I was born in 1992. By the time I was eight, the Yankees had already won four World Series titles with one of the best cores ever assembled. Although I don’t remember much of the 1996 World Series that kickstarted the dynasty — I mean, I was only four, after all — I am still chasing the high of watching the 1998, 1999, and 2000 World Series victories over 21 years later.
Let me put that statement into perspective. Since 2000, I have witnessed my favourite sports teams win the whole thing just twice: once when the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, and again 10 years later when
Kawhi Leonard the Toronto Raptors won the franchise’s first NBA title. Despite those two wins, though, I still haven’t come close to matching the level of excitement I felt after the Yankees won three straight titles to close out the ‘90s and ring in the new millennium. Prior to 2001, the only thing I knew about professional sports was the joy I felt every time the Yankees won. Was it spoiled? Of course, but those are just the facts.
And then the 2001 World Series happened and I quickly came to the startling realization that sports can induce a second, equally important emotional response: heartbreak.
Let’s start at the beginning. Mariano Rivera has always been my favourite player to wear the pinstripes. When I played baseball, I tried to emulate his cutter on the mound even though I couldn’t figure out how to throw the damn thing. After I suffered a fairly serious elbow injury in my teen years and was reduced to a late-game bullpen role, my idolization of him became even more extreme.
I think you can now probably understand where I’m going with this. Rivera was exceptional during the Yankees’ three unforgettable wins at Yankee Stadium, working consecutive days and throwing a combined five scoreless innings with just three baserunners allowed. Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter, and Scott Brosius provided the home run heroics, but Mo was the key. Much like the rest of Major League Baseball, the Diamondbacks could not touch him.
But after the Yankees rode a dramatic seventh and eighth in Game 7 to take a 2-1 lead over Arizona, the unthinkable happened. Tasked to get six outs and working a clean eighth, Rivera faltered.
The inning began with a leadoff single and a throwing error by Rivera himself, which was highly unusual given that he was a great defender and had previously committed just one error in his entire seven-year career. The miscue was followed by a sacrifice bunt that could’ve been a double play with a little more urgency from Brosius, and then a stunning double from Tony Womack — he of the 64 OPS+ on the season — to tie the game at two runs apiece.
The theatre of the absurd continued, as Rivera plunked a batter for just the second time all year long, Craig Counsell. That loaded the bases with just one out. On an 0-1 pitch to Luis Gonzalez, Gonzo somehow managed to get enough of the pitch to punch a jammed-shot bloop single into shallow (and by “shallow” I mean barely-touching-the-grass shallow) centre field.
The Diamondbacks were champions. The Yankees were losers. I was emotionally distraught.
This kind of thing didn’t happen to Mariano Rivera. This kind of thing didn’t happen to the Yankees. Hell, this kind of thing didn’t happen to me.
Looking back on that loss as a 29-year-old with a hell of a lot more responsibilities than my 9-year-old self, I know now that the heartbreak of 2001 taught me a few things:
- The reason I keep coming back to Yankees’ baseball, despite the heartbreak and frustration of the last 21 years, is because there is simply no emotional comparison to watching your favourite team in the world have the opportunity to win it all;
- Failure is always going to be part of the game, regardless of whether you’re the best or not, and the emotional fallout of failure is just as important as the ecstasy that goes along with winning; and,
- I will always hate Luis Gonzalez.
(Author’s note: I should clarify that I don’t actually hate Luis Gonzalez. If a Hall of Very Good existed, he’d have my vote. I’m just never going to be not mad at him.)
Of course, in retrospect, Rivera’s late-game implosion really was not as big of a deal as I made it out to be at the time. To a sheltered, privileged nine-year-old, though, this fantasy world I had built for myself based on winning and nothing ever going wrong felt like it was crumbling down around me as I helplessly watched Jay Bell cross home plate to end the World Series. And, as the actual world around me was still reeling from the attacks, I would never know that kind of mythical world again.
2001 was the first time I had come face-to-face with the fact that, despite my parents’ best efforts to shield me from it, the world was a genuinely terrifying place. For the first time in my life, I learned that the people I saw as infallible could fail and were capable of disappointing me. And, for the first time in my safe, privileged upbringing, I learned that there was more to the world than the joy of winning; heartbreak was important, too.