So…we’re in a lockout.
Holy cow, this is boring.
While there’s not currently a timetable for when the owners and MLB Players Association will come to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, the speculation and the lack of offseason news has left baseball fans and writers without much to talk about.
What we do have going on, thankfully, is the time of year where BBWAA writers show off their Hall of Fame ballots. Right now, Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker projects that 3 players currently would get in: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and David Ortiz. However, players have to get 75%+, and only a small percentage of the total ballots are in. So, there’s a good chance no players are voted into the Hall of Fame by way of the traditional ballot this year.
But thinking about these players, and in particular Barry Bonds, put me on a path to think about how good they were; after all, Bonds broke the single season home run record in 2001 and holds the title of Home Run King as well (Clemens also won 1 of his 7 Cy Young awards that year!). That got me thinking about what baseball was like in 2001, a year full of different events, and one of the last years of the Steroid Era.
When one looks into the 2001 season, they uncover one of the greatest seasons of the 21st Century, and one of the most memorable in the history of the sport. So, what exactly happened that year?
The Diamondbacks won their first World Series Title
The 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks hold the distinction of being the fastest expansion team to win a World Series title, doing so in just their fourth year of existence. Finishing 1st in the NL West at 92-70 and winning their second division title (1999), The D-Backs were led by Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson, season wins leader Curt Schilling, All-Star and Arizona legend Luis Gonazalez, and league best closer Byung-hyun Kim, and they defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in 5 games in the NLDS, and the Atlanta Braves in 5 games in the NLCS to advance to the Series, where they faced a Yankees team fighting for the city of New York less than 2 months after the 9/11 tragedy. More on that series itself in a bit.
Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens won the Cy Young
Randy Johnson won his 4th career Cy Young, and actually his 3rd in a stretch of four in a row, as he would win the award every year from 1999 through 2002, to go along with the one he won in 1995. Johnson is just the second pitcher to hold that distinction, the first being Greg Maddux. In 2001, the Big Unit had a majors-leading 2.49 ERA, to go along with a 21-6 record, a career high 372 strikeouts, and a 1.009 WHIP. Johnson truly had one of the most dominant stretches ever by a starting pitcher, and almost 400 strikeouts in a single season is insanity.
Clemens won the 6th of 7 total career Cy Young awards in 2001, at the ripe young age of 38. In 2001, his stats included a 20-3 record, a 3.51 ERA (league leader Freddy García finished third in voting), 213 strikeouts, and a 1.257 WHIP. Although Clemens’ stats in 2001 were not record breaking by any means, his win shows how much voters valued pitching wins even in the 21st century, and highlights how Clemens (albeit with some “help”) was able to stay an elite pitcher through the end of his career, as his last Cy Young would come in 2004, as a 41 year old in Houston.
Speaking of Randy Johnson…
Remember the infamous video of him blowing up a bird with a pitch in Spring Training? Yeah. That happened in 2001. The bird was apparently a metaphor for what the Big Unit was about to do to baseball that season.
Albert Pujols Won NL Rookie of the Year
One of the most illustrious careers in the history of baseball began in 2001, when Albert Pujols broke onto the scene for the Cardinals. It’s also noteworthy that Pujols was not a late season call up earlier who still had rookie eligibility; 2001 was truly his first taste of the majors, and he dominated, and he actually won the NL ROTY award unanimously, taking all 32 first place votes. Albert Pujols’ 2001 stats were highlighted by a .329/.403/.610 slash line, a 1.013 OPS, 37 home runs and 130 RBIs, an All-Star selection, and his first Silver Slugger, while finishing fourth in league MVP voting. Right from the start, the Machine was a household name, and the future 3-time MVP set the stage for a Hall of Fame career that still hasn’t quite ended.
The crazy part is he didn’t even have the best rookie season in baseball that year.
Ichiro Suzuki won ROTY and MVP in the Same Season
In what was possibly the greatest rookie season in the history of Major League Baseball, Ichiro made his highly anticipated debut for the Seattle Mariners in 2001 after 10 seasons playing for the Orix BlueWave of NPB in Japan. Ichiro might get a bit of flak for having already been 27 during his first season, but that shouldn’t distract from what he was able to do in his first season against the highest level of competition. In fact, the only other player to win MVP and ROTY in the same season was Fred Lynn of the Red Sox in 1975.
