As D-backs host Yankees, memories surface of 2001 World Series
PHOENIX — As the Arizona Diamondbacks were on the road last week, the team held a press conference at its home ballpark. It was a chance for media to speak with two of the team’s greatest ambassadors, a duo that was part of the 2001 World Series win over the New York Yankees, who will visit Chase Field on Tuesday.
In a chair to the left was Luis Gonzalez, the walk-off hero who now works full-time for the D-backs. And on the right was Randy Johnson, the series co-MVP and current part-time D-backs employee who travels and shoots photography on the side.
This week will mark the fourth time since ’01 that the Bronx Bombers have visited Phoenix. The Yankees of today are long removed from the teams led by Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera and Mike Mussina. Heck, they’re pretty different from even the team they expected to have just a couple months ago; arguably, the 2019 Yankees have been bit by the injury bug worse than any other team in baseball.
But the timeless Yankee logo and pinstripes are unmistakable, as is the play-by-play call from Greg Schulte when Gonzo hit his famous walk-off single. Gonzalez and Johnson were part of the only professional championship in Phoenix sports history, and one of the most memorable World Series in MLB history.
“It was a great group of men in that room. We went through some ups and downs a little bit early, spring training,” Gonzalez said. “You could tell in our locker room for the last couple years before that moment that we had a great group of guys. We were all on the same page. We were the oldest team in baseball at the time. And we all got along. Every day was a joy to come to the ballpark.”
But just as the players remember what it was like to beat a dynasty, those on the outside remember it for something more. It was a World Series remembered for its drama and its context; As New York’s first responders helped a city reeling from tragedy, the local baseball team helped distract grieving New Yorkers.
“It went from being pretty calm here in Arizona to all of a sudden just things kind of going to the next level being in New York,” Johnson said. “Outside the lines, when we went to New York, being asked of the people, whoever wanted to attend to go to Ground Zero and meet the workers who were working there, that put things into perspective and really what life is all about.
“As players and people here witnessing that, we had the opportunity to go entertain our country and the world, if you will, but put New York, for however many hours, at ease a little bit or be entertained with the World Series.”
President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium for Game 3, the first of three games to be played in New York. Gonzalez recalled heightened security for the nation’s leader, including a faux umpire and snipers up above.
“We were like, ‘Man, we don’t recognize that umpire over there,'” Gonzalez said. “‘He’s not one that we’ve had all year long.'”
The Yankees won all three games in New York, coming back from down 2-0 to up 3-2. Games 4 and 5 went to extra innings as closer Byung-Hyun Kim blew the save in each of those games. Back to Phoenix they went. The Diamondbacks walloped the Yankees 15-2 to force a Game 7 at Bank One Ballpark in only the team’s fourth season of existence.
“We were up two games to none,” Gonzalez said. “And if we went over there and if we swept, we were going to be very respectful about the situation. These were the biggest games in our career but we realized there was something even bigger going on. And for us to say, ‘Hey, if we win this in four or five games, whatever it was, we’ll take it in the locker room, we’ll celebrate in there.’ Because of the simple fact that we were doing it in New York.
“But the way the scenario played out, it was perfect.”
Perfect it was.
On Nov. 4, 2001, Bank One Ballpark watched as Curt Schilling took the mound for his eighth inning of work in a 1-1 game. Alfonso Soriano led off the inning and went down 0-2 in the count. He fouled off two more pitches. Then launched one into left field for a home run. 2-1 Yankees.
Miguel Batista came on in relief of Schilling and pitched a third of an inning, then Johnson, who went 7 innings the night before, entered to pitch the rest of the game.
We all know the rest of the story.
“Here we are, 18 years later and people are still talking about that team,” Gonzalez said. “People come up to us almost daily to say they remember where they were at. So it was a pretty special moment in not just our lives but other’s people’s gatherings and family things that were going on. To be a small part of that is really special here in the state. We hope all the teams start winning championships, but we have something that no one can ever take away from us, which is the first.”
Arizona has something it never had before that November night: a championship. And the players will forever have an inseparable bond with one another over accomplishing an unlikely victory over the back-to-back-to-back World Series winners.
“We all have a group chat that all the 2001 team is involved in,” Gonzalez said. “It gets pretty comical and classic sometimes with some of the guys, because we had a strange bunch of characters on that team. But it took a unique bunch of guys.
“Everybody’s different traits and characteristics that we had and awkwardness that we all had, we all came together as one and knew how to go out there and play the game the right way.”