Major League Baseball's 2001 season was highlighted by record-breaking performances and capped by the retirement of a number of All-Star players who held some of the sport's most cherished records. The tail end of the season was delayed by the tragic events of September 11, but as Steve Schy reports the year ended on a high note with one of the most dramatic World Series in decades.
Baseball fans got a treat to end the baseball season, as the Arizona Diamondbacks battled the New York Yankees in a thrilling seven-game World Series that stretched into November for the first time in the sport's history.
The 97th Fall Classic matched a Yankees dynasty searching for its fourth straight World Series title against a Diamondbacks franchise in just its fourth year of existence. The storied Yankees had 26 World Series crowns, while Arizona was making its first Series appearance.
New York was favored heading into the best-of-seven game series, partially because of the team's extensive playoff experience, but especially because of its strong pitching staff. The Yankee starters included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Orlando Hernandez. They faced an Arizona rotation led by Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, a duo that became known as "Desert Heat" because of their blazing fastballs. But Brian Anderson and Miguel Batista were regarded as question marks heading into high pressure games that could make or break a the team's season.
Arizona shocked the Yankees, jumping out to a 2 games to none lead, as Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson won the opening pair of games (9-4 and 4-0) in Phoenix.
Yankees manager Joe Torre admitted his team was somewhat depressed after losing twice in Phoenix. "No question, you can't lose two games in a seven game series, the first two games, and not feel the effects," he said. "But again, this is where we need to get it back and get it going."
But when the Series moved to New York, the Yankees won three straight. All of the games were decided by a single run. In games four and five, New York erased two-run deficits in the bottom of the ninth inning on dramatic home runs. Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius could not believe it happened two games in a row. "Unbelievable games! We were basically being totally dominated by the Diamondbacks pitching staff until the 27th out," he said. "Two two-run home runs on consecutive nights is pretty amazing, with one out to go in your last at bat."
The series returned to Arizona, and the Diamondbacks evened the series behind Randy Johnson with a crushing 15-2 win over the Yankees. That set the scene for the decisive seventh game; a thrilling pitching duel between Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens. Arizona trailed two-to-one heading into the bottom of the ninth inning. But the Diamondbacks scored two runs off ace Yankee closer (relief pitcher) Mariano Rivera for a thrilling 3-2 victory. Arizona won the series four games to three and became the youngest franchise ever to win the World Series.
Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson were named the co-Most Valuable Players of the Series. Schilling says the Arizona victory was good for the sport. "This is great for baseball," he said. "We beat the best team in baseball to win a World Series. I mean, you just can't imagine the feeling of looking around the room and knowing that every single guy in that room is responsible for that World Series trophy that is now in the Arizona Diamondbacks possession."
The 2001 season also saw a number historic records broken. Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants beat Mark McGwire's 1998 single season home run record of 71 by blasting 73 this season. In addition, the 37-year-old outfielder moved past the legendary Babe Ruth to set new marks for most walks (177) and highest slugging percentage (.863) in a season. Bonds' batting average was .328 and he batted in 137 runs. He was rewarded with the National League's Most Valuable Player trophy.
The San Diego Padres' Rickey Henderson also had a record-breaking season. The 42-year-old veteran broke Ty Cobb's career run scoring record on October fifth when he crossed the plate for the two-thousand-246th time. Three days later he became just the 25th player in baseball history to register three-thousand hits. In April the future Hall-of-Famer broke Babe Ruth's record for most career walks when he got a free pass to first base for the 2,063rd time.
Henderson's teammate Tony Gwynn is among three certain future Hall of Famers to retire at the end of the 2001 season. Gwynn played his entire 20-year career with the Padres and was an eight-time National League batting champion. Former home run king Mark McGwire, announced his retirement after 16 seasons with the Oakland Athletics and Saint Louis Cardinals. McGwire broke Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in one season by blasting 70 in 1998. The 38-year-old former Rookie of the Year ended up fifth on the career home run list with 583, and holds the major league record with 566 homers as a first baseman.
But McGwire was sidelined with injuries much of the past two seasons and said it was time to call it quits. "I've seen players hang around too long," he said. "Heck, the last year and one-half I basically wasn't in existence in baseball and I feel like I've been hanging around. I just don't like that."
Baltimore Orioles infielder Cal Ripken Junior is another star who hung up his spikes following the 2001 season. The 41-year-old Ripken played in 18 All-Star games during his 21 years with the Orioles. But he is best known as the sport's "Iron Man," for playing 2,632 consecutive games between 1982 and 1998, breaking the record held for decades by New York Yankees' legend Lou Gehrig.
Ripken was a fan favorite but said he was ready to say goodbye. "But it doesn't lessen the feelings any, and I think that's the good feelings. They are not bad. All of this is good. All this is great," he said.
This year's Baseball Hall of Fame class includes infielder Bill Mazeroski and outfielders Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett. The 2001 Seattle Mariners will get some recognition in the Hall of Fame after their incredible year. They won 116 games to tie the sport's record for most wins in a single season. Part of their success was due to 28-year-old Japanese sensation Ichiro Suzuki. He won the American League's Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, the first foreign-born player to do so.
But after a fantastic year in 2001, unanswered questions began gathering like dark clouds over baseball's 2002 season. Team owners voted to eliminate two teams before the start of next season.
No teams were selected, but the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos appeared to be the most likely candidates for the so-called "contraction." Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said "whatever the two franchises are that we finally contract, and there are more than two candidates at this time, they are teams that we've judged of being not capable, now or in the future, of generating enough revenue to be a productive franchise."
After this pronouncement, lawmakers in Washington started discussions on whether Major League Baseball should be stripped of its antitrust exemption, which allows the sport to maintain a monopoly over its franchises.
The baseball players union filed a grievance against owners in an effort to stop contraction, which appeared would be delayed for at least one year. But the players and owners still have to reach a new labor agreement before next season to avoid a possible player strike or lockout by owners.
Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001