Arizona Diamondbacks Manager Buck Showalter remembers the times last season when he would clear everyone out of his office, shut the door and wonder what in the world he'd gotten himself into. He was frustrated in April, tested in May and exhausted in June.
Then when the season finally ended, he did what all of baseball's best people usually do: He took a few days off and went back to work.
This time, he got it right. In their second season, the Diamondbacks (32-22) are a first-place team fulfilling the franchise's promise to be unlike any other expansion team in history. And they're not just winning, they're winning with style. They've got the best home record in the game at 17-5. They're leading the National League in runs, home runs and batting average. They're third in stolen bases and fourth in earned run average. Third baseman Matt Williams, center fielder Steve Finley and second baseman Jay Bell are among the National League leaders in a slew of offensive categories and left fielder Luis Gonzalez is the top hitter at .396.
Oh yes, the Diamondbacks also have baseball's most intimidating pitcher in Randy Johnson and one of the most coveted pitching prospects in 20-year-old Byung-Hyun Kim.
Remember David Dellucci? Once one of the stars of the Baltimore minor league system, he was left unprotected in the 1997 expansion draft and is hitting .400 in a part-time role.
"You've got to get three hits a night here just to fit in," he said after Wednesday's 15-2 victory over Montreal.
The Diamondbacks enter a weekend series with the Texas Rangers with the second-best record in the National League and a three-game lead over San Francisco in the NL West. If the Diamondbacks end up in the playoffs, they will have gotten there faster than any expansion team ever.
"I trust this team," Showalter said. "I guess that's the best way to say it. I don't worry about whether or not they're going to play hard or give me an honest effort. They will."
Look at them from one angle, the Diamondbacks can play with anyone. They hit with power, they've got speed and they're a wonderful blend of youth and experience. But like almost every other team, they also have some weaknesses. If right-hander Todd Stottlemyre misses the rest of the season with a torn rotator cuff, their starting rotation is not particularly strong, and their defense has been mediocre at times.
But first place is still first place, even in June.
This is how the front office planned it. Even before the Diamondbacks ever played a game, they spent two years putting everything together, taking care of details ranging from their spring training clubhouse design to an organizational guide outlining how to defend against bunts and line up for cutoff throws from the outfield. They unashamedly told the world they were going to build smartly and spend freely, that character would matter, and in the end, they would would be a fast winner and a model organization.
Then came last season, when they lost 31 of their first 39 games and were the butt of jokes throughout the game.
Who's laughing now? One year after losing 97 games, the Diamondbacks are pretty much what they said they were going to be.
Cynics point out they're good only because they have money to spend. Their $66 million payroll is baseball's sixth highest and almost double that of baseball's other second-year franchise, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They did rush themselves into contention with several free agent signings, including five players who got more than $118 million last winter.
But a high payroll doesn't always translate into victories. Ask the Baltimore Orioles.
The Diamondbacks did it differently. When they signed Bell and Williams to contracts totaling $94 million before their first season, they were convinced they'd gotten two guys who would be productive and set an example. They did.
"I don't know where we would have been without those guys," Showalter said. "They set a tone last September that carried over into this season."
Last winter, the Diamondbacks jumped back into the free agent waters by signing six players. They solidified their starting pitching by giving Johnson $53 million over four years and Stottlemyre $32 million over four years. They strengthened their bullpen by signing reliever Armando Reynoso for $5.5 million over two years and Greg Swindell for $5.7 million over three years.
Focusing on money blurs the bigger picture. Jerry Colangelo is perhaps the best owner in sports, and assistant general manager Sandy Johnson is one of the game's best talent scouts. Showalter long ago established himself as one of the best managers. And a clubhouse with Finley, Gonzalez, Williams and Bell gives the Diamondbacks a degree of toughness and professionalism any organization would love to have.
The Diamondbacks saw it this spring when several players showed up before their scheduled reporting date and began to work out. One team executive remembers walking into the clubhouse late one afternoon and seeing a large group of players sitting together talking baseball.
"It was a good old-fashioned bull session," said public relations director Mike Swanson, a veteran of three big league teams. "I don't know the last time I'd seen a bull session in a clubhouse. It made you feel good."
Reliever Gregg Olson called a session of the team's Kangaroo Court before Tuesday's loss to the Expos. In a half-hour session of laughing and camaraderie, first baseman Travis Lee was fined for carrying his own luggage, the charge being that he's too cheap to tip a bellman. Dellucci was flagged for excessive yapping to reporters. And Johnson was tagged for failing to back up home plate on a throw from the outfield.
It's easy to make too much of a team that's hot and feeling good about itself. As Showalter asked: "Which comes first -- winning or good chemistry in the clubhouse?"
Last weekend when Kim was warming up and about to make his major league debut, Williams noticed that Mets Manager Bobby Valentine was attempting to stare down the young pitcher. Williams walked across the diamond and blocked Valentine's view.
At that very moment a few hundred miles away, Sandy Johnson had taken a group of his scouts out for lunch. When they watched Kim begin his warmup pitches, they interrupted their lunches and applauded themselves. At the moment, a lot of other people also are applauding the Diamondbacks.