Who were the first Arizona Diamondbacks to get a hit, score, homer and drive in a run? Fortunately you only have to remember one name. Travis Lee accomplished all those feats on March 31st, 1998 in the very first game played by Diamondbacks. On that day, the National League’s newest team lost to the Colorado Rockies 9-2 in front of a crowd of over 50,000.
Much to the chagrin of other MLB expansion teams, the Diamondbacks would win 99 games the following season in 1999 and then the World Series in 2001. They would win their third division title in 2002. Part of this early success was due to the leadership—and liberal spending—of owner Jerry Colangelo.
In the early 1990’s Colangelo, who at the time was also the majority owner of the Phoenix Suns, formed a group to bring baseball to Arizona. The state had a long tradition with baseball. It’s been a frequent spring training site for several Major League Baseball teams. Another factor that helped Phoenix was its size. The capital of Arizona is the fifth most populous city in the United States with over 1.5 million residents. In terms of land area it’s also one of the largest cities in America. On top of all that, Phoenix’s metro area, with over 4 million people, is the 12th largest in the country.
With strong support from Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and then-acting Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, Colangelo was so sure he’d be awarded a franchise that he held a contest to name the team before he had even been awarded a franchise.
The winning name, “Diamondbacks,” is a reference to a rattlesnake native to the Southwest and responsible for the second most snakebite fatalities in the country.
The league officially awarded Colangelo a franchise on March 9, 1995. It would begin play in 1998 season along with another new franchise, the Tampa Bay Rays. Colangelo’s franchise fee was $130 million.
The team’s home stadium was built in downtown Phoenix. It was originally called Bank One Ballpark which gave rise to one of the best stadium nicknames of all-time, “The BOB.” The stadium has since been renamed Chase Field. It cost $354 million to build and was the first stadium in America with a retractable roof. The roof isn’t there to protect the players from the rain, it’s there to protect the players from the sun. The average temperature in Phoenix in the summer is nearly 100 degrees.
Colangelo wanted his team in the National League from the very beginning. He argued that Phoenix was close to the other cities in the NL West, Arizonians often vacationed in San Diego, the San Francisco Giants had a farm team in Phoenix and many of the NL West teams broadcasted their games within the state. Baseball’s front office agreed.
Some in Phoenix didn’t appreciate the team being called Arizona, but Colangelo was set on building a regional team. He wanted to draw fans from all over the state as well as parts of Nevada.
The early success of the team, while planned, did come with a price. Colangelo felt that the team would prosper in the long-time if they could immediately field a winner. This approached was not used by the Rays. Colangelo’s plan called for spending big on big time free agents. This garnered his team a World Series title but within a couple of years, the D-backs had devolved into playing like an expansion team.
In 2004, the Arizona lost 111 games. With the team looking at $150 million in deferred compensation to key players, Colangelo was forced to resign as managing general partner.
Following the 2004 season the club hired Wally Backman as manager. Days later the club fired Backman after learning he had serious legal and financial problems including a DUI arrest and declaring bankruptcy. Bench coach Bob Melvin was hired to replace him.
In 2005, the team finished with 77 wins, 26 more than they had the year before. Despite being eight games under .500, the team finished second in the NL West.
The 2006 D-Backs saw little team success but the ace of their staff, Brandon Webb, won the Cy Young award. Webb had a 16-8 record with a 3.10 ERA.
With a slew of young players (so many the team was nicknamed “The Babybacks), Arizona returned to the playoffs in 2007. In the opening round they swept the Chicago Cubs but in the NLCS they fell to the streaking Colorado Rockies.
Regardless of the manager, the Diamondbacks have an odd tradition of allowing position players to pitch (usually in a blow outs). Five position players have pitched a total of five innings throughout the team’s history. Combined, these “position pitchers” have allowed one earned run, four walks, and one hit batsmen.
Luis Gonzalez holds several of the team’s hitting records as well as the mark for most games played as a Diamondback with 1,194. Gonzales currently holds club records for most hits, at bats, runs, doubles, home runs, RBI’s, walks and batting average. While a member of the D-backs, Gonzales made five All-Star teams.
Randy Johnson owns most of Arizona’s pitching records including ERA, wins, innings, strikeouts, complete games, and shutouts. During his time with the club, Johnson won four Cy Young Awards, led the National League in ERA three times and was World Series co-MVP. He shared the award with fellow Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling.
The Diamondbacks play in the West Division of the National League. They lack a true geographical and historical rival, although based on post season meetings and the fact that they are both recent expansion teams, the Colorado Rockies are the next best thing.
Otherwise, the D-backs have heated rivalries with the other members of the division, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants and the San Diego Padres.