DIAMONDBACKS RULE!

(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, November 21, 2001)

To the people of Arizona, Jim and I want to pass along a heartfelt, "You're welcome!"

Oh, we know some of you might think us weird, but what else can you expect from a couple of baseball fanatics like us? You see, we take our baseball very seriously, and we also take at least some of the credit for the Arizona Diamondbacks' phenomenal 2001 season.

Consider: We moved to Georgia in June of 1991, settling in a small town just north of Atlanta. That was the Braves' worst-to-first year, when they went all the way to Game Seven of the World Series, only to lose a 10-inning heart-breaker to the Minnesota Twins. Back in Houston in the 1980s, Jim watched the Braves on TBS, along with those Astros games that were televised. (Sad to say, no city in the country airs virtually all their team's games each year, as does Ted Turner's conglomerate.) But even Jim could take or leave the games then--until we moved to Georgia and were both infected with Braves Fever.

So, for nine years we cheered "our" team all the way into the postseason. They played in every National League Championship Series from 1991 to 1999, losing the right to advance to the World Series only in '93 (to the Philadelphia Phillies), '97 (to the Florida Marlins), and '98 (to the San Diego Padres), and they secured the 1995 championship by beating the Cleveland Indians in six games in the World Series. Surely our dedication had something to do with that historic success.

During spring training in early 1996, we began making plans to leave "our" guys in Atlanta and move west for good. The Braves continued to win the National League Eastern Division title every year, but the old fire that had propelled them to the brink of the Big One so many times before began to dim about that time. Were they anticipating losing such loyal fans as the two of us? Could be!

From the time the Diamondbacks debuted in spring of 1998, we watched them whenever we could, cheering for the team we knew would be "ours," as soon as we could make the break and move west. So our hearts were already divided during our final years in Atlanta. Apparently, we weren't the only ones. After we settled here last fall, Reggie Sanders must have said to himself, "The Jordans have gone to Arizona, I think that's the place where I want to be too." (Sure, he did!)

Well, it turned out to be a great move for all concerned. Jim and I both feel like we are finally where we always belonged, and Reggie was one of those platoon-cum-bench players who proved himself so dependable at crunch time.

We finally left Georgia in the late afternoon of Saturday, September 30, 2000. As our rented U-Haul truck rolled out of the state, Atlanta had clinched their division and was preparing for the National League Division Series to begin on Monday, our second full day on the road. Sadly, between long hours on the road and sparse motel-TV coverage, we barely saw any of the three games in which the Braves were swept into oblivion, the first time in ten years they lost the chance to compete for the league title. They really did miss our "mojo" that year.

Still, we can't just abandon our first team. We confess to being torn when both our teams go head-to-head. On the other hand, it's an exciting competition, no matter which way it goes. But when we discussed the situation, we both agreed that our first choice has got to be the Diamondbacks. We are really Arizonans now!

I had to laugh at the final bit of seasonal competition between St. Louis and Houston over who would take the Central Division title and who would accept the wild-card consolation prize. I couldn't help thinking that those batters had to be wondering: Which set of "big guns" would we rather face, (Greg) Maddux and (Tom) Glavine or (Randy) Johnson and (Curt) Schilling?

Thinking back on the excitement of those seven games with the Yankees, many images stand out. The one that most people will remember is Gonzo's (Luis Gonzalez) little bloop over the injured Derek Jeter's head, opening the way for Jay Bell to cross the plate and trigger a celebratory stampede. Wasn't it great to see Bob Brenly doing his Michael Jordan impression as he leaped toward that burgeoning pile of D'backs on the field?!

My favorite image from that Series was a brief one in the ninth inning of the fifth game when Byung-Hyun Kim lost his second save opportunity to Scott Brosius' home run. First B.K. fell to the ground in despair, while his catcher, Rod Barajas, rested a comforting hand on his shoulder. Then as the tiny Korean straightened again, Mark Grace folded him into one of his signature bear hugs and consoled him for a moment, no doubt whispering "sweet nothings" into his ear: "Son, you're 22 years old. You'll be striking them out for a good 15 years, at least. Don't let this one get you down." I have absolutely no doubt that's what Gracie told him.

