The days when time stood still

Earl Weaver and his Baltimore Orioles took the field one more time. Tony Gwynn took his last swing and Rickey Henderson soared into the record books on his crooked 42-year-old legs. Barry Bonds was a giant one second and had tears in his eyes the next. Randy and Curt amazed all, as did those Cards and those A’s. The boys of summer, the heroes of autumn, they made us forget ourselves as no one else can.

It’s difficult to judge how these deeds will stand against time. What is amazing today is often forgotten tomorrow, replaced with the trend-du-jour of pop culture, sport or daily news. With the tides of information flooding us from every direction, it’s hard to tell which moment will be remembered, and which will fall by the wayside.

Sometimes, the heroes last. Their moments transcend time and are remembered by generations of fans. Willie Mays’ moments last. We remember his youth and exuberance–not his days at first base. We remember the basket catch, the graceful stride and the gleaming smile. His moments matter, they make his legend live.

The 2001 season is one such moment. In the hallowed stream of baseball, 2001 is but one drop, one small note in the endless symphony of America’s pastime.

We’ve just witnessed one of the greatest seasons ever. The Mariners chased the 1906 Cubs, Rickey chased Ty Cobb. Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken said goodbye, one leaving a legacy of unparalleled grace, the other, of unparalleled vitality.

Little Ichiro came across the Pacific and changed the way America views Japanese players. He also changed the viewing habits of his entire nation. Ichiromania goes far beyond the .350 batting average, the 242 hits and the 56 stolen bases. Yet another racial barrier broken in the big leagues, but unlike the antagonism Jackie Robinson faced in 1947, this time broken through acceptance. Ichiro showed that you don’t have to be a pitcher to be a successful Japanese player in the bigs.

While Jackie’s Ebbots Field is gone along with the launching pad of Henry Aaron’s Atlanta, the Green Monster still stands at Fenway. There is talk of a new stadium for the cursed Red Sox, but for now, Pedro and Nomar still sit in the same dugout once graced by Ted Williams, Cy Young and Carlton Fisk. Wrigley Field is around as well, and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa is on his way to icon status in the Windy City. His fearsome bat and charming grin earn him a crescendo of cheers every time he sprints toward right field to take his place in front of the ivy-covered walls of baseball’s cathedral.

Bonds’ 50th homerun sailed over the ivy on August 11. It was the 50th of 73–a number seemingly improbable, even as we saw Mark McGwire crush 70 just three years before. On top of that, Barry’s .863 slugging percentage broke Babe Ruth’s 80-year record of .847. Bonds’ year personified 2001 baseball. He had the perhaps the finest season ever, in perhaps the greatest year baseball has ever seen.

After the dog days of August and the pennant chase of September we’re now left with October–the month of heroes. There are eight teams left standing and each has something special to cap off this truly incredible year.

The young A’s and their blazing bats play the timeless Yankees and their ace-laden veteran pitching staff. Roger Clemens vs. Mark Mulder. Mike Mussina vs. Barry Zito. Which will succeed? The surge of youth or the calm professionalism of the game’s most storied franchise?

The Indians will try to halt the inevitable charge of the Mariners. Can anybody stop the Replacement Killers who seemingly got better by losing three of the game’s best players? It’s a Mariner team without Griffey, A-Rod or Randy Johnson. It’s also a Mariner team with the most wins since the 1906 Cubs won 116.

After winning their 10th division title in a row, the Atlanta Braves are back for another post-season. Maddux and Smoltz are old and battered but the greats come through in the biggest games. Craig Biggio is still kicking and hasn’t changed his batting helmet since 1988. During that span, he’s been a catcher, an outfielder and a second baseman. He’s never won a playoff series and neither have his Astros. Perhaps this year, Biggio’s worn out helmet will finally rest atop a World Series champion.

One of baseball’s most celebrated players made the post-season as well. Big Mac is there, but the 2001 Cardinals are led by Albert Pujols, not by the great McGwire. The slugger’s body has not kept up
with his heart. The bruised bash brother has been a shadow of himself this year, but the rookie Pujols stepped up with thunder and flare.

Will we see a new Mr. October in 2001? Will there be a three-homer night, a World Series no-hitter or a perfect game? Will Schilling and Johnson throw their way to post-season immortality?

The month of October will be a fitting close to 2001. It won’t matter who triumphs, as the teams involved are sure to provide drama and excitement regardless of the winner. Baseball has given alot back this season and the memories will be etched in our minds for years to come.

The boats, dingies and kayaks in McCovey Cove recovered pieces of history soaring from Barry Bonds’ maple bat. The bleacher bums of Wrigley threw opposition home-runs back into the infield. Ichiro said “thank you” through an interpreter, Rickey said it with his legs and Barry with his bat. Ripken made his rounds around Camden Yards during his final curtain call for the Baltimore crowds. His 1982 manager, Earl Weaver, was on hand along with his 1982 teammates.

The iron man took his last swing. Tony Gwynn did it the next day. Too hobbled to take the field for his last game, he pinch hit in the ninth inning and grounded out on the first pitch. Rickey got his 3,000th hit in the same ballpark, just a few innings before. Barry hit number 73 as if to put an exclamation mark on 2001. Somewhere between the shale, the grass and the concrete, magic happened, and we’re all lucky to have seen it.

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