Ball One. Called Strike One. Ball Two. Foul Strike Two. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul.
That's one way of describing the first 17 pitches of the battle between Alex Cora of the Los Angeles Dodgers and starter Matt Clement of the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium on Saturday, May 12, 2004. It was the bottom of the seventh, and there was a man on (Jason Grabowski) with no outs and the Dodgers holding a 2-0 lead.
For the next pitch, let's turn it over to the poet Vin Scully:
"The 18th pitch ... a high fly ball into right field. Back goes Sosa, way back to the cage, and it's gone. ... Home run, Alex Cora on the 18th pitch, and the Dodgers lead four to nothing. Hah! What a moment! 9:23 on the scoreboard, if you want to write it down for history! ... That's one of the finest at-bats I've ever seen, and then to top it off with a home run, that's really shocking."
As Scully described the moment, Cora circled the bases. Except for a brief tap to the bill of his helmet and a slight smile, Cora refrained from any histrionics until he crossed the plate. But when he took a hard right to return to the dugout, he saw a line of Dodgers waiting to greet him. At the front of the receiving line was a teammate who gave him an "I am not worthy" salaam and then embraced Cora as if he hadn't seen his friend in years.
The teammate was Dave Roberts.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Roberts says. "The suspense started building with the sixth foul tip, and I was top-stepping it. Alex wasn't exactly a home run hitter, so we would have settled for a single, but then for the at-bat to culminate in a two-run homer? Wow, that was something."
After the initial reception, Cora went back into the dugout. But Roberts and the other Dodgers pushed him back onto the field amid the adoration of 43,233 fans. As Scully put it, "Yeah, take your bow, Alex. You deserve it and then some."
Now, both Cora and Roberts are taking bows on baseball's biggest stage, in baseball's most hallowed park, as the managers of two of baseball's most storied franchises, the Boston Red Sox and the Dodgers. It's actually the first time in World Series history that the opposing managers will have played for both teams in the Series. It's also the first time two minority managers will meet in the Fall Classic. And to top it off, the close friends are fondly remembered in both cities.
Watching with his four kids in Butler, Pennsylvania, is another friend and former teammate of Cora's who happens to be the varsity basketball coach at Butler Senior High School.
The coach is Matt Clement.
He no longer has the goatee he wore the night he surrendered Cora's homer, and he has also shed the anger over losing the battle. Clement can even laugh about the at-bat, made even more outrageous by the fact that the count was still 2-and-2 when Cora hit the 18th pitch out.
"Ridiculous, right?" Clement says. "I hadn't even gotten to ball three. I was pitching really well, just 71 pitches heading into the seventh, which was an unusually low total for me. After [Cubs manager] Dusty Baker took me out, I was really steamed. Then Greg Maddux walked over to me in the dugout. You know what he said? 'Why the hell didn't you bounce a slider?' He was right. For the rest of my career, I threw a slider on 2-and-2.
"You know what's funny? The next day, Carlos Zambrano was our starting pitcher, and Alex fouled off three of his pitches in an at-bat early in the game. Carlos didn't want the same thing to happen, so he just drilled him."
You know what else is funny? Baseball has a way of sending people off in all different directions, only to have them cross paths somewhere else down the line. At the time of his epic at-bat, Cora and Roberts were very close. "It went back to 1999, when we played winter ball together," Cora says. "When I hit the homer, he was as happy for me as I was for myself."
But 10 weeks later, on July 31, Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta traded Roberts, a spare if speedy outfielder, to the Red Sox for outfield prospect Henri Stanley. At the media session two days before this year's World Series, Cora recounted that day: "We were in San Diego at the time. We had the best team in the NL West. [Roberts] got called into the office by [manager] Jim Tracy, and they told him he got traded to the Red Sox. [Roberts] was down, upset. ... I told him, 'Hey, you are going to a great baseball city. You never know what can happen. Just enjoy the ride.'"
What happened was Game 4 of the ALCS, when the Red Sox were about to be swept by the New York Yankees. With Boston trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Kevin Millar led off with a walk, and Roberts pinch ran for him. After Roberts stole second and scored on Bill Mueller's single to send the game into extra innings, Cora remembers, "I texted him and told him he could be a hero."
