Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series for a special project.
They had just lost a memorable World Series in dramatic fashion coming oh so close to four in a row and five world championships in six years. But when Luis Gonzalez got just enough of a Mariano Rivera cutter floating it into the outfield for the winning run, it wasn’t to be as the Diamondbacks stormed out of the dugout to celebrate a thrilling come from behind 3-2 Game Seven win beating the game’s best on the grandest stage.
Just like that, then rookie second baseman Alfonso Soriano’s eighth inning leadoff solo home run off a tired Curt Schilling meant nothing as did all the second guessing from Fox baseball analyst Tim McCarver on Arizona manager Bob Brenly staying with his starter too long. Instead, Arizona had done the unthinkable rallying for a pair off Rivera to win the 2001 World Series.
Though they fell short, the Yankees had fought valiantly and done New Yorkers proud in an epic series which followed that awful 9/11 tragedy. This run by Joe Torre’s resilient ballclub saw them dig out of an 0-2 hole rallying back to beat Oakland three straight highlighted on what became known as the signature moment of Derek Jeter’s career cutting off a short throw and then in one motion flipping to Jorge Posada who tagged out a standing Jeremy Giambi preventing that tying run from being scored in the seventh of Game Three.They never looked back as Rivera came onto get the final six outs saving it for Mike Mussina en route to reeling off three straight advancing to face the record setting 116 win Mariners in the ALCS.
It didn’t matter how many more wins Lou Piniella’s team had during the regular season as they were no match for the championship experience of these Yankees, who took the first two in Seattle winning the series in five to advance to a fourth consecutive World Series. Even with the dynamic duo of Schilling and Randy Johnson standing in the way, many still believed the Yanks would find a way to win doing it for a beaten up city which experienced so much pain and heartache on that fateful September day. A day no New Yorker will ever forget.
Here we were six weeks later captivated by Torre’s Yankees who just wouldn’t die and seemed destined to deliver a 27th world championship to grieving New Yorkers. They gave us a reason to believe anything was possible. Still, after the first two games in which the Diamondbacks outpitched and outscored them by a combined 13-1 permitting only six hits, it looked like the run would end quietly.
Now, they needed the next three all at The Stadium to have any realistic chance of making a four-peat possible. Even the most optimistic Yankee fans wondered if this was asking too much. A couple of rounds earlier, they’d rallied from that deficit stunning the A’s by winning twice in Oakland before returning home for a 5-3 Game Five triumph. Could they do it again?
They got a brilliant outing from Roger Clemens going seven allowing just a Reggie Sanders solo shot and two other hits while fanning nine before giving way to Rivera, who again was called on by Torre to get a six out save. It had been a clutch Scott Brosius two out RBI single a couple of innings prior which gave them the slimmest of margins. 2-1 Yankees. But with Enter Sandman in the game, he made quick work of Arizona retiring all six batters including four by strikeout. A Matt Williams ground out to Jeter was all she wrote allowing the Yanks to hang on and get back in the series.
Trailing 2-1 in the series, now came the unenviable task of having to face Schilling. Orlando Hernandez opposed him and did the job keeping the game tied at one apiece with the only runs coming on solo shots by Shane Spencer and Mark Grace an inning apart. With Hernandez done, Mike Stanton ran into trouble in the eighth allowing two runs in putting Arizona six outs away from a commanding 3-1 series lead.
At that critical juncture, Brenly took a huge risk replacing Schilling with closer Byung-Hyun Kim to try for a six out save. Asking the lesser experienced closer to get the last six seemed a bit much. However, he showed no signs of nerves striking out the side in the eighth. Now it was down to the wire. A one out opposite field Paul O’Neill base hit put the tying run to the plate but Kim reared back and struck out Bernie Williams swinging for the second out. Five outs. The Yanks were down to their last out with first baseman Tino Martinez standing in. He kept battling until he got a pitch which he drove to deep right center. Did it have the distance? Yes! Amazingly, the game was all tied. Arizona 3. Yankees 3.
It came on Halloween Night thrilling the packed house delivering hope to so many. There was no way they’d lose. Following a 1-2-3 10th by Rivera, somehow Brenly sent Kim out for a third inning. It had to be one of the most baffling decisions in postseason history. He still recorded the first two outs before Jeter came to the plate as the clock struck midnight officially making it the first ever November postseason baseball. The shortstop had already had a couple of huge moments under the spotlight including that fortunate tying homer against the Orioles in the 1996 ALCS which forever became known as the Jeffrey Maier game.
This time, Jeter would use the short porch again taking a Kim offering to deep right. No fan would need to reach out as the ball cleared the fence for a thrilling walkoff making the Yankees 4-3 winners leveling the series at two apiece. Jeter was now known as Mr. November. A nickname which has stuck with the popular shortstop who’s been there for all four championships along with six pennants.
