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What a year!
Major League Baseball had a season for the ages
By Ian Browne
We all have hopes and dreams for 2002. But when it comes to those who
are passionate about Major League Baseball, what you wish for can be
pretty simple. Just hope that the coming season ends up being half as
riveting, historical, poignant, exhilarating, unpredictable and special as
Before we get into full anticipation mode for the odyssey that will
be the 2002 baseball season, we'd be remiss not to absorb, appreciate and
relive the unbelievable 2001.
The season that seemingly didn't want to end finally culminated with
an unforgettable comeback in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7
of the World Series with a team in its fourth year of existence
dethroning arguably the most storied franchise in professional sports.
What all of us who consider ourselves baseball aficionados
experienced in 2001 was quite simply, a season (and postseason) for the ages.
Without further ado, allow us to go around the diamond and venture
into the gaps to highlight the subplots that made 2001 an epic for
America's National Pastime.
A classic Fall Classic:
Sometimes it's best to start at the
end. And there was no better way for a season to conclude than a
seven-game World Series. Especially when it comes with all the unfathomable
twists and turns put forth by the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York
Ultimately, the Diamondbacks were the champions. Randy Johnson and
Curt Schilling put on a power pitching clinic with throwback work on
short rest. Fittingly, they were co-MVPs of a Series that was won with
Johnson coming out of the bullpen in Game 7 on zero days of rest.
For all the mastery put forth by Schilling and Johnson in the
finale, and the entire Series, let's not forget that the Diamondbacks went
into the bottom of the ninth on the short end of a 2-1 score. Not only
that, but the best and most clutch short reliever in recent memory was on
the mound for the Yankees in Mariano Rivera. Well, as one of the most
famous Yankees once said, "It ain't over until it's over."
Thanks in large part to a Rivera throwing gaffe on a bunt, it was over soon thereafter
in a way Yogi Berra and the Yankees never could have imagined. Tony
Womack stroked a double into the right-field corner to tie it, and with
the bases loaded and one out, Luis Gonzalez ended the most fantastic
season of his life with a bloop single into the shallowest of center field.
The official record will say that the Diamondbacks won this series
and the Yankees lost it. But it's hard to view anyone as a loser in this
Series. The only reason it went seven is because the Yankees hit two of
the most dramatic home runs in World Series history in Games 4 and 5.
One out away from falling behind in the series 3-1, soon-to-be free
agent Tino Martinez gave the Yanks a going away present, smashing a two-run
homer off of Byung-Hyun Kim to send it into extra innings. By the time
the game ended, it was after midnight, which meant it was the first
World Series game ever played in November. Who else but Derek Jeter to be
Mr. November? The Yankees' star poked a walkoff homer off the
beleaguered Kim in the bottom of the 10th. Just like that, the Series was tied
and the stage was set for an encore.
But you had to see this encore to believe it. Bottom of the ninth
again. Yanks down two runs again. Kim on the mound again. This time the
batter was Scott Brosius -- also soon to be departed Yankee. This time
the ball was skied to left field. Again, it landed over the wall. Again,
Yankee Stadium was roaring. Again, it would end with a Yankees' victory in
extra innings. This time it was rookie Alfonso Soriano providing the
capper with an RBI single in the bottom of the 12th.
What will be remembered most from this World Series are the moments.
Pleading (for) the fifth:
Nobody can argue that the
best-of-five Division Series has been an unquestioned smash since first going
into effect in October, 1995. The point was hammered home harder than
ever before in these playoffs, when three of the four Division Series went
down to a Game 5 finale.
First, came the Cardinals and the Diamondbacks on a Sunday night in
Phoenix. In the bottom of the ninth, the scored tied at one, Womack was
given the squeeze sign. He missed. But redemption came later in the at-bat as Womack delivered a series-ending RBI single which wound up being his second biggest hit of the 2001 postseason.
