A memorable presidential pitch, a head rub: Ari Fleischer, Curt Schilling reflect on 2001 World Series

When the Arizona Diamondbacks visited the White House after winning the World Series, Curt Schilling (left) and Randy Johnson (right) had a little fun with then-press secretary Ari Fleischer. (Photo by Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Though the Arizona Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series in seven scintillating games, a different fandom was equally affected by the emotion and weight of that extraordinary postseason: the fans of the New York Yankees.

New York seemed to be the center of the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Every game, especially for New Yorkers, had a black veil hanging over it, as Ground Zero still smoldered and the memory of those who were killed in the attacks was still fresh.

For die-hard Yankees fans like Ari Fleischer, the loss of the World Series was hard, but the experience of seeing Americans united over sports meant more.

Fleischer, who served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary from January 2001 to July 2003, didn’t attend any World Series games in person because “when you go to a game with the president, you don’t get to watch much of the game.”

It worked out for the longtime Yankees’ fan — Fleischer, born in NYC, didn’t miss a pitch of the World Series.

He did miss being in person for the president’s first pitch that Bush threw out before Game 3. Still, Fleischer experienced the emotion of the pitch — “the perfect strike with a little pop on it” — just like the rest of the crowd. President Bush was moved by the crowd’s raucous cheers after he smoothly hit the strike zone.

“The next morning, the president came into my office, which is highly unusual. He said to me, ‘No matter what happens to me in the course of my presidency, last night will be one of the highlights.’ He was moved. He was emotionally moved by the roar of the crowd,” Fleischer said.

“He knew that pitch turned into a metaphor for our country. It gave America the boost that we so badly needed just to cheer for ourselves.”

Related story

On Dec. 13, 2001, the World Champion Diamondbacks visited the White House. Fleischer started that day with a typical press briefing. He walked off the podium toward his office, relieved that the briefing was over.

“I turn the corner to head up to my office, and in comes this guy in a business suit headed to my podium. Right behind him is this 6-foot-10-inch guy. All of a sudden I realized that it was (Curt) Schilling and (Randy) Johnson, coming to bust my chops for being a Yankees fan,” Fleischer said of Arizona’s two pitching aces.

“So I retreated and went back up to the podium. All the press is still sitting there laughing and Randy Johnson leans down, rubs my bald head and says, ‘I understand if I rub your head it’s good luck and we’ll be back next year.’ All I could think about is (Yankee manager) Joe Torre might be watching, so I looked up at Johnson and I said, ‘No, the Yankees will,’” Fleischer said.

“It was fun. It was just one of those light-hearted, fun moments that occasionally get to interrupt the fierceness of the White House. It really was a thrill to meet those two major league players, two of the greatest pitchers ever in the game. And even if I didn’t like the fact that the Diamondbacks won the World Series, it was a thrill to meet those players.”

Schilling remembers that trip to the White House press briefing podium well.

“That was fun. The staff all wanted to prank him as he was and still is a huge Yankee fan. So we hid and waited for him to be doing his daily presser and surprised him with a Diamondbacks hat,” said Schilling, who played for Shadow Mountain High School and was a fan favorite in the Valley.

Schilling and Johnson meant a lot to the Diamondbacks during the World Series, especially Game 7. Schilling started the crucial game, and Johnson ended it and picked up the win. Both Schilling and Johnson were named World Series MVPs after winning the series.

The 2001 World Series is still considered by many to be the best Fall Classic in memory. More than that, it showed how much sports mean to Americans. Baseball was a welcome relief for fans, whether they were in Arizona or New York or anywhere in between. Those who were lucky enough to be present in the legendary stadium in the Bronx for Games 3, 4 or 5 were united no matter what team colors they happened to be wearing.

“There was not a Democrat at Yankee Stadium. There was not a Republican at Yankee Stadium. Everybody was an American at Yankee Stadium cheering for our country. And it just felt so right. And so good. And so affirming,” Fleischer said. “It was so powerful.”

Abby Sharpe abb-ee sh-ar-p (she/her)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Abby Sharpe expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sharpe, who has covered sports for Cronkite News, Inferno Intel and as a freelancer, is working in the Phoenix Sports Bureau.