Snakes Rattle and Roll
No one can quite figure out how the Arizona Diamondbacks made it to the playoffs. Some say it's the team's versatility, and resiliency. Some credit manager Bob Melvin's confidence in using players other managers might not. Others say it's because the Diamondbacks are truly a team; because not even Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds can carry a team on his shoulders for an entire six-month season.
The one thing almost everyone can agree on is that the D-Backs' National League Western Division title is a surprise, given the team's collective youth. And low price tag. This isn't a franchise that has bought a fancy roster. Only four teams in all of major-league baseball had a lower player payroll for the 2007 season than the Diamondbacks, and none of those teams (Florida, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Washington) came close to the playoffs.
In contrast, Arizona's $52 million payroll is about half of what first-round playoff foe Chicago has paid its ballplayers this year and pales in comparison with the $115 million that the New York Mets doled out. Even casual observers of the game are aware of the historic collapse of the Mets at the end of this season, which left the East Coast squad sitting on the sidelines as their relatively poor brethren here in the desert play on.
Relief pitcher José Valverde gives the credit for the team's meteoric rise from baseball's ashes (the D-Backs won just 77 games two years ago, compared with 90 in this year) to someone not even on the roster: his 6-month-old daughter, Montserrat.
Considering the fact that just last season, he was unceremoniously shipped back to the minor leagues after struggling with consistency for months, it makes sense that his daughter has become such a good luck charm.
"All my family said the baby saved my life," he says. "Some old lady told me, 'You have a young girl in spring training [and she] will change your season."
Valverde has had an amazing season, and it's fair to say that the D-Backs wouldn't be sitting where they are right now without him. He captured 47 saves this year, the most in the major leagues. Right now, there is no one better at his high-pressure job, or anybody more entertaining to watch, than "Papa Grande."
The 28-year-old from the Dominican Republic is a notoriously superstitious player, even in a game where superstitious routines are the norm. Take retired relief pitcher Turk Wendell, whose thing was to chew four pieces of black licorice, spitting them out every inning to brush his teeth. Valverde has followed his own routine every day of his career as a closer for the Diamondbacks.
After the fifth inning, he refuses to talk to anyone. As he steps into the bullpen, he always pops a piece of gum into his mouth and says a prayer.
"I say, `God bless you,' and I go into the bullpen. Then I don't talk to nobody. I have to focus. I don't think too much. When I have the ball until the last out, I don't think," he says in his thick Dominican accent. "The best thing is when I get the last strikeout."
As he approaches the mound all 6-feet-4, 255 pounds of him (they call him Papa Grande for a reason) he stops for a moment and bends down to theatrically tie his left shoe. Every time.
"When I tie my shoe, I say, 'Thank you, God, for everything. You have to do it tonight. It's you and me. Not only you and not only me. We have to do it together.'"
If he's having bad luck which means getting behind in counts, walking batters, not feeling the command a closer must feel to succeed he'll ask the umpire for a new ball.
And he never uses the same ball as the previous pitcher.
"Superstition," he says, shrugging and looking a little bashful.
A devout Catholic, Valverde says God is with him on the mound during every game. Hey, he might make $2 million a year these days, but at heart he's still just a good Catholic boy from San Pedro de Macorís, right down to the silver crucifix that was hanging from his locker in the visitor's clubhouse last weekend in Denver.
Whether it's God or luck, superstition or talent, there's no doubt Valverde has taken several giant steps forward this season. He proved it for the 47th time when he struck out the Rockies' Kaz Matsui last Friday night, winning a wildly entertaining game that clinched the D-Backs an improbable spot in the playoffs.
"I struck him out. It was cool, but it was like a normal game," he said the day after the clincher, struggling a bit in his second language, English. "Then, you know what? I walk in the door and all these guys say, 'Congratulations.' I say, 'For what?' They say, 'You win today.' And everyone goes so crazy."
Yes, they do.
Champagne is dripping from the ceiling of the Arizona Diamondbacks' clubhouse at Coors Field in Denver. In less than a week, the team will be deep in battle with the Chicago Cubs, in the National League Division Series. Tomorrow, they'll take an ultimately meaningless 10-run beating by the Rockies, who have a lot of fight and baseball life left in them.
But tonight, this team is simply 40 ecstatic players, their manager, coaches, and support staffers who learned just moments after their two-run victory over the Rockies that they had earned a spot as one of the eight teams in major-league baseball that will try to make it to the World Series.
The cheering and screaming is deafening as the guys pop open bottle after bottle of champagne, spraying it on themselves and anyone else in the room.
There's Brandon Webb, the big Kentucky right-hander and reigning Cy Young award winner, who gave up only two runs in seven tough innings and was instrumental in ending the Rockies' 11-game winning streak. He's covered in bubbly, screaming without forming words.
