• Sal Maiorana

An unlikely hero emerges as Yankees blank Red Sox

NEW YORK (July 1, 1996) – They have been inescapably linked ever since Red Sox owner Harry Frazee needed some cash to fund his theater projects and sold a guy named Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920.

You know the story, how the butterfly effect of that transaction sent the two franchises in polar opposite directions for the next eight-plus decades.

Still, no matter how much success the Yankees enjoyed or how much misery the Red Sox endured, they were still the Yankees and the Red Sox. And like Batman and Robin, peanut butter and jelly, Donald Trump and controversy, and the Astros and sign stealing, you cannot speak of one without mentioning the other.

However, by the time the two teams met in 1996, three months into the year due to a weird scheduling quirk, Boston was buried in fourth place in the AL East, 13 games behind the Yankees, and the rivalry’s sharp edges, at least for this season, were dulled.

Barring some type of photo negative miracle on the scale of the Yankees rally from 14 games back in 1978 to overtake the Red Sox and win the division, Boston was not going to be a threat. That would fall to Baltimore, the only team in the AL East that looked capable of derailing Joe Torre’s team.

Of course, that didn’t mean the two teams weren’t up to producing a typically terrific and taut Yankees-Red Sox affair, one where Jimmy Key and Roger Clemens pitched brilliantly throughout until the Rocket finally blinked, allowing an “are you kidding?” solo homer to utility infielder Mike Aldrete leading off the seventh inning.

Nowhere in the many books that have dissected baseball’s greatest rivalry will you ever come across Aldrete’s name. After all, his home run that helped lift the Yankees to a 2-0 victory wasn’t exactly Bucky Dent taking Mike Torrez deep in the 1978 one-game playoff.

But on this night at Yankee Stadium, it was a mighty blow in that it scooped another shovelful of dirt out of the 1996 grave the Red Sox were digging.

“I was just trying to battle and get my bat on the ball,” Aldrete said. “He got the ball up more than he wanted. It was a pretty special hit because it was such a well-pitched game on both sides.”

The 35-year-old Aldrete had come up to the big leagues in 1986 and bounced around from the Giants to the Expos to the Padres to the Indians to the A’s to the Angels before landing with the Yankees in a June 12, 1996 trade which sent pitcher Rich Monteleone to Anaheim.

Coming into this game he’d hit all of 38 home runs in his career, and he would hit only two more before he retired at the end of the season. But on the eighth pitch of his game-changing at bat he jumped on a Clemens fast ball and sent it deep into the night and over the left-field wall as the stadium crowd – an oddly low 27,734 for a Yankees-Red Sox game – roared its throaty approval.

After rounding the bases and absorbing the back-pounding and high-fiving in the Yankee dugout, the 35-year-old Aldrete looked back out to left field, almost as if to make sure it had really happened.

“I hit a home run with Yankees pinstripes on; forgive me if I’m a little bit in awe of the whole thing,” he said. “I was just taking in the moment because I don’t know how many of those moments I have left.”

The Red Sox came into New York knowing the only chance they had of even pretending they could get back into the race was to sweep their rivals. Clemens, despite seven walks, did his part as the Yankees didn’t get a hit until the fifth inning.

However, Key matched him out for out with a gritty performance in his second start since returning from his second stint on the disabled list, and his good work was rewarded. First, the Aldrete homer, and then the Yankees tacked on a second run later in the seventh when Andy Fox walked and eventually came home on a well-placed Joe Girardi safety squeeze between first and second base.

“Roger and I always seem to hook up,” said Key, recalling the many battles they had when Key was with the Blue Jays. “I don’t know what it is. I won some, he’s won some. I didn’t know how it was going to go. I knew I couldn’t afford to give anything up.”

He didn’t. And after seven innings of four-hit shutout ball he gave way to Mariano Rivera for the eighth, and John Wetteland for the ninth, and they did what they’d been doing all season: Locked it down.

“I knew all along I could do it if I got a healthy body and a healthy arm,” said Key. “I never lost confidence. I just had a hard time pulling off what I was trying to do. Now that I’m healthy, I can accomplish the game plan I set out to do. I’m doing what I used to do before I had the surgery. Early on, I was looking down the road for the big picture. Hopefully my arm problems are behind me, and down the road is now.”

The next night, Derek Jeter snapped a 5-5 tie with a two-run single in the bottom of the seventh and Rivera and Wetteland shut the door again for a 7-5 victory, and when the third game was rained out, the Red Sox limped out of town 15 games back.

Done. See ya.

NEXT post on May 4: A hard-to-stomach walk-off loss to the Red Sox.