It’s the stuff backyard hypotheticals are made of. Game 7 of the World Series, bottom of the ninth, one out, tie game, bases loaded. You’re at the plate against the greatest relief pitcher of all time… for the three-time defending world champion New York Yankees.
But for Luis “Gonzo” Gonzalez in November of 2001, it was real life. The end to a magical season in which he blasted 57 home runs, won the Home Run Derby and claimed the Silver Slugger award for his position. He’d gone 0 for 4 in the game, but when his bloop single dropped over the head of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, he gave the Diamondbacks their first and only World Series title and the state of Arizona its first and only major pro sports trophy.
So as this season’s playoff race heats up, we tracked Gonzo down in Phoenix, where he now works in the front office for the D-Backs, to ask him about his biggest at bat—and the hit that effectively ended the Yanks dynasty.
“You don’t know how you’re going to react until it actually happens. It was incredible. You wish everybody could feel what you felt at that time.”
So, do you ever get tired of talking about this moment?
No. You never do. If it would have been a bad ending, then yeah. But no, it turned out to be a great ending.
Can you take us through the at bat? What was going through your mind as it played out?
Well, I found myself on deck, Craig Counsell at the plate with men on second and third. And he had had a great playoff series already, so I just figured he was going to be the guy to get the hit, and I was trying to figure out, “OK, where do I want to go, when he gets this hit, to celebrate?” And lo and behold, as I’m thinking about that, the pitch hits him in the hand and he takes first base. And I’m like, “Oh shoot, now it’s my turn. Now I got a shot at it.”
And so many thoughts go through your mind as you’re walking to the plate. For me, I’m thinking, first of all, this has been a dream season for me. The 57 home runs, won the Home Run Derby. And here I am in the key moment of the season to try to get a base hit against ultimately the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera. I’m thinking, “What are my parents thinking at home in Florida?” My mom, my grandmother, my aunt, my uncle, all these people in Tampa, which is a huge, huge baseball-savvy city.
And then I’m thinking, “What’s my wife doing in the stands? Is she nervous?” All these thoughts are going through your mind, and then at the same time, you have the task of facing Rivera. I’m going, “Oh God.” So it’s your one shot at getting a hole-in-one. You either make it or you don’t. And fortunately for me, they brought the infield in. Mariano throws a lot of cutters on the left-handed hitter, so if he jams me and I hit a weak ground ball and they’re playing back, you don’t have a chance at a double play and the run would score easy.
So [Yankees manager Joe Torre] did what he had to do, he brought the infield in, and I was lucky enough to just get enough of it to go over Jeter’s head and it barely got out of the infield. But it worked, and as I’m running down the line, I’m thinking to myself, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
So how did it feel to run down the first base line, knowing you’ve just won your team the World Series?
Well, before I was thinking, “Don’t screw this up, you’ve got one shot at it and everybody’s counting on you.” But when I was going down the line, I was jumping up and down, elated obviously. You don’t know how you’re going to react until it actually happens. You can play in your backyard or mess around with your buddies and say, “Oh, this is what I would do,” but until you’re actually in the moment… you wish everybody could feel what you felt at that time. It was incredible. I mean, still to this day I can envision all the guys running towards me and me still thinking in my mind, “I can’t believe this is happening to me. I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
This swing touched off a D-Backs dogpile and ended an epic Series, as documented by SI.
You mentioned the infield being brought in. So if they were playing normally, does Jeter catch that?
Oh absolutely, absolutely. But that’s the beauty of baseball. You play infield in, infield back, you play for double plays, different things like that. And at the time, that was the right play for them to do. I was just fortunate enough to get enough of it to get it over his head.
Is that what you were trying to do? Knowing that the infield was in?
No, no no. I wanted to drive the ball into the outfield because it was one out. I needed to get something far enough out there to get the runner in from third. Fortunately I got enough of it. But as soon as it left my bat, I knew it was going to fall in because of the fact that the infield was playing in.
It looked like you had a pretty aggressive mindset up there. You took a big cut on the first pitch.
Yeah, well, you don’t want to fall behind against a great reliever like that. He’s got no place to put you, he’s going to come right at you. If I was going to go down, you want to go down swinging. I wasn’t going to go up there taking pitches, especially against a great reliever like Rivera.
Had you faced him before much?
I struck out against him in the eighth inning.
And had you faced him many times before that in your career?
No, I don’t think so. I might’ve faced him four or five times, if that. I don’t think so. I was only in the American League one year.
Is that the greatest baseball moment of your life? It has to be, right? What could top that?
Baseball moment, yes. Absolutely.
Greatest moment of your life period?
Well, no, my wife and I had triplets. That was pretty special too. As far as baseball moments, yeah, that ranks up there as the number one thing for me.
“We wouldn’t have celebrated the same way we did in Arizona if we would have won in New York. Just out of respect for everything that had happened that year in New York City.”
Do you ever have to pay for a drink in Phoenix?
Ha ha. Well, the next year in Boston, we went in for interleague play, and we were pretty much taken care of. It was pretty nice, walking into restaurants. The fans were really good to us. We had a lot of nice meals there for the two or three days that we were playing the Red Sox.
And what happens when you come to New York?
New York is still kind of weird for me because if they’re Mets fans, they’re OK with me. When they’re Yankees fans, they pretty much let you have it. You know, they give you the business there. But you wouldn’t expect anything different from New York, man. They’re very passionate fans, they’re great fans, and they love their Yankees, just as the Mets fans love their Mets.
Well, trust us. A lot of fans around the country were very happy to see you beat the Yankees.
Yeah, well, the hard part was the fact that it was right after 9-11, all the tragedy that had happened in New York City, and we were aware of everything. We wanted to pay our respects to everyone down there at Command Center and the World Trade Center. So we weren’t immune to what was going on. We knew there were bigger things in life than baseball. And for us it was nicer that we won the World Series in Arizona, not in New York. We wouldn’t have celebrated the same way we did in Arizona if we would have won in New York. Just out of respect for everything that had happened in New York City.
We read on your Wikipedia page that you were high school teammates with Tino Martinez. He was on that Yankees team, right?
Yeah, actually that was the first phone call I got on my phone. You know, later on in the evening when you go back and check your 5,000 messages that you get, he was actually the first one congratulating me and telling me to enjoy the moment. So… that was pretty cool, that was special.
Did you get to keep the ball?
I actually presented it to our owner the next day, the day of the parade. The guys from MLB, the authenticators, gave me the ball and I hid it in my locker. And I had a whole night to think about what I wanted to do with it. And I figured the best man to have it would be Jerry Colangelo. So he has the ball.
And the bat?
The bat is in Cooperstown.
Did it break or anything?
Oh yeah, it cracked.
By the way, you’ve seen the replay, right? Tim McCarver actually kind of called what was going to happen.
Yeah, it’s amazing. Yep, yep, I’ve heard the call. It’s amazing how he almost played it out to a tee.
Well, it’s cool to relive it.
Yeah, it never gets old, put it that way.