Emotional ride of Game 7: Kapler knows from experience

What runs through the mind of a pro athlete in a do-or-die Game 7? Involved in two of them with the Boston, Gabe Kapler recalls how confidence turned into a buzzkill thanks to Aaron frickin' Boone in ’03.

With Pedro Martinez on the mound, the Red Sox were confident in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.

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Game 7 of a Championship Series sucks the emotion out of a player, particularly if you have to stroll home a loser when it’s over.

Kevin Millar, Doug Mirabelli and I stretched before batting practice of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. As members of the Red Sox, we were in front of the visiting dugout at Yankee Stadium, but our vision stretched beyond that second.

We fantasized about what our World Series rings would look like. Would we see rubies, diamonds or both? We’d be heroes in Boston forever. We smiled and relaxed in the cold October air, the 4 Train roaring by out beyond the right-field stands.

Supreme confidence and well-being; in that moment, we had it. The dice were in our hands, just waiting to be cast.

Perhaps the best summary of our feelings is this tweet from Dan Kalkstein, the renowned sport psychology consultant of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Mavericks (he would later become our consultant in Boston in 2004): “1. Believe in yourself. 2. Choose behaviors and words that support your belief 3. Repeat.”

I had a conversation with Red Sox teammates Trot Nixon and Billy Mueller about who we’d rather face in the World Series, the Cubs or the Marlins. Neither were threatening in our minds. The Marlins had a young Miggy Cabrera and flamethrowers Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett. The Cubs pitching staff struck out more batters per nine than any other club in 2003. They were good teams, but we thought the Yankees were superior to both, and we were stronger than the Bombers.

Those conversations had been full of the aforementioned positive self-talk. It was engrained in our vernacular through decades of mental training. You won’t often overhear “Those guys are way better than us, we have no chance.”

Our discussions about our impending World Series appearance simply reflected what we’ve been taught. We knew the dangers of overconfidence, and implemented this bit of sports psychology to mask the uncertainty of Game 7 and the ALCS in general. After all, we were about to take on Roger Clemens at Yankee Stadium with our season on the line. 

We did have plenty to be confident about. Pedro Martinez — Boston’s Pedey before Pedroia — was on the bump that day. Martinez led baseball in ERA and FIP that season. He was the most dominant pitcher in the sport from 1999 through 2003. We believed we had the substantial edge deep in our hearts and minds. Leading up to the game, smiles, high-fives and a generally relaxed vibe permeated our team.

Perhaps we should have been more aware of the data.

Between the ALCS and NLCS, there have been 15 Game 7s with road teams going 5-10 — NBA road teams are 6-16 in conference final Game 7s.

But what could we do? Sports psychology suggests — and we as players have been taught — that negative self-talk can diminish our chances for success and that the opposite is also true. Given the talent, we can also think and speak our way to success. Our affirmations became our bravado, and for a while, it seemed like it was working.

Clemens wasn’t good that night, giving up three runs, including two homers, in the first four innings and was removed in the fourth by Yankee manager Joe Torre.

Mirabelli and I shared numerous glances and the words, “oh my god” in the dugout at that point. The potential of the daydream becoming reality created a nearly palpable excitement in the dugout.

Pedro was exponentially better than Roger in this game, as he was during the season. Through the end of the seventh, Pedro had been brilliant and we led 5-2. But in the bottom of the eighth inning, he gave up a few knocks and sat at 120 pitches. Our manager, Grady Little, right or wrong, left our ace out there.

The players wholeheartedly believed our No. 1 starter would pull us out of this jam. The visiting clubhouse attendants must have too. When I ran up to grab some gloves for my eventual pinch-running assignment, my locker was covered in plastic in anticipation of our impending celebration and accompanying reckless champagne pouring. Talk about the thrill of the roller coaster ride. I’ll never forget the goose bumps while walking back to the dugout.

On Pedro’s 123rd pitch, Jorge Posada tied the game with a two-run, one-out double in the eighth.

A few innings later, Aaron frickin’ Boone.

The roller coaster had come to a screeching halt, and the whiplash was unimaginable after Boone hit a walk-off homer in the 11th.

We now knew the full extent of the torture of losing a Game 7 after experiencing the naïve certainty that our club would be World Series bound. The Yankee Stadium visiting clubhouse was silent. Filthy men sat in their lockers, facing out.

Nobody was eating, as was usual postgame. There were no conversations about what had happened, just blank stares.

Grady entered the clubhouse and began to shake the hand of each man, one by one. He thanked us all for our contributions that season. The reality of what had occurred was sinking in. We were going home for the offseason. We’d stop in Boston and pack up our gear, but we’d be watching Jeter, Rivera and Posada on TV competing in the games in which we belonged. We were the better team, we thought, and this outcome was unfair.

As Grady strolled around, I witnessed grown men crying. I fought back the same emotional outpour with big gulps and deep breaths. We were exhausted physically, but it was the mental and emotional toll that Game 7 exposed. The lack of sleep, the crazy travel, the roller coaster rides so evident in that final game, all those factors finally extracted sorrow from our group. 

As I think back years later as to what a Game 7 is, what stands out most is how unpredictable it is, even for the athletes closest to the environment. This is why sports will always be the greatest of dramas; the most exciting entertainment known to man. Nobody can predict the outcome and the script is ever in flux.

As players we can command but a few things, and how we prepare is one of them. We train, we eat, we sleep, we hit in the cage, and we practice sports psychology, all in preparation for the few hours on the field. When we step out on the mound and into the batter’s box, the work is complete, and we finally roll the dice.

In the final game of a series of seven, the bounce and spin of those dice will make you laugh and make you cry. That year, we cried. ... We’d laugh again the next year.

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