With the sports world on hold, Cronkite News will take a daily look at this day in sports history and reflect on some of the biggest moments in Arizona sports.
PHOENIX – With the infield pushed in, on a 2-2 count in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, Luis Gonzalez hit a bloop single against baseball’s premier closer to secure a championship title for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The hit was the finale of a fairy tale season for the veteran Diamondbacks player and it is still one of the most iconic in MLB history. It is also the hit that defines Gonzalez’s stellar career. But as Diamondbacks’ fans know, it wasn’t just one hit that earned Gonzalez’s No. 20 a spot in the rafters at Chase Field.
On this day in 2001, Gonzalez hit a home run in a 17-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. It was his 10th of the season, tying the National League record for home runs in the month of April. By the end of the month, he had smashed three more homers, tying Ken Griffey Jr.’s major league record for home runs in April.
In fact, Gonzalez realized during this record-breaking month he was in the midst of a season to remember.
“I think I had lapped the field pretty much as far as home runs were concerned and RBIs, I was up there,” Gonzalez said in a recent interview with Cronkite News. “I felt good, I felt strong and felt like everything was kind of rolling my way. I was just not trying to figure it out. I was just going out there and having fun every day.”
But this was not the first time Gonzo, as he’s affectionately known by Diamondbacks fans, began the season red hot. When he arrived in the Valley in 1999, he wasted no time making an impression.
“Luis Gonzalez joined the Diamondbacks in December 1998, and opened the 1999 season with a 30-game hit streak,” longtime Diamondbacks broadcaster Greg Schulte recalled. “He quickly became a fan favorite, not only for his baseball heroics, but he was very approachable, and the fans loved him for that.”
His 1999 season ended with 26 home runs — a career best that he topped again with 31 homers in 2000. After two seasons in the purple pinstripes, it was apparent that Gonzalez had found his mojo in the Valley, but it was still hard to fathom the feats he would reach in his third season as a Diamondback.
In 2001, the difference could be found in the guys batting around him. Feared hitters Mark Grace and Tony Womack, batting in the top two spots, looked to get on base in front of Gonzalez, who typically batted third in the order that season. Behind him, Matt Williams and Steve Finley, who both hit over 300 home runs in their careers, filled out the heart of the order.
“It was just a good fit for me right there, hitting in the middle of that batting order,” Gonzalez said. I just had the mental confidence going early. From spring training, I felt good. I had a great lineup in front of me and behind me,” Gonzalez said.
His historic April rolled into May, then June and July, where he found himself representing the Diamondbacks in the All-Star Game and the Home Run Derby, where he outlasted Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds to bring home the hardware.
“It felt like I was hitting a home run every series,” Gonzalez said. “I just felt good. I had good protection in the batting order and I was getting good pitches to hit.”
Lucky for Gonzalez, he did not fall victim to the infamous post-Derby winner slump. He finished the season with 57 home runs.
Even 19 years later, only eight players have totaled more than that. He went deep more times than Mickey Mantle ever did and more times than Aaron Judge ever has (so far). Even “Hammerin'” Hank Aaron, who held the MLB home run record for 33 years, never reached that single-season total.
“That whole season for me was just a magical storybook year from start to finish. From April then going on to the All-Star Game and being selected a starter, winning the Home Run Derby that year. And then, the bookend to it was being at the plate in Game 7 of the World Series to get the game-winning hit,” Gonzalez said. “For me, I couldn’t have just pictured a scenario any better than what happened from start to finish for me and our guys on the season.”
Gonzalez finished third in the NL MVP voting that season and won the only Silver Slugger award of his career.
For the players and fans alike, the 2001 Diamondbacks season still resonates as perhaps the most magical moment in Arizona’s sporting history. It was only fitting that Gonzalez’s dream season started with a record-breaking month and ended with a walk-off hit in the World Series.