FILE PHOTO OF YANKEE STADIUM.

The great postseasons of the recent past each have one memorable line of dialogue. In 1986: Vin Scully’s shrieked “Behind the bag!” as the ball rolled through Buckner’s legs. In 1991: “And we’ll see you…tomorrow night,” so famously uttered by Jack Buck as Kirby Puckett walked off a World Series game, then poignantly mimicked by Buck fils two decades later as David Freese did the same. Then came 2003, which is for my money the greatest postseason of my lifetime. The postseason of Boone and Bartman and Beckett—the postseason of the most iconic line of all.

“His father is the district attorney.”

In 2003, the tentpole drama of Fox’s fall lineup was supposed to be a show called Skin, an update of Romeo and Juliet set in contemporary Los Angeles. Jerry Bruckheimer produced a work that was full of flashy cuts, trendy music (311’s “Amber” and Moby’s “Porcelain” played almost in their entirety in the pilot) to go along with love, sex, crime, political intrigue … you almost don’t have to try to get three full seasons out of such a premise.

Fox cast Kevin Anderson as the ambitious, cutthroat D.A. Tom Roam, opposite Ron Silver – between stints on The West Wing as cynical, erudite presidential campaign manager Bruno Gianelli – as adult entertainment mogul Larry Goldman. Silver was characteristically charming and playful, while Anderson left no scenery unchewed, but that wasn’t the show’s biggest issue.

The show’s biggest issue was, frankly, that it was terrible. Uniformly and thoroughly so. It was canceled after only three episodes, and in preparation for this piece, I went to look for it and struck out on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus. It cannot be had, for love or money, in either a physical or electronic medium.

I finally came across the pilot on YouTube of all places, and by God, I watched it all. If you have any sense, you won’t do the same.


It’s hard to remember a time before 2004. Before Fever Pitch and Theo Epstein, before Big Papi was Big Papi. Back when Curt Schilling was just a pitcher and Bill Simmons was just a columnist. But back then, the Red Sox were charming and Red Sox fans were still tortured. It was true, I promise.

The Yankees, meanwhile, were still the Yankees. From 1995 to 2003, the Yankees made the playoffs all nine years, winning seven division titles, six pennants and four World Series along the way. They were led by the annoyingly perfect Derek Jeter, the annoyingly untouchable Mariano Rivera, and Roger Clemens, who by that point was just annoying. The Yankees exuded supremacy. They were the myopic arrogance of New York crossed with a sense of privilege so dense it could be described as humid. They were on every magazine, every TV show, every billboard. And they won, constantly, not by chance or brains or pluck or even force of virtue, but by sheer overwhelming material force. They were FC Barcelona without the panache, the British Empire without the flair for musical theatre, the United States without the veneer of populism. The New York Yankees of the turn of the century were the inexorable, jackbooted, bulldozing force of naked capitalism — they won constantly, because screw you for not having had the most built-in advantages.

They made the Red Sox look plucky.

Those Red Sox featured Pedro Martinez, who, at 31, posted his last eye-popping season, and a host of other pitchers who showed up and threw a ton of innings just well enough not to lose. Boston’s strength was its offense: the Red Sox, as a team, hit .289/.350/.491 that year. The worst hitter in their everyday lineup was probably Johnny Damon, who was in the prime of a borderline Hall of Fame career. After being the perpetual foil to the Yankees, the Alydar to New York’s Affirmed, 2003 looked like the year it would all come together. The AL East’s two giants dispatched their division series opponents, then met up in the playoffs for — not withstanding regular season tiebreakers such as took place in 1949 and 1978 — only the second time ever.

***

It’s tough to imagine two franchises with more divergent histories than the Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins. The Marlins, in 21 seasons, have won more than 90 games twice. They’ve never won the division, but they’ve never lost a playoff series—two playoff appearances, two World Series wins.

Then called the Florida Marlins, they faced the Cubs in the National League Championship Series. To get there, Chicago won its first playoff series in 95 years.

It’s tough to remember a postseason that had so much young pitching talent. Nobody older than 30 started a game in the series. The Marlins got a complete game shutout in Game 5 from a 23-year-old Josh Beckett, while the Cubs’ hopes were pinned on the 26-year-old Kerry Wood and two 22-year-olds, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano. Those three combined to throw 636 1/3 innings and strike out 679 batters.

When you look at the overwhelming young pitching talent the Cubs threw at the Marlins that series, it’s hard not to want to beat Dusty Baker to death with a bucket of shredded elbow ligaments.

It’s also important to remember that at this point in history, a Cubs-Red Sox World Series might have brought about the end of the world. Both franchises seemed to be irredeemably cursed, stuck in a never-ending cycle of futility that had cast a psychological pallor over both cities. How much more exciting can sports get than a World Series in which we’d know, going in, that either a 95-year championship drought or an 85-year championship drought would come to an end?

(For some reason, nobody seemed to care at the time that the White Sox had gone without a championship since 1917. When they won it all two years later, it was almost an afterthought, a collective head-scratching moment of, “Oh yeah, it’s been a hot minute since anyone’s won a World Series in Chicago, not just the Cubs.”)