While the Diamondbacks spent Monday gearing up for an NLCS matchup
with the Braves, the upstart Indians were in Seattle trying to knock off
the 116-win Mariners in Game 5. Thanks to the incomparable slop of
Jamie Moyer, that proved not to be possible. The Mariners rode Moyer to a
3-1 victory to survive their first-round scare.
That same day, the A's were in the Bronx trying to take Game 5 from
the mystique-laden Yankees. What were the A's doing back in New York?
Hadn't they all but buried the champs by taking Games 1 and 2 at Yankee
Stadium? Well, the Yankees have a way of finding a way.
Essentially, the Yankees won this series in Game 3. That was when
Mike Mussina pitched a masterpiece, something the Yankees needed on a day
A's starter Barry Zito surrendered two hits. That was when shortstop
Derek Jeter made a remarkable behind the back flip from the first-base
side of home plate to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate. The Yankees pretty
much cruised from there, knocking around overwhelmed Cory Lidle in Game
4 and riding the crowd and more spectacular defense from Jeter in a 5-3
conquest in Game 5.
Barry's bash into history:
OK, so this chase didn't catch on
with the fervor of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa show of 1998. But that
doesn't make it any less meaningful. Step back and applaud Barry Bonds
for one of the best individual seasons in history. And his record
setting 73 home runs represented just a portion of his greatness.
How about his slugging percentage of .883? It's a number so
ridiculous it doesn't even sound real. Not surprisingly, it is an all-time
record, breaking Babe Rush's mark of .847 in 1920. Of the slugging record,
Bonds said, "That's the one I don't think is going to be broken."
He also walked 177 times, another all-time record. And he hit .328,
scored 129 runs, drove in 137 runs, stole 13 bases and had an
on-base-percentage of .515. There would have to be a great injustice for Bonds
not to win an unprecedented fourth MVP.
The only thing missing for Bonds was a chance to extend his season
into the playoffs. Despite all his heroics, the Giants fell just short
in the NL West. It would be one thing to accomplish a season like this
in the prime years. But Bonds did it at age 37 to cart home an
unprecedented fourth MVP.
With a chance to become a free agent, Bonds instead chose to accept
the Giants' offer for arbitration. Whether the sides settle before
arbitration or not, Bonds will get a mammoth pay day.
Gwynn-Ripken retirement tour:
It's hard to think of two
players who so aptly represented everything that is right about being a
baseball player. For the last two decades, Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn --
playing on different coasts and in different leagues -- were nothing but
classy competitors. So it was only fitting that they retired together and
will go into the Hall of Fame together in 2007.
Playing an entire career for one team is becoming a lost art, but
lifetime Oriole Ripken and Padres lifer Gwynn always made it seem like it
shouldn't be any other way. How many other players have had an impact
so great that Major League Baseball stopped the All-Star Game in
progress to give these two greats a going-away ceremony?
By announcing their retirements in the first half of the season,
eight-time batting champion Gwynn and all-time Iron Man Ripken both got
the proper sendoffs from ballparks across the country. They will both be
missed but not forgotten.
Big Mac calls it a career:
Unlike Gwynn and Ripken, there
wasn't time for McGwire to smell the roses. Instead, he hastily announced
he was retiring a week after the World Series ended. So for McGwire,
2001 won't merely be remembered as the year his single-season home run
record of 70 was shattered by Bonds.
It will also go down as his final season. Although it was one he'd
love to forget -- .189 batting average -- his career is one all baseball fans will
remember. Gwynn and Ripken will have to make room on that 2007 Hall of
Fame train for McGwire, who swatted 583 homers in a career spent with
the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals.
Rickey runs (then slides) into history:
might have lost a little skill and speed over the course of his seemingly
endless career. But in breaking Ty Cobb's all-time record for runs
scored on Oct. 4, the Padres' Henderson proved that he still has all the
flair he ever did.
