Not long after the Angels clinched the American League West division title to cap a wondrous 2009 season packed with dramatic triumph and turmoil, they listened to their hearts.
En masse, the team left the champagne-soaked home clubhouse and went back onto the field of play, jogging together until they reached the center-field wall where the image of their teammate, Nick Adenhart, has stood since the senseless death of the young pitcher and two of his friends April 9.
The Angels posed for photographs, pointing to Adenhart's uniform No. 34, poured bubbly over the picture of Adenhart's cap, and reveled in their baseball accomplishment with the memory of the friend and 22-year-old teammate they lost so early in the season and so early in Adenhart's life.
With poignancy, clarity and class, this one moment somehow managed to rise above the rest in the 162-game grind of 30 teams playing the 2009 season. It became a frozen snapshot of something that truly makes America's pastime special.
And there was a lot more to celebrate in 2009, all over the cities and ballparks of the big leagues.
The 2009 season also will be remembered for Derek Jeter's toppling of a once-Iron (Horse)-clad record, Ichiro Suzuki's singularly focused march toward history in Seattle and Randy Johnson's 300th Unit, a Giant win that all but etches his snarl into a Cooperstown bust.
When we think of 2009, we'll look back on the emergence of Zack Greinke's dominance and the power of Joe Mauer, the continuing coronation of Albert Pujols, and the new ballparks in the Big Apple and the opposite directions in which their inhabitants traveled.
We won't forget the difficult travails of Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz or Mark Buehrle's day of perfection.
But there was so much more in a unique, amazing season that won't soon be forgotten. Here are just a few of the main 2009 storylines, month by month:
It seems like much more than six months ago that Spring Training was in full swing, Japan won the World Baseball Classic, and it led up to the Major League beginning on Sunday, April 5, with the Atlanta Braves defeating the 2008 World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, 4-1. Soon enough, however, the month belonged to Greinke, the young Royals right-hander who overcame a debilitating anxiety disorder several years ago to carve up hitters in historic fashion. Greinke went 43 innings before finally allowing an earned run, leaving the first month with a 5-0 mark and an 0.50 ERA.
But four days later, the game was immersed in grief when Adenhart and his compatriots were killed mere hours after the rookie had fashioned a brilliant season debut against the Oakland A's. And four days after that, on April 13, baseball lost two more greats: longtime broadcaster Harry Kalas, the signature voice of the Phillies, passed away after collapsing in the press box at Nationals Park, and one of the the pastime's biggest characters and goodwill ambassadors was lost when former Tigers pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was killed in an accident at his home.
April had new beginnings in the form of sparkling new stadiums in New York: the new Yankee Stadium blew peoples' minds in the Bronx and Citi Field got Mets fans dreaming of future playoff possibilities. It was there, in Queens, that the Mets and their fans got to enjoy a very special Jackie Robinson Day celebration, and it was there that Gary Sheffield hit his 500th career home run in April. And across town, in the Bronx, 26 home runs in the opening homestand got the baseball world wondering what had gotten into the new House that Ruth Built.
Also in April, one pretty rare and one ridiculously rare feat happened on the field. Toward the end of the month, one of the game's most exciting yet rare plays took place, with Boston's speedy center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury, executing a perfect straight steal of home plate at Fenway Park against the Yankees as Andy Pettitte's slow-breaking curveball arrived just a bit too late. With the help of Jacoby the Sox swept the Yankees in 3 straight games to start 8-0 against them. Youkilis hit a bomb in the first game with the help of Bay to assure Sox Nation the season will be a good one. And on April 13, White Sox teammates Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye each hit the 300th homers of their career -- in back-to-back at-bats!
As Ellsbury jetted out of the picture, May arrived, colored in a bold shade of Dodger blue, with Los Angeles strutting its stuff on the longest home winning streak to begin a season in baseball history. They didn't lose at Chavez Ravine in April and kept it going to 13 straight home wins into May. The Bums got a major bummer when it was revealed on May 7 that Ramirez would be suspended 50 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance, but it didn't seem to matter as young sluggers Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp and gifted hurlers Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Jonathan Broxton continued to mature under Joe Torre's expert tutelage.
A day after Manny left the building for a while, A-Rod came back from right hip surgery and stepped back into the spotlight he created when he admitted in February that he took steroids while with the Texas Rangers in 2001-03. He started slowly but improved during the month as the Yankees served notice that they'd be a huge player in the American League East. Toronto, meanwhile, which led the East for the first six weeks of 2009, began to bow out of the race, which would lead to ace Roy Halladay being offered in trade talks a few months later.
Also in May, Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford tied the all-time record for stolen bases in a game with six, the season's longest hitting streak ended when Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's skein skidded at 30 games on May 12, but Twins catcher and two-time AL batting champion Mauer began zooming toward a third hitting title, returning from back problems and batting .414 for the month.
