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8 Upper

Managed Careless

By Tom Scocca | Posted 11/7/2001

The play that best defined the 2001 World Series didn't even happen in the World Series. It came more than two weeks earlier, on Oct. 14, in the fifth and final game of the first-round playoff series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the St. Louis Cardinals. The game was tied, 1-1, with one out in the bottom of the ninth. The Diamondbacks had runners on first and third. Tony Womack was at the plate.

A base hit would have won the series. A medium fly ball would have won the series. So would a wild pitch or a passed ball. Heck, a ground ball deep in the hole could have won the series. And with all these possibilities spread out before him, Arizona manager Bob Brenly called for a suicide squeeze. Emphasis on "suicide." Midre Cummings broke from third, Womack tried to bunt and missed, and the series-winning run was tagged out at the plate, easily.

As it happened, the trailing runner moved up to second on the play, and then Womack hit a single and the Diamondbacks won anyway. That didn't change the fact that, with his team in position to win, Brenly had made an astonishingly stupid decision--a wasteful, self-indulgent call, squandering Arizona's best chance for the sake of a cheap manager's thrill. Luckily, his team was talented enough to win on its second chance.

Which brings us to Game 7 of the World Series, that shining moment in baseball history. Generations yet unborn will someday cover their ears and beg us to shut up about the Diamondbacks' ninth-inning comeback against the invincible Mariano Rivera. It will be like that big home run the Dodgers hit off the Giants, or the Giants hit off the Dodgers, or whatever, in 1951. It was electric, improbable, unbelievable. And it should have been unnecessary.

The Yankees had won three straight titles by being a well-balanced, well-disciplined, well-funded team. But the Diamondbacks were built to kill them. Arizona won three fewer games than the Yanks this year (thanks mainly to not playing the Orioles or Devil Rays), but they scored more runs and gave up far fewer. The Diamondbacks had Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, the two best pitchers in the game this year, and Luis Gonzalez, who slugged 57 home runs. In the Series, they scored nearly three times as many runs as the Yankees did.

Yet it came down to the ninth inning of the seventh game, with the great Rivera on the hill and the Yankees leading 2-1. To that point, New York fans would have explained the series as a product of the Yankees' heart and willpower, proof of the divine right of champions. Hadn't the Yanks won three straight one-run games in the Bronx, the last two requiring two-out, ninth-inning, game-tying home runs?

Even with that, the New York mystique wasn't what it used to be. Roger Clemens, to my surprise and to his everlasting credit, stepped up and pitched a pair of tough, solid, high-stakes games, neither begging out nor throwing a bat or ball at anyone. But the rest of the New York staff was flat, with bursts of outright awfulness. The offense, midnight heroics aside, was feeble, even against the soft underbelly of Arizona's rotation. And the defense put on its best impersonation of a panicky under-7 tee-ball team--booting grounders, spraying relay throws, doing all those things that Yankees Simply Don't Do. Arizona could have--should have--put them away in five games.

By all accounts, the Diamondbacks love their skipper. He reportedly keeps his veteran team happy and inspired. Yet whatever he does for his players in the clubhouse, he consistently undermined them in the dugout, in the playoffs. He cut off rallies with goofy tactics. He over- and underused his pitchers. At every turn, he inserted himself into the action, nearly always to the detriment of his team.

The most scrutinized of these moves was his plan, in collaboration with Curt Schilling, to pitch Schilling on short rest in games 4 and 7. It led to a pair of well-pitched no-decisions for Schilling rather than his usual complete-game victories. And it got the bullpen involved, taking a nearly sure thing and turning it into a tossup.

A dozen smaller moves did the same. In Game 4, with Orlando Hernandez unable to throw a strike, Brenly handed him three free outs in the first five innings on sacrifice bunts. Rather than trying to knock out Hernandez, he was trying to eke out a run in a low-scoring game--meaning, in practical terms, that the Schilling-Hernandez matchup would be settled by a duel between Rivera and 22-year-old Arizona closer Byung-Hyun Kim.

And even after seeing Kim blow two close games--and even after seeing his offense roll up 22 hits on the Yanks in Game 6--Brenly refused to turn his team loose. He was going to manage them, or die trying. So in that ninth inning of that seventh game, after a leadoff single, the Diamondbacks sacrificed again. But Rivera botched the play; all hands were safe. So Brenly tried to sacrifice once more, and the Yankees cut down the lead runner. With three outs left in the season, Arizona wasted one.

After the three-game debacle in the Bronx, Brenly lashed out at the press for second-guessing him, on the grounds that hindsight gives critics an unfair advantage. On behalf of the profession, I apologize. Hindsight is overrated. In baseball, especially, you can do the right thing and lose anyway. Or you can win the World Series, and still be a bumbling jackass.

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