Derek Jeter's tag.

There was no "Re2pect" shown at Fenway on that chilly Sunday night.

Crowd Sign

The rest, as we saw either in person, live on Fox or in "Fever Pitch," is history.

The sporting and real world significantly changed forever.

Well, what if Jorge Posada's throw was just a bit quicker and a bit closer to the bag? What if Roberts slipped when he headed toward second? What if the umpire blew the call?

What if Roberts was thrown out?

It would have been only the first out of the inning, but there's no doubt the Red Sox and their fans would have been deflated. Bill Mueller singled up the middle, but that was after he had tried to bunt Roberts over to third.

It's not much of a stretch to think Rivera would have avoided throwing anything right over the plate - like he did on Mueller's base hit - had there been no runner on base. He would have pitched out of the wind up, not the stretch. He would have nibbled away at Mueller. After all, Mueller had homered off Rivera earlier that season to win the infamous "Varitek Facial Of A-Rod" game. Doug Mientkiewicz was on deck. He would go 0-for-7 against Rivera in his career.

Beyond the minutiae of that particular inning, and for the sake of this exercise, we'll concede that the Yankees would have won Game 4 by a 4-3 score and concluded a sweep of the Red Sox.

That's where we're at here: The 2004 Red Sox we've all immortalized with copious amounts of swag and swagger, never happened.

Or at least they happened, and got swept by the Yankees.

No late-innings heroics by Big Papi in Games 4 or 5. No "Bloody Sock" in Game 6. No Johnny Damon grand slam and Derek Lowe masterpiece in Game 7. No sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series. No Duck Boat parade. No signs about Jeter playing golf. No Pink Hats.

The fallout from such a baseball catastrophe [well, save for those Pink Hats] would have shattered New England. Remember, the Red Sox had their pride shattered by Aaron Boone and the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS a year earlier. Grady Little's bungling of Pedro Martinez in Game 7 cost him his job. And Martinez's legacy in Boston would be one of a great pitcher who, save for one memorable night in Boston's 1999 playoff series loss to Cleveland, failed to deliver when it most mattered in the playoffs.

"Who's Your Daddy?" may be still echoing from the Bronx to Bangor.

Two straight years of playoff elimination at the hands of the Yankees - in midst of that Cold War with the Evil Empire - would have radically shaken the Red Sox, and likely all of baseball.

The first on-field casualty of the 2004 ALCS sweep of the Red Sox at the hands of the Yankees would have been Manny Ramirez.

Much like George Bailey learned during his short and traumatic trip to Pottersville: "There was no Manny Ramirez 2004 World Series MVP Award because there was no Manny Ramirez in the 2004 World Series."

The Red Sox tried to dump Ramirez before the 2004 season. There's is no doubt the front office would have moved him one way or another during the tumultuous Baseball Winter of 2004-05. Martinez left for real after the 2004 season. It's likely he would have allowed to leave after the ALCS sweep, as well.

Likely most of the big names held over the Dan Duquette regime would have been purged by Theo, Ben and Company.

Gone Manny and Pedro. Gone, Damon. Gone, Lowe. Gone, Tim Wakefield. All sooner than later.

The biggest free-agents who moved in the 2004-05 offseason were Roger Clemens (who was re-signed by the Astros), Martinez (who signed with the Mets), Kevin Appier (kept by the Royals) and All-Star second basemen Jeff Kent. He went from the Astros to the Dodgers.

Imagine, if you will, the Red Sox and their ownership so desperate, so upset, so willing to do anything to win, so eager to placate the crestfallen multitudes, that this post-Duquette-Twilight-Of-His-Career administration reached out to the Rocket and brought him back to Boston. Perhaps this desperation included a trade with Houston that brought Roger's buddy and Houston teammate ,Andy Pettitte, to Boston, as well.

Back-to-back devastating losses in the ALCS to New York makes you do crazy things.

Outfielder Magglio Ordonez was the player the Red Sox almost acquired for Ramirez before the 2004 season. He jumped from the White Sox to Tigers via free-agency that winter. He would have unquestionably been the team's No. 1 target during that dark, distressful time in a post-Manny world. With Kent most likely being a close second, replacing either Mark Bellhorn or Orlando Cabrera.

The front office and ownership would have faced years of recrimination for trading away Nomar Garciaparra. While many supported the trade at the time, we know how losing changes things. The contrarians and revisionists would have been out in full force, stoking the already enraged and despondent masses. The "noise" would have electrified the airwaves - there was no social media to speak of in those days - on sports talk radio from 6 a.m. to midnight.

