PHOENIX -- As the season dawned in 2001 for the Arizona Diamondbacks, upper management thought it had the right pieces in place to make a championship run. The D-backs had a nice mix of veteran players -- with Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Matt Williams, Steve Finley and Mark Grace -- and the right manager to guide them -- Bob Brenly. Brenly, a former big league catcher, had just replaced Buck Showalter, the team's founding manager. Because of sports economics both local and national, the D-backs decided they had to go for it, and Showalter's club had just regressed from 100 wins and the playoffs in 1999 to 85 wins and nowhere in 2000. "That was a major change, but we had made a major change in our team," recalled Jerry Colangelo, the club's managing general partner back then, about the managerial switch. "We felt that Brenly's methodology was going to be a much better fit than Buck's. That's not demeaning Buck. Buck, we felt, was really good with young people. As we quickly became a veteran team, we felt we needed some different type of leadership. Bob Brenly was the right guy at the right time."
Was he ever. Rarely does history -- both immediate and long-range -- reflect so kindly on those types of decisions. But one thing must be said about those D-backs: Every one of the decisions regarding on-field moves made by Colangelo and general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. had to happen for Arizona to win it all on the final pitch of the World Series. The season was a struggle from beginning to end. An expansion team in 1998, the D-backs weathered this nasty road: they had to outlast the Giants on the last Friday night of the regular season to win the National League West; beat the Cardinals in a five-game NL Division Series; defeat the Braves in a five-game NL Championship Series; and down the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series when Luis Gonzalez blooped a single off Mariano Rivera over a drawn-in Derek Jeter to account for the winning run. There was no margin for error. Had any play transpired differently, the D-backs wouldn't be celebrating the 10th anniversary of Arizona's only major professional sports championship this weekend at Chase Field. Here's one: Rivera's rare errant throw to second base in the fateful ninth on Damien Miller's sacrifice bunt. "I give a lot of credit to Joe G. for being on top of his game," Colangelo said about the magic of that season. "We worked hand in hand on a daily basis, trying to put all those pieces together." The regular season: The D-backs opened with eight losses in their first 12 games, and it didn't look like there was going to be much of anything happening that year in the desert. Much like the 2011 team, which was 15-22 as late as May 13, the champions fought their way back and hit first place for the first time on May 18, 2001. From that point on, the 2001 D-backs were as much as six games up and no more than 1 1/2 games down. Garagiola said he knew the team had a chance of going all the way after an Aug. 11 game at Atlanta, during which the D-backs came from behind to win with two sixth-inning unearned runs, scoring on a error by then Braves pitcher Jason Marquis, who couldn't make the catch of a flip throw while covering first base. "I started thinking, 'Wow, this is the way you win games when you're having that type of season,'" Garagiola recalled. "'Something is afoot here.'" The D-backs went back into first place after that game and never relinquished it. Because the season was delayed a week by the tragedies of Sept. 11, they didn't clinch the division title until Oct. 5 in Milwaukee with a 5-0 victory. There were two games to go in the regular season, but a postseason gauntlet awaited. The NLDS: The D-backs finished 92-70, but the Cardinals won 93, finishing in a flat-footed tie with the Astros for first place in the NL Central. By virtue of their head-to-head record, the Astros won the division and played the Braves in the first round. The Cardinals, with Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire, were the Wild Card and by default had to open against the D-backs on the road. Schilling set the tone for Arizona's entire postseason in Game 1 by twirling a complete-game three-hitter in a 1-0 victory. The Cardinals were in the midst of a run that took them to six of seven postseasons, ending with a World Series victory in 2006 over the Tigers in five games. And so, St. Louis wasn't about to do anything except go down swinging. "That division series with the Cardinals was ferocious," Garagiola recalled. "It was a battle." It swung to the D-backs in Game 5 back at what was then called Bank One Ballpark, with Schilling again throwing a complete game and the score tied