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Anything But Regular: Revisiting the Spectacle that was Cubs-Yankees 17 Years Later

 

What was first set up as simply a rare regular-season matchup between the historic franchises became so much more on June 7, 2003. There was Wood vs. Clemens, Rocket’s bid for 300, a slugger playing amid controversy, a horrific collision, a fateful blast and more. 

By: Evan Boyd

It was a matchup between two historic franchises: one known for its winning and one known for its losing. And it was the first time in a long while since these two had met.

On this day 17 years ago, two of the top teams in MLB squared off on a sunny Saturday afternoon. June 6-8 of 2003 marked the first series between the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs in regular-season history. The last time they met was in the 1938 World Series, when Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and the Yanks swept Stan Hack, Phil Cavarretta and the Cubs.

Entering June 7, after a 5-3 loss the day before, Chicago was 0-9 all-time against New York.

Both teams were talented. The Yankees were in first place in the AL East at 35-25, and were 22-10 on the road. The Cubs were tied in second at 32-27, just one game back of the Houston Astros.

But the matchup between the historic franchises wasn’t the only reason why 39,363 fans came to Wrigley Field on a nationally broadcasted game. Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood were set to duel on the mound.

At the time, Wood and Clemens were two of three pitchers who had struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game. Randy Johnson accomplished this in 2001, and Max Scherzer later did it in 2016. Clemens accomplished this twice with the Boston Red Sox, fanning 20 Seattle Mariners in 1986 and 20 Detroit Tigers in 1996. Wood allowed only one hit in his 20-strikeout game his rookie season in 1998. Wood, the Texas native who grew up idolizing Rocket as a kid, got a call from Clemens after the performance to say congrats.

Entering the game, Kerry Wood led all of MLB with 100 strikeouts. He would go on to lead the majors in Ks that season with 266 – 21 more than teammate Mark Prior.

Much of the attention was on Clemens, who was going for one of the most historic milestones a pitcher can achieve: 300 wins. He was also nine punchouts away from joining Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton as the only players with 4,000 career Ks. But this was his third attempt at win No. 300, and he had posted a 7.54 ERA over his previous four starts.

Not a single hitter that started the game had previous success against either pitcher. Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who was teammates with Rocket in 1997 and ’98 in Toronto, batted .226 in 31 at-bats against him. Sammy Sosa was 1-for-13 in the matchup, while Moises Alou and Corey Patterson had never faced Clemens. Meanwhile, the Yanks’ starting lineup was a combined 0 for 7 against the 25-year old Wood. Robin Ventura made up most of that, as he was hitless in five at-bats with three strikeouts against Kid K heading into the contest.

But a lot of attention was also going to Sosa, who was caught using a corked bat just four days earlier. This was the first nationally televised Cubs game since the incident, and Sosa was still appealing his suspension. He would eventually serve eight games.

With all this happening on one Saturday afternoon in Chicago, the first three innings were as advertised. There was only one hit combined between the teams, Mark Grudzielanek’s first-inning single, and Kerry Wood had already struck out four batters.

Kerry Wood and Hee Seop Choi collide in the fourth inning.

But the game was put to a halt after a frightening incident in the top of the fourth inning. As he tried to catch a Jason Giambi pop-up, Hee-seop Choi collided with Wood and slammed his head on the dirt along the third base path upon his fall. As the medical staff treated Choi, gates beneath the right field bleachers opened up, giving a path onto Sheffield Avenue.

An ambulance turned the corner and made its way onto Wrigley Field. After about 15 minutes, it takes Choi out of the ballpark. From then on out, it was less about Sosa, Clemens and Wood than it was about Choi. Wood would later say that the Cubs were in the dugout saying, “Let’s win it for Hee-seop.”

The Cubs were not able to rally around Choi quickly. Wood took a no-hitter into the fifth before rookie Hideki Matsui broke the scoring with a solo home run. In the bottom half, Clemens struck out Alou, Eric Karros (who replaced Choi) and Lenny Harris. He would strike out the side 83 times in his career – only Randy Johnson (136) has done it more in the past 40 years.

Only after former Cub and Yankee Bobby Murcer sang the seventh-inning stretch, did the Cubs strike. At that point, Clemens had thrown six shutout innings, allowing just two hits. Sosa, despite facing backlash from a few days before, singled off Clemens with one out to get things started. After Alou drew a walk, manager Joe Torre opted to make a pitching change – much to the surprise of Clemens.

Hideki Matsui is greeted by Derek Jeter after a home run in the fifth inning.

Clemens had thrown just 84 pitches – his fewest since July 12 of the prior year (79). He had only struck out five, leaving him four away from the 4,000 mark. Now, it was up to the bullpen to preserve his 300th win. New York relievers had a 4.22 ERA entering that Saturday, but they had posted a 2.63 mark over the previous 10 games.

So Torre called upon Juan Acevedo, who was in his first year with the Yankees after stints with the Colorado Rockies, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Florida Marlins and Tigers, to face Karros. The veteran first baseman, who had spent the previous 12 seasons with the Dodgers, shared time with Choi and was used primarily as a pinch hitter despite owning a .292/.364/.494 slash line. Karros had four home runs leading up to June 7, but two came within his last five games.

And on the first offering from Acevedo, Karros clubbed a ball into the left field bleachers. Just like that, Clemens was denied his 300th win, and the Cubs had a 3-1 lead – their first against the Yankees since Game 3 of the 1938 World Series.

But the game was far from over. In the top of the eighth, the Yankees loaded the bags and forced the Cubs to go to the bullpen. Wood allowed just three hits and struck out 11 over 120 pitches. The hard-throwing right-hander struck out at least 10 while throwing as many as 120 pitches on 15 occasions over his career – the most by any Cub since pitch tracking began in 1988.

Mike Remlinger was brought in for a lefty-lefty matchup against Giambi, and he struck out the former MVP on a 3-2 changeup to end the threat. The Cubs added two more runs in the eighth before the Yanks brought the tying run to the plate against Chicago closer Joe Borowski in the ninth. But the Cubs were able to preserve a 5-2 win – their first over the Yankees in franchise history. Sosa called the victory “one of the greatest games I’ve ever played in my life.”

Juan Acevedo looks down after giving up a three-run home run on his first pitch in the seventh inning.

Chicago would win 8-7 the next day. It’s still the only time the Cubs have won consecutive games against the Yankees. New York leads the all-time series, 20-4.

Karros’ home run had an impact on several players’ careers. The Yanks released Acevedo three days later. Karros became the starting first baseman, hitting .282 the rest of the way as the Cubs went 55-47 en route to their first division title since 1989.

Choi would return to the Cubs on June 30, mostly in a pinch-hitting role. He struggled the rest of the way, slashing .164/.263/.269 in 77 plate appearances. Choi did not play at all in the postseason, and was eventually traded with Mike Nannini to the world champion Marlins for Derrek Lee, who would be a two-time All-Star for the Cubs.

As for Clemens? He hit both his milestones in his next start, striking out 10 Cardinals in his 300th win at home on June 13.

The Yankees finished with 101 wins, their second in a run of three straight years with at least 100 victories. Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run in Game 7 of the ALCS sent New York to its sixth World Series in eight years. The Yanks were close to a rematch with the Cubs, who were seeking their first pennant since 1945. Chicago, though, dropped Games 6 and 7 of the NLCS at home to the Marlins.

The 39,363 fans at Wrigley on June 7, 2003, were gifted with an unforgettable experience that certainly proved to be more than a potential World Series matchup. It was a game that may have been in the middle of the regular season, but it was anything but regular.