If the Arizona Diamondbacks had stayed in California any longer, state officials concerned about rolling blackouts might have begun using them as an auxiliary energy source. There was a surplus of electricity everywhere the Diamondbacks went during a five-day swing through the Golden State, beginning on July 18 when a bank of lights malfunctioned at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, spewing flames and smoke and causing the suspension of Arizona's game with the Padres. Then came electrifying pitching performances from aces Randy Johnson last Thursday against San Diego and Curt Schilling last Saturday at Pac Bell Park against the San Francisco Giants. They were followed on Sunday by a bench-clearing dustup between the Diamondbacks and the Giants that was more highly charged than most. "I might have preferred a little quieter week, but I'll take it," Arizona manager Bob Brenly said. "We're still headed in the right direction."
That's more than the Diamondbacks could say a year ago at this time, when they were very much like that bank of lights at Qualcomm: a high-voltage unit that wasn't wired quite right. Arizona, which had won the National League West in 1999 and held a 3�-game lead at the All-Star break last season, was plagued by clubhouse grumbling in the second half of 2000. The team short-circuited, going 34-40 and dropping to third place, 12 games behind division champion San Francisco.
This season the Diamondbacks reached the break with the same 3�-game lead, but after going 6-5 on a tough road trip that concluded with 9-2 and 12-4 thrashings of the Giants last weekend, they were 57-41 and appeared unlikely to repeat last year's nosedive. Arizona may not leave the rest of the division choking on its exhaust—the sizzling Los Angeles Dodgers had closed to within 1� games, while third-place San Francisco was 5� behind—but the Diamondbacks insist they won't shift into reverse, either. "If anybody's going to catch us, they're going to have to come get us," says lefthander Brian Anderson. "We're not going to make it easy for them this time."
Arizona clearly has the talent to hold off its pursuers. Lefthander Johnson (12-5, 2.70 ERA through Sunday) and righthander Schilling (14-4, 2.97) have been equally dominant. Leftfielder Luis Gonzalez is having a career year (.345, 38 homers, 94 RBIs) and may add an MVP award to the Home Run Derby tide he won during the All-Star Game festivities. First baseman Mark Grace, a lifetime .308 hitter who joined the Diamondbacks this season as a free agent after 13 years with the Chicago Cubs, has returned to form (.326) after sinking to .280 last year. The most significant difference from last season, though, is Brenly, the first-year manager whose light touch has been a welcome change from Buck Showalter's micromanaging.
By the time Showalter was fired one day after the end of last season, the stories of how he carried his attention to detail to absurd lengths—including his insistence that the A on the players' socks be completely visible—had been well circulated. These days Arizona players would sooner face a headhunter without a batting helmet than discuss the Showalter era, but they don't hesitate to praise Brenly for his managerial style. "He understands this is a situation that doesn't need overmanaging," says Schilling. "He allows us to relax and concern ourselves only with our performance, and we've made sure not to abuse the freedom he's given us. When it comes to our job, this is a very serious-minded club."
Still, the club is not so serious about anything else. With so many veterans-Gonzalez, Grace, Johnson, Schilling, centerfielder Steve Finley and third baseman Matt Williams all have at least 11 years in the majors—the Diamondbacks are wise in the ways of clubhouse pranks and needling. Flattering feature stories about any Arizona player will be read aloud by a teammate to the hoots and catcalls of the rest of the team. After Gonzalez won the Home Run Derby, a friend of his made up dozens of T-shirts that proclaimed Gonzo's championship. Without Gonzalez's knowledge a T-shirt was placed on each player's chair in the clubhouse. The more the exceedingly humble Gonzalez insisted he had nothing to do with the shirts, the more his teammates ragged on him for letting his success go to his head. "Do not screw up in any form or fashion, because you will never hear the end of it on this team," says Grace. "In fact, even if you do something right, you'll never hear the end of it."
With vets ruling the clubhouse, Brenly would have the public believe that the only thing he's done as manager is exercise common sense. "Whatever Johnson, Schilling, Gonzalez, Grace, Matty, Finley and most of these other guys have been doing for 10 or 12 years apparently works pretty well," he says. "They know how to prepare and how to carry themselves, and they set the tone for the younger guys. I don't have to police the clubhouse, because I have veterans who take care of that."
However, the engaging Brenly (who for the past three seasons was a TV analyst on the Diamondbacks' broadcast team and on Fox Sports) does more than fill out the lineup card and fill up reporters' notebooks. He was savvy enough to send the message to his players that they were under a new, less restrictive regime by calling a team meeting at the start of spring training, in Tucson, during which he dropped last year's team rule book to the floor, saying, "Those are the old rules." Then he pulled out a cocktail napkin, saying, "These are the new rules." One of them was a 1 a.m. curfew while in Tucson. "If any of you find anything to do after 1 a.m. in Tucson," he said, "call the coaches. We'll meet you."
That was the only team meeting the Diamondbacks had this season until Brenly called a second one last week to try to snap the club out of a hitting slump. Last Friday night his exhortations had no effect—in a 1-0 loss Arizona got only three hits off San Francisco righthander Livan Hernandez and three relievers. But on Saturday and Sunday the Diamondbacks banged a total of 25 hits, including six homers, among them a game-breaking seventh-inning grand slam by pinch hitter David Dellucci and a three-run shot in the eighth by Gonzalez on Saturday. "We'll be having team meetings every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from now on," Brenly joked after Sunday's game.
Brenly hasn't been infallible—after declaring during spring training that he would make sure to keep Johnson's and Schilling's arms strong for the stretch run, he inexplicably allowed Johnson to throw 146 pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies in May—but he has shown a remarkable ability to push the right buttons and a willingness to make moves that aren't popular with his stars. Against the Houston Astros on the Fourth of July, he pinch-hit for Johnson in the seventh even though the Big Unit had struck out 13 in his six innings. Pinch hitter Dellucci drilled a two-out RBI single that drove in what turned out to be the winning run in a 3-2 victory.