While this is supposed to be a column about the greatest disappointment in sports, (and don't get me wrong, I was absolutely crushed when it was over), the World Series of 2001 has remained my favorite World Series. It was the only Fall Classic where the casual fan actually sided with the Yankees. The starting pitcher for both teams in every game was outstanding with the exception of Mussina in game 1 and Pettite in game 6. There was one veritably epic goat that continuously pumped life into the series, and it all ended with a twist that could have been directed by M. Night Shymamalan. Come back in time with me to the greatest World Series of my generation.
The Arizona Diamondbacks had made it to the World Series in just their 4th year of existence. Only two years before, the team had its first 100+ win season with a team built largely around league veterans and role players. While that 1999 team was beaten in the Divisional Series by another veteran New York team, the fans in Arizona would not have to wait long for another post season trip to the Big Apple. In 2001 the team had gotten older yet still managed to improve, having adding veterans Mark Grace, Reggie Sanders, and Curt Schilling since their last playoff run. Of the team's regular positional starters, not one was under the age of 30, while of the team's regular starting pitchers, Brian Anderson represented the youth of the rotation, being only 29.
Meanwhile, the New York Yankees were on a winning train that couldn't derail. Since 1998, the year the Diamondbacks began their major league debut, the Yankees won the World Series by sweeping the San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves, then beating the New York Mets in five games. When David Cone left the team after a disastrous 2000, he was replaced with perennial Cy Young contender Mike Mussina. The Yankees, having felt they had made all the improvements necessary to dominate the American League, set off to defend their three-year World Series streak.
The advancement to the World Series for the Diamondbacks was incredible in itself. In the final game of the Divisional Series, with the score tied at 1 in the bottom of the 9th and with one out and runners on first and third, the Diamondbacks tried to squeeze bunt in the series winning run. The play backfired, with Midre Cummings, the runner at third, being tagged out. Fans worried that their momentum had deflated, and that the team may blow their best chance to put the series away. Tony Womak delivered, lining a single that scored pinch runner Danny Bautista. Arizona would go on to make short work of the Atlanta Braves in the League Champion Series to earn a berth in their first World Series as a franchise.
The Yankees had their own obstacles to make it past before earning the right to face Arizona. The Yankees would face two teams, the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners, that had won more than 100 games that season. The Mariners had just broken the Yankees single season record by winning 116 games during the regular season, eclipsing the Yankees old mark of 114. The Divisional series against Oakland included what may be Derek Jeter's most famous play. With Oakland on the brink of advancing, up in the series two games to none in the bottom of the 7th, trailing by one run, Terrence Long hit a hot ground ball past Tino Martinez. Jeremy Giambi started rounding bases with a full head of steam from his station at first, intent on making it home to score the tying run. Were Giambi to score, the game would be tied with Long waiting on third base as the go-ahead run. The hit to right was collected by Shane Spencer, who in his haste to get the ball back to the infield, overthrew both cutoff men Alfonso Soriano and Tino Martinez. While it looked like the ball would just roll harmlessly toward the catcher, allowing the run to score and leaving Long dangerously at 3rd base, Jeter rushed over from his place between second and third all the way to the foul line in between first base and home plate to scoop up the throw. While his momentum was still carrying him toward the dugout, Jeter backhanded the ball right into the glove of Posada, who with one motion caught the pass and swung his arm around to catch Giambi by a fraction of a step. The Yankees went on to preserve that 1-0 lead, and with that momentum shift, were able to sweep the rest of the series. A 4-1 series victory over the Mariners in the ALCS, (The 2001 Mariners being another great topic for the Open Mic: Greatest Dissapointments), and the Yankees were ready to face the Diamondbacks with history on their side and a country at their backs.