And at the very end of the month, the struggling Colorado Rockies dismissed manager Clint Hurdle, not only closing a chapter on a story that had seen the bright lights of the World Series less than two years earlier, but paving the way for bench coach Jim Tracy to step into the skipper's seat and engineer a startling comeback that would get the club back to the playoffs. Tracy would become the first manager in the history of baseball to take over a team that was 10 games under .500 (18-28 at Hurdle's dismissal) and lead the same team to a record of more than 20 games over .500.
There was plenty of gloom in June for the highly touted Mets, who already were reeling with devastating injuries to stars Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado and J.J. Putz. They'd add Carlos Beltran to that mix as their season quickly unraveled. But the Yankees and their gloves continued to excel, setting a Major League record by going errorless as a team for 18 straight games.
The rest of the first month of summer belonged to The Machine, a.k.a. Mr. Pujols, who crushed home runs and collected All-Star votes for the 80th Midsummer Classic at his house, Busch Stadium. Pujols became the fifth player to reach 30 homers before July 1 by blasting 14 in 97 at-bats in June, including four two-homer games, and not surprisingly, the Cardinals assumed first place in the National League Central and the fans gave him 5,397,374 All-Star votes, the second-highest total in history.
Other June highlights included Johnson's 300th victory in Washington, the First-Year Player Draft and its scintillating No. 1 pick from San Diego State, Stephen Strasburg, the start of Tracy's Rockies revival (beginning June 4, Colorado won 11 in a row and 17 of 18) and fantastic months for the Giants' Tim Lincecum (4-1, 1.48 ERA in six starts) and Seattle's Felix Hernandez (3-0 with an 0.94 ERA in five June starts).
More magic June moments ensued when Pudge passed Pudge when Ivan Rodriguez caught his Major League-best 2,228th game, passing the legend who shared his nickname, Carlton Fisk, and on June 28, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera tabbed the 500th save of his legendary career, getting it done in the ninth against the Subway Series rival Mets.
As July dawned, baseball was abuzz. And it wasn't just because the Red Sox and Yankees were back to their usual tradition of battling it out atop the AL East. No, it was literally abuzz when the Astros and Padres had to endure a 52-minute delay at PETCO Park because of bee infestation. A day later after weeks of Minor League rehab fanfare, Ramirez came back to his Mannywood stomping grounds, and on July 10, MLB got its first no-hitter of the year when Giants lefty Jonathan Sanchez blanked the Padres on 110 pitches, twirling the first San Francisco no-no in 33 years.
The Midsummer Classic and all its trimmings soon followed, with the Gateway City temporarily becoming Phat Albert's neighborhood. Pujols was feted night and day and exhausted himself with All-Star ambassadorship. It showed when he fell to Prince Fielder in the State Farm Home Run Derby, and it showed when he made an error in the All-Star Game, which was won, 4-3, by the AL, thanks to an Adam Jones sacrifice fly RBI and Most Valuable Player Crawford's homer-saving catch off the bat of Brad Hawpe. Even a guest appearance with clubhouse visits and a ceremonial first pitch by President Barack Obama couldn't get the NL a win, and the AL earned bragging rights and home-field advantage in the World Series.
As perfect as the All-Star Game was for the AL, though, it couldn't match true perfection, which was achieved for only the 19th time in big league history July 23 when Chicago's Mark Buehrle turned the trick -- his second career no-hitter -- against the Rays at U.S. Cellular Field. Perfect games don't happen without good defense, though, and Buehrle might have gotten the best play in perfect-game history when outfielder Dewayne Wise sprinted toward the wall, leaped, juggled and hauled in a would-be Gabe Kapler home run leading off the ninth inning. Buehrle would use the perfecto as part of his Major League record of retiring 45 straight batters over three games.
On July 27, Washington's Josh Willingham became only the 13th player in history to hit two grand slams in one game, and four days later, Boston's beloved Big Papi, David Ortiz, was revealed to have been on the 2003 list of players who had tested positive for performance-enhancers, but that spot of negativity didn't erase the excitement of the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, upon which deals were made, but not the Roy Halladay megadeal everyone expected. Instead, the Phillies opted for Cleveland lefty Cliff Lee while other familiar faces heading to new places included Jake Peavy, who was dealt from the Padres to the White Sox, Victor Martinez, who went from Cleveland to Boston, Scott Rolen, who was traded from Toronto to Cincinnati, Jarrod Washburn, who left Seattle for Detroit, and Orlando Cabrera, whom the A's sent to Minnesota.
Once into the dog days of August, the top teams were well on their way to postseason placement. The Yankees were back ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East, the Angels owned the West, and in the NL, the Phillies had assumed control of the East while the Cardinals held the Central and the Dodgers continued their West dominance, with the Rockies shaping up as a serious Wild Card contender.
