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2000s: The Decade in Sports
Posted: Wednesday December 9, 2009 11:30AM; Updated: Wednesday December 9, 2009 12:05PM

MLB: Highlights and lowlights

Story Highlights

The Yankees took good advantage of their financial strength during the 2000s

Albert Pujols had a decade of fine moments, but HR off Brad Lidge stands out

Randy Johnson's perfect game was the decade's best single-game performance

By Joe Posnanski,

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Derek Jeter and the Yankees reached the playoffs nine times in 10 years in the 2000s.
Tom Dahlin/SI
2000s: MLB
Posnanski: Highlights and lowlights
Posnanski: All-Decade team
Chen: 10 signature moments
Heyman: Trades, free agency and draft
POLL: Share your thoughts on the decade in MLB

PLAYER OF THE DECADE: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
Look at these numbers: .314 batting average, 40 doubles, 34 homers, 127 RBIs, 118 runs. Those numbers make up Pujols' worst season this decade. Pujols' story is already legend. He was a 13th-round pick of the Cardinals in 1999 ... meaning he was even passed over 17 times by his hometown Kansas City Royals. Eighteen months later, he began one of the great rookie seasons in baseball history (.329, 37 homers, 130 RBIs, 129 runs). He has found something to improve every season -- he cut down his strikeouts, he honed his home run swing, he improved his defense, he worked on his baserunning. In 2009 Pujols stole 16 bases, walked 115 times and hit 47 homers -- all career highs. It seems impossible, but he's getting better.

BEST MANAGER: Joe Torre, Yankees and Dodgers
He is the only manager to take his team to the playoffs every year this decade, and he did it with two different teams. After all his success in New York, he led the Dodgers to consecutive division titles. The Dodgers had won the division only once before in the decade. Torre's strengths seem to be his ability to balance egos and keep distractions out of the clubhouse. He did lose some of his postseason magic, though, ending up on the losing side of the great 2001 World Series, the 2003 World Series and the remarkable 2004 ALCS.

BEST GM: Theo Epstein, Red Sox
It was a decade in which the White Sox won their first World Series since 1917, the Angels won their first World Series and the Rays reached the World Series the year after finishing with the worst record in baseball. But the decade's big moment was the Red Sox -- after 80-plus years of angst and drama -- finally winning the World Series and then, just three years later, winning it again. Epstein was at the heart of things, blending various talents (including author Bill James and former Royals GM and scout Allard Baird), making bold moves when they felt right and hiring Terry Francona as manager.

Click here for Joe Posnanski's complete All-Decade team

It doesn't hurt to spend $50 or $60 million more than any other team, but this is the way the game is structured and the Yankees use their market, popularity and history better than any team in sports. They reached the playoffs nine out of 10 years, won four pennants and two World Series and got a $1.5 billion stadium built. It's one of the best decades in Yankees history, and that's saying something.

The Pirates had a losing record every year, which made them a strong candidate, but no team in baseball lost as much as the Royals. This actually looked like a promising decade for Kansas City baseball. The 2000 Royals had Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Mike Sweeney, four of the brightest young stars in the game. But three were traded away, Sweeney got hurt and the Royals fell into a deep sleep. The lowlight was a 19-game losing streak in 2005, and the lowlight of that was when they blew a five-run lead in the ninth when left fielder Chip Ambres dropped a fly ball.

This shocked me: The 2009 Yankees were the only team in the decade to win 100 regular-season games and the World Series. In fact, the last three teams to win 100 and the World Series are: 1. the 2009 Yankees; 2. the 1998 Yankees; and 3. the 1986 Mets. So you have to go back 25 years to find a team outside of New York that won 100 and a World Series -- that would be the 1984 Tigers.

Those Tigers, who scored the fewest runs in the league and allowed the second most, won five of their last six games to finish with 119 losses, one fewer than the famed expansion Mets. Here's a stat I love: The Tigers' top four starters were 6-17, 9-21, 6-19 and 1-12, respectively. And Franklyn German led the team in saves... with five.

BEST REGULAR-SEASON GAME: Twins-Tigers, Oct. 6, 2009
The beautiful thing about baseball is a great game doesn't necessarily have to be a well-played game. The Twins-Tigers tiebreaker to decide the AL Central had blunders, errors, pickoffs and all sorts of confusion. But it was loaded with drama. The Tigers had a lead going into the bottom of the 10th inning. The Twins tied it up and had a chance to win, but Alexi Casilla was thrown out at the plate by Ryan Raburn. The Tigers had the bases loaded in the 12th but could not score. The Twins scored in the bottom of the 12th to win 6-5. Sometimes sloppy, sometimes brilliant, always exciting -- that's baseball at its best.

