Eric Karros’ Big Day Against the Yankees in 2003

Interleague play was first introduced as a regular season indulgence in 1997, and some purists—including yours truly—never came around on the novelty. This skepticism was helped by having an American League team on the other side of Chicago; the argument of “seeing players you normally wouldn’t” always rang hollow. And, with the rapid development and growth of social media over the last decade, today it does even moreso.

But for some matchups, the novelty was just too rich to ignore, and this was the case when the New York Yankees visited Wrigley Field in June 2003. Between 1997 and 2001, interleague play was exclusively between divisions—so National League Central teams played American League Central teams, etc. By 2003, this changed on a year-to-year basis, and for the first time in the interleague era the Cubs would play teams in the American League East.

The Cubs and Yankees did have a history, primarily relegated to World Series matchups many decades previously that the Yankees always won; the two teams met in 1932 and 1938, and the Yankees swept both four-game sets.

Nonetheless, there was something almost romantic about two of baseball’s oldest and most storied franchises meeting at the ivy-covered cathedral on the North Side of Chicago, even if it was a matchup of baseball’s most obnoxious winners against its most notorious losers. When something hasn’t happened in 65 years, like the Cubs and Yankees playing each other in a meaningful game, it becomes a hot ticket.

And to the surprise of baseball fans, the weekend set would be rather evenly matched. The Yankees, consistent with most of their clubs of the era, were in first place with a 34-25 record, a half-game ahead of a resurgent Boston Red Sox team. The Cubs were 32-26 and also in first, tied with the Houston Astros. To this point in the season, the Cubs experienced a nine-win improvement from the 2002 squad, this time under first-year Cubs manager Dusty Baker.

The series began on June 6, the first Friday of the month and, for many in Chicago, the last day of the school year. The Yankees won that one 5-3, but the marquee game of the weekend set was slated for the following afternoon.

40-year-old Roger Clemens, at the time a first-ballot Hall of Famer before accusations of steroid use surfaced in 2007, took the mound for the Yankees with 299 career victories, needing just one more before joining baseball’s elite 300 Club. Kerry Wood took the bump for the Cubs, 15 years “the Rocket’s” junior, and Wood often cited Clemens as an influence. Both burly Texans were flamethrowing strikeout artists, and it was the ideal intersection of past versus present.

Naturally, given the magnitude of this novelty, FOX showcased the game as its Saturday afternoon game of the week. All of the aforementioned notes above gave commentators plenty of material to work with, and that doesn’t even touch on the pizza rivalry between cities.

Mother Nature wanted this game to live up to the hype, providing a sellout crowd of 39,363 and millions of other viewers across the country a picture-perfect summer day in Chicago: sunny, 70 degrees, and a light seven mile-per-hour wind out to left field. It was the kind of afternoon an artist would draw up if they were asked to paint the portrait of a perfect day at the ballpark.

The pitching matchup lived up to its billing; Wood held the Yankees hitless through the first three innings, surrendering one baserunner (walk) and striking out four of their first nine batters. Clemens didn’t miss as many bats, striking out just one but holding the Cubs to just one hit: a leadoff single to second baseman Mark Grudzielanek.

But this picture-perfect baseball game would grind to a halt in the top of the fourth. With one out in the inning, Yankees slugger Jason Giambi popped a fly ball straight into the air, between home plate and the pitcher’s mound. Wood and Cubs first baseman Hee-Seop Choi both looked up into the glowing sunlight in an effort to make a play, with Choi running in to make the catch. It ended up in his glove for the out, but was followed by a frightening collision that left him unresponsive with his head lying cold on the third base line.

It was a terrifying sight, as Choi laid motionless on the infield and the Wrigley Field audience hushed to an eerie silence, both in concern and morbid curiosity. The delay lasted more than ten minutes, and ended with Choi being stretchered off in an ambulance that entered and exited the diamond through the right field wall. He suffered a concussion, and returned to the Cubs later in the month. On this afternoon, he was replaced by Eric Karros.

Karros, a 35-year-old first baseman serving as Choi’s backup, spent his entire career in blue, but 2003 would be his first in pinstripes. Before coming to Chicago, Karros manned first for the Los Angeles Dodgers for 12 seasons, winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1992 and totaling 270 home runs in that time, third-most in Dodger history.

But Karros wasn’t getting any younger, and he only combined for 28 home runs between 2001 and 2002, his .394 slugging percentage between both seasons marked a career worst. For the Dodgers, it was time to go in a new direction. In the 2002 offseason, Karros was dealt to the Cubs with Grudzielanek in a lopsided deal that sent aging catcher Todd Hundley and utility outfielder Chad Hermansen to Los Angeles.

