Rookie of the Year

A resounding thunderclap, a brief shower and a swirl of dust usher in the final moments of an epic World Series that will set the high-water mark for decades to come.

Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Luis Gonzalez digs in at the plate.

New York Yankees über reliever Mariano Rivera, who has never blown a postseason save in 23 appearances, peers in toward his catcher.

It is a moment every ballplayer dreams about. World Series. Game 7. Bottom of the ninth inning. Bases loaded. One out. Tie score.

It's a scenario that's been played out countless times in the imaginations of millions of children on dusty playgrounds scattered across this land for nearly 100 years. It is the ultimate moment of American sports.

"You cannot measure the determination, the heart and the pride that we play the game with," says Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling, who was 4-0 in postseason play and shared World Series Most Valuable Player honors with Randy Johnson, who won three World Series games including Game 7 in 1 1/3 innings of relief.

"Every guy that went to the plate in that [ninth] inning, I knew believed that he was going to win the game for us. It's a pretty cool attribute to have, and it's one that we played with all year long," Schilling says.

It's an attribute that was carefully nurtured by first-year manager Bob Brenly, who frequently confounds pundits with his unorthodox managing decisions.

While Brenly's critics spend hours pounding out columns and launching long-winded diatribes on the radio over his decisions, Brenly simply moves on to the next challenge leaving the "what ifs" to those not playing the game, but watching.

"You make your decision and say, 'What now,' and 'What's next,'" Brenly says. "Not 'What happened'; then 'What's going to happen next.'"

What now. What next.

It's a simple philosophy, and one that attracted Jerry Colangelo.

Last fall, Colangelo fired Buck Showalter, the team's manager since its inception in 1998, and hired Brenly, a former major league catcher, out of the television broadcast booth.

"I thought there was an attitudinal change that needed to take place in the locker room, among other things, so I made a change," Colangelo says. "In came Brenly. And out went Buck."

The change was welcomed by many of the veteran Diamondback players who felt hamstrung by Showalter's uptight, regimented system. Brenly tossed out Showalter's rules and regulations manual and replaced it with a couple of items written down on a napkin.

Don't be late to meetings. Win the World Series.

Cutting red tape to a minimum, Brenly had time to manage players' egos, convincing most of them to put the team ahead of personal gain. More than anything, this team wanted a World Series championship.

"We are not just happy to be here," says Steve Finley before Game 1. "We want to take it to them."

Players were willing to forgo salaries into the future in order to sign more top players like Mark Grace and Reggie Sanders last winter.

It was a strategy that could only work on a championship-hungry team. Only infielder Craig Counsell owned a World Series ring, earned while with the Florida Marlins.

The all-for-one, one-for-all attitude cleared the way for Brenly to make unusual management decisions without creating unmanageable personnel problems.

"He makes moves that aren't really by the book," Gonzalez says.

One of his classics, Gonzalez says, was in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series when Brenly called on left-handed batter Erubiel Durazo to pinch-hit for the first baseman Mark Grace, who had strained a hamstring late in the game.

Most managers would have brought in the right-handed Greg Colbrunn to face Braves left-hander Tom Glavine since the statistics favor a right-handed batter against a left-handed pitcher.

But Brenly brought in Durazo on a hunch.

And it paid off. Durazo hit a two-run, opposite-field home run to provide the winning margin as the Diamondbacks clinched the NLCS with a 3-2 win over the Braves.

"That's the story of our team," Gonzalez says.

Brenly's unconventional decisions would loom even larger in the World Series.

Perhaps none was more important or more difficult than his decision to bench the team's second leading home run hitter Reggie Sanders (33 home runs) in Game 7 in favor of the red-hot Danny Bautista.

Brenly was also under considerable pressure to start Durazo, who batted .400 in the three games in New York where he appeared as the designated hitter, in the lineup against right-handed pitcher Roger Clemens. But that would have meant benching the better fielding and far more experienced Grace. Brenly opted for Grace.

Brenly's decisions proved to be crucial in the Diamondbacks' victory.

Bautista and Grace both came up big.

Bautista drove in the Diamondbacks' first run with a sixth-inning double to deep left center field. Grace picked up three hits in Game 7, the last coming as the leadoff batter in the ninth inning to trigger the Diamondbacks' last-inning heroics.

But not all of Brenly's World Series decisions played out so well.

After winning the first two games at home behind the stellar pitching of Schilling and Johnson, Brenly was widely criticized for starting Schilling on three days' rest in Game 4 in New York. He then received another lambasting for taking him out after seven innings, with the Diamondbacks holding a 3-1 lead.

Brenly would likely have escaped criticism if the unthinkable had not happened.

The Diamondbacks' mercurial young closer Byung-Hyun Kim gave up a two-out, two-run homer to Tino Martinez in the bottom of the ninth to tie the score. An inning later, Derek Jeter blasted another home run off Kim to give the Yankees a 4-3 win and even the series at two games apiece.

Schilling's seven-inning, three-hit, one-run performance was wasted.

Critics had another field day at Brenly's expense, saying the Diamondbacks would now have to start Schilling in Game 7 on only three days' rest for the second time in the Series instead of the normal five-day rotation, leaving Arizona vulnerable to Yankee hitters.

The sniping reached a crescendo the next night in Game 5.

Once again, Brenly sent Kim back into a crucial situation in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Diamondbacks up by two runs.

Lightning struck again.

This time, Scott Brosius hammered Kim's pitch into the left-field stands of Yankee Stadium for a two-out, two-run home run to tie the score, leaving the 22-year-old Korean shell-shocked on the mound. The Yankees won the game in the 12th inning on Alfonso Soriano's single to right field that drove in Chuck Knoblauch from second for a 3-2 victory.

The Diamondbacks had just suffered two of the greatest World Series defeats ever and appeared to be on the ropes.

The team limped back to Phoenix, trailing the series 3 games to 2.

Many teams would have collapsed at that point.

"A lot of us have been playing too long to get in this situation and let it slip away," Gonzalez says.

The veteran Diamondbacks, guided by their gutsy manager, responded with a resounding 15-2 thrashing in Game 6.

Game 7 of the World Series. The pinnacle showdown in sports.

Gonzalez, who smashed 57 regular-season home runs plus three more in the playoffs, chokes up on the bat for the first time this season.

"I don't want to try to go out there and do too much," Gonzalez said before the series began. "If I do that, I'm not helping the team at all."

The Yankees infield draws in tight, hoping to cut down the winning run at the plate.

Right-handed pitcher Mariano Rivera delivers strike one.

On the next pitch, Gonzalez's bat barely connects, but he gets enough of the fastball to send it looping lazily just beyond the infield.

Time slows down, way down, as the ball sails over the head of shortstop Derek Jeter before falling to the ground and rolling untouched into the outfield in front of center fielder Bernie Williams.

The magnitude of the hit unleashes a crescendo of images sending time crashing fast forward.

Jay Bell crosses home plate and leaps into the arms of Matt Williams, uniting two of the original Diamondbacks who suffered through 97 losses in the team's first season.

The crowd unleashes a prolonged roar louder than the B-2 stealth bomber that passed over the ballpark at the end of the national anthem.

The Diamondbacks' general managing partner Jerry Colangelo is speechless. Tears well up in his eyes.

Rivera slowly walks toward the Yankee dugout, tasting World Series defeat for the first time.

The Arizona Diamondbacks had won their first World Series championship in only their fourth year of existence with a 3-2 Game 7 win over the New York Yankees.

"That was a dream come true for me," Gonzalez says.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty