The 2001 New York Yankees—Not the Champs, but First in My Heart

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The 2001 New York Yankees—Not the Champs, but First in My Heart
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

We all have a special place in our heart for that one special team. One where when you think back about them, it will always put a smile on your face. As a fan of the New York Yankees, I love them all. Although I was not alive for a hefty portion of them, the stories I have read and the film I have watched have made me appreciate each and every single one.

Everyone has their reasons for their one particular team. A New York Yankees fan has quite a few options. Maybe it’s the 1927 Bombers because of their all around greatness. Or the 1961 team because of the home run race between teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Whatever your reasons are, no one can debate it as the choice is simply yours, a matter of opinion.

At 17 years old, I am part of the fan base’s younger generation. Many of the older generation call us spoiled, as we have witnessed four World Series and six pennants since 1996. Yet for those born when I was, we have not witnessed a Yankee’s title since the age of nine, just when most of us begin to gain memories that will last us a life time.

Although I know I followed baseball before this, my religious worship for the New York Yankees began during the 2001 season at the age of 10. As a young kid who had just witnessed the team win three straight titles, I had no reason to believe they could not do it again.

I knew early on that this team wasn’t as talented as some of the teams from a few years before. Yet who was? Even if they lacked that big bat in the middle of the order, they had that “it factor” something all of the previous championship team’s possessed under manager Joe Torre.

Man, did that team just grind out victories. The 95 wins they had during the regular season was quite an achievement, considering they hit only .267 and finished a mediocre fifth in the American League in runs scored. Yet the stalwarts seemed to always come through when it mattered.

With the exceptions of Jeter, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada, the rest of the hitters had mediocre seasons at best yet it seemed the likes of Paul O’Neil, Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez always found a way to get the job done, even if the stats did not show it.

If the team’s offensive production did not meet up to the team’s sky high standards, the same can definitely not be said about the pitching staff that season. Thirty-eight-year-old righty Roger Clemens finally pitched to his sky-high expectations and won 20 games.

His 3.51 ERA was nothing special, and although saber metrics freaks probably disagree with the selection, I’m here to give them a vote of confidence, whatever that’s worth. He didn’t always win pretty, but like the entire team he simply got the job done.

Yet the phenomenal pitching efforts the Yankees got that season extended beyond Clemens. Two other starting pitchers, newcomer Mike Mussina and holdover Andy Pettitte each were fantastic winning 17 and 15 games respectively while both posting ERA’s under 4.00. Although the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in the rotation were a question all season, it really didn’t matter with those three workhorses pitching every day.

During this season, I truly began to appreciate the art of great relief pitching. Not only from the closer’s role, but from setup men who are just as vital to a team’s success. All season I was captivated by the way closer Mariano Rivera used literally one pitch, the cutter, on his way to posting possibly his best season to date with 50 saves.

I also began to realize how vital setup men Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza were to the team’s success, as each came through with nine and eight wins, the fourth and fifth amount on this playoff team.

On September 11th, 2001, as the New York Yankees were fighting it out for a playoff birth, tragedy struck and baseball became the last thing on anyone’s mind.

I remember where I was. I’m sure you do to when you heard. I was in fourth grade and walking back from gym one day when all of sudden some kid mentioned he was getting picked up from school because two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and another into the pentagon.

At the age of 10, it did not immediately register what a tragedy this was. Yet when I got home and began watching the news it all sank, and I feared my life would never be the same.

Yet because we live in the United States, the greatest nation in the world, we vowed to stand tall and recover. Baseball was only cancelled for a week, and it vowed to finish out the season. In a time of mourning, the game became an outlet to millions. And something amazing happened. For two unforgettable months, baseball’s “Evil Empire” truly became “America’s Team.”

The New York Yankee’s were no longer playing to win a World Series just for themselves or even for their city. They now carried the weight of the entire country.

The weight seemed like it would be too much for the team to bear. The Yankee’s were matched up the wild card winner Oakland Athletics, an exciting young 102-win team who had nothing to lose. In an emotional first two games in New York, the A’s won the first two games by scores of 5-3 and 2-0. If the Yank’s lost one more game they were gone.

The odds were bleak. Even with Mussina on the mound for Game Three, he was matched by ace Barry Zito. One run could win this game. And it did.

Zito had his A-game, baffling hitters with that deadly curve throwing a no-hitter through the first four innings. Moose had his too though matching Zito with zeros on the scoreboard. During the top of the fifth, the Yankee’s drew first blood. On a 1-0 count Jorge Posada launched a solo shot, first hit and run let up by Zito in the game. I and the rest of the Yankee faithful went nuts! However, the A’s got out of the inning only down one, far from over.

In the bottom of the seventh, Mussina was cruising with his 1-0 lead. With two outs, he let up a harmless single to Jeremy Giambi. What happened next is a play for the ages. On a 2-2 count Terrance Dye hit a double to short right. Right fielder Shane Spencer made a poor throw up the first base line and it looked like the game was going to be tied.