BEST POSTSEASON GAME: Yankees-Diamondbacks, Game 7, 2001 World Series
This was a decade filled with memorable postseason games. There was Game 6 of the 2002 World Series when the Angels came back from a five-run deficit in the seventh and eighth innings, the big blow being Scott Spiezio's three-run homer. There was Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS when the Red Sox (down three games to none) scored the tying run in the ninth against Mariano Rivera and won in the 12th on David Ortiz's home run. There were Games 4 and 5 of this very 2001 World Series when the Yankees came back from two-run deficits in the ninth on back-to-back days against Byung-Hyun Kim. But Game 7 of that Series has it all. It has Derek Jeter winking at Curt Schilling to start off the game. It has Schilling and his hero Roger Clemens each pitching six shutout innings. It has the Diamondbacks taking the lead, the Yankees tying and then taking a lead of their own on Alfonso Soriano's home run. And finally, it has the Diamondbacks coming back against the seemingly invincible Rivera in the bottom of the ninth. This isn't just the best game of the decade; it's one of the best games ever played.

Click here for Cliff Corcoran's top 10 games of the decade

BIGGEST TRADE: Hanley Ramirez to Florida; Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston; Nov. 24, 2005
Beckett was a huge part of Boston's World Series title in 2007, when he won 20 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting. And Lowell (considered a salary dump by many) had a tremendous year in 2007, too, hitting .324 with 120 RBIs. Meanwhile, Ramirez in just four seasons has had two 50-stolen base years, led the league in runs and won a batting title. He's one of the best players in baseball.

Designated hitter David Ortiz proved to be a wise investment for the Red Sox.
Elsa/Getty Images

BEST FREE-AGENT SIGNING: David Ortiz, Red Sox; Jan. 22, 2003
There wasn't much fanfare about Ortiz before the 2003 season. The Twins had released him, and Ortiz was signed for about $1 million plus incentives. It turned out to be the best deal of the decade. Ortiz had five terrific years (.302/.402/.612 with 208 home runs), and his clutch hits played a big part in Boston winning two World Series.

WORST FREE-AGENT SIGNING: Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants; Dec. 28, 2006
It wasn't just the price -- seven years, $126 million -- but also the timing. By the time the Giants signed Zito to the richest pitching contract ever, Zito's career was clearly on the downswing. Scouts talked openly about how his stuff was declining, and anyway it had been three years since he had pitched like a No. 1 starter. The Giants signed him and, predictably, Zito's performance has been a huge disappointment. He is 31-43 with a 4.56 ERA since arriving in San Francisco. The real problem, though, is not what he's done... it's what is ahead. Zito turns 32 in May, and he has four years and $76 million left on his deal.

BIGGEST DRAFT STEAL: Ryan Howard, fifth-round pick by Phillies in 2001
Other great picks include Brandon Webb (8th round), Kevin Youkilis (8th), Dan Uggla (11th), Jason Kubel (12th), Jason Bartlett (13th), James Shields (16th), Russell Martin (17th), Ian Kinsler (17th) and Jason Bay (22nd). But Howard changed the entire landscape of Philadelphia baseball when he was drafted out of Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State). His rookie year -- when he hit 22 homers in 88 games -- he met the great Negro leagues player and manager Buck O'Neil. "I heard you have some power, son," Buck said. Howard nodded shyly, and Buck said: "Don't be ashamed of your power, son!" The next year, Howard hit 58 home runs.

BIGGEST DRAFT BUST: Matt Bush, No. 1 overall pick by Padres in 2004
Justin Verlander
was the second overall pick in the 2004 draft. Others to go in the first round: Jeff Niemann, Jered Weaver, Billy Butler, Stephen Drew and Huston Street -- and a little shortstop in the second round named Dustin Pedroia. When the Padres took Bush, a local shortstop with lesser demands, it was mocked immediately by the entire country. Then again, the Twins did more or less the same thing in 2001 when they took a local star, Joe Mauer. The Padres' pick did not work quite as well. Bush was suspended for getting into a fight before he ever stepped on the field. And his career has never really gotten better from there.

Click here for Jon Heyman's views on the decade in trades, free agency and the draft

The feeling around baseball is that the AL East, like Casablanca, is a place that has outlawed miracles. Teams might be able to get lucky in the AL Central or the NL West or something -- but the East, with the Yankees and the Red Sox spending money in their own cold war, precludes any other team from contending. Then in 2008, the Rays of all teams -- a club that was the worst in baseball one year earlier -- came out of the East and won 97 games and went to the World Series with a combination of speed, power, solid pitching and a powerful home-field advantage.

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