For many baseball fans, the 2003 baseball season was an exercise in what might have been. Hopes for a World Series of the historically misbegotten were dashed when the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs lost their 2003 World Series bids in heartbreaking fashion.
The surprising Cubs captured the National League Central behind new manager Dusty Baker and a strong starting rotation. Chicago blew by the Atlanta Braves in their NLDS, then went up three games to two in the NLCS on the Florida Marlins (who had previously eliminated the Giants). But down 3-0 in the eighth of game six at Wrigley Field, the Marlins exploded for eight runs and an 8-3 victory. Carrying the momentum into game seven, Florida clinched the National League pennant with a 9-6 win.
The Marlins had snagged the wildcard with a combination of youth and experience. Manager Jack McKeon, age 72, took over a 16-22 squad in May and led it to the game's best record over the last four months. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez was a key contributor, and Ugueth Urbina, acquired in a trade, bolstered the bullpen. But kids provided the Marlins' magic. Their starting rotation was among the youngest in the game, with lefty Dontrelle Willis the National League Rookie of the Year. Speedsters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo set the table for sluggers Derrek Lee and Mike Lowell.
The American League picture wasn't quite as surprising. The Yankees and Red Sox finished first and second in the East, then won their Division Series to set up a "dream" ALCS. Down 3-2 in games, the Red Sox beat the Yankees in game six at Yankee Stadium, then led 5-2 in the last of the eighth in game seven. But the Yankees came back and tied the score against Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez, who in retrospect stayed in the game too long (a decision that cost Boston manager Grady Little his job). The nailbiter ended in the last of the 11th when Aaron Boone's homer sent the Yankees to a 6-5 win and another trip to the World Series.
The vaunted Yankees and their legacy, however, held no sway over the young Marlins, who confidently split the first four games of the fall classic. Game five was the turning point. Yankees starter David Wells left after one inning with back spasms. Florida jumped on the Yankees bullpen, then held on for a 6-4 win. Game six, back at Yankee Stadium, was all Josh Beckett. The oft-injured young Marlins hurler shut out the Bronx Bombers on five hits to give his team its second world title, despite being outscored in the series 21-17.
While salaries continued to rise, and the Red Sox and Yankees dominated the headlines, the good news for fans of "small market" teams was that for the third straight year, an unexpected club won it all. Each world champ prevailed through team-work and a varied attack rather than relying on one or two big-salaried stars. And the TV ratings for the exciting postseason bore out the value of unexpected participants.
While Barry Bonds of the National League West-champion Giants won his sixth National League MVP Award, most award winners finished far out of the playoff picture. American League MVP Alex Rodriguez's Texas Rangers placed last. American League Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa played for Kansas City, which contended early but slumped, and Cy Young winner Roy Halladay toiled for third-place Toronto. Eric Gagne, who saved 55 straight for the Dodgers, won the National League Cy Young, though his club finished 15 games out. Also out of contention were the Montreal Expos, who played 22 of their "home" games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as MLB continued to consider relocating the club.
The next page provides headlines and summaries for some of the top stories of the 2003 baseball season.