There's Valverde, smiling like a dripping-wet Incredible Hulk.
There's injured All-Star second-baseman Orlando Hudson a red cast on his left arm, protectively covered in a plastic bag rushing in to jump and scream and spray champagne with his team as if he'd been on the field tonight himself.
There are two players sneaking up behind manager Bob Melvin, dumping a trashcan full of water and ice on his head. They'll douse him two more times before the celebration ends.
And somewhere in the chaos, there's pitcher Liván Hernández, telling the guys to remember that they really haven't done anything yet.
"It's still 12 games before you win the World Series," he says. "A lot of people don't believe in this team. I don't care what other people say; we made it [into October]."
Hernández knows exactly what he's talking about. The Cuban-born right-hander has thrown in 351 major-league games over an 11-year career and, in 1997, was the Most Valuable Player in the World Series for the winning Florida Marlins.
The Diamondbacks huddle, arms around each other, still going strong, chanting the team's slogan, "Anybody! Anytime!"
Later, the understated Melvin will say this is one of the most rambunctious clubhouse celebrations he's seen in his 22 years of baseball.
"A lot of veteran clubs might be tempered a little more," he says. "We have younger guys who got caught up in it."
This is the first time most of the players on this team have made it to the playoffs. The 2001 Diamondbacks, who stunned the New York Yankees and the nation and won the World Series, were a much different, much more experienced team. (Their top two pitchers, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, were among the most dominant one-two punches in the history of baseball).
But in 2007, many of the team's players, including some of their starters, are fresh from the minor leagues. The youngest player on the team, neophyte right-fielder Justin Upton, is only 20, and Melvin often starts him. In fact, the starting roster is full of players who are only in their early 20s.
Three of the team's veterans Johnson, third-baseman Chad Tracy, and second-baseman Hudson are out for the season with injuries.
By the numbers, the Diamondbacks are one of the worst offensive teams in the league. They've been outscored overall this season. But the game is played on the field over 162 games, not in the press box or at the computer terminal. In the end, Arizona remarkably won more regular-season games than anyone else in the National League, and batting averages and on-base percentages don't matter a bit to the group of guys celebrating in the opponent's house in Denver.
On a sunny late afternoon in Denver last Friday, a few hours before the pivotal game that would thrust Arizona into the playoffs, Orlando Hudson is watching batting practice.
Most baseball types agree that Hudson is the team's best player. He's also the Diamondbacks' heart and soul, a dream of a teammate who is quick to laugh, and even quicker with smart-ass comments the go-to guy and role model for the youngsters on the team.
Sadly, Hudson is out for the rest of the season because of a serious injury sustained during a game in early September. Like José Valverde, Hudson has his own superstition, of sorts. Until recently, he was adamant about playing while injured. At 29, Hudson is what baseball players call a 'gamer,' a consummate professional. He played through a badly twisted ankle in the season opener, back in April.
"My dad always told me you can play hurt," Hudson says.
But today, he's sprawled on the bench in the visitor's dugout, still wearing his uniform, although it'll be weeks (at least) until he can play again. During a September 4 game against the San Diego Padres, he snagged his thumb under third base, causing serious damage.
"My weight went over my body and I tore the ligaments off the bone. I got up, called time, and grabbed my finger. It wasn't broken, so I finished the game."
O-Dog, as his teammates call him, tried to play the next day as well "I had to," he says simply but by the end of that game, he had to admit to himself that he was in trouble.
"My thumb felt like it had four heartbeats," he says, waving his cast around.
He knew that surgery would put him out for the season, a tough call considering how well the Diamondbacks were doing and how much they needed him. Hudson talked about it with his manager, God, and even his little sister weighed in on the decision. The unanimous consensus was he needed surgery and he needed it soon.
He says the procedure itself went fine, but the waiting game hurts, especially in light of the D-Backs' surprising place in the pantheon of this year's best teams.
Hudson is a strong Southern Baptist. It shows in the way he talks (when he's riled up about the team, he sounds almost like a revivalist minister) and his frequent references to the "man upstairs."
So he took the injury in stride, chalking it up to God's master plan for the team.
"This happened for a reason. And the reason is, maybe, that my man Augie Ojeda is out there doing a tremendous job," he says of Arizona's backup second-baseman, a journeyman who is making the most of an unexpected opportunity to shine.
"Maybe God decided to sit me back for a while so Augie can go out there and show his talent. And I get the chance to see him play and do a hell of a job. Augie was in baseball when I was just a freshman in high school. I'm very happy for him."
That's gracious of Hudson, but he's irreplaceable. Not only is he an amazing fielder (Hudson's a two-time Gold Glove award winner and played on the 2007 All-Star Team), he was the best batter on a team that has had to scramble for everything it gets offensively.
Manager Bob Melvin wishes O-Dog were available on the field, and not just jibber-jabbering in the dugout.
"For me, the hardest part was on a personal level," he says. "We couldn't have had a more difficult loss than Orlando Hudson. Yet, he's still here and there's something to be said for that. We still feel his energy; we just miss him on the field."
Even with his injury, Hudson refuses to go quietly to the training room. Instead, he's in the dugout by Melvin's side, keeping morale high and talking trash, just like he did at second base.
"I'm the joking type," he says. "Even if we're down a couple runs, I'm still clowning and having fun. You're in the major leagues, so you take it serious, but you don't take the fun away. It's still the same game you were playing at T-ball; now you just make more money."
No kidding. Orlando Hudson made $3 million in 2007.
Hudson holds out hope that if the team makes it to the World Series, he could be back in the lineup.
"I would be in by then. I'm a week ahead of schedule; I could be there. I'm going in on Monday and they're going to take this off," he says of his cast. "Pull that pin out and start therapy."
Melvin's more cautious. "We'll see," is all he'll say.
As Hudson watches batting practice, he maintains a running commentary on every player who passes him. Someone throws a piece of Dubble Bubble gum at him. He catches it with his right hand.
"My arm's still good, bro," he says. "I only got one, but it's still good."
An hour later, as the sun begins to set over Coors Field on a perfect fall day in Denver, the situation is intense. The Diamondbacks are in first place, but just barely. Their performance in Pittsburgh a few days earlier was lackluster; the Rockies are coming off the best winning streak by any team in baseball this season.
Brandon Webb throws the first pitch. The stadium is packed 50,000 souls waiting to see if the Rockies can go for 12 wins in a row.
The Diamondbacks play well from the start. Webb gives up only two runs in the seven innings he pitches. Conor Jackson hits a two-run homer in the third inning to give Arizona the all-important early lead.
Going into the bottom of the ninth inning, the Diamondbacks lead by a score of 4-2.
The ball is known to sail in the Mile High City, and the Rockies have a powerful, ever-confident lineup with a tremendous will to win.
By the time Valverde takes the mound, word sweeps across the press box that the Mets have lost again. The D-backs can clinch a spot in the playoffs right here and now as long as Valverde doesn't mess things up.
He gets to the mound, ties his shoe, says his prayers and finally throws his first pitch, a 94 mile-per-hour heater that isn't close to the plate.
It looks like, maybe, God isn't listening.
Valverde walks the first two batters, putting the tying runs on base and the winning run at the plate.
"I look at my friends in the dugout and they say, "Let's go, Papa, you can do it.' I say okay. I changed the ball," he says the next day, recalling the moment.
It works. He strikes out a pinch hitter and when his fastball strikes out Matsui, winning the game and securing his team a spot in the playoffs.
Valverde had hardly blown a game all year, and he wasn't about to start now.
This season has been a huge turnaround for him. In May 2007, he was named the NL's player of the week. In May 2006, he had blown enough games to be demoted to the minor leagues. Of his 98 career saves, 47 of them came this year.
Something's changed. Valverde was always a good player; now he's a great one. Solid, consistent, and increasingly famous.
He says he just learned to hone his two best pitches: his fastball (which clocked in at 95 miles per hour on Friday and has hit 102 miles per hour in the past) and his split-finger fastball.
"When I go down [to the minor leagues], I say I have to work hard. But you know what? This is not my league. I have to play for the Diamondbacks, not the Tucson Sidewinders," he says of the humiliation of being demoted last year. "I say, 'I'll be up in two or three weeks.' I work on my split-finger. One day, I throw three innings I don't remember the last time I throw three innings. They say, 'You go up again.'
"Thank you. Now I have my job, the closer."
But his job relies on more than just physical strength. The closer normally pitches only the last inning, but it may be the most mentally taxing job in baseball.
"Everyone is going to blow saves, and there's no one job where it's as apparent that you lost the game. A closer has to deal with that," says Melvin. "I think last year he grew up and became a lot tougher. He's able to get through the blown saves and be ready the next day. He's got a tougher skin."
Maybe it really was Valverde's daughter's birth and the struggles that come with being a new father that got his mental game on point.
"I have my baby and my wife. My life has changed between this year and last year. I enjoy more the game. In the last year, [if I lost] I'm pissed, I go to my house. Now I go in my house and I'm pissed, and then my daughter laughs. It makes it okay," he says. "Somebody is laughing for me all the time. My daughter, you guys, my friends in Phoenix. When I go out for the game in Phoenix, I see everybody laugh. They say, 'Papa Grande, let's go!'"
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