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Diamondbacks take shortcut to Series
PHOENIX -- No team has arrived on baseball's biggest stage as quickly as the Arizona Diamondbacks.
This desert jewel of a franchise is in deep hock financially, but has made it to the World Series in only four years with a combination of expensive free agents and a series of player moves that hardly could have worked out better.
Jerry Colangelo, who heads the investors group that own the team, made a decision after the 1998 expansion year that the team had to win now or face a disastrous drop in attendance.
Colangelo is by nature a man who can't stand to lose, yet he had fallen short of the big prize since he came to Arizona 32 years ago as general manager of the NBA's expansion Phoenix Suns.
"We didn't go out and lose and suffer and do all those things you're supposed to do before you enjoy victory," manager Bob Brenly said. "Jerry refused to follow that pattern. He said, 'Why do we have to wait?' That's why he is the man he is and that's why the players love to play for him."
Brenly spent three years as the Diamondbacks television analyst before becoming manager last December. He watched as Colangelo signed Randy Johnson to a six-year, $62 million deal, and Steve Finley to a five-year, $25.5 million contract, among many other moves before the 1999 season.
There was more than a little resentment toward the franchise from the staid baseball establishment.
"You just don't see owners do things like that," Brenly said. "I think in a lot of respects that's why people perceive the Diamondbacks the way they do. We didn't pay our dues. We didn't follow the script you're supposed to follow."
Before Arizona had played one game, Jay Bell became the first major league free agent to sign with the team, a five-year, $34 million contract that some found excessive. Matt Williams wanted to come to Phoenix to be with his children, who lived there with his former wife. The Diamondbacks made a trade with Cleveland for Williams, then signed him to a five-year, $45 contract extension.
Although the team was awful, the Diamondbacks played to a full house virtually every night in their first season. Still, Colangelo saw that season ticket sales were going to take a dive in the second year, when the novelty wore off.
So he launched a $97.4 million free-agent splurge that included the signing of Johnson, Finley, Todd Stottlemyre, Greg Swindell, Greg Colbrunn and Armando Reynoso.
"When you can improve your staff like I thought we would be able to with the addition of Randy Johnson and the others, that gives you a chance to compete right now," Colangelo said at the time. "There isn't any reason to wait four or five years."
The tactic worked on the field, where the Diamondbacks won the NL West title in just their second year. But the attendance didn't rise as expected. Colangelo said the franchise needed to average 40,000 to break even. It didn't even come close.
Season ticket sales kept dropping, and Colangelo went back to owners for more cash. With no national television revenue for the first five years, the Diamondbacks lost a reported $48 million in their first three seasons.
The situation made Colangelo want to win now more than ever.
In the middle of the 2000 season, Arizona acquired Curt Schilling from Philadelphia for first baseman Travis Lee and pitchers Omar Dahl, Nelson Figueroa and Vicente Padilla.
Suddenly, the Diamondbacks had one of the most fearsome lefty-righty pitching punches baseball has known. But Schilling faltered down the stretch, still not fully recovered from shoulder surgery.
The team faded to third in the NL West, and Colangelo fired manager Buck Showalter, who had guided the building of the team since long before the first game was played.
Enter Brenly, the affable broadcaster who played and coached for the San Francisco Giants. Brenly's demeanor, combined with his toughness and riverboat gambler instincts in the dugout fit perfectly with the veteran-dominated roster.
The finishing touches included Mark Grace signing a two-year, $6 million contract, adding some much needed levity along with defense and steady hitting. Reggie Sanders signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal and resurrected his career. Schilling inked a three-year, $32 million contract extension.
With the books still bleeding red ink, Colangelo cut the operations budget by $10 million late last year, then asked and got permission from 10 of the team's top players to defer large portions of their salary.
The Diamondbacks didn't just buy an NL title, though.
Catcher Damian Miller was a second-round pick in the expansion draft. NLCS most valuable player Craig Counsell was signed to a minor league contract after he was cut by the Dodgers in spring training last year. Tony Womack was acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh.
A scout in Asia spotted 20-year-old sidearm reliever Byung-Hyun Kim. Erubiel Durazo was discovered in the Mexican League.
Then there is Luis Gonzalez, who came from Detroit in 1999 for Karim Garcia and $500,000 -- one of the most one-sided trades in recent baseball history.
"It is the perception that our approach was to put blank checks out there on the counter and let the players come by and pick them up," general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. said. "Do we have some expensive marquee free agents? Of course we do. But we also have players who had a lot of people had a chance to acquire, but for whatever reasons didn't.
"I think this team has been put together using just about every avenue."