Henderson has always been able to squeeze the maximum amount of
drama out of the big events in his career. So naturally, he didn't score
run No. 2,246 on an infield chopper. Instead, Henderson struck a home
run. You thought he was just going to do the obligatory trot and then
tip-toe across home plate? Henderson captured the moment by sliding across
the plate, an image that will live with Rickey watchers forever.
Henderson added another milestone to his future Hall of Fame belt in
the Padres' season finale, when he smacked hit No. 3,000. Baseball's
stolen base king expects to return for a 24th season in 2002.
When superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez
bolted to Texas for the most lucrative contract in the history of
professional sports, the perception was that the Mariners would still be a
competitive team. What with a manager like Lou Piniella, all that pitching,
and a team tailored to their beautiful ballpark, it wasn't as if the
Mariners needed sympathy cards after going to the ALCS in 2000.
But nobody could have predicted they would tie the 1906 Cubs with
the most wins in a season. That's exactly what happened, though, as Lou's
crew went an uncanny 116-46 to surpass the 114-48 Yankees of 1998. OK,
so it didn't do them any good in the ALCS, when they were knocked out
by the Yankees in five games. But it was still a season they should be
celebrated and applauded for.
What was most refreshing about this Mariners' team was not how much
they won, but the way they won. It was almost as if it was a textbook
example of winning baseball. Pitching, defense, timely hitting and
attention to detail and fundamentals. That's how you draw it up.
It seemed like the Mariners had the AL West clinched around Memorial
Day. Yet they never got complacent. They just ran into a proven
championship team in the Yankees.
It's hard to think about the 2001 Mariners
without thinking about Ichiro's rousing arrival. Yes, the eight-time
Japanese batting champion does have a last name. It's Suzuki. But he only
wishes to be referred to by his first name, and after the season he's
had, we can grant him that simple request.
There was great curiosity about what Ichiro would do considering
there was no precedent for a Japanese everyday player in the Major
Leagues. All he did was hit .350 -- good for his first Major League batting
title -- with 126 runs, 241 hits, 33 doubles, eight triples and 55 stolen
bases to become the first player in a quarter century to be Rookie of
the Year and MVP. Any more questions?
Oh, did we mention he has a cannon arm from right field. Ichiro's
flair and prowess in almost every facet of the game was one of the
primary reasons A-Rod's loss didn't come back to haunt the Mariners.
From outta nowhere, straight A's:
Back in the days
of Spring Training, when A's hype was at its highest point since the
peak of the Bash Brothers days of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, it
wouldn't have been outlandish to say this up and coming team would finish
with the second best record in the game at 102-60. But who would have
dared make such a projection when they were 35-40 and looking much like an
over-hyped bunch on June 26.
However, a scintillating 67-20 from June 27 on made the 102-60
record a reality. Only the Mariners -- who beat the A's out by 14 games in
their own division -- had a better record. Though GM Billy Beane set the
stage for a big part of the revival by acquiring Jermaine Dye in July,
the real story was the A's stellar starting pitching.
Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Cory Lidle all pitched like
aces down the stretch. For the season, their combined record was 69-30.
Unfortunately, their season ended with a sour taste when they blew a
2-0 lead to the Yankees in the Division Series and lost the series in
five games to the Bombers for the second year in a row.
Leave it to Roger Clemens to become the
first pitcher in history to start a season 20-1. Clemens has the rare
ability to set standards. He carted home his unprecedented sixth Cy Young
award in November. In fact, no other pitcher has won more than four.
At age 39, he continues to be a freak of nature. In Clemens' first
two seasons with the Yankees, he sort of blended in on a well-rounded
staff. This season, he grabbed the ace mantle he has held for much of his
Clemens finished at 20-3 with a 3.53 ERA and racked up 213 strikeouts.
He also did a lot of climbing on the all-time strikeout list. He
started the season in eighth place, and finished it third, trailing only
Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton.
