by | Nov 5, 2001 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PHOENIX — Hot winds blew over the Arizona desert Sunday afternoon, so strong they closed the airport for a stretch, as the sands kicked up into a blinding storm. It was not, however, the weather behind those gusts. We know that now. Those were the angry winds of baseball, declaring that tradition is fine, and New York is a nice place to visit, but what’s right is right, and when a team plays well enough to win six out of seven World Series games, it should get to go home with the trophy.

Desert storm. The Diamondbacks are the champions of the baseball world, finally doing the only thing they hadn’t done all Series, deliver magic at the end. They had owned the opening songs, the intermission moments, and even a few climactic tunes.

But until Sunday night, the closing numbers had belonged to the reigning divas, the Yankees.

Not anymore. Trailing 2-1 in the ninth inning, the D’backs, a franchise that didn’t exist five years ago, rallied with a single, a bunt, a double, a hit batter, and finally a single up the middle that sent Jay Bell running home, stomping on the plate, and being mobbed by his teammates, as a sea of white pompons celebrated the death of a dynasty, and the birth of a new tradition: The Cactus Championship.

Desert Storm.

“This is the thing you dream about when you’re a little kid” said Luis Gonzalez, who smacked a ball over the head of New York’s miracle man Derek Jeter for the winning RBI.

“What were you trying to do on that at-bat?” he was asked.

“I was just trying to choke up a bit.”

Choke up? Hadn’t that been the Diamondbacks problem all Series?

Hadn’t they been denting these Yankees but not denying them? The Yankees were termites, finding a new way to get into your house and chew at your foundation until, just when you think you’re safe, the floor collapses.

The D’backs thought they were safe with a two games-to-none lead in this Series. They were not.

They thought they were safe with a two-run lead in Game 4 and two out in the ninth. They were not.

They thought they were safe with a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game 5. They were not.

They thought they were safe after bouncing back with a football-score victory in Game 6. They were not.

And they thought they were safe with Curt Schilling going back to the mound in the eighth inning, still throwing in the mid-90’s.

They were not.

Schilling, on a 0-2 pitch — and go figure that out! — surrendered a home run by rookie Alfonso Soriano. It shot into the centerfield seats, and at that point, it seemed like the Yankees had done it again.

But as we now know, even magic has an expiration date. For the Yankees, it dripped to a stop in the bottom of the ninth, the frame they had owned this whole Series. With Mariano Rivera on the mound — “The guy you want in that situation” as Joe Torre later said — the D’backs attacked. Mark Grace singled. Then, Rivera threw wild to second base, allowing pinch-runner David Dellucci to remain there safely. Tony Womack doubled down the rightfield line, tying the game.

And, one batter later, Gonzalez delivered the miracle shot, and the Yankees were swallowing hard, the taste of their own medicine bitter to their tongues.

“We beat the best team in baseball,” Schilling said. “It took all of us, and it took us eight months, but we did it.”

The night before, the D’backs organization had played the Frank Sinatra “New York, New York” tune that bellows over the Yankee stadium loudspeakers after every New York victory. They were trying to show they were not intimidated.

Sunday night they proved it.

Desert Storm.

What a Series, huh? This was the traditional, sepia-toned franchise versus the modern, high-gloss, shopping center version. The Yankees may have irked people with their endless excellence, but the D’backs made no friends by reaching the Fall Classic with their shrink wrap still attached. Four years old? This is all you need to know about New York vs. Arizona. In the area behind Yankee Stadium’s outfield, there are statues of famous dead Yankees.

In the area behind the D’backs’ outfield, children can get their faces painted.

But here, in a stadium named after a bank, with a retractable roof and massive iron structural supports that suggest you are watching baseball inside a giant European train station, here, in a place that serves smoothies and Cobb salads, the Yankees, an October tradition, were finally stopped after three straight World Series championships, fittingly, in November.

“You don’t always win,” manager Joe Torre sighed. “We are disappointed in the results, but not the effort.”

