Surprise ending

If life followed a script, the Yankees would have won the World Series. But it doesn't, and they didn't.

Published November 5, 2001 3:12AM (EST)

If life were the kind of movie that they just don't make anymore, the New York Yankees would have won the World Series.

The Yanks, that gritty bunch of survivors so adept at finding a way to win when defeat seems inevitable, that gang that has stood so tall as a symbol of a wounded but defiant New York and, by extension, America, would have taken their 15-2 beating in Game 6 Saturday because that's baseball, because sometimes, ya see, Ma, sometimes you send a pitcher out there, even a good one like that Andy Pettitte fellow, and he doesn't have his best stuff. And the other guys knock you all over the yard that night.

And the thing about baseball, Ma, the thing is, the next night you go out there and it's nothing-nothing again. And you send another pitcher out there, a guy like that Roger Clemens, and even though he's hurting he finds a way to get the job done, and it's like the other team's hitters are mesmerized. Down they go, one after the other, and you've got a chance to win that one. And that's all you can ask for in this crazy world, Ma: a chance to win.

But life isn't like that kind of movie. Life is life. There's no script, and things don't happen for symbolic reasons. For all they've meant to the rescue workers and mourning citizens of our largest city, for all the sentiment in certain quarters that it was every American's patriotic duty to root for the Bronx Bombers to bring a championship home to a grieving New York, the Yankees failed to win the World Series because they ran into a better team, because Luis Gonzalez plopped a little single into center field with the bases loaded, because they couldn't hit the Arizona Diamondbacks' two best pitchers, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, and they couldn't hit much against the Diamondbacks' other pitchers either.

We already knew, as Mariano Rivera took the mound to pitch the bottom of the eighth inning, that Game 7 would be a classic.

The Yankees had flown to Phoenix for the weekend with a three games to two lead and a feeling of destiny. They'd gotten off the mat and won three straight to eliminate the Oakland A's in the first round of the playoffs. They'd destroyed the Seattle Mariners, easily the best team in the regular season, in the League Championship Series. And now, having lost the first two games of the World Series in Phoenix, they'd swept three straight in the Bronx, all by one run, the last two with jaw-dropping, spine-tingling rallies in the ninth inning and beyond.

In Game 6 all their momentum fell away. They were smoked, humiliated. It was 15-0 by the fourth inning, and the dominating Johnson was on the mound. They were never in the game. But hey, baseball's like that. Get 'em tomorrow.

And so in Game 7 Schilling and Clemens locked fingers, gritted teeth and wrestled to a standstill into the seventh inning. The Diamondbacks scored on an RBI double in the sixth by Danny Bautista, who had started in place of regular cleanup hitter Reggie Sanders on a hunch by Arizona manager Bob Brenly. The Yankees tied the game in the seventh on a hit by Tino Martinez, who had hit a tying two-run home run in the ninth inning of Game 4 in New York, a game won in extra innings by the Yankees. The Yankees won Game 5 the same way, a ninth-inning two-run homer, this one by Scott Brosius, and then victory in extra innings.

As Rivera warmed up for the eighth inning of Game 7, the Yankees were leading 2-1, and either New York would win its fourth straight World Series because of yet another late-inning home run, this one in the top of the eighth by a rookie, Alfonso Soriano, or Arizona would do the impossible and mount a comeback against Rivera, arguably the best relief pitcher in baseball today and certainly the best relief pitcher in the 98-year history of the World Series.

Rivera struck out the side in the eighth. Three outs to go.

Meanwhile, Johnson, who had pitched seven innings and won Game 6 the day before, his second win of the Series, had come out of the bullpen in the eighth inning for the Diamondbacks, retiring pinch-hitter Chuck Knoblauch with a man on for the third out. He pitched the ninth too, retiring the side in order, then sat in the dugout and hoped that his teammates could somehow reach Rivera and make Johnson the first pitcher to win three games in one World Series since Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers in 1968.

No way. Rivera had converted 23 postseason save opportunities in a row. His lifetime postseason earned-run average was 0.70, better than ... well, better than almost everybody's, ever.

Mark Grace singled to center. Grace was another hunch by Brenly. Like Sanders, he was slumping, only 2-for-15 in the Series, while his potential replacement, Erubiel Durazo, was 4-for-11. But Brenly gambled that the veteran first baseman would do something good in Game 7. His hit in the ninth was his third of the game. Rivera then fielded Damian Miller's bunt and, attempting to get the force at second, threw the ball away. Arizona had the winning runs aboard.

After Jay Bell bunted into a fielder's choice at third, Tony Womack, the hero of the Diamondbacks' first-round win over the St. Louis Cardinals, doubled in the tying run, sending Bell to third with the winning run. Rivera cracked a pitch off Craig Counsell's wrist to load the bases, bringing the Diamondbacks' big slugger, Gonzalez, to the plate.

Watching Gonzalez throughout the postseason, it's been hard to believe that this was a guy who hit .325 with 57 home runs this year. The Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and Yankees all pounded him relentlessly with inside pitches, and he looked like the modest hitter he'd been for a decade with three different teams before coming to Arizona and blossoming two years ago.

Rivera threw a cut fastball up and in. Gonzalez managed a weak swing and hit a dying quail off the handle of his bat. It flew out toward short left-center field. Derek Jeter, the Yankees shortstop, like the rest of the infield, was drawn in to try to make a play at the plate. He had added to his collection of brilliant defensive plays with two more in this game -- a charge in and to his left on a slow roller by Counsell in the fifth inning and a dazzling relay throw to cut down Bautista trying to stretch his RBI double into a triple in the sixth. But he could do nothing with Gonzalez's little flair. It was over his head. He threw his glove hand up in futility as the ball sailed by. Gonzalez took four steps out of the batter's box and leaped into the air.

The ball settled onto the outfield grass. If it landed on a bug, the insect survived uninjured. Bell ran across home plate and leaped into the arms of his teammate Matt Williams. For the first time since 1997, the New York Yankees were not the champions of baseball. The Diamondbacks, the new champs, poured out of the dugout and pounded each other silly.

One of the pleasures of watching sports is the chance to experience or, if your team isn't involved, watch others experience, pure joy. The Diamondbacks are a team of veterans, assembled with the intention of winning right away. Nine players on the team have been in the majors for a decade without having played in a World Series. "You dream about this situation as a little kid," Gonzalez said of his game-winning hit. Now they were all little kids.

And here is where the movie would end if this were a movie about the Diamondbacks, a team that had every right to fold after coughing up their World Series lead by losing a pair of heartbreaking games to the three-time world champs, but instead fought back to win the title.

But this isn't a movie about the Diamondbacks. This is life, and life goes on. The cheers will barely have died out from the most exciting World Series in 10 years -- maybe the most exciting in a quarter century -- when baseball will sink into a morass of labor squabbling and assorted offseason ugliness. The collective bargaining agreement has expired, and a strike or lockout is possible, if not likely, as team owners and players continue their decades-long fight over the game's ample revenues. Rumors are flying that rather than work out a system of sharing that revenue among the teams, the way football does, baseball will try to "contract" by folding two struggling teams, in some reports the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins, in others the Expos and Minnesota Twins.

Sad and grubby things to consider when we should be warming ourselves over the winter with thoughts of a World Series that kept us on the edge of our seats to the very last; of a Series that gave us great pitching, defensive gems, late-inning heroics, and that final rally.

That's all you can ask for in this crazy world, Ma. One last chance to rally.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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