The 2001 World Series would not begin play until October 27th on account of the break from play that Major League Baseball took following the attacks on September 11th. Casual Americans looked to their traditions and practiced them with more purpose and intent. These traditions included American sports, and the games became that much more important to fans and non-fans alike, because they did so much to bring everyone together. Casual fans felt compelled to rally around the Yankees during that post season in the same way that casual football fans felt compelled to rally around the New Orleans Saints during the 2006-2007 playoffs, when the team represented all those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Game one saw Mike Mussina leave before the 4th inning began. 5 runs were scored during his tenure on the mound, and while only 3 were earned due to a costly error by Bernie Williams , the Moose was scrapped so that he may be fresh to pitch again later. Randy Choate would relieve Mussina, and in his one inning of work, another 4 runs would score, albeit only one was earned on account of another costly error by Scott Brosius. By this point the game had gotten out of hand and the Yankees would have no success in their attempts for retaliation. The night belonged to Curt Schilling, who gave up one run and recorded eight strikeouts in seven innings, although my unsung hero of the game had to be Sterling Hitchcock, who not only struck out six batters over three scoreless innings, but also kept the game nicely at "embarrassing blowout" instead of "Why is this team even participating in the World Series?"
The second game of the series saw more of the same from the nonexistent Yankee offense. This was of course due to another outstanding pitching performance by the Diamondbacks, in this case, Randy Johnson. (random side note: Randy Johnson has to be the second best innuendo of a "Johnson" name in sports, of course coming right after Magic. I can't picture Randy with a queue of ladies waiting outside of the locker room for him though.) Johnson held the Yankees to three hits during his complete game shutout. Pettite had been pitching well all night on his end of the duel until a Matt Williams three-run home run in the seventh put the Diamondbacks up 4-0 and wrapped thing up for the night. The series was looking fairly ho-hum to this point. Arizona was pitching too well and the Yankees had nothing to rally around. All that changed over the three games played at Yankees Stadium.
Home field advantage is usually pretty helpful. The crowd is on your side. They cheer at the right times and really know how to let the opposition get an earful of colorful remarks that would never be able to be printed. The Yankees crowd brought this advantage to a level unseen in my lifetime. The Yankees were an immediate rallying point for the city, and nobody could root against a city that had just endured such a hardship. There may have been fans who were cheering harder for Arizona, but nobody was rooting AGAINST the Yankees. George W. Bush threw out the first pitch, which I am almost certain went right down the pipe, drawing raucous applause from all those watching. It's hard to believe that he was, at least for a few months, loved, (or at least accepted), by the nation. Clemens came out to pitch a gem that shined just a little brighter than it may have through conditioning alone. (Perhaps there was some kind of cream he used to polish it with.) Anderson pitched well for Arizona, but was pulled after a hit was given up to Bernie Williams and Posada walked. Brosius got a two out RBI and the game ended three innings later with that same 2-1 score.
Game 4. Halloween night. The Yankees continued to struggle to stay in the series as Curt Schilling continued to pitch like a man possessed. He had given up a single home run to Shane Spencer, but the Diamondbacks had gotten it back in the next inning with a home run of their own, by Mark Grace off of Orlando Hernandez. After Mike Stanton gave up two runs on a double to Durazo and a fielder's choice to Williams in the 8th inning, the Yankees faced a two run deficit with two shots at keeping the series from going 3-1 in Arizona's favor. Diamondbacks closer Byung-Hyun Kim came in and struck out the side to end the 8th, and was sent back out to finish the game in the 9th. Jeter came to bat first, bunting into a ground out. Paul O'Neill, playing in his last series at Yankee Stadium, hit a nonthreatening single to left field. After Bernie Williams struck out swinging, the Yankees were one out away from having their backs against the wall. It was Tino Martinez, the man who had come to the team to replace the long loved Don Mattingly so many years ago, who came to bat next and hit the game tying home run, scoring Paul O'Neill and sending the game into extra innings. When the Diamondbacks failed to score in the 10th, Kim was brought out yet again. Now that the clock had already struck midnight, this was the first World Series that had been played in November. After two quick outs to Brosius and Soriano, Derek Jeter became the greatest hitter in the history of November baseball......at that time. His solo home run won the game, drew the Yankees even in the series and gave them momentum going into Game 5.
