Scott Graham lost his mind.
You could hardly blame him. For four hours and 45 minutes, Graham, his fellow broadcasters, and 35,512 fans inside the soon-to-be-demolished Veterans Stadium had watched the Phillies and Red Sox engage in a back-and-forth duel that pinned the win expectancy meter to both sides of the extremes throughout the latter innings of a phenomenally tense baseball game.
It felt like a playoff game so, yeah, it’s understandable the normally reserved Graham went berzerk when back-up catcher Todd Pratt hit a bomb to dead center field to give the Phils a thrilling 6-5 victory. For those who were around and following the team of that era closely, this is a fair question...
The last great game at the Vet?— Franzke & LA (@FranzkeLA) June 21, 2023
Yes. It was perhaps the last great Phillies game ever played at the Vet.
And it all happened 20 years ago, on June 21, 2003 with Jim Thome, in his first season after shocking the baseball world and signing in Philly as a free agent, putting a team that was not quite ready for prime time on his back for an ultimately failed wild card run.
When the two teams met that Saturday afternoon, TV executives decided to make it the national game for that week, a rarity for Phils baseball in the late 1990s/early 2000s. It was not a rarity for Boston, in the midst of becoming a marquee team once again, winners of 93 games the year before (although they missed the postseason in an era of just one wild card per league) whose fate would be to ultimately lose in heartbreaking fashion to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series a few months later.
Boston was the favorite coming into the quick two-game series at 41-30, with the Phils at 37-33. In today’s wild card era, those ‘03 Phils would have been in a fine position for a wild card spot for mid-June but, 20 years ago, there was frustration and panic that the team wouldn’t be good enough.
Keep in mind, the buildup to this series in Philadelphia was immense. Boston fans were sure to travel south and take up some of the many empty seats at the Vet, and the atmosphere was electric. The games crackled with tension and, for the Phillies, it was a true measuring stick series.
Were they legitimate playoff contenders? They aimed to prove they were against a Boston lineup full of the heroes that would break the 100+ year World Series curse the following season: Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Nomar Garciaparra. On paper, the Phils’ lineup of Thome, Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal, Placido Polanco and a very young Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins, simply weren’t on par with that Boston squad.
And yet, the Phils swept that two-game series in scintillating fashion.
That Saturday, the starting pitching match-up featured an in-his-prime Pedro Martinez who, in 29 starts, put up a league-low 2.22 ERA over 186.2 innings. He also led the league in ERA+, FIP, WHIP, H/9, HR/9 and K/9, and finished 3rd in the AL Cy Young voting. For the Phils, left-hander Randy Wolf took the mound. It was a mismatch on paper, with Wolf finishing 2003 with a 4.23 ERA over 33 starts and 200 innings, although he did pick up a team best 16 wins on the season, and was pitching great at that time of the season.
On this day, Wolf was almost as good as Pedro. He went 6 2⁄3 innings against a stacked Boston lineup, allowing two earned runs on six hits with two strikeouts and four walks. Those two runs were solo dingers to Todd Walker, in the 3rd inning and again later in the 6th. Martinez went seven innings and gave up just one earned run on four hits with seven strikeouts and two walks, the only run he allowed was a solo blast by Bobby Abreu in the bottom of the 2nd.
From the 7th inning on, it became a battle of the bullpens. In those days, that was a losing battle for the Fightins, however, Turk Wendell, Rheal Cormier, Terry Adams and Dan Plesac combined to toss 4 1⁄3 scoreless innings, keeping the Phils in the game through the later innings.
Things really started to get crazy in the bottom of the 8th. Trailing 2-1, Boston right-handed reliever Mike Timlin faced Jim Thome with two out. As he did so often throughout his Hall of Fame career, the hulking first baseman delivered in the clutch and launched a monster home run deep into the right-center field seats to electrify the crowd and tie the game 2-2.
The teams traded scoreless innings in the 9th, 10th, and 11th innings, but in the 12th, an RBI triple by Kevin Millar off Phils’ closer Jose Mesa propelled Boston in front 3-2.
Down to their final out, Red Sox reliever Jason Shiell did something he absolutely shot not have done... give Jim Thome something to hit. And hit it he did. Thome’s opposite field homer tied the game 3-3, sending a delirious fanbase into the 13th.
Here are both the Thome home runs, in all their glory.
Despite Thome’s heroics, it appeared Boston would not be denied. In his second inning of work, Mesa struck out Trot Nixon and Freddy Sanchez, but allowed a two-out single to Damon, an RBI double to Walker and an RBI single to Garciaparra before getting Ramirez on a groundout.
Depressingly, the Phils now trailed 5-3 heading into the bottom of the 13th.
But there was a little more magic left.
Facing Shiell for a second inning, Abreu led off the 13th with a walk. Liberthal was retired on a fly ball to right, but after defensive indifference allowed Abreu to take second, David Bell laced an RBI double to center, making it 5-4. Manager Grady Little replaced Shiell with Rudy Seanez to face Pratt, in his second go-around as the Phils’ back-up catcher (he also backed up Darren Daulton during the 1993 playoff run).
What followed next is etched forever in Phillies history.
As memorable as Pratt’s home run was the call by Graham, who almost never went this crazy. But hey, we all got it. It was an insane game that no one thought the Phillies were going to win once Boston scored twice in the top of the 13th. It is such an iconic call that a bottle opener was made to commemorate the call.
Riding high off that win, the Phils swept the series by winning on Sunday 5-0 behind Brett Myers and then after a loss to the Braves, proceeded to win seven in a row.
Unfortunately, a late-season collapse in the final two weeks in which they lost six in a row and 7 of their last 8 dropped their record to 86-76, five games behind the Marlins in the wild card race. Of course, in today’s playoff structure, the 2003 Phillies would have made the postseason as the third wild card, but I guess the ‘03 Phils were a little ahead of their time.
Just a few months later, Veterans Stadium would be ripped to shreds, replaced by Citizens Bank Park, and I think it’s fair to see this game, 20 years ago today, was the last, great Phillies game ever played at that old, decrepit stadium.