I always struggle with the 2001 World Series. For some reason, the series loss doesn’t sting the way so many others do. I end up of two minds when I consider the Fall Classic two decades past. On one hand, there is at least one alternate parallel universe where the Yankees won the series, giving them four consecutive World championships and permanently making this iteration of the club one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history, if not in all of sports.
On the other hand, perhaps the loss of the series makes Games 3 through 5 stand out even more. Those three nights in the city that never sleeps, a New York City traumatized and just beginning to heal after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, saw enough history, dread, drama, and euphoria that they could underpin a Shakespearean epic.
Game 3 began with the President of the United States throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, with snipers atop Yankee Stadium and nearby buildings. Game 5 ended in a 12th-inning walk-off single that put the Yankees in the catbird’s seat headed to back to Arizona. Despite those bookends, Game 4 somehow outdid them both, at least for me. More than 20 years later, I remember exactly where I was that night.
Final Score: Yankees 4, Diamondbacks 3
Game MVPs: Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter
Curt Schilling versus Orlando Hernández. For the D-Backs, Schilling took the mound on short rest, after tossing seven innings of one-run ball in the series opener. For the Yankees, “El Duque” took the mound with a career 9-2 record in the postseason. Neither starter disappointed.
Arizona had a chance to crack this game open early, after they loaded the bases in the first on a single, a HBP, and a walk. But “El Duque” showed his sangfroid, striking out Matt Williams, and inducing Steve Finley to pop out to third base. The Yankees eventually took a 1-0 lead after Shane Spencer took Schilling deep in the bottom of the third. In the top of the fourth, Mark Grace did likewise to Hernández to tie the game up.
Those were the only runs scratched across against the starting pitchers in this one. Hernández did owe his defense, specifically left fielder Shane Spencer and catcher Jorge Posada, for keeping Arizona from putting another run on the board in the fifth.
The Yankees were the first to go the ‘pen. In the top of the seventh, after El Duque walked Mark Grace and hit Damian Miller, Joe Torre took the ball from the righty in favor of Mike Stanton. Hernández left after giving the Yankees 6.1 stellar innings of one-run ball. Stanton immediately paid dividends, getting an inning-ending double play to keep the contest knotted at one.
Arizona landed a body blow in the eighth, however. First, Erubiel Durazo doubled in the go-ahead run off Stanton, and advanced to third on the throw home. Then, with Stanton out of the game and Ramiro Mendoza pitching, Matt Williams drove in a third Arizona run with a fielder’s choice, as the Yankees could not nab pinch-runner Midre Cummings at the plate.
The Diamondbacks were sitting pretty. Schilling had given them seven innings. Now, with a two-run lead, they summoned closer Byung-Hyun Kim. Facing the bottom of the order in the eighth, Kim struck out the side. Arizona stood three outs from a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Mendoza held the line in the ninth for the Yankees, sending the bats back out with one final chance. Paul O’Neill did his part. With one out, he managed a single off Kim. After Bernie Williams struck out, Tino Martinez came to the plate. One swing. From dread, to euphoria.
What happened next surely ranks as of one of the least surprising sequences of events in the annals of playoff baseball. Joe Torre summoned the GOAT, with the game knotted in extra innings. Mariano Rivera, featuring his fearsome cut fastball, sawed through the top of the Arizona order. Literally. At least the third batter to face him managed to finish his at-bat with his lumber in one piece.
Rivera’s dominance meant at least one more chance for the Yankees to win this one and tie the series. Many of the usual heroes had already appeared. Hernandez, O’Neill, Tino, Mo. Facing Kim with two out in the tenth, could Derek Jeter join them?
Jeets was mired in an awful Fall Classic, with one hit in 14 at-bats, including an 0-for-4 on the night. If you believe in “due”, then that’s what Jeter was. The clock struck midnight, and sent the World Series to November. Jeter, down 0-2, battled. And battled. Until he got the pitch that John Sterling prophesized before the at-bat even began.
After the game, Jeter said, “the beauty of the postseason is that it doesn’t matter what you’ve done before because every time you come up, you’ve got a chance to do something special.’’ His first career walk-off home run, to end the first World Series game to take place in November, to tie the Fall Classic at two games apiece. That seems to fit the bill of doing something special.
I was 2,400 miles away that night, watching on television in a state of stunned exultation. Two decades years later, after relocating to the U.S., I found out a friend who used to live in New York was at the game. Sitting with a client halfway up the upper deck down the left field line. Ask him today, and he’ll tell you it was the most emotional sporting event he’s ever attended. That’s easy to believe.
Two-thirds of this trilogy of games at Yankee Stadium was now in the books. Before the World Series started, Schilling infamously rejected the idea of Yankee Stadium possessing any special mystique or aura. I wonder if he was starting to feel any different after Games 3 and 4. And how he felt after Game 5. More to follow on that one.