To this point in the season, Karros was putting together a respectable season as a backup: in 99 at bats, he had five homers and was slashing .292/.364/.494. With Choi’s 2003 season in question at this point, Karros would get another shot at playing every day for the foreseeable future.

Play resumed, and so did the pitcher’s duel between Clemens and Wood. Scoreless into the fifth, Wood struck out Robin Ventura and Raul Mondesi for his seventh and eighth punchouts, before running into newest Yankee slugger and former Yomiuri Giants superstar Hideki Matsui who, on the eighth pitch of his at-bat, socked a solo homer into the right field bleachers for a 1-0 Yankee lead.

Wood regrouped to take out Juan Rivera to end the inning, and he and Clemens continued to cruise through their starts. Cubs catcher Damian Miller threatened the Rocket in the bottom of the sixth with a leadoff double, but the Cubs left him stranded at third, and Clemens was only nine outs away from locking down his 300th career win.

But Clemens was starting to run out of gas, and with one out in the seventh, he surrendered a single to Sammy Sosa—who was awaiting appeal results on an eight-game suspension for using a corked bat four games prior—and walked Moises Alou, putting two on for Karros. Yankees manager Joe Torre had seen enough, and handed the ball over to Juan Acevedo to get out of the jam.

Karros, in his first at bat, worked the count full against Clemens in the fifth inning before valiantly striking out swinging on the seventh pitch of the at-bat. One veteran got the best of the other, but now Karros had the chance to tie things up with a quick single.

He would bring in three.

FOX play-by play voice Joe Buck barely had a chance to settle in from the commercial break before Karros sent Acevedo’s first pitch deep into left field, over the gated partition separating bleacher bums from a steep fall onto Waveland Avenue, for a three-run blast.

In the blink of an eye, Eric Karros not only destroyed Clemens’ historic milestone on this particular afternoon, he also gave Kerry Wood and the Cubs a 3-1 lead.

Wood took this newfound wealth of run support to the top of the eighth inning, where he was able to collect two outs while loading the bases on two singles and a walk. Dusty Baker would finally pull his young flamethrower after 7 ⅔ innings of work, during which time he struck out 11 Yankees on 120 pitches—76 of which were strikes.

Lefty specialist Mike Remlinger (the Cubs’ pre-Kyle Hendricks Dartmouth alum) came in to clean up the damage, striking out the imposing first baseman Jason Giambi and stranding all three runners as the Cubs clutched onto their two-run lead with three more outs to go.

Shortstop Alex Gonzalez and Sosa touched up the Yankee bullpen for two more runs, giving the Cubs a commanding 5-1 lead heading to the top of the ninth. Although it wasn’t a save situation, Dusty handed the ball to closer Joe Borowski who surrendered a leadoff homer to Jorge Posada and one-out singles to Mondesi and Matsui. With the tying run at the plate, though, Borowski struck out Juan Rivera and forced pinch-hitter Todd Zeile to ground out, finishing off a 5-2 Cubs win.

This picturesque Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field was more than simply “Old Team Beats Other Old Team in Rare Matchup,” or “Lovable Losers Defeat Evil Empire.” The Cubs, now ten wins ahead of their previous season’s pace, could have easily been written off as a fluke in the first two months of 2003, with their lineup of familiar, past-prime veterans and a young, unproven rotation. Surely, the 2003 Cubs weren’t that much better than the 2002 squad.

But this group of overachievers believed in themselves, and their dramatic victory on June 7, 2003 was a convincing argument to the national viewing audience that they should believe in the Cubs, too. It was the moment the Cubs went from “flukey start” to “viable contender,” all on the arm of a 25-year-old and one swing of the washed up, backup first baseman’s bat.

The remainder of the Cubs’ 88-win 2003 regular season would be a magical joyride for Cubs fans who truly believed, for the first time since 1989, they could actually win it all. And I like to think that afternoon against the Yankees was the turning point of that wonderful season.

With the Yankees visiting 1060 W Addison Street for the first time since 2011, it will be easy for national pundits to manufacture a “rivalry” between these teams, whether they use their length of time in the league or the vicious pizza feud among both cities as a justification.

The Yankees playing the Cubs is a novelty, not a rivalry. But it’s a good opportunity to remember one of the most significant moments in Cubs history in the last several decades, a moment more easily forgotten as the current Cubs create a history that feels almost separate from the teams of yesteryear.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that our “Lovable Losers” defeated the “Evil Empire,” either.

Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports

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