Monday, June 12, 2023

Revisiting the Astros' 2003 Combined No Hitter Against the Yankees

Firstly, I like how I had to specify WHICH combined no-hitter I was talking about, because the Astros happen to have done it to the Yankees twice.  This also happens to represent the last two occasions that the Yankees have been the recipient of a donut in the hit column at the conclusion of a baseball game.  The most recent no-hitter, of course, was last year in June, when Cristian Javier, Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly conceded zero hits in a 3-0 win at the new Yankee Stadium.  

This article, however, is based on events at a location across the road at old Yankee Stadium.  This happened 20 years ago today.

THIS is what I am talking about...

Setting the Scene

For those of you who do remember me from my Astros Country heyday a few years ago, you might recall that I don't live in the same hemisphere as the Astros.  I am a Kiwi, born and still living in lovely New Zealand.  I grew up pre-internet, and was pretty much a young adult when I discovered baseball.

I could write an essay about learning to love baseball in a foreign country in pre-internet days.  My first memories of the baseball were watching the Yankees and Braves play the 1996 World Series.  I was in Medical School at the time, doing my Psychiatry placement.  The team adjourned to the bar one Friday afternoon, and the World Series happened to be on TV.  I was transfixed, and I bunked my clinical placement the next day to sit and absorb the whole game best I could.  I didn't really know the rules, but I knew that there was a lot going on, and that the game was very subtle and fascinating to watch.

By 1999 ESPN was broadcasting Sunday Night Baseball and Wednesday Night Baseball, so I was able to watch *something* regularly.  We also had a Nintendo 64 in our Junior Doctors on-call room, so we had something to do during dreary on-call shifts.  One of the games was "Major League Baseball featuring Ken Griffey Jr." so I learnt about the players and more about the rules through gaming.  Some good websites had sprung up around the place, and it became commonplace for most Kiwis to read the international sports news regularly, and not have to rely on the local papers.  

My interest in baseball had finally found fertile soil in which to grow.

I remember watching the Astros on a Sunday Night Baseball broadcast.  Jeff Bagwell hit for the cycle during one of the early games that I watched (July 18 2001 versus St Louis).  He popped up out of his slide into third to complete the cycle, gave a little wave, let the crowd cheer for a while then told them to all sit down, 'cause the Astros had a game to win.  I was in awe of the casual professionalism that the team exuded, and the degree of respect for their opponents they repeatedly demonstrated.  I fully fell in love with the Astros when they signed José Vizcaíno after the 2000 Subway Series, during which he played a vital role.  I had an irrational admiration of Vizcaíno, for reasons that I still don't fully understand.

Interleague Play

1997 saw the introduction of Interleague Play.  That, and rampant steroid use are the two most notable things that I recall from the Bud Selig era.  For the first five years of Interleague Play, the teams stayed within the West, Central and East alignment.  By 2002, teams were drawn against another division, and the Astros got to play the AL West.  So in 2003, the Astros were due for interleague play against the AL East.  For the first time ever, the Astros would play regular season games in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.

Things Lined Up Perfectly

In 2003, I was doing my specialist training in Auckland.  I had a brother in Vienna who was getting married, and I was due for a decent overseas trip.  I flew via LA, and happened to bump into the Australian Cricket Team on the way back from the West Indies.  They were superstars in this part of the world, and no-one in the airport seemed to know who they were.  I purchased a Sharpie, and had them all sign the box protecting the present that I had brought for the wedding with a special message for the bride and groom.  I thought that was awesome, but someone threw the box out after the ceremony... I wanted to keep it.

(I *could* also talk about how I drank too much cognac and took too many sleeping pills on the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, then fainted, then woke to see the gorgeous flight attendant asking me if I wanted to see the doctor "because I am pretty sure there is one in the part of the cabin" (i.e. me) ... I mumbled that I thought that I would know what he was going to say, and that I would be alright, but thanks... but that story is best left for another day...)

The various dates lined up perfectly for time for six games in the historic stadiums in New York and Boston on the way home.  I wasn't going to miss that, especially because given that these were the first ever games that the Astros would play in those stadiums.  I had never seen a game live and in person, but watched lots on TV.

On June 10, I watched the Yankees hold off the Astros by a score of 5-3, witnessing a sweet Craig Biggio home runoff Mike Mussina into left centre.  Biggio's timing was perfect on that swing.  Wade Millar threw 112 pitches, giving up 5ER in seven frames.  I seem to recall a big play when Jeff Kent muffed a double play ball that could have turned the game in the fifth.  By that stage of his career, Jeff Kent had a lead glove and was moving very stiffly - but he was never well known for his agility.

And that was the first ever game of baseball I had ever attended in person.

The No-Hitter.

I am not going to write alot about the no-hitter - there is plenty in the images below.  I happened to have very good seats behind home plate, about 15 rows back and slightly on the first-base side.  I was near some friendly-ish Yankees fans, who chatted away for most of the game with me.  

