The 2000 New York Yankees, the reigning, two-time defending, undisputed champions of the world, were the kings of baseball. Winners of three of the past four World Series, the Bronx Bombers were a seasoned, battle-tested group. After scraping through the regular season with 87 wins to capture the American League East crown, their experience came in handy.
First, they needed all five games to dispatch the AL West champion Oakland Athletics in the ALDS. Then, six games were required to vanquish the Seattle Mariners, who had upset the Chicago White Sox in the Division Series. Now, they stood poised on the verge of a three-peat, needing four more wins. Surely, this World Series would be just like the others, right?
Final Score: Yankees 4, Mets 3
Game MVP: Jose Vizcaíno
But here’s the thing. This was not a Fall Classic against the Atlanta Braves or the San Diego Padres. As y’all may have noticed above, the 2000 Yankees faced the New York Mets, their crosstown rivals from the Senior Circuit. To say there was pressure to beat the Amazins, even and perhaps especially from the very top of the organization, would be an understatement.
George Steinbrenner hated losing to the Mets. Twenty-three years earlier, the Yankees, managed at the time by Billy Martin, lost to them. That game was televised in New York. The Boss was enraged. Did it matter that it was a spring training game? Not even a little bit. A livid Steinbrenner berated Martin, threatening to fire him. Throughout the years, the message remained the same. Losing to the Mets was not an option.
It would have been too easy for the Yankees to jump out to a huge lead early, crush the Mets’ will to win, and take care of them without breaking a sweat. Instead, Game 1 of the Subway Series was a five-hour affair that saw 101 batters step to the plate over 12 innings. Mercifully, when the winning run scored, it was a Yankee and the Boss’ squad had drawn first blood.
The game started as a battle between two portside slingers, with former (and future) Yankee Al Leiter facing the indomitable Andy Pettitte. Only 28-years-old, Pettitte was already starting the 18th playoff game of his Yankee career. Both starters held the opposing lineups in check through the first five innings, though Pettitte needed an assist to keep that streak going in the sixth.
With the speedy Timo Pérez on first base and two down, Todd Zeile crushed a ball to deep left that hit the top of the wall, but for a split-second, it appeared to be a home run (kudos to savvy Yankees fan Jack Nelson, who encouraged his fellow first-row attendees to keep their hands off the live ball). Pérez had slowed down a little bit before picking it back up, and that brief pause allowed David Justice to get a throw in to Derek Jeter, who unleashed an outstanding relay to Jorge Posada, retiring Pérez at the plate.
Meanwhile, the Yankees had failed to dent Leiter until after that remarkable play in the sixth. With Jose Vizcaíno (more on him later) and Jeter on base and one out in the sixth, Justice stepped to the dish facing Leiter. With the count one ball and one strike, Justice drove a ball into center field, scoring both runners, and putting the Yankees up 2-0, with nine outs to go.
Pettitte managed to get one more out before the lead vanished. With the sacks drunk in the top of the seventh, Pettitte surrendered a game-tying, bases loaded single to Bubba Trammell. One out later, with Pettitte in the dugout and Jeff Nelson on the mound, Edgardo Alfonzo drove in a third Mets run. The other foot was in the shoe now, with the Mets needing nine outs to steal Game 1 from the Bronx Bombers, in Yankee Stadium no less.
For a while, it looked like the Mets’ lead might hold up. They recorded seven outs without the Yankees scoring a run, without them ever really threatening. Then, with one out in the ninth inning, “the Warrior” came to bat with one out, and worked an all-time great walk against Mets closer Armando Benítez (an old nemesis), coming back from down 1-2 to get on base.
That was the catalyst, as the Yankees constructed a game-saving rally just in the nick of time. Pinch-hitter Luis Polonia singled, as did Vizcaíno, loading the bases for Chuck Knoblauch. With Benitez still pitching, Knoblauch drove a ball to left field, deep enough to score O’Neill, lock the game up at three, and send the contest to bonus cantos after Benitez recorded the final out of the frame.
From there, Mariano Rivera and Mike Stanton took the game on their shoulders. Rivera, who had already pitched the ninth and stranded a pair of potential insurance runs in scoring position, retired the Mets in order in the 10th. Not to be outdone, Stanton did likewise in the 11th and 12th.
Finally, in the bottom of the 12th, the Bronx Bombers put this one to bed. The big names started it off. With one out, a single by Tino Martinez and a double by Jorge Posada led the Mets to issue an intentional walk to O’Neill, loading the bases. Polonia popped out for the second out, bringing Vizcaíno up, already with three hits on the evening. With the Yankee Stadium faithful standing and roaring in expectant approval, he wasted no time, swinging at Turk Wendell’s first pitch. Ballgame.
The next morning, The New York Times proclaimed “Five Hours Later, Vizcaíno Single Wins for Yankees,” with Buster Olney’s write-up centered on the front page. It might as well have read “Breathe Easy, George. The Yankees are Alright.” After taking the second game at Yankee Stadium, the club dropped Game 3 at Shea Stadium, but won the next two on the road to clinch the Subway Series in five.
The Boss’ mandate remained intact. Don’t lose to the Mets. Considering his reaction all those years earlier to losing a spring training game, I shudder to think what would have happened had the Yankees lost the 2000 World Series. Thankfully, the club sidestepped that fate.
At the heart of the victory that kick-started the Yankees’ third consecutive World Series: an unlikely hero, who was only starting because Knoblauch had lost Joe Torre’s confidence at second base. Jose Vizcaíno retired in 2006 after 18 seasons, with a career 76 OPS+. On one critical night in the Bronx, however, he was irreplaceable.
Vizcaíno knocked four hits in the opener, including the game-winner. He was not single-handedly responsible for the Yankees’ victory. He had lots of help. But statistically, he was not far from it, with a .587 Win Probability Added on the night. And of course, the winning run doesn’t cross the plate without his opposite field, extra inning base hit.