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Aaron Boone begins new job as a Yankees icon

Aaron Boone celebrates after hitting home run in

Aaron Boone celebrates after hitting home run in 11th inning of ALCS Game 7 that put the Yankees in the 2003 World Series. Credit: Getty Images / Ezra Shaw

On Oct. 16, 2003, “Boone’’ became a curse word to Red Sox Nation, the latest “B’’ — after Babe, Bucky and Buckner — to sting a fabled franchise that hadn’t won a World Series since 1918. The mere mention of those names anywhere in New England guaranteed an expletive-filled response.

Of course, “The Aaron Boone Game’’ no longer is the bane of Boston now that the so-called Curse of the Bambino has been reversed. The Red Sox have won three World Series titles since then; the Yankees have managed only one.

But Boone’s walk-off home run on Tim Wakefield’s first-pitch knuckleball in the 11th inning of an epic Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is why the newest Yankees manager needs no introduction to the populace. It was a memorable blast that ended a memorable game, one that ranks among the most dramatic in the Yankees’ rich history, even though they lost the 2003 World Series to the Florida Marlins.

Boone’s no-doubt drive into the lower seats in leftfield at Yankee Stadium gave the Yankees a 6-5 comeback victory and provided the final, shocking plot twist in a game filled with them.

Just like “The Bucky Dent Game,” a one-game playoff that decided the AL East title in 1978, this one was tense and intense, a testament to the passion generated by these rivals. As Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said before the game, “We’ve been on a collision course for a hundred years.”

Few of those collisions were as high-impact as this one. The series already had featured an all-out bench-clearing brawl at Fenway Park in Game 3, replete with 72-year-old Yankees coach Don Zimmer being thrown to the ground by Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez.

Boone, who was obtained by the Yankees in a trade with the Reds in July to plug a hole at third base, was struggling (.125 in the ALCS, .161 for the postseason) and did not start against Martinez in Game 7. He watched from the dugout as the Red Sox knocked Roger Clemens out of the game in the fourth inning and built a 4-0 lead.

Jason Giambi hit two solo home runs off Martinez to make it 4-2, and Mike Mussina, in the first relief appearance of his long career, pitched out of a first-and-third, none-out jam to keep it that way. But David Ortiz took David Wells deep in the top of the eighth to make it 5-2. In the crowded, stuffy basement press room, one Boston columnist called her father, a long-time Sox fan, hoping to share a magic moment.

Martinez retired the first batter in the bottom of the eighth and the Red Sox were five outs away from their first World Series appearance since 1986 (which included “The Bill Buckner Game” against the Mets). But as Yankees manager Joe Torre would say later, “Five outs away can seem like an eternity.”

Derek Jeter doubled and Bernie Williams singled Jeter home. Hideki Matsui was the next batter, representing the tying run. That prompted a mound visit by Boston manager Grady Little. Martinez recalled, “There was one question: Can I pitch to Matsui? I said yes.”

Matsui said no. He ripped a ground-rule double down the rightfield line, moving Williams to third. Still, Little stayed with Martinez. Jorge Posada blooped a two-run double to shallow centerfield to tie the score and prompt a rare burst of emotion from Matsui, who slid home safely, popped up, screamed and pumped his fists as Yankee Stadium shook from box seats to bleachers.

Exit Martinez. It was too Little, too Late.

Enter Sandman. Closer Mariano Rivera, in the longest relief appearance of his career, tossed three scoreless innings, though he needed 48 pitches to get the Yankees to the bottom of the 11th.

Boone had entered the game as a pinch runner and was the leadoff batter against Wakefield, who already had won two games in the ALCS and pitched a 1-2-3 10th. Boone later said that third-base coach Willie Randolph told him before the at-bat, “You’re my sleeper pick, the X-factor in this series.”

The X-Man turned into a superhero when he jumped on Wakefield’s first pitch, a flat knuckler. “There’s a fly ball deep to left!” yelled Charley Steiner, who shared the Yankees’ radio booth with John Sterling that season. “It’s on its way! There it goes! And the Yankees are going to the World Series! Aaron Boone has hit a home run!”

Steiner and Sterling did not get along, and after a commercial break, Steiner coaxed Sterling into delivering his signature call, “Yankees win! Thuhhhh Yankees win!” which was delivered as an awkward duet after the fact.

The on-the-field reaction was more spontaneous and genuine. Boone tossed his bat and raised his arms as he headed toward first base. He leaped onto home plate and into the arms of delirious teammates.

Rivera wasn’t one of them. He was so overwrought with emotion that he raced to the mound and dropped to his knees. He later told reporters in the clubhouse, “I was thanking the Lord . . . This was his game.”

It was Boone’s, too, of course. “It’s unbelievable,” he said, drenched with champagne and covered with shaving cream. “To get to play in the World Series . . . It’s such a wonderful group of people here. And to have a hand in this, I’m just humbled. This game can humble you all the time, good and bad. This is a good one.”

So good that Torre, who won four World Series in a span of five years during his 12-year run with the Yankees, said years later, “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more exciting game than that Game 7. Against the Red Sox, at Yankee Stadium . . . Weird things seem to happen there that don’t seem logical.”

In the jubilant Yankees clubhouse that night — actually, Boone’s home run came 17 minutes after midnight — Jeter said, “I believe in ghosts, and we’ve got some ghosts in this Stadium.”

Boone will be managing in a different Stadium now, but the ghosts of championships past will be lurking.

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