The 2004 World Series would have likely ended with the Yankees easily dispatching the over-matched Cardinals, in much the same way the Red Sox did. After all, New York would have had ample time to re-set its rotation in the most-effective way possible. And the Yankees would have red-hot in the postseason coming off their sweep of Boston.

Curt Schilling's legacy would have been considerably lessened - now highlighted by his appearance in the 2001 World Series. Alex Rodriguez, on the other hand, might be listed these days among the all-time Yankee greats. He would have no reputation as "Miss October." Even his 2009 title with the Yankees couldn't shake A-Rod's pre-PED reputation as a massive underachiever.

A-Rod would have also never swatted the ball from Bronson Arroyo's glove trotting up the line in Game 6, humiliating himself for as long as there is an internet.

The "Steinbrenner Doctrine" would have replaced "Sabremetrics" as the ruling philosophy of baseball.

Nothing but winning the World Series is acceptable, regardless of the cost.

The Red Sox would have faced a 10-year dilemma. Do they double-down on payroll and blow every possible dollar on a lineup? Or do they radically re-tool and go the route of teams like the [Devil] Rays, Royals and Pirates and try to build from the ground up from the Class A level on up.

Turning point for sure.

Josh Beckett? Maybe, with a win-at-all-cost-mentality, Beckett may have been a target even sooner in 2005 than he was. Maybe the Red Sox, looking at 87 years without a World Series title, would have been so eager to land Beckett that they would have included Jon Lester in the pile of prospects they sent to South Florida for Beckett and Mike Lowell in November of 2005. Desperate times and all that. [In reality, the Red Sox held out on dealing for Beckett until Lester was off the table.]

Where would that have left the 2007 and '13 Red Sox?

The baseball portion of this exercise could go on for another 10 years.

No sports championship affected Boston, Greater Boston, the Bay State and New England with greater magnitude than the one won by the Red Sox in 2004.

We've buried it in cliches for the last decade. But think, for a moment, if it didn't happen. Where would the Red Sox be as a team? What about Fenway Park? Where would you be as a fan? Where would Boston be as a sports city? Would the Decade of Dominance have ended eight years early in February of 2005 with just a third Super Bowl title for the Patriots?

Would there be two viable, successful and enjoyable all-sports-talk radio stations in this city? How about two all-sports cable channels? Would this column and all those other Boston-sports-centric digital properties even exist? Doubtful on all counts.

When the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI there was nothing but happiness and relief. Hardly anyone outside St. Louis, Indianapolis or New York cried. There were no reports of people visiting cemeteries to lay Tom Brady's jersey on the headstone of their parents. It was a pure child-like joy that enveloped all of New England, except Fairfield and half of New Haven County. Even the adults who celebrated felt like kids.

When the Red Sox finally won the 2004 World Series, much of the talk was about "dying in peace." But that championship, as we've noted before, and the subsequent ones were really about "living in peace."

For millions of us, this "thing" that had dogged anyone whose allegiances lied with the Boston Red Sox was gone. The benefit of no longer having to fan-swer for Babe, Bucky, Buckner, Pesky holding the ball and Yaz's pop-ups remains immeasurable. [I was lucky enough to witness both of those infamous game-ending outs in person.] For both the Red Sox franchise and whatever comprises Red Sox Nation, the 2004 championship was liberating in a way no one could have imagined.

Complementing that success with ultimate "Screw you, New York" moment was a once-in-10-lifetimes experience. It was an experience few imagined possible entering the ninth inning on Oct. 17, 2004.

All of it, still unreal 10 years later, really happened.

Yet we still wanted. and demanded, more. Three World Series rings in 10 years? Yeah, but 2008 was a lost opportunity, there was 2011, and the Bobby V. Error. For some citizens of Red Sox Nation above a certain age, there will never be enough winning, enough Duck Boat parades, enough celebratory souvenirs, and enough commemorative DVDs, to heal the sporting scars of their youth.

So in one sense, Dave Roberts stealing second base changed nothing.

That's easy to say from the comfort of 2014. We have the memories of those wondrous eight games in October to comfort us after another last place season. That run which began 10 years ago today changed everything.

Thankfully, for so many reasons, that series, that game, that play did happen.

Anything otherwise would be unthinkable.

The OBF column is written by award-winning journalist and Bay State native Bill Speros. Bill has written and reported for ESPN, CBSSports.Com and was a sports/deputy sports editor at several metro daily newspapers. Reach Bill on the OBF Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or at his
OBF email Address
. Thanks always for reading.

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