Though the Yankees lost the World Series in seven games, it was no
fault of the Rocket, who pitched brilliantly in his two starts. You'd
think there'd be some dropoff in Clemens by now. But he still throws in
the mid-90s and his splitter is nastier than ever.
A recent expression in baseball the last few
years was "It's so hard to find good young pitchers." That theory didn't
hold up too well this year, as several young guns arrived in a big way.
Marlins' right-hander A.J. Burnett, 24, and Cardinals' rookie
southpaw Bud Smith, 21, fired no-hitters. In Chicago, 22-year-old Mark
Buehrle (16-8, 3.29) came out of nowhere for the White Sox. Ditto in Houston,
where 24-year-old Roy Oswalt (14-3, 2.73) became an anchor.
C.C. Sabathia was billed as the phenom in Cleveland. At age 21, the
6-foot-8 rookie showed it was more than just hype, going 17-5 to help
the Indians win their sixth AL Central title in the last seven years.
Then there are the A's, who must think young gems grow on pitching
trees. Mark Mulder (24) and Barry Zito (23) both pitched like
accomplished veterans. And don't forget about Joe Mays, a 25-year-old righty who helped the
Twins stay in the pennant race with 17 victories.
Sure it's harder to develop pitching in this age of offense. But
this year's young crop proved that the best young arms can still
neutralize even the most potent bats.
Everybody loves an underdog:
The best success stories are the
ones you never expect. The final standings show that the Twins (85-77) and
Phillies (86-76) both finished in second place, and fell short in their
pursuit of a postseason berth. But this can't do much to diminish the
accomplishments of two teams who stayed in the race for the majority of
the season -- in the Phillies' case, down to the final weekend. It's
hard to find any "experts" who expected either team to be a factor after
their cellar-dwelling status of 2000.
In Philadelphia, Manager Larry Bowa's fire sparked the Phillies to
their best season since the 1993 pennant. Bowa wound up winning the NL's
Manager of the Year award. The Phillies made a dramatic 31-win jump
from last year's dismal season under Terry Francona.
The arrival of rookie shortstop Jimmy Rollins, along with the
development of the young starting pitchers, created a sense of anticipation
for next season. Now the Phils just have to get their fans to get caught
up in the excitement. Attendance was perhaps the only disappointing
aspect of their season.
And what about the Twins? Not since Kirby Puckett's prime had they
been a factor. So it was only fitting that in the summer that Puckett
was inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Twins became a story again. Early
in the season, they weren't just a story, but arguably the story. It
was a story the Indians were growing tired of.
On July 12, the Twins were in first place and a whopping 24 games
over. 500 at 56-32. But they were a different team from that point on,
going 29-45 the rest of the way. A July 31 trade deadline swap (Matt
Lawton to the Mets for Rick Reed) flopped and the veteran Indians simply
had too many weapons for the Twins to overcome.
Taking it to the next level:
How fast can a good player
become a great one? Just ask Luis Gonzalez and Bret Boone.
The D-Backs' Gonzalez became a high-caliber run producer in 1999 and
2000. This season, he became a monster. The sweet-swinging left fielder
-- on the strength of a mammoth first half -- bumped his home run total
from 31 last year to 56 this season. He also scored 127 runs, pounded
out 197 hits, smacked seven triples and drove in 140 runs. And he capped
it all with the game-winning hit in Game 7 of the World Series.
Meanwhile, Boone transformed his image as a player. For years, he
was known for his terrific glove at second base. But in his third season
with the Mariners (he was with the club in 1992 and '93), Boone had a season former Seattle stars like Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez would be proud of.
How do you define "career year"? How about when you establish
personal bests in runs (118), hits (206), homers (37), RBIs (141) and
slugging (.582). The most amazing part about it is that Boone never even
approached a season like this before. The Mariners' historical season
certainly wouldn't have been possible without this 32-year-old turning in the
season of his life.
Ian Browne is a regional writer for MLB.com based in New York