And there's one more impression I'll cherish in that same category. First, Steve Finley promised Kim that when the Diamondbacks got back to their own "house" in Phoenix, the team would hand him the championship. Then in the ninth inning of Game Seven, our "Snakes" stole the save from the "unbeatable" Mariano Rivera--and the title from the "unsinkable" Yankees!

This one's for you, B.K.!

Even with all this to savor, the 2001 season would not be so sweet if Jim and I didn't get to enjoy it right here in Arizona, cheering on "our" guys to the final victory!

In a recent conversation, my editor (Hi, boss!) said he prefers football to baseball because the "boys of summer" don't all rush toward the action as they do in other team sports. Well, he's exactly right. What he's talking about is the "chess" part of my favorite game.

In baseball, each player on the diamond guards a particular zone, unless he must help another guy do his job. For instance, if a grounder pulls the first baseman off the bag, the pitcher will rush to first base to catch the ball his teammate fields so he can tag the runner out. Otherwise, the pitcher will stay near the mound and direct the other infielders in their defensive play.

Besides calling to mind the arrangement of pieces on a chessboard, this trait can be likened to the separate but integrated tasks of the various parts of a machine. This analogy reached its glorious zenith during the 1970s when Cincinnati boasted the "Big Red Machine," because of the presence of so many superstars who performed so well together. It's that sort of teamwork that all other groups of nine strive to emulate.

Another quality I like about baseball as opposed to other team sports is the fact that baseball is ultimately fair. The primary strategy of most team sports is to keep the ball away from the other team as much as possible. The team that controls the ball most of the time has more chances to score. In baseball, each team has exactly the same number of chances to put the ball into play, so the runner can try to cross home plate and score.

And while gridders, cagers, and other athletes are expected to do everything legal (and often more!) to keep opposing players from doing their jobs, on the diamond such overt defensive behavior is frowned upon. That's why pitchers can no longer apply foreign matter to the balls, and anyone caught with a non-regulation bat will receive a serious fine and suspension.

Early in this century, these were the tamest of the dirty tricks some players would employ. Belying his benign epithet of "Georgia Peach," Ty Cobb was reputedly a master in that area. It's a pity Cobb, and a few others of his era, sometimes felt the need to employ underhanded strategies, since historical data show them to be such powerful performers when they did play by the rules.

In fact, most of the superstars of yesteryear might actually have been better players than their official stats indicate. Imagine the home-run records Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle might have rung up if they'd concentrated on scientific weight training, balanced diets, and vitamin supplements instead of booze and women. There'd be no way Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa could ever match their numbers--much less beat them soundly--two years in a row!

Another difference between baseball and other team sports is the absence of a time clock, a natural offshoot of the aforementioned fairness factor. This situation has the happy effect of enhancing the suspense of the game. In football, basketball, etc., teams win games by keeping the ball away from opposing players till the clock runs out. In baseball, both teams get the same number of chances to score before a player is put out. If enough batters cross home plate before they're called out, the game can go on for a very long time--especially if your team is the one with the lower score.

A skilled pitcher who "paints" himself into a corner by loading the bases, then pitches out of it (with the help of his teammates, of course) is both a joy to watch and hard on the nerves. Closing pitchers who habitually pitch that way make for such suspenseful ninth innings--the best kind--that I like to call them "drama queens."

Despite the theatrics of pitching and batting, fielding is the real "ballet" of the game. Besides the grace of an elegant catch, I'm awed when a fielder moves into position to catch that small white object hurtling toward him at a dizzying speed, then pivots to deliver the ball to another fielder as opponents are caught in their defensive web.

The pitcher may get the glory and stats for games won or lost, but no hurler is worth his salt without a good catcher backing him up and directing his pitches. The catcher spends most of the game crouching behind home plate, but his "zone" is the entire field as he tries to keep opposing base runners from stealing the next base. As it is on a ship, the catcher is the "pilot" of a baseball game.

With all the earthly minutiae of baseball, the numbers three (outs) and nine (innings) are considered by many to have a certain spiritual significance, which may explain why fans like me are so devout about the game. The night before I finished this column, Randy Johnson racked up a record-matching 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game, then the folks at Elias Sports Bureau said it isn't an official record because the game actually went 11 innings.

Well, give the guy an asterisk if you must, but Randy's still the "Big Unit" to true believers. If I light a candle, maybe it'll sway the folks who keep the record books, in baseball heaven.


Debbie Jordan