In the bottom of the 12th, David Ortiz hit a two-run homer -- and the rest is history. History the Red Sox fans didn't forget when Roberts was introduced before Game 1.
Boston won its first World Series since 1918 because of Roberts. As Cora says, "All of a sudden, he's signing autographs for a lot of money."
But Roberts wasn't in Boston for long -- the Sox traded him on Dec. 20 to the San Diego Padres for David Pauley, Jay Payton and Ramon Vazquez. Two days later, Boston signed Clement as a free agent.
Cora was also a free agent, and he signed with the Cleveland Indians that winter. But in the middle of the 2005 season, on July 6, the Indians traded him to the Red Sox for Vazquez, one of the guys they had acquired in the Roberts deal.
Which meant that Clement and Cora were now on the same team.
"For sure, we kidded about the at-bat when he got to Boston," Clement says. "But it didn't last long. He was too good a teammate to keep reminding me of it. A great teammate."
Said Cora: "If it did come up, it was in the video room. I always played that tape as a reminder of the way to approach an at-bat."
Clement made the All-Star team in 2005 and finished the season with a 13-6 record, but he hurt his shoulder during the 2006 season. He continued to battle through the injury, signing with the St. Louis Cardinals and then the Toronto Blue Jays, but he never pitched in the majors again. He announced his retirement in 2009 and returned to his hometown of Butler to coach the basketball team -- he was a point guard when he was in high school -- and raise four children with Heather, his high school sweetheart.
The Golden Tornado is coming off an 18-5 season. And junior shooting guard Ethan Morton is being heavily recruited by top Division I schools.
As for the World Series, Clement will be watching with his three sons, Mattix, 16; Madden 13; and Mavrik, 11; and daughter Mallie, 7. "We'll be a divided house," he says. "Madden is a left-handed pitcher and a huge fan of Clayton Kershaw -- he even wears 22. Mattix and Mavrik will be rooting against the Dodgers just to irritate Madden.
"Me, I'm just happy for both Alex and Dave," Clement says. "I played with Alex, and I'm still friends with Mark Prior, who was on the pitching staff with me in Chicago and is now Dave's bullpen coach. Alex and Dave were always the guys you gravitated toward in the clubhouse, positive guys you wanted to go to war with."
Go back to the videotape of that at-bat. It's fascinating from a baseball standpoint, but it's also a window into the souls of three men. Clement is up to the challenge, firing strike after strike after strike. Cora battles him the way he battled throughout his career --14 seasons, nine of them fewer than 100 games.
And after the 16th pitch, Scully said, "Look at Dave Roberts," as the camera panned to a man excited beyond reason over a foul ball -- the kind of man you would want in your dugout. That hug of Cora was, in a way, a prelude to Roberts' heartfelt hug of Walker Buehler when he had to take him out in the Dodgers' 5-1 Game 7 victory over the Brewers in the NLCS.
The Clement-Cora battle came up again earlier this season, on July 12, when Mookie Betts hit a grand slam off J.A. Happ of the Blue Jays on the 13th pitch of the at-bat. Cora's response? "Thirteen pitches, that's nothing. Eighteen pitches, now that's a lot."
Cora and Roberts took similarly peripatetic journeys, from playing to broadcasting to coaching to managing. (In the meantime, Stanley, the Red Sox outfielder for whom Roberts was traded, failed to make the majors and became an agent, and DePodesta, who made the trade, is now the Cleveland Browns' chief strategy officer. Vazquez, whom Boston acquired for Roberts and then traded to Cleveland for Cora, is now a coach with the Red Sox.)
At his news conference the night before the Series, Roberts again paid tribute to his former Dodgers teammate: "First off, he loves the game of baseball, he has a crazy passion for it. Very detail-oriented... [Secondly], he has the ability to focus for three hours. ... And lastly, he connects to people. He was a leader; he will always be a leader."
It's almost as if they were destined to become managers and meet each other in a World Series. But if it was fate, Clement should get an assist.
On the eve of the 2018 Series, Prior was reminded of that at-bat, the at-bat. "Wait a minute," he said. "Are you telling me that it was 2-2 the whole time, and that Matt didn't throw a slider in the dirt? I need to call him."