Some of you may remember - Roy Oswalt started, and left after two pitches in the second inning (or perhaps it was two warm-up pitches).  He strained his groin, and spent the next four-or-so weeks on the injured list.  I didn't think that was cool at all - I was looking forward to watching such a slight and whippy dude pump strikes and overpower hitters with his fastball.  I loved Roy, and what I did see of him was super impressive to watch.

The scene I will always remember was in the bottom of the third.  Pete Munro got two quick outs, then Alfonso Soriano reached on a Geoff Blum error.  Munro walked Derek Jeter, then hit Jason Giambi with a pitch.  Jorge Posada worked his at bat to a 3-0 count... before swinging at an offspeed pitch down in the zone, pounding a perfect ground ball that even Jeff Kent could handle.  In classic New York fashion, some frustrated individual near me yelled out at the top of his voice: "Wadaya doin', Jorgeeee.  Ya Stoopid or some-ting!!"  It was like something from the Sopranos... with the archetypical NY accent and all.

Jimmy Williams was the manager in those days, and he wasn't beyond making interesting bullpen decisions.  Brad Lidge came out for the bottom of the sixth, with a 4-0 lead, which wasn't totally unusual.  He threw two strong frames.  Before the bottom of the seventh, Adam Everett replaced José Vizcaíno at shortstop, which I thought was mildly disappointing (for reasons mentioned earlier).  But when Octavio Dotel came out for the bottom of the eighth with a 6-0 lead, I kind of knew something was up.  I *may* have asked the fan next to me about whether it was normal for the Yankees to have no hits this late in the game, and the response was a quiet "uh, no".  Lidge, Dotel and Wagner were all at the height of their careers in 2003, and I remember Wagner hitting 100 on the stadium gun a few times.  I got some photos that disappeared along with an ancient Sony-Ericsson phone that I had at the time.  

Lost in the chaos - the Astros back-end relievers struck out 8 Yankees over the last 3 innings, including Octavio Dotel, who struck out four in the eighth.  They were all really impressive, and were leaving nothing in the tank.

The game finished on a routine groundout to first.  Bagwell shovelled an underarm throw to Billy Wags, who fittingly had the ball when the game ended.  This was a game when the Astros pitchers reigned supreme, and despite the early loss of Roy Oswalt they achieved something that had not happened at Yankee Stadium for more than 50 years.

The Aftermath.

So that was the second baseball game that I had ever watched in my life, and it proved to be a memorable occasion.  Afterward, I spent a bit of time wandering around the stadium, observing things.  It is fair to say the Yankees fans were not happy - the atmosphere was kind of like a funeral.  I saw perhaps six other Astros fans, and high-fived three of them.  The brick-red caps really stood out in the crowd, so it was easy for the New Yorkers to spot the Enemy.

(As an aside, I suspect that things were a lot less dangerous when walking around Yankee Stadium in an Astros cap then, as opposed to how they would be now.  The Yankees fans... don't really like us that much... for unclear reasons. I like to think it is mostly because the Astros have eliminated them from the playoffs a record four times.)

The enormity of the occasion hit me in the hours after the game.  I learnt that the Yankees had not been no-hit since 1958.  They had not been no-hit at Yankee Stadium since 1952.  I was lucky enough to witness something at Yankee Stadium that had not happened for 51 years.  

How do you mark such an occasion??  Well, you get drunk, then buy all the papers the next day, right??

And the mastheads looked a little like this...

And New Yankees Captain Jeets was showing some Capital-L Leadership, despite some seismic activity from the ownership:

The NY Daily news did a profile on the six pitchers, with a predictable bit of awesome wordplay, which I thought was cool:

Looking back on it now, it is a little difficult to understand the "the sky is falling" vibe of many of these articles.  The Yankees were a juggernaut that would go to feature in the World Series, but were eventually tripped up by Josh Beckett, Miggy Cabrera and the Marlins.  They didn't stay "hitless blunders" for long, and good on Joel Sherman for marking this as a "new low":

The anxiety in these articles is palpable.  Poor Joe Torre was never far from being fired, which I think is totally bizarre, given what he had achieved in the white-hot spotlight for New York.  

To wit... Mike Lupica (and look at the quote across the top between the two pages):

Aannnddd apologies... I did a terrible job of cropping this one from Jack Curry.

I hope you can click on these images to embiggen them... they are worth the read.

So this has been a fun article to write, and I hope you have experienced some enjoyment from reading it.  As I said yesterday, I have been wanting to write this FOR YEARS, and it was a great opportunity for me to scan some old newspapers into some digital files, which will definitely not get drawn on by the kids and their light blue pens.  

If nothing else, it should keep Astros fans warm while we await news on Yordan, Lance McCullers and Uncle Mike, and try and work out how the West-Ranger Rangers can suddenly never lose.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to leave a comment... or contact me on the twitter machine: @_MaskedMarvel_