The only standings that mattered to the Arizona Diamondbacks a
year ago were taped to the wall of a back room in their home
clubhouse. Sometime in August manager Buck Showalter listed the
half-dozen or so sorriest teams in baseball, among which his
first-year expansion outfit eminently qualified, and he
challenged his club to be the best of the worst for the balance
of the season. The Diamondbacks checked those standings daily
when they were at home. "It gave us something to play for,"
third baseman Matt Williams says.
While finishing last in the National League West, Arizona came
in second in the Rest; in fact, it had a respectable 35-36
record from July 13 on. However, that still left the
Diamondbacks with 97 defeats in a season that began with 31
losses in 39 games, a depressing opening that led to comparisons
between Arizona and the 1962 New York Mets. That kind of
ineptitude delighted many people in baseball who had begun to
despise the Diamondbacks even before general manager Joe
Garagiola Jr. made his preseason prediction that Arizona would
play .500 ball. Besides sneering at such braggadocio, the
detractors accused Arizona of everything from espionage to
financial irresponsibility to rewriting how the game should be
played, though none of them had actually seen the rumored
300-page, Showalter-edited manual on reinventing baseball. Said
one American League advance scout of Showalter, "He operates
kind of the way [St. Louis Cardinals manager] Tony La Russa
operates: He knows everything, and you don't know anything.
After getting that shoved down your throat all spring, I'm
tickled when they get beat."
In their second season the Diamondbacks have given their critics
another reason to hate them--they're very good. At week's end
Arizona led the second-place San Francisco Giants by 6 1/2 games
in the West with 25 games to play. Talk about your radical
realignment: The Diamondbacks are on pace to stage one of the
greatest year-to-year turnarounds in baseball history (an
improvement of 31 wins) and to finish in first place six years
faster than any other start-up organization in the expansion era.
Last weekend, just when they had begun to wobble and give hope
to the Giants and the rest of Arizona's detractors, the
Diamondbacks pulled out two stunning wins against the Eastern
Division-leading Atlanta Braves to cement their status as an
elite team--like it or not. The three-game set in Atlanta served
as a Division Series preview, provided no changes occur in the
playoff leaders' standings.
After a 7-3 pasting on Friday night at the hands of the
Braves--it was the fourth straight day the Diamondbacks lost
ground to suddenly hot San Francisco, which at that point
trailed Arizona by only five games--the Diamondbacks fell behind
3-0 to righty John Smoltz on Saturday and 1-0 to lefty Tom
Glavine on Sunday. Then Arizona recovered to win both games with
the kind of grit that Showalter has demanded.
Rookie Erubiel Durazo, late of the Monterrey Sultans, belted two
home runs off Smoltz to lead the Diamondbacks to a 5-4 win on
Saturday. For shock value, that was nothing compared to what
happened the next day. It was a RuPaul kind of game, a victory so
convincingly dressed up as defeat that in the top of the ninth
inning, Arizona closer Matt Mantei rose from his bullpen seat to
pack up his belongings for the trip to Milwaukee.
With the Diamondbacks trailing 5-4 with two outs and nobody on
in the top of the ninth, pinch hitter Kelly Stinnett struck out
on a pitch in the dirt by fireballing Atlanta closer John
Rocker--and somehow Arizona won 7-5. It was a clip-and-save
game, the kind that fills championship scrapbooks. The
Diamondbacks rallied for three runs after a heady piece of
running by Stinnett, who, after the third strike got away from
Braves catcher Eddie Perez, forced Perez to throw to first base
for the last out. Perez misfired into rightfield, and Stinnett
ended up on second. The next batter, rightfielder (and
occasional infielder) Tony Womack, singled, and pinch runner
Dante Powell barreled past Perez to score the tying run. Two
batters later, leftfielder Luis Gonzalez singled in the
game-winner and an insurance run.
"It would've been easy for the guy to hang his head and let the
catcher tag him," Showalter said afterward of Stinnett's alert
play. Indeed, Atlanta rightfielder Brian Jordan had done just
that in the fourth inning with a runner at second. "In a whole
career [a bad throw] might not ever happen again. But that one
time is why you run it out. We want to put our heads on our
pillows in the off-season knowing we did everything we could
possibly do." That kind of hustle is de rigueur for Arizona.
