Editor's note: Twice a week, NBC Sports Bay Area will look back on biggest "What If?" moments in Bay Area sports history in our "Hindsight 2020" series. The eighth installment: What if the Dusty Baker never gave the game ball to Russ Ortiz in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series?
Rich Aurilia had spent enough time with Dusty Baker to know his mannerisms. He watched Baker stroll out to the mound, the Giants holding a 5-0 lead in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. They were just eight outs from their first title since moving to San Francisco, and right-hander Russ Ortiz was pitching the game of his life.
Ortiz had bounced back from a disastrous Game 2 to hold the powerful Angels to just four hits and little hard contact. But when he gave up back-to-back singles in the seventh, the latter being yanked into right on his 98th pitch, Baker came out to the mound.
"We just thought he was coming out to give him a little rest, a little breather, a little pep talk," Aurilia recalled recently. "Dusty would do that sometimes. He would tell the pitching coach, 'I've got this. Let me go talk to him. I'm not taking him out, I'm just going to go talk to him.' "
Baker walked out to the mound meeting and seemed to leave the door open for Ortiz to stay in the game, but he also said the bullpen was ready. Ortiz handed his manager the baseball and started to walk off, only to be called back. Baker handed him the ball as a souvenir, inadvertently providing a moment that many Giants fans have regretted for two decades.
The moment has taken on a life of its own, which is not surprising given this is a sport that has very defined rules for how to handle a no-hit attempt. It's one Giants fans have often looked back on and asked, "What if?"
What if Baker had never handed the ball to Ortiz in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series? Would the championship drought have ended eight years earlier?
It's a fun anecdote to look back on. It also had no real impact on the outcome of that game or the World Series, if you're taking an honest look at it.
The move has become part of Baker's history as a successful manager who has seemed cursed in October, but it actually was not a major story that night or the next day, mentioned in passing as being unusual but not motivating for the Angels.
The New York Times' account of that night makes no mention of the Angels taking exception to it, and notes that Ortiz on that night wanted to keep the ball as a souvenir, even after the way it played out. The Sports Illustrated series recap, written by legendary baseball reporter Tom Verducci, doesn't mention the exchange until the 23rd paragraph.
"I may never have the opportunity to have a game ball, and I actually do," Ortiz told reporters. "That's pretty much a special meaning to me."
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Eight years later, Tim Salmon, a key figure on that 2002 Angels team, dispelled the myth in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. Salmon, visiting during a rare Giants trip back to Anaheim, told Henry Schulman that he never saw Baker hand the ball to Ortiz and didn't hear anyone else in the dugout mention it.
"It's not like it was a rallying cry. 'Let's go get them.' I don't recall that," Salmon said. "I was so in the zone I never heard it."
Years later, Salmon understood what Baker was thinking.
"Part of me says, 'You don't do that.' At the same time, in that kind of game, that kind of environment, that kid pitched an awesome game," Salmon told Henry Schulman. "Would it have been that bad to do that?"
The move came years before social media, but in many ways a similar reaction is seen dozens of times a year on Twitter. Anyone who dares to mention that a no-hitter might be going on is crushed, but the truth is far less nefarious. Sometimes you just get beat. Sometimes you make the wrong pitch at the wrong time, and the man in the other uniform is simply better.
"To be honest with you, I don't think any of us even knew (it happened) until after that inning or game," said Aurilia, who was standing just a few feet away. "We were focused on what we were doing out there to try to win and win a World Series. We didn't even notice, or at least I didn't notice Dusty giving Russ the ball.
"Everyone has had this story for 18 years now."
The true story is a traditional one, and a painful one. Baker had a good bullpen that he trusted with a five-run lead. Fourteen years later, Bruce Bochy, one of the great postseason managers of all time, would watch the same thing happen in the final inning of the NLDS against the Cubs.
Baker first turned to Felix Rodriguez, a hard-throwing right-hander who had faced 50 batters that postseason and allowed just seven hits. But Rodriguez didn't trust his breaking ball and kept pumping fastballs until Scott Spiezio roped one into the right field seats, cutting the lead to two.
Even then, however, with Angels Stadium rocking and the infamous souvenir ball resting in the visiting clubhouse, the Giants were in control.
Heading into the bottom of the eighth, the Giants had an 82 percent chance of winning the game, per Baseball-Reference, but it all unraveled on some pitches that are hard to watch, even years later.
Tim Worrell had a 2.25 ERA in the regular season and had been dependable in October, but he hung a changeup to Darin Erstad and the Angels were within one. When Barry Bonds misplayed a flare to left, the Angels had two in scoring position with no outs and Baker turned to Robb Nen, his All-Star closer.
This is perhaps the most painful part of that story. These days you might expect the closer to come in with a fresh slate and try to hold a two-run lead for two innings, setting off a celebration. But Nen's shoulder was holding on by a thread and he gutted his way through what turned out to be his final month on the mound.
Nen hung a slider to Troy Glaus and the double gave the Angels the lead. The Angels won the game 6-5. A night later they won 4-1, sending the Giants back up the coast without that coveted title.
You can second-guess dozens of moments in any series, and players, coaches and executives have. Over 18 years, they have wondered whether Ortiz should have gone longer, or lefty Scott Eyre should have been the first one out of the bullpen, or the eighth inning should have been handled differently.
But you won't find them blaming that World Series loss on Baker's decision to give Ortiz a souvenir.
"You've got to give them credit, man," Aurilia said of the Angels. "It hurts every once in a while now. It hurt really bad back then. But you do have to give them credit, because they were a really good offensive team."
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