Jose Vizcaino wins the first game of the 2000 Subway Series. - Bleeding Yankee Blue
October 21, 2000--An unlikely hero who was acquired midseason to fortify the bench saved the Yankees in Game 1 of the Subway Series.
The 2000 edition of the New York Yankees captured the last of manager Joe Torre's dynasty championships. They won the Yankees' fourth World Series title in five years and the 26th in franchise history, the last to be witnessed at Old Yankee Stadium. Unlike his champions of '96, '98, and '99 though, Torre's 2000 squad had many holes.
The Yankees spent most of the season fighting for the American League East with the rival Boston Red Sox and surprising Toronto Blue Jays. They fell out of the top slot a few times, and even when they did seize first place, they were unable they only had as much as a five-game lead twice during the season until September 1st. They then went 10-3 through the 13th to increase their lead to nine games with 18 left to play, seemingly a comfortable position. Shockingly, they played horribly for the rest of the season, a major-league worst 3-15. Fortunately for them, the lead was big enough to withstand this collapse and the Yankees won the AL East with a meager 87-74 record, three games worse than the playoff-missing Cleveland Indians and a .540 winning percentage that is still the lowest by the team since 1992.
One weakness of the 2000 Yankees was at second base, where Chuck Knoblauch deteriorated as a major league player. Knoblauch was acquired prior to the '98 season in a big trade with the Minnesota Twins, but although he posted decent offensive numbers, he did not seem to be the same player he was in Minnesota. He won a World Series and the AL Rookie of the Year Award in '91, then became a four-time All-Star and a '97 Gold Glove winner with 276 stolen bases and 35.7 fWAR in seven years. In New York however, he developed a weird tick in his throwing ability that transformed him from an elite fielder to a huge defensive liability. Knoblauch would get easy ground balls, then butcher the throw so badly that it ended up in the stands (one time hitting newscaster Keith Olbermann's mother). The cause of Knoblauch's fielding woes was baffling since he was not even in his mid-thirties; some traced it to the decline of his father's health from Alzheimer's disease since his father had been a valuable coach for him.
Regardless of why Knoblauch declined, Torre needed help at second base due to his struggles. The Yankees let bench player Luis Sojo sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the off-season, and they wanted someone more capable than Wilson Delgado and utilityman Clay Bellinger. Veteran Jim Leyritz was strangely re-signed for 2000 despite not really having a defensive position after finishing the '99 season back with the Yankees following stints with three other teams from 1997-99 (Leyritz considered his contract for 2000 a "million dollar reward" for a mostly-meaningless solo homer late in the last game of the '99 World Series). He was redundant and also not hitting well, so the Yankees dealt him to the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 20th for Vizcaino, a 32-year-old infielder in his 12th major league season. He was not much of a hitter considering his career batting line of .270/.318/.346 with a 76 wRC+ in nearly 6,000 plate appearances, but he survived in the majors mostly off the bench because he could play all around the infield.
Vizcaino split time with Knobaluch and started 38 games, often filling in as a defensive replacement for Knoblauch as well. He was okay, but nothing spectacular as he stayed around his career norms in 73 games with the Yankees (.276/.319/.333 with a 69 wRC+). The Yankees were not overly impressed, so they reacquired Sojo from the Pirates on August 7th, and he started the majority of games for the remainder of the season. Sojo stayed the primary starter the Yankees defeated the Oakland Athletics in the Division Series and the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS to win their third straight AL pennant. The Yankees would meet the crosstown rival New York Mets in the 2000 World Series, the first Subway Series in 44 years. For Game 1 on October 21st, the Yankees faced Al Leiter, a tough lefthander who was the Mets' most experience postseason pitcher. Torre decided to give Vizcaino his first start of the playoffs over Sojo against Leiter since he had hit .526/.571/.632 in 21 plate appearances against the southpaw.
The game was scoreless through five and a half innings as Leiter held the Yankees down and Andy Pettitte stranded the Mets' leadoff man in five consecutive innings. An infield single to shortstop by Vizcaino to lead off the sixth sparked a rally, even though he was retired at second base on a bad bunt by the Knoblauch, in the lineup as the DH. Derek Jeter followed with a walk, and Vizcaino's fellow midseason acquisition David Justice drove in two runs with a double to center field. The Mets countered with a rally of their own, loading the bases with one out against Pettitte for pinch-hitter Bubba Trammell, who tied the game with a two-run single. A bunt later, the Mets took the lead against reliever Jeff Nelson on an infield single to third that Edgardo Alfonzo beat out to score Todd Pratt.
The game stayed at 3-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, though the Mets missed a chance at a rare insurance run against Mariano Rivera in the top of the ninth. With one out, Rivera hit Pratt and gave up a surprising double down the right field line to shortstop Kurt Abbott. It was not far enough to score Pratt, but a slow grounder from Timo Perez to Vizcaino could have scored Pratt had he run on contact. Alfonzo struck out, and the Mets stranded a couple more baserunners. Beleaguered closer Armando Benitez came on in the ninth inning and put the Yankees down to their final two outs after getting Jorge Posada to fly out to center field.
Benitez then faced veteran right fielder Paul O'Neill, who gave Benitez a hell of a time on the mound. He threw gas, but O'Neill kept fouling the ball until he drew a walk on the 10th pitch of the at bat. Torre later said, "That was unbelievable. You talk about making up his mind that he was going to give him a tough time. It was a sensational at bat." Luis Polonia, another midseason addition, pinch-hit for third baseman Scott Brosius, and he singled the tying run into scoring position for Vizcaino. The former Met traded away in '96 also came through, notching his second hit of the day on a line drive to left field. It was hit too hard to score O'Neill, but the bases were loaded with one out for Knoblauch. He delivered with a fly ball to left that was deep enough to bring O'Neill home, and the game was tied. Jeter had a chance to win it with a single, but he struck out and the game went to extra innings.
The script had switched from earlier in the game--now the Mets were going down in order against the Yankee relievers while the Yankees failed to cash in on huge scoring opportunities. O'Neill grounded into a bases-loaded double play with one out to end the 10th, and Glenallen Hill flied out against reliever Turk Wendell with Vizcaino on third base in the 11th. The Yankees gave winning the game another try in the 12th inning when Tino Martinez singled and Posada doubled him to third. Wendell intentionally walked O'Neill to load the bases with one out for Sojo. He could not get it done, as he fouled out to Pratt behind the plate. That brought Vizcaino to the plate for the sixth time in the game. Again, he came through and brought Martinez home with a line drive single to left field, his fourth hit of the game and just the 14th four-hit game of his career. The crowd went crazy and the Yankees took the first game of the Subway Series, which they eventually captured in five games to complete baseball's first three-peat since the 1972-74 Athletics.
Vizcaino went 0-for-11 in the rest of the series, but it did not matter--he earned his first World Series ring of his career and played a vital role in the opener, cementing his name in Yankees history. He moved on from the Yankees after the season to the Houston Astros. Almost five years to the day of his Subway Series heroics, Vizcaino experienced some déjà vu when he surprised the Chicago White Sox with a game-tying single in the ninth inning of World Series Game 2. Even though the Astros lost the game and the series, it was a final moment of glory for a World Series hero. Vizcaino's career ended the next season with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, and even though he did not play in the postseason, he received another ring to supplement his 2000 championship. His performances should be an example of the importance of depth to playoff teams--sometimes it's the player who no one thinks about that wins the game.
Further sources: 2000 World Series DVD, MLB Productions.