With the series becoming a best-of-3 contest now, both teams desperately needed to collect a win. Although Mike Mussina struck out 10 batters over the course of eight innings of work, blood was drawn on him first when he gave up solo home runs to Steve Finley and Rod Barajas in the top of the 5th. Miguel Bautista made it through 7 and 2/3 innings untouched, and Greg Swindell cleaned up the 8th inning for him nicely. One inning away from taking a crucial game 5, Kim returned, looking for redemption. Posada doubled to lead the inning off, but the hope that came from having the first runner in scoring position soon faded as Shane Spencer grounded out and Chuck Knoblauch struck out swinging. Scott Brosius, playing in his last game at Yankee Stadium, a third baseman known more for his outstanding defense than his offensive prowess, belted the game tying home run. In the 11th, Rivera allowed two quick hits to Bautista and Durazo. A bunt ground out advanced both runners, and after intentionally walking Steve Finley, the Diamondbacks were in striking distance with bases loaded and one out. Reggie Sanders lined out sharply to Soriano so that nobody could advance, and Mark Grace grounded out to end the threat. Later, in the bottom of the 12th, the game finally came to a close with Chuck Knoblauch scoring from second on an Alfonso Soriano single. So ended the most nerve wracking three games I have ever seen in World Series play.
Game 6 proved to be woefully anticlimactic as the series moved back to Arizona. With the Yankees already down 4-0 at the top of the 3rd, Andy Pettite gave up a walk and a double and was subsequently pulled for Jay Witasick. This is where things become a little blurry, and all video evidence of the rest of the inning has been destroyed by Yankees officials. I myself may have been drugged. All I know is a box score I found in a sealed envelope the next day says that 8 runs were given up that inning, en route to a 15-2 thumping. Even putting Byun-Hyun Kim in the game for a few innings of batting practice would not have been enough to save the game for the Yankees. The game could not have gone worse if it were played on Three Mile Island. With the series tied, all that remained was the pivotal Game 7.
With Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling set to trade punches, the day was set up for an epic winner-takes-all baseball contest. Clemens struck out 10 in 6 and 1/3 innings, while Schilling struck out 9 in 7 and 1/3 innings. When Bautista doubled in Steve Finley in the bottom of the 6th, it looked like that would be enough to win the game. Hope spread across the five boroughs when Tino Martinez singled in Jeter to tie the score. Later, in the top of the 8th, Schilling's last inning, Alfonso Soriano hit what could have been his most famous home run to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead. Home runs only make you famous if your team ends up winning the game, and the Diamondbacks, deciding their best relief pitchers were also their battle tested starters, sent Miguel Bautista to get one out, and finally Randy Johnson to finish the inning. Mariano Rivera struck out three of the four batters he faced in the bottom of the 8th, and Johnson shut the Yankees down in the top of the 9th. All that was left was for the best closer in the history of baseball to go out and give one final inning.
Mark Grace led off with a single to center field and was immediately pinch run for by David Dellucci. Damien Miller, the Diamondback's catcher attempted a bunt to move Dellucci into scoring position. The bunt rolled slowly to Rivera, who had a quick decision to make. He could go all-or-nothing-at-all, and attempt a double play by throwing perfectly to second and getting a quick turn to first for the second out, or he could throw to first for the sure out. Rivera chose the first option, but his throw was off. Both runners were safe, and the Yankees still had yet to record an out. Randy Johnson was scheduled to hit next, but veteran Jay Bell came in to hit in his place. Bell also grounded to Rivera, who chose to get the lead runner at third base. Midre Cummings then came in to pinch run for Damien Miller, who now found himself in scoring position. Tony Womack slapped a line drive to right, easily scoring Cummings. Bell remained at third instead of risking a close play at the plate, knowing that they had already tied the game, and a hit or sac fly would score him anyways. After Craig Counsell was hit by a pitch to load the bases, fate was beginning to reveal itself. The next play would see Jay Bell join a list of players that include his teammate Craig Counsell, Mike Davis, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor, and Ray Knight as answers to the trivia question "Who scored the winning run or was on base when the winning home run was hit in fill-in-the-famous-play?" The next play would see a piece of gum suddenly be worth $10,000. The next play would figuratively end the pinnacle of what had been the Yankee Dynasty. Luis Gonzalez's bloop single over the head of Derek Jeter.
Never has a World Series twisted my emotions in such a way. Never before in a sports event have I been pushed so hard at so many angles. Elation and devastation poured together in the same cup have left a taste that I have never had before or since. This was perhaps not the greatest disappointment in the history of sports. It cannot compare to the Dodgers giving up what was a 13 1/2 game lead on August 11th to the Giants, or last season's Patriots Super Bowl, or the NHL strike, because no matter how bad I felt, there was always the thrilling come-from-behinds that the Yankees had created out of nowhere, and being able to appreciate the game for how incredible it was, and how great the series had been. But I did feel like the Yankees deserved to win this one.
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