Showalter has instilled such a steely work ethic that when
rookie rightfielder Rob Ryan failed to run out a dropped third
strike last month, several Diamondbacks veterans scolded him
before Showalter had a chance.
No manager since Connie Mack, who owned his Philadelphia
Athletics teams, has wielded more authority than Showalter in
setting an organization's course. Showalter is in the fourth
year of a seven-year contract. During the first two years he had
no players, but he had the ear of owner Jerry Colangelo and the
power to decide on matters as big as overseeing construction of
Bank One Ballpark, Arizona's home field, and as small as where
the players' wives should sit for home games.
"That's what drives other people nuts," says former Diamondbacks
scout Ted Uhlaender, who quit following last season to take a
job with the Giants after he had disagreements with Arizona's
front office. "They're jealous [of Showalter]. And they know he
has an owner who can get him players. I can see how people don't
like him. If you don't know Buck, you see him walking around
like King Tut. But if you do know him, you know he's not like
that at all. He's a sharp baseball man who's prepared in
everything that he does."
Showalter took the heat in 1998 during spring training when the
Colorado Rockies caught his video coordinator surreptitiously
taping a game from behind the centerfield fence at the Rockies'
camp. Showalter said he had no knowledge the employee was there.
"Our video guy was new," says former Arizona catcher Jorge
Fabregas, now with the Braves. "He came over from the NBA. He
didn't know any better."
This year Mets reliever Turk Wendell wondered aloud if Arizona
was stealing and relaying catchers' signs from somewhere in
centerfield at Bank One Ballpark. On June 25 Showalter angered
the Cardinals by launching a protracted argument with the
umpires when St. Louis pitcher Jose Jimenez was one out from
completing a no-hitter. The Cardinals saw the maneuver as
gamesmanship. Showalter also peeved San Francisco manager Dusty
Baker last month by describing as "comical" the Giants' image as
scrappy overachievers. "Our guys have been playing with bumps
and bruises all year, and quite frankly, to hear this stuff
about other people's problems, I don't want to hear it,"
Showalter said then.
Baker snapped back, "Quite frankly, I'm tired of him talking.
The best thing for him to do is to leave us alone and leave me
alone. I'll be the one doing the talking about my club. If he
ain't got the guts to say it to me, the best thing for him to do
is be quiet." Baker and Showalter later healed the breach.
"I'm surprised to hear some people still look at us that way,"
Showalter says of the Diamondbacks' notoriety. "A lot of things
were blown out of proportion. Like the supposed manual. We had
people who worked for all organizations. We sat down and asked
people, 'O.K., how did you do this cutoff play in the Florida
organization? In the Atlanta organization?' And so on. It was an
exchange of ideas. We wrote some things down. That's all."
Colangelo, who's also president of the NBA's Phoenix Suns, has
provided Arizona's enemies with another bull's-eye. He overpaid
Williams (five years, $47.5 million) and second baseman Jay Bell
(five years, $34 million), given their performances last year,
but each has rebounded with an outstanding 1999. Through Sunday,
Bell had career highs in home runs (32), RBIs (94) and runs
(110). In the series finale in Atlanta, Williams, a leading MVP
candidate, reached a personal best in RBIs (123) with a
three-run homer--his 32nd--off Glavine.
This winter the Greenbacks infuriated executives at some other
teams by spending $118.9 million (with large deferred payments)
on six free agents: pitchers Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre,
Armando Reynoso and Greg Swindell, centerfielder Steve Finley
and first baseman Greg Colbrunn. All of them have proved to be
prudent signings, none more so than ace lefty Johnson, who
through Sunday needed 56 strikeouts in his final five starts to
break Nolan Ryan's record of 383 punch-outs in a season. In wise
trades Arizona added Gonzalez, who at week's end was third in
the league with a .343 average, and Womack, who was first in
stolen bases with 64.