Out of nowhere came Jeter who scooped up the ball halfway past the first base line and back hand flipped it to Posada who tagged out a stunned Giambi at the plate. My jaw dropped. Never had I seen a shortstop run all the way to the first base line to record an assist. That cemented Jeter as my favorite player of all time, a guy who I still idolize to this day.

The momentum now belonged to the Yankees and they rode it not only to win the game, but complete the series comeback. They had the look of a team of destiny.

Up next were the Seattle Mariners, the AL West winner. They had won an incredible 116 games in the regular season behind Japanese OF sensation Ichiro Suzuki and a rotation that had four 15 game winners. Yet nothing was going to stop the Yankee’s. The Bomber’s quickly quieted the Mariner faithful taking the first two games at Safeco and seizing control. Even after getting blown at home in Game Three, the end result was inevitable as the Yankee’s won the final two. Pettitte was brilliant in his MVP effort posting two wins and a 2.51 ERA.

The Yankee’s were heading back to their fourth straight World Series. I knew they were going to win. Not a chance in hell anything was going to happen. So I thought.

The Yankee’s were matched up with the National League winner, the Arizona Diamondbacks. Yes, the Diamondbacks had arguably the two best pitchers in the game in Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and on offense had outfielder Louis Gonzalez who had crushed a mind-boggling 57 home runs during the regular season. Yet they had not one quality starter behind their aces, and the offense was mediocre at best even with Gonzo. Even if they played their best, destiny did not appear to be on their side.

Game One was a horror show. The crowd at Chase Field was in full throttle, and, after the D-backs roughed up Mussina for four runs in the third, you could sense it was over. Schilling threw a gem and that was that. I remained calm. My Yankee’s just needed to take one game on the road and they would be set.

That unfortunately did not happen. Pettitte let up one run in the second inning but you could sense that was all the Big Unit was going to need. The Yankee’s were baffled by this power pitcher all night, evidenced by his 11 strikeouts and only three hits allowed.

The D-backs added three runs in the seventh on Danny Bautista home runs but even that was not needed. When Jeter lined out to second base to complete Johnson’s masterpiece, I still had faith. We were headed back to the Bronx.

The activities before Game Three were as inspiring as anything ever seen. The emotion in the air was unseen like anything before. President George W. Bush wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with “FDNY” threw the ceremonial first pitch, right down the middle. The crowd roared. I cheered. This was going to be the Yankee’s night.

It sure was their night. The D-backs got a surprisingly awesome effort out of starting pitcher Brian Anderson who only allowed 2 runs. Yet after Brosius singled in the go ahead in the bottom of the sixth to put up the Yankee’s 2-1, it was over. The Rocket pitched brilliantly, allowing only one run in seven innings. Rivera, the greatest post season pitcher of all time closed the final two, and the Yankee’s had life.

Game Four did not look favorable. Schilling was back on the mound against starting pitcher Orlando Hernandez. El Duque had been a good postseason pitcher in the past, but his shaky regular season made him an uncertainty. I was not too confident, but just hoped we could rough up Schilling just enough to have a chance.

The Yankee’s drew first blood, but the D-backs responded right back to tie the game at one. In the bottom of the eighth, the D-backs took the lead scoring two off the normally reliable Stanton and Mendoza. The Yanks were three outs away from a 3-1 hole. Then the magic began.

Into the game for the visitors came their closer, all-star

Byung-Hyun Kim. He had vicious stuff from what I had seen of him before, and his sidearm motion could prove devastating, especially to hitters who had never faced him before. After Jeter had a bunt groundout, O’Neil singled but Williams struck out swinging. The Yankee’s were down to their final out. Kim looked like he was getting into a groove and it appeared over.

Tino Martinez came up to the plate. He had a decent year, but not up to his standards or to the fans that had come to expect so much from him. Yet this was a team of grinders, a group of guys who seemed to come through with a  hit when it mattered most. On the first pitch, Martinez crushed a home run, tying the game. It was bedlam in the Bronx! I was cheering so loud I woke up the whole house who assumed the game was over! Kim was stunned, his confidence clearly gone. He got out of the inning but based on what happened next, I bet he wished the game had just ended there.

Mariano came in during the 10th and retired the side 1-2-3. Kim grudgingly came out again for another inning of work. After two quick outs, Jeter came to bat. I expected Jeter to get on base, but nothing more. Yet on the ninth pitch on a 3-2 count Jeter unloaded and the game was over. The Yankees win! The crowd went delirious and I howled for joy. My favorite player had just hit a walk off home run to win a World Series game! What more could a 10 year old kid ask for?!

The series was tied at two.

Johnson and Schilling were not starting. The momentum was with the Yank’s and they were playing Game Five in front of the home crowd. It was all set up perfectly.

Miguel Batista pitched the best game of his life. Given a two run lead in the fifth, he never looked back shutting out the Yankee’s through eight innings. In the bottom of the ninth, Kim came out again, looking to erase the nightmare from Game Four. I was carefully optimistic, knowing we could do it yet not getting ahead of myself. Posada hit a double and the Yankee faithful was on their feet. Yet Kim got the next two and again the Yanks were down to their final out once again.

Scott Brosius walked up to the plate. He was clearly declining, but had always seemed to answer to the bell. After two quick strikes, Brosius was in defense mode. I had a sick feeling in my stomach, knowing we would probably have to go back to Chase Field having to win two games. On the next pitch, he unloaded. Another home run in the bottom of the 9th! The game was tied!

It was déjà vu all over again! Kim was immediately removed and although the game remained tied, there was little doubt in my mind who would win.

The game dragged on with little drama until the bottom of the 12th, game still tied at two. Chuck Knoblauch got on with a single and after 9th inning hero Brosius’s sac bunt, the winning run was on second with one out. Up came Alfonso Soriano. Soriano was not yet the superstar he is today, but came through with at this point, the biggest hit of his life knocking in the game winning run with a single to RF.

The Yankees had done it again. With 10 runs scored in five games, they were ahead three games to two. Even with aces Johnson and Schilling set to go Game Six and Game Seven, the Yankees would easily steal one. They were on a magical ride and no one was going to stop them.

Game Six was flat-out ugly. The D-backs went up 12-0 by the 3rd inning and Johnson went on cruise control as the home team won a lopsided 15-2.

OK, I thought. Just where we want them I thought after the game trying to remain positive. In the back of my head I was kind of hoping for this anyways.

Since this unbelievable finale, nothing I have seen has since equaled this one. I’m slightly biased yes, but no one can deny it was one for the record books.

The Rocket vs. Schilling. Arguably the two best pitchers of their respective leagues, it had all the makings of a classic. Billed as one of the top pitching duels of the century, it lived up to the hype and more.

As many expected, there was zeros across the board through five innings. In the bottom of the sixth, the D-backs made the first strike. After a Steve Finley single, Bautista ripped a double scoring the base runner and the home team was up. The Yankees got out of the inning only down one. Still confident, I knew there was a lot of ball left to be played.

The Yankee’s wasted no time getting to work in the top of the seventh after getting an RBI single from Martinez. Schilling recovered, but now it was anyones ball game.

Soriano came up to the plate with no outs in the top of the eighth. He had already had a walk off hit this series, yet that was just a prelude to what he did next. On a 0-2 count, Soriano crushed a home run putting the Yanks up 2-1! “It’s over” I screamed running around the house! The Yankee’s did not do anything more but that was fine with me. Mo was coming in. Game over.

Rivera was usually not a two inning closer, but with the game on the line, who would Torre give the ball to? Rivera had never blown a post-season save before and had been perfect this season. If there ever was a safe bet in life, it was Mariano Rivera always converting his save opportunity in the playoffs.

Rivera struck out the first batter, allowed a weak single, then struck out the final two in the eighth. He’s got it tonight I remember thinking. The Yankee’s, facing Johnson who had come in for relief went quietly in the top of the ninth. One run was enough though. We all thought so.

The rest is history. Mark Grace hits a single. Rivera makes a fielding error on Damien Miller’s bunt, runners on first and second, no outs.

After a force-out at third by Jay Bell, this is where it gets painful to write. Tony Womack hits a double, scoring the runner on second. Tie game with one out and Bell on third.

I’m stricken with disbelief and shock. “Rivera” I kept saying, wondering what in the hell just happened. I knew it was over. It was tied, but they D-backs had the momentum. Still, I had to watch.

Counsel got hit by a pitch, so bases are loaded. Gonzalez walked up to the plate. I knew Gonzo was a slow runner, so maybe they could get out of it with a double play. On an 0-1 pitch, Mariano Rivera threw probably his best cutter of the game. Gonzo got a piece of it and although he broke his bat, the ball went over the reach of Jeter into center field.

The D-backs had won. Not the Yankees.

I turned off my TV right away. I was so accustomed to watch my team winning, I didn’t know how to lose. So I sat there. TV off. In complete and utter silence.

Joe Torre said after the game "There's no question what went on in New York inspired us a great deal.”We fell short." For a while, I believed him. The Yankee’s were expected to win every season and everything else is a failure.

Yet as I continue to grow in age and maturity, my appreciation for the team does as well. What they did after what happened, was against all odds. They were carrying the weight of a nation in mourning, and did so with dignity and class.

Yes, these Yankee’s don’t have one of those 26 banners you see at the New Yankee Stadium. Yet to me and to millions of others, they did so much more.

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