Opening Day 2002: World Series champs look ahead

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

SNAKES SAVOR PAST, BUT LOOK TO FUTURE

By Ed Odeven
PHOENIX (April 1, 2002) — The hardest feat in professional sports is to win back-to-back championships.

The easiest way to slip is to become complacent and let the feelings of invincibility seep into a team’s collective psyche.

Make no mistake about it: The defending world champion Arizona Diamondbacks will not march from city to city in 2002 and pat themselves on the back.

Those feelings of championship euphoria lasted until left-hander Randy Johnson fired his first fastball of the game on Monday. (Officially, today’s pregame World Series ring presentation ceremony marks the end of the pandemonium that followed Luis Gonzalez’s game-winning, Game 7 hit in last year’s Fall Classic.)

The D-backs embrace a we-mean-business-now attitude, and it all starts with Bob Brenly. The second-year skipper’s professionalism and blue-collar persona guarantee the team will not rest on its laurels, especially considering that only three National League teams have successfully defended a World Series title, and none has done so since the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati in 1975 and ’76.

“After tomorrow’s ring ceremony all the hoopla will be over with and we can settle back in and continue playing,” first baseman Mark Grace said. “Today is Opening Day, tomorrow is a special day that we’ve been waiting for — a lot of us for a long time. And once that’s over we can get right back to our daily routine.”

Brenly called the day “special,” but said he’s ready to move on.

“It was on my mind to keep the players focused on the job at hand,” Brenly said after the D-backs’ 2-0 victory. “We all enjoyed the heck out of what happened last year. We hope to do something similar this year. The sooner we can forget last season, the better.”

As the 47,025 spectators who were at Bank One Ballpark fell asleep Monday night, they had plenty to remember:

*Visions of Johnson’s eight strikeouts dancing in their heads. Johnson saved his best for last, firing a 101 mph fastball past Deivi Cruz on the game’s next-to-last pitch and striking him out with a nasty 90 mph slider to end the game.

*Grace’s seventh-inning homer to right and stellar defense at first base, scooping up every ball thrown in his direction.

*Danny Bautista’s run-scoring double in the third that brought Tony Womack home for the only run the Big Unit needed.

Johnson, 38, is clearly the catalyst of this aging team, a team of clutch 30-something veterans like Grace, Tony Womack and Steve Finley and younger guys anxious to continue their rise to stardom like Byung-Hyun Kim, Junior Spivey and Bautista.

“Everybody is waiting for guys like that to falter,” Gonzalez said of Johnson. “The guy keeps getting better every year. Everyone in here believes in his abilities and all the other guys.

“We just pull in the same direction. That’s what helped us get through last year and that’s what will help us this year again.”

It won’t be an easy task, considering championship-contending teams need consistency, players having career years and, yes, a stroke of luck now and then.

Schill the Thrill takes the hill today. Baseball’s best 1-2 pitching punch began the season with a dramatic knockout blow. Now it’s Curt Schilling’s turn to do what he did so many times last season: Replicate Johnson’s mastery over batters with his right arm.

As Gonzalez, the consummate professional put it, “We don’t care who it is as long as somebody grabs the keys to the car and drives us to the next level.”

The D-backs are already there.

The hardest part is staying there.

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