Says one general manager, "The biggest problem in baseball the
past few years has been cross-ownership. We have people like
[former Florida Marlins owner] Wayne Huizenga and the guy in
Arizona. Their NBA team doesn't have a farm team, their NFL team
doesn't have a farm team, and their hockey teams have 1 1/2 farm
teams. They can't understand why each team in baseball has six
farm teams. They're looking for ready-made prospects."
"Jerry's philosophy," says one Diamondbacks insider, "is, We'll
worry about the future when it gets here. Not now."
"He wants to win," Showalter says of Colangelo. "He's as
competitive a person as I've been around. He once told me that
in his second year as general manager of the Suns, he made it to
the NBA Finals, and he thought it was something that could
happen every year. Well, it didn't. So he believes that if you
have a shot at winning, you take it with everything you've got
because you don't know how many chances you'll get."
That philosophy is what persuaded the Diamondbacks to trade two
of their three best pitching prospects, Vladimir Nunez and Brad
Penny, to Florida on July 9 to obtain Mantei, a 26-year-old
righthander who was only two years removed from rotator-cuff
surgery and, in parts of four seasons as a Marlin, had never
saved a meaningful game in the big leagues. Mantei has turned
out to be only the most significant in-season acquisition in all
of baseball. Through Sunday the Diamondbacks were 34-16 since
the trade, including 32 wins in their last 43 games. Armed with
a 98-mph fastball, Mantei converted all but two of his first 19
save chances with Arizona, including both wins last weekend, in
which the Braves couldn't sniff his stuff. He whiffed all six
batters he faced. In 21 innings for the Diamondbacks he had
struck out 38 batters and allowed only 14 hits, none of them
"With Matt we're playing eight-inning games now," says lefty
reliever Dan Plesac, one of those would-be saviors. "Only a few
teams can do that. The other thing he's done is make everybody
in the pen better. It's no coincidence we're all pitching better
since he came here."
Mantei has been such a godsend that his bullpen mates gladly
endure his annoying daily rituals, such as his protocol for
eating sunflower seeds. Every day he vigorously shakes the seed
bag so the salt filters to the bottom, then squeezes it so that
it opens from the bottom with a loud popping sound and dumps the
salt before commencing his snack. "We ask him, 'Why not just get
unsalted?'" Plesac says. "He says he likes the flavor of salt
but not the salt itself. Irritates the hell out of us."
If that's irritating, it's nothing compared with watching the
Diamondbacks build a winner in two years, as Arizona's foes have
had to do. The cold truth is right there in your morning
newspaper. No need for gerrymandered standings in a back room.
The Diamondbacks are for real.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Home safe Pesky Powell slid under Perez to score Sunday's unlikely tying run.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Savior Newcomer Mantei has been throwing seeds--and eating them too.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Spark plug With a league-leading 64 steals, the fleet Womack has pepped up Arizona's offense.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Sweet stroke Hot all year, the game Gonzalez delivered Sunday's fatal two-out, two-run blow.
With 81 victories through Sunday, the Diamondbacks were closing
in on the 1962 Los Angeles Angels' record for wins (86) by a
second-year franchise. Moreover, as the numbers below reveal,
several Diamondbacks had either broken or were threatening to
break individual records for players on a second-year club.
LEADER ENTERING SEASON DIAMONDBACKS' LEADER(S)
Jeff Conine, 1994 Marlins .319 Luis Gonzalez .343
Nate Colbert, 1970 Padres 38 Jay Bell, Matt Williams 32
Runs Batted In
Leon Wagner, 1962 Angels 107 Matt Williams 123
Julio Cruz, 1978 Mariners 59 Tony Womack 64
Carl Morton, 1970 Expos 18 Randy Johnson 14
Ken Johnson, 1963 Colt 45s 2.65 Randy Johnson 2.58
Claude Raymond, 1970 Expos 23 Matt Mantei 17
Bob Johnson, 1970 Royals 206 Randy Johnson 328
*Minimum one inning per team's games
"With Matt we're playing eight-inning games now," Plesac says of
closer Mantei. "Only a few teams can do that."
"If you don't know Buck, you can see him walking around like
he's King Tut," says Uhlaender. "But he's not like that."