If you thought Game Four was stunning, Game Five was even more shocking. This time, the Yanks couldn’t score against Miguel Batista. The fifth inning homers by Steve Finley and Rod Barajas had held up for eight innings with veteran Greg Swindell coming onto get the final out. Would Brenly trot out Kim once more? You betcha! Posada greeted him with a double immediately bringing back images of Game Four. But Kim them retired the next two on a ground out and a strikeout to get within an out of a 3-2 series lead back to the Desert. Only Brosius stood in the way. But much like Martinez did the night before, the battle tested veteran third baseman battled and battled fouling off pitches before drilling one into the left field seats miraculously tying the game up.
This time, an embarrassed Brenly didn’t take any chances pulling a saddened Kim in favor of veteran Mike Morgan. A few innings later, it wouldn’t matter as a Soriano walkoff hit to right scored Chuck Knoblauch to give the Yankees another unbelievable come from behind victory.
Three straight wins. One more and they’d make history. Instead, two nights later the Diamondbacks destroyed them in Game Six hammering Andy Pettite for six runs in two innings before the pen got shellacked in a 15-2 laugher with the Big Unit working seven allowing two earned while K-ing seven for his second win of the series.
In their three wins all at home, Arizona had outscored the Yankees by a ridiculous 28-3 margin reminding many of the 1960 series which didn’t end well for the Yanks who had pounded the Pirates in three wins only to watch Bill Mazeroski walkoff in dramatic fashion for the only Game Seven World Series ending home run in history.
I can easily recall even my closest Yankee friend Ivan having zero faith in them being able to defeat Schilling in Game Seven with Clemens opposing him. One of those rare classic pitching match-ups you dream about before all the steroid allegations became public. Unlike him, I believed. Usually, I was the one who was negative but something about this team made me think they could still pull it off. They nearly would.
The Diamondbacks had squeaked out a run in the sixth but the Yanks came right back thanks to a one out RBI single from Martinez plating Jeter. Clemens had done his part striking out 10 in six and a third matching Schilling- a right handed flamethrower cut from the same mold pitch for pitch. After much criticism, Brenly decided not to go to his pen sending his ace out for the eighth. That’s when Soriano connected taking him yard to deep left putting the Yankees six outs away from what felt like their destiny. But this wasn’t about them as much as it was about the city of New York who needed this to recover from that dreadful disaster which still remains empty to this day. A sore spot for anyone who lives here.
The Yankees were going to win. Rivera came on in the eighth once more pitching around a two out hit by striking out Denny Bautista swinging to fan the side. Three outs to go. After the Yankee bats went quietly against Johnson in the ninth, Mo gave up a leadoff single to Grace up the middle. Everyone knew Arizona would sacrifice including Rivera, who had always been a great fielder. When the bunt came right back to him, he had a play at second. Unlike so many times where he makes the throw in his sleep starting a conventional 1-6-3 double play, he threw wildly allowing both runners to be safe with nobody out.
By now, you were getting uncomfortable. How could even the great Mariano wiggle out of this one? But then Jay Bell’s sacrifice failed to advance the runners with Rivera taking the out at third. One away. Two to go. Just when it felt safe to breathe easier, Tony Womack delivered a tying RBI double to right putting the winning run 90 feet away. Then the normally unflappable Yankee closer hit Craig Counsell to load the bases setting up the force at home. You still felt like he could somehow escape the dire situation and get the game to extras. But it wasn’t to be as Gonzalez got just enough of his broken bat on Rivera’s bread and butter putting it out of the middle infielders’ reach allowing the Diamondbacks to celebrate on their home field.
Even as a Yankee fan, I had to admit they’d earned it beating our best to conclude one of the most memorable World Series ever. Even if my team had fallen a little short, they had shown the heart of a champion which was what Yankee fans loved about those teams. They epitomized every hardworking New Yorker.
Even though they’d lost, I’d never felt prouder of them. As much as it stung, this was still one of those series you could hang your hat on.
Who knew at the time it would really be the last in which they were so close? Significant changes were on the way. O’Neill and Brosius would retire and Martinez was replaced by former Oakland MVP slugger Jason Giambi signaling the beginning of the end.
With a brand new network coming, the Yankees soon became transfixed on flexing their muscles by outbidding other teams on the biggest stars with Giambi becoming the first signing a preposterous seven-year $120 million deal.
There’s one quote which shall always standout about the competitiveness of George Steinbrenner which came moments following his team’s crushing loss in Arizona.
“I’m not a good loser. I believe in what Ernest Hemingway said: ‘The way you get to be a good loser is practice, and I don’t want to practice.”‘
Any Yankee fan could understand Steinbrenner’s sentiments. He was a perfectionist. In his world, losing was unacceptable. While it’s true you should have passionate owners like him who care about winning, it’s impossible to win every year.
Why mess with a winning formula which had brought them so much success mixing stars with solid fundamental players who knew what it took to win?
It’s one which continues to haunt the current Yankees who are headed for their first postseason miss since 1993.
Sometimes, the best moves you make are the ones you don’t.