***

Skin might have been a good show, if not for dialogue that was sappy and predictable, even for a network drama. And a prudish attitude toward sex that was at the same time pearl-clutching and seedily voyeuristic in a way that only early 2000s Fox could pull off. And that the central conceit, the forbidden love drama, was by far the worst part of the show.

D.A. Roam’s persecution/prosecution of the pornographer Larry Goldman is weird and forced, but not any more so than conflicts that have driven more successful television programming in the years before and since.

The show’s first meaningful moments take place at a rooftop party filled with (one presumes) a group of the world’s oldest high school seniors. Our heroine, Jewel Goldman, is played by the young Olivia Wilde, at the time a tragic victim of the hair-dying epidemic that befell millions of American teens and twentysomethings in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (I blame Justin Timberlake, and one day he’ll answer for his crimes.)

Olivia Wilde has come to the party with an equally young (though not as tragically coiffed) Chris Evans. The future Captain America tries to get Olivia Wilde to take Ecstacy. She refuses and wants to leave, which sparks a bizarre chain of events that includes the following things going into the pool: the keys to Captain America’s Porsche, Olivia Wilde, then our romantic lead, Adam Roam (played by an actor whose name isn’t recognizable enough to be worth much in comedic value, and whose performance was so reminiscent of Casper Van Dien in Starship Troopers that I refuse to mention his name here out of spite), then Captain America himself.

Then Olivia Wilde and Adam Roam drive Captain America’s Porsche to a diner, where they chat and he draws a portrait of her on the back of the placemat and decide, immediately, that they’re irretrievably in love.

And, you know what? I was 17 once, which is to say that I was a mopey, clingy, melodramatic mess of hormones. But the love story was appallingly bad. The crime drama? Nothing special, but not lacking for entertainment value—kind of a C+ TV show.

But as far as romances go, Skin makes Gigli look like Casablanca. Jewel Goldman and Adam Roam are written with the emotional maturity of Brian McCann after an opponent’s home run and seek out and run into clichés like a laser-guided missile.

The love story in Skin is execrable. If you have eyes and a soul, you will see it, shield your eyes and curl up in the fetal position, begging the show to cut to commercial so it will stop hurting you.

It is the show’s fatal flaw, not only because of the subterranean quality of the storytelling, but because in order for love to be forbidden, someone’s got to forbid it, and that line’s got to make it into the trailer.

For the entirety of October 2003, Fox ran the same promo for Skin several times during every playoff game, until the image of Ron Silver, his tie loose and his goatee flawless, was burned into the minds of every baseball fan in America. Until we could say the line along with him.

His father is the district attorney.

No retelling of the awesome comeback of the Boston Red Sox in 2004 would be complete without a recounting of the 2003 ALCS, as if Grady Little keeping Pedro in one inning too long was Act 3, Scene 1 in a two-year drama.

But on its own, it wasn’t half bad. Tim Wakefield beat the Yankees in Game 1, then New York took games 2 and 3. Thereafter, the two teams traded wins until the end. Every game but one was decided by three runs or fewer. The Red Sox, in fact, only surrendered that soul-crushing comeback in Game 7 because they’d staged a comeback of their own the game before. In order to blunder your way out of a title, you have to get yourself into position to win one first.

Even after Grady Little left Pedro in too long, the Red Sox got the go-ahead run into scoring position in the ninth and tenth innings, then brought in Wakefield, who’d already won twice in the series. Things weren’t ideal, but neither were they hopeless.

Here’s something we don’t remember enough–the memorable blunder often isn’t what actually does the team in. In 1986, the Angels could have won either of the two games that followed Dave Henderson’s home run off Donnie Moore. The Red Sox had probably lost Game 6 of the 1986 World Series already by the time Buckner missed the ground ball, and even if they hadn’t, they still had a chance to win the next night. Grady Little’s failure to take out Pedro Martinez didn’t doom the Red Sox.

And neither did Steve Bartman doom the Cubs.

bartmanpic

It’s kind of tragic that the 2003 NLCS will be remembered for one bizarre play, because there were heroic performances from exciting young talents: Beckett’s shutout in Game 5, followed three days later by four innings of season-saving relief after Mark Redman nearly yakked the game away. There was Prior, nearly unhittable in two starts until that infamous moment in Game 6, and seemingly already on his way to the Hall of Fame. A 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera, then a rookie left fielder with a positively cherubic face, seemingly came out of nowhere to play Missile Command with the baseball. In seven games, Cabrera had 10 hits and scored a series-high nine runs, giving us a glimpse of the decade of offensive insanity that was to come.

But all anyone remembers is that a nerdy-looking guy with headphones was in the wrong place at the wrong time. What would have been an out was only a strike, Moises Alou lost his damn mind and Mark Prior finally ran out of gas. The Bartman Incident came in the second at-bat of a string of 10 in which the Marlins made only one out. That out was a sacrifice fly that scored a run.