Ichiro’s 2001 stats included a .350/.381/.457 slash line, 242 total hits, 34 doubles and 8 triples, and 56 stolen bases. Not bad for a contact hitter, especially during an era where home runs and power had become the norm (Ichiro only hit 8!). While he was a near unanimous choice for ROTY (a lone first-place vote was given to Cleveland pitcher CC Sabathia), the MVP race was very tight, with Ichiro winning the award over Athletics slugger Jason Giambi, the previous season’s MVP, by only 8 points. But don’t let the tight race distract from Ichiro’s season. Did I mention he had a 7.7 WAR and won the first of 10 consecutive Gold Gloves in the outfield?
Barry Bonds Cemented Himself as a Baseball Legend
Already a 3-time MVP winner by his age 28 season in 1993, Barry Bonds continued to play at a high level as he entered the twilight of his career. At least, that’s what it would have been for most players by the time they hit the age of 36. Instead, Bonds went on to have one of the greatest seasons in the history of baseball. Hitting 49 home runs and finishing second in MVP voting in 2000 behind his teammate Jeff Kent, the Giants outfielder came back with a vengeance: .328/.515/.863, 1.379 OPS, 137 RBIs, and 411 total bases. But that’s not the main highlight here.
Barry Bonds famously hit 73 home runs in 2001, breaking the record set by Mark McGwire in 1998 of 70, and the sixth season of 60+ home runs in the period from 1998-2001. Every one of those seasons was by Bonds, McGwire, or Sammy Sosa, who hit 64 in ‘01 to finish second in voting behind Bonds. Steroids!
Bonds’ incredible season kickstarted a stretch in which he won four straight MVPs from 2001 through 2004, when he hit 209 home runs, was intentionally walked 284 times, and had an average wRC+ of 231. Yeah. That’s insane.
Steroids or not, Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame. His 2001 season was a time where he accomplished what no other baseball player has come close to, and began a stretch of total dominance.
The Mariners won 116 Games…and haven’t returned to the playoffs since
In 2001, the Seattle Mariners sent out one of the greatest teams in the history of baseball.. This team was loaded, led by the previously mentioned Ichiro, second baseman Bret Boone (who hit .331 and finished third in MVP voting himself), Mike Cameron, future Hall of Famer Edgar Martínez at DH, AL ERA leader Freddy García, and the ageless Jamie Moyer. Seattle would tie a major league record by going 116-46, tying the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the most in a single season.
After dispatching Cleveland in the ALDS in 4 games, the Mariners got trapped by a buzzsaw, fizzling out in the ALCS and dropping games 1 and 2 of the series at home to the Yankees before going on to lose the series in only 5 games. Seattle lost game 5 in a blowout and won game 3, while losing games 1, 2, and 4 by a grand total of 5 runs. What happened? Simple. The Mariners’ offense fell apart when it needed to succeed the most.
To make matters worse, despite having 8 winning seasons since 2001 (for context, the Pittsburgh Pirates have 3 in the same span, but made the playoffs all three times), Seattle has yet to return to the playoffs. 20 years is the longest active playoff drought in North American sports.
Alex Rodriguez Signed a Massive Contract with the Rangers Before the Season
Speaking of the Mariners lack of offense, perhaps having shortstop Alex Rodriguez would have helped their cause, but after the 2000 season, A-Rod left Seattle in search of better opportunities and more money.
Rodriguez ended up signing with the last-place Texas Rangers for a record 10-year, $252 million contract, the largest contract in the history of organized sports up to that point. Rodriguez would reset the market for large sports contracts, as players in every major league would only get more and more money as time went on; while there has been a slow progression of higher payments over time, it was A-Rod who truly cemented the mega-deal for star players.
How’d it turn out? The Rangers would finish fifth in the AL West again at 73-89, and would eventually trade Rodriguez to the Yankees in 2003 for Alfonso Soriano and a PTBNL. Ouch.