at 1 heading into the bottom of the ninth. The unheralded Tony Womack drove in the winning run with a walk-off single to send Arizona on to the next round. "Tony Womack never gets the credit for getting the big hit in Game 5 of that series," said Garagiola about the shortstop, whose ninth-inning double tied Game 7 of the World Series, too, prior to Gonzo's big hit. "We were pretty well taxed. Their big guns were coming up. Tony, he came through." The NLCS: The Braves, winners of only 88 games to win the East that season, swept the Astros in their NLDS. The top NL team of the 1990s, the Braves were back in the NLCS for the ninth time in 10 non-strike seasons, beginning with 1991. During that stretch, they had been to the World Series five times, defeating the Indians in '95. The Braves figured to be a tough test with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine still at the top of their rotation. The two stalwarts had combined to win 33 games that season. But the D-backs weren't about to be undone. Harking immediately back to the division series, Johnson bested Maddux, 2-0, with a complete-game three-hitter at Bank One Ballpark in Game 1. That set the tone, and the series wasn't even a sweat for the D-backs. "Our pitching was firing on all cylinders at that point," Garagiola said. The Braves swamped the D-backs, 8-1, in Game 2, but were never a factor at home in the series. The D-backs held them to seven runs in three home games, and Johnson defeated Glavine in Game 5, 3-2, to wrap up Arizona's only pennant. Craig Counsell batted .381 with four RBIs and was named Most Valuable Player of the series. But the most formidable foe was still to come. The World Series: It was the World Series that pitted the D-backs against the then 26-time champion Yankees, who had just won four of the past five and the last three consecutive. It was the World Series in which Schilling scoffed at the "mystique and aura" surrounding the Bombers. "Those are dancers in a nightclub," he said at the time. "Those are not things we concern ourselves with on the ballfield." In the immediate wake of Sept. 11, it was the postseason during which the eagle, Challenger, took flight from home plate before every game in the old Yankee Stadium. The D-backs ultimately outscored the Yankees, 37-14, in the seven-game series, but lost the middle three games at the now-perished old ballpark in the Bronx by a single run each time. "I've used the line a million times: 'If I had known the way it was going to turn out, I would've appreciated the drama of it a lot more,'" Garagiola said. "If you're talking about an experience you literally can't put into words, it was that World Series." Closer Byung-Hyun Kim was the forlorn figure at the end of Games 4 and 5 after allowing tying ninth-inning homers to Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius, respectively. Kim also was clipped for the winner of Game 4 in the 10th inning by Jeter just as the clock turned to midnight and into November for the first time in World Series history. Those D-backs returned to Arizona a group certainly shaken by mystique and aura, down 3-2 in the series. "Everyone was pretty down," Colangelo recalled. "We were on the bus after that third loss at Yankee Stadium and you could've heard a pin drop. I took the mic and said, 'You know, we're going back and we're going to win Game 6 and Game 7 and we're going to win the World Series.' I just had a belief that it was going to happen." It happened in unlikely fashion. With Johnson on the mound, the D-backs crushed the Yankees and the usually reliable Andy Pettitte, 15-2, in Game 6, and then prevailed in Game 7 with the greatest closer in postseason history on the mound. Colangelo said he had had a premonition about that one as well. Before the World Series had even started, he was fielding questions at a media conference and was asked how it felt for the D-backs to even be there. Colangelo didn't exactly say that they were going to win it in their first attempt, but he did etch out how the next week might transpire. "I told them that what I'd hope for is that the series would go seven games and that we would win it in front of a home crowd in Game 7, the ninth inning, bases loaded, two out and Gonzo at the plate," he said. "That was a quote that appeared in the papers. Now fast forward to that ninth inning of Game 7. It all happened, except there was one out, not two." The D-backs defeated the great Rivera, who has blown only one of 12 saves in seven World Series -- that one. Schilling and Johnson were named co-MVPs after combining to go 4-0 with a 1.40 ERA. The Big Unit came on in relief and recorded the final four New York outs to win Game 7.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.