Prior was never the same, but the Cubs were up three runs with only five outs to get before they made it to the World Series. Anyone could have stopped the bleeding. The next night, they led 5-3 after the fourth inning and lost anyway.

Of the famous blunders of the 2003 postseason, Grady Little, Steve Bartman and “His father is the district attorney,” none actually delivered the fatal blow to its victim. But that’s how we remember it happening.

***

Since 2003, only two World Series have gone longer than five games: the classic 2011 showdown between the Rangers and Cardinals and the 2009 World Series, which only lasted that long because Cliff Lee learned how to turn roguish apathy into electricity. Freese’s home run is one of the very few great pivotal moments in recent World Series history.

One could argue that the last one before that came in 2003, when Beckett had his Jim Palmer moment.

In Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, a 20-year-old Palmer went up against Sandy Koufax. Koufax gave up four runs (three unearned) in six innings, while Palmer threw a four-hit complete game shutout. Koufax never threw another pitch in the big leagues, while Palmer went on to join Koufax in the Hall of Fame.

In 312 regular-season starts, Josh Beckett’s thrown five complete-game shutouts. In the span of four playoff starts: Game 5 of the 2003 NLCS, Game 6 of the 2003 World Series and Game 1 of the 2007 ALDS, Beckett threw three.

It’s funny to think of Beckett and Cabrera as fresh-faced, charming youngsters, given the reputations they’ve earned in the decade since. This is to say nothing of the Marlins’ owner, Jeffrey Loria, who was suspected at the time to be less than worthy of the public trust, but whose duplicitous depths we’d scarcely begun to plumb. But compared to the Yankees, the Randian steamroller of the 2000s, being the goodguy wasn’t hard.

There’s something ageless about the Yankees of the Wild Card era. It’s not just that Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have been there all along, but between the uniforms and their place in the standings and the appearance that every so often you get the sense that Jeter rides over the wall to harvest the heart of a star so he can preserve his youth, they do seem ageless.

But watch Beckett on the mound ten years ago. Like most humans, he was thinner at 23 than in the years that followed, but even while he’s dominating, he seems alone, like the 12-year-old throwing the no-hitter at the Little League World Series. Beckett, who grew up in Texas and had played his entire career in Miami to that point, almost looks cold in the frigid New York autumn.

Where the Yankees are timeless, Beckett looks thoroughly fixed in the moment—his unfortunate goatee and the Marlins’ equally unfortunate black road alternate jerseys are emphatically of the early 2000s.

But upper 90s heat and a back-breaking curveball work the same no matter the pitcher’s clothes or facial hair. And after he sent a 23-year-old with only 56 MLB appearances under his belt to do battle with the two most decorated postseason pitchers in the Wild Card era, Marlins manager Jack McKeon might as well have taken a nap—Beckett needed 107 pitches to record 27 outs, nine by strikeout, and the Marlins won 2-0 to seal their second World Series in six seasons, the last memorable moment in a postseason characterized by memorable moments.

***

There will be other memorable moments. But they came in such abundance in 2003. When have we encountered such a surfeit of young players who were not only exciting in the moment, but whose potential bred such optimism, and whose futures delivered such despair? When have so many fortunes been turned by something so bizarre as the Bartman Incident? What a strange world we lived in that fall, where Josh Beckett, Jeffrey Loria and the Boston Red Sox were the good guys.

The 2003 playoffs were a final gasping moment of cultural innocence, where plucky underdogs struggled against and defeated the inexorable giant, where young men were admirable, and our television’s crippling flaw was its earnest naïveté.

A decade later, we know better than to pin our hopes on 22-year-old starting pitchers. We know better than to expect the people on TV to want nothing more than to find the love of a beautiful other.

We don’t hope the way we once did. We don’t wonder the way we once did. The gleeful ignorance of the days of Mark Prior and “His father is the district attorney” have given way to the cynical, morose severity of Matt Harvey and “I am the one who knocks.” In Josh Beckett’s curveball and in a ridiculous line of dialogue in a commercial for a moribund TV drama, we once basked in joy and wonder. The driving hope of the world-weary baseball fan is that we rediscover the wonder and joy of 2003, whether in this postseason, or in a postseason yet to come.

Comments (6)

  1. Loved this x 1000.

  2. Fantastic. Thanks.

  3. Great article! What I remember was Kerry Wood’s home run in game 7 of the NLCS.
    Also say what you want about Dusty Baker and young arms. But the man has taken his teams to the playoffs wherever he’s gone.

  4. Great work. But wait, this is a wordpress site and the comment “Great work.” is too short so I had to go back and add this second silly sentence? That’s whack.

  5. 1) Typing “his fat” into the google still brings up this famous line as the third hit. (Right after “his father’s son” and “his father was a mudder”.) That’ staying power.

    2) Was this the commercial/promo that was run so often to such public derision during a postseason that the network finally relented, took it off the air, and apologized? Or was that a different campaign entirely?

  6. “A decade later, we know better than to pin our hopes on 22-year-old starting pitchers.”

    You spoke too soon: Michael Wacha!!!

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