More milestones were achieved, with Carlos Lee hitting his 300th career homer on Aug. 8, joining Dye, Konerko, Ortiz, Adam Dunn and his teammate, Lance Berkman, in reaching that lofty number. Two days later, Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero blasted career tater No. 400, joining Jason Giambi, who had accomplished the feat earlier in the year for Oakland. And on the same day, Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki hit for the cycle, becoming one of eight players to pull that trick in the 2009 season.
Six days later, Jeter broke a major record, passing Luis Aparicio for the most hits in baseball history by a shortstop. And on Aug. 23, Phillies reserve second baseman Eric Bruntlett made the play of a lifetime, turning a game-ending, unassisted triple play against the Mets at Citi Field. It was the 15th unassisted trifecta in Major League history and the first one that ended a game since 1927.
Just in case anyone thought teams were done dealing a month earlier, the days leading up to the Aug. 31 postseason roster deadline provided some late-season intrigue, with the Tigers acquiring slugger Aubrey Huff, Pudge Rodriguez going back home to Texas, the Dodgers landing Ronnie Belliard, Jon Garland and Jim Thome for their playoff push, the Red Sox trading for Billy Wagner and coercing Paul Byrd out of semi-retirement to join their October-bound staff, the Rockies landing Jose Contreras from the White Sox, and the Angels nabbing lefty starter Scott Kazmir from the Rays.
By the time September rolled around, the Yankees had a commanding lead over the Red Sox in the East and by far the best record in the game, taking advantage of big years from their offseason prizes, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira. Detroit was still comfortably ahead in the AL Central and the Angels were on their way to their third straight AL West title and fifth in the last six years. In the NL East, the Phillies were pulling away from Atlanta and Florida while the Cardinals continued to own the Central and the Dodgers were sitting pretty in the West.
But there was still history to be made, and it started Sept. 6 in Oakland, when Ichiro doubled in the first inning of the Mariners' loss to the A's for the 2,000th hit of his Major League career, putting him well above 3,000 when you factor in the nine years he played pro ball in Japan. Ichiro reached the plateau in 1,402 Major League games, which made him the second-fastest in history to achieve the number after Al Simmons did it in 1,390 games.
On Sept. 11, while the country remembered the horrors of the terrorist attacks on American soil eight years earlier, Jeter singled in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at a soggy Yankee Stadium to log the 2,722nd hit of his career, which broke the club record set 70 years earlier by Lou Gehrig. The fans gave their captain a three-minute ovation.
Two days later, Ichiro made the annals of the game again, singling in the second inning of a game against the Texas Rangers to notch at least 200 hits in a season for the ninth straight year, breaking Willie Keeler's 108-year-old mark of eight.
Three nights after that, baseball once again took a back seat to life, when the Tigers' 92-year-old broadcasting icon, Ernie Harwell, bade a heartfelt and powerful goodbye to his beloved team, city and game of baseball.
Scattered among the six months of Major League baseball were other great stories, too.
There were happy returns, such as Ken Griffey Jr. signing for one year in Seattle, the place where his career started, homering in his first game, and along with veteran Mike Sweeney, galvanizing a clubhouse behind first-year manager Don Wakamatsu to improve by 24 games from 2008, the biggest turnaround in the game.
In San Francisco, Barry Zito broke out of the slump that's dogged him since he signed for big bucks three years ago, mentoring a young staff that kept the team afloat in the pennant race until the last week of the regular season.
And in St. Louis, Chris Carpenter came back from injury to dominate the NL in such a fashion that he'll probably win the Cy Young Award if his teammate, Adam Wainwright, doesn't get it.
There were breakouts, with huge years at the plate in the NL from Mark Reynolds, who hit 44 home runs and broke his own big league record for strikeouts, the Giants' sweet-swinging Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval, do-it-all Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez, Jayson Werth of the Phillies, Ethier and Kemp.
And in the AL, the Texas Rangers won 87 games, surprising everyone with pitching to match their hitting, thanks to Scott Feldman, Neftali Feliz and others, and taking skipper Ron Washington off the hot seat and straight into the conversation for Manager of the Year. Aaron Hill and Adam Lind had huge offensive years for Toronto, David Price came into his own late for Tampa Bay, and sluggers Kendry Morales (Angels) and Michael Cuddyer (Twins), super-utility man Ben Zobrist (Tampa Bay) and closer David Aardsma (Mariners) seemingly came out of nowhere to post monster numbers.
All of this and the season isn't over yet, not even after 162 games.
After all the drama, including recent clinching parties for the Yankees and Red Sox, the doing-it-for-Adenhart Angels, plus the Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers and Rockies, the Major League season went to 163 games as the Twins beat the Tigers to clinch a spot against the Yankees.
It's only fitting, because great seasons like 2009 should never end.
Thanks to MLB.com