A.J. Burnett Threw a Nine-Walk No-Hitter
Yes, that’s a real headline. And, yes, of course, it was against the Padres. Because who else?
On May 12th, 2001, Burnett tossed 129 pitches and struck out seven en route to the third no-hitter in Florida Marlins history. According to a Marlins blog, Burnett only threw 65 (just over half) of those pitches for strikes. Luckily for him, San Diego failed to get runners home. He got help from his fielders and more than a handful of ground balls, as well as the offense propelling him to a 3-0 lead. As a matter of fact, Burnett only had 1-2-3 innings in the sixth, seventh, and ninth, but got the job done. Nine walks was the most in a full, nine inning no hitter since at least 1900. The Marlins would retain the lead and win 3-0 in one of the most bizarre pitching performances in the history of baseball.
Rickey Henderson Got his 3000th Career Hit
“Rickey was never motivated by stats. He was motivated by numbers. Wins, runs, steals.”
Rickey Henderson’s ability to refer to himself in the third person was just as well known as his ability to steal anything on a baseball field, and his amazing hitting, which includes the all-time record for leadoff home runs. The final act of his exceptional career that extended all the way back to 1979 came on in 2001 while playing for the Padres. On the last day of the season, October 7th, Rickey smacked a double down the first base line against the Rockies, the 3000th hit of his illustrious baseball career. Rickey would play 2 more seasons, one each in Boston and Los Angeles, before retiring in 2003.
Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. Played their Final Seasons
Two legends of the game of baseball hung it up at the end of the 2001 season.
Tony Gwynn, who in my opinion is the greatest pure hitter baseball has ever seen (debate a wall), experienced a sharp decline at the end of his career, playing in just 107 games in his last 2 years with the Padres. He actually played his last game with Henderson when he got his 3000th hit. Gwynn left behind an illustrious 20 year career— the only season he ever hit lower than .300 was his rookie year— and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio that was almost 2:1 in favor of walks.
Cal Ripken Jr. speaks for himself. He redefined the position of shortstop, and set a record of 2,632 consecutive games played, a streak that might never be broken. The two-time AL MVP got his farewell tour in 2001, and the greatest moment of that tour came during the last of his 19 consecutive All-Star games, when Alex Rodriguez offered Ripken the start at shortstop. The Orioles legend would hit a home run in the third inning to win the game’s MVP award, the second of his career.
Mike Piazza and the Yankees Helped Heal America
After the tragedy of 9/11 struck the United States, MLB commissioner Bud Selig decided to postpone a week’s worth of MLB games. Faced with the grim realities of what had just overcome America, baseball returned on the 17th, hoping to provide a distraction and a way for the country to feel normal again.
The Mets returned to New York on September 21st for a game against the Braves, playing in front of a packed house desperate for any way to feel positive again. Mets catcher and future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza gave it to them, launching a home run deep to center field at Shea Stadium, giving New York a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth, allowing them to win the game, and giving America its first true feeling of healing and recovery. The Yankees’ subsequent postseason run, while not ending in a title, still provided a memorable moment for a city and a nation in need of healing. The postponement of games also gave us our first taste of November baseball during that fateful 2001 World Series.
The 2001 World Series…Oh My Goodness.
Forget the 9/11 subtext surrounding this Series, and it’s still one of the greatest in the history of Major League Baseball. 4 of the 7 games in the series were decided by a single run. Both Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens tried to complete their Cy Young seasons with a title, complemented by Curt Schilling and Hall of Famer Mike Mussina, respectively. Then there was the legendary game 7, where Clemens and Schilling battled for 5 total scoreless innings, and a 1-1 game after 7. Randy Johnson came into the game in relief in a gutsy performance after he threw 104 pitches the night before, before Luis Gonzalez managed to walk off postseason god Mariano Rivera.
Add in that subtext. The president threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees won all three games in New York. The patriotic fervor was as high as it would ever get. November baseball gave birth to Derek Jeter’s “Mr. November” nickname. What do you get? The perfect ending to one of the most memorable and eventful seasons the game of baseball has ever seen.