What stopped them was pitching, plain and simple. Schilling and Randy Johnson were not to be denied. They were co-MVPs, and rightfully so. Sunday’s box score will show them in the same game for the first time in their careers, accounting for all but a third of an inning. For the Series, Schilling had one win, no losses, 21 innings pitched and an ERA of 1.69. Johnson, who earned three victories in the Series, had an ERA of 1.04. He threw an inning and a third of scoreless relief Sunday night after throwing 100 pitches in his Game 6 win the night before.

“Those two horses,” Gonzalez said, shaking his head, “they deserve the MVP. When you shut down guys like Jeter and (Tino) Martinez, all those guys that hit .300, well, they just did an outstanding job.”

Of course, even before Sunday’s parade of pitching stars, this had been a miniseries of a World Series, with drama coming at such unbelievable moments, you almost thought it was scripted. In the opener, the D’backs showed they were for real with a 9-1 blowout behind Schilling. Then, to sharpen the point, Arizona won behind a complete-game shutout by Johnson in Game 2.

By the wee hours Monday morning, the big city Yankees had been reduced to a tumbling tumbleweed. But they rode the wind into their home in the Big Apple, and, energized by the crowd, the mayor, the vibe, the energy, Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, whatever it was, they began as remarkable a stretch of 72 hours as baseball has ever seen.

In Game 3, the Yanks got their masterpiece from Roger Clemens, a 2-1 victory.

In Game 4, they were one out away from defeat when a two-run homer saved them and an extra-inning shot gave them the win.

And in Game 5, they repeated Game 4.

Three games. Three days. Three dramatic wins. A lesser team would have gone running from the haunted house, screaming, hands over ears.

But the Diamondbacks, who by this point felt they should have already won the thing twice, came back in Game 6 and pummeled the Yankees, 15-2.

By Sunday, the Yankees were hitting less than .200 as a team. The Diamondbacks had averaged nearly six runs per game.

And they were even.

Now that’s how you set up a Series finale.

And it lived up to its billing. Those who say NBA basketball is isn’t worth watching until the last two minutes obviously had never seen the Diamondbacks versus the Yankees.

On Sunday, the pitching matchup was to be the story line. Clemens versus Schilling, two 20-game winners, arguably the two best in baseball this year. Clemens, at 39, was the aging general with a million medals but surprisingly few big battle victories.

Still, he had something Schilling did not. A World Series ring. Schilling, who starts games now with a silent prayer into a clenched necklace his father gave him, was sports latest “superstar without a trophy” story. A polished image guy who gets smiles from charities and rolled eyes from media critics, Schilling came close to the big glory eight years ago with Philadelphia, but the Phillies fell to Toronto that October. This was his next best chance.

For two-thirds of the game, they were Ali-Frazier. Neither surrendered a run until the bottom of the sixth, when Clemens was stung by a Danny Bautista RBI double. But the Yankees rallied the very next inning, tying it up.

Strangely enough, they suddenly became extraneous. Neither Schilling nor Clemens would get the win or the loss. In the end, it was about Rivera, the killer closer for the Yankees, and Johnson, who pitched two victories for the D’backs in Games 2 and 6.

Rivera, who is the ultimate reliever, got the loss. Johnson, who is not a reliever, got the win. A young franchise with a rookie manager got the big prize. And the streak of New York postseason parades — dating back to the last millennium — is over.

“I think we supported the NY on our caps well,” Torre said in defeat. “We gave the people of New York what they wanted, a team to be proud of.”

Indeed. Much will be made of the Yankees’ loss, and perhaps some will be saddened because they symbolized New York in this nation’s time of tragedy, and a loss somehow makes things tougher for New Yorkers.

I don’t buy that. The Yankees have always been in their own world, even in the city they play in. Besides, the victims of the World Trade Center attacks do not need a baseball team to find heroes; there are plenty to choose from the rescue workers who dashed into the infernos to save others’ lives.

“Hey, look, we realize how many times we snatched it away from other teams when it was close,” Torre said. “Now it happened to us.”

Well put. And perhaps it was time. The Yankees might have felt it coming in that whirl of desert wind Sunday afternoon. To paraphrase the old song, when a championship flame dies, sand gets in your eyes.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch ‘Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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