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The 2011 Diamondbacks: A Love Letter

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Personally, I think 2011 was probably my favorite season of being a Diamondbacks fan. There have been plenty of ups and down since I became a hardcore devotee following the World Series victory of 2001, but I don't think I have enjoyed a season, on so many levels or to such an extent as the 2011 campaign. To misquote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "How do I love the Diamondbacks? Let me count the ways..."

I love the sheer unexpectedness of this year. In 2008 the team was generally expected to compete, but after the first month of the campaign, they faded away, and were overtaken by the Dodgers down the home-stretch. In 2009, again, we were hoping to be in the fight for the NL West, but lost Brandon Webb on Opening Day, Bob Melvin a few weeks later, and were ten games back by the middle of May. After consecutive seasons of failing to meet expectations, 2010 say hopes significantly reigned back, but we lost the manager, GM and were again double-digits back before the calendar reached June.

That's where we sat in spring 2011. We had a new General Manager in Kevin Towers, who clearly had a plan, but I kept reminding myself that turnarounds take time. The number which stuck in my mind, was that the biggest improvement of any team in 2010 came from the Padres, who increased their win tally by 15 games - if Arizona was able to repeat that in 2011 (and "if" was the word), they would still end up below .500. It just didn't seem plausible to think they could do more, and so I'd have been happy with anything out of last-place. At the risk of stating the obvious, surpassing hopes is a lot more fun that falling short of them.

I love - in a thoroughly appropriate way - Kirk Gibson. This is where I apologize, since I had doubts before the season. After all, in his first season, his record (34-49) was barely distinguishable from the man he replaced, A.J. Hinch (31-48). When word came out in spring that Gibson was banning cellphones from the clubhouse, it hardly seemed the most important thing for a team which had lost 95 games the year before. But as the year wore on, it was clear Gibson knew what he was doing, far better than I. It might not have played as well on some teams; here, however, it worked.

I love the apparent lack of egos in the Arizona clubhouse. I think Gibson both played into, and amplified it. Whether cause or effect, It's impossible to imagine anyone on the Diamondbacks playoff roster pulling Nyjer Morgan-like stunts or making egotastic commercials for Taco Bell like Brian Wilson [earning the public ire of at least one fellow major-leaguer]. The idea of Showtime doing a series on the 2011 Diamondbacks is basically inconceivable, because they just don't have the sort of "look at me" personalities which lend themselves to reality television - the first indication of that sort of thing, would likely get squashed by Gibson like a remote-controlled aircraft.

Instead, our post-season roster included the likes of Ryan Roberts, who spent a chunk of last year staying in the Reno Aces' clubhouse to save money, and Sean Burroughs, who reached the depths in 2010 of eating cheeseburgers out of garbage cans. That'll beat any sense of entitlement out, and leave you feeling grateful for every single moment in the major-leagues - I suspect that neither man will stand for any over-privileged antics from their team-mates either. If there's a bluer-collar locker-room or one where work ethic is more highly-valued. than the one at Chase Field, I'd be quite surprised.

I love attitudes which made it incredibly easy to root for these guys, from the top of the pyramid to the bottom. With one obvious exception - and I'm sure you know who I mean - even those whose performances fell short,  showed the right public attitude to whatever changes management deemed necessary, be that in role or location. I have a huge amount of respect for this; it's easy to be a good winner, but it's when life gives you lemons, that true character becomes discernible. I'm not expecting saints - disappointment is inevitable in these situations - but simply doing what's best for the team, without fuss, is perhaps more appreciated by fans than players realize.

Some, such as Willie Bloomquist, seem to thrive on harsh criticism, delighting in extending a major-league career his detractors say should have been stillborn. For instance, early in the season, Aaron Gleeman said [attacking another SnakePit sacred cow in passing!] that Willie was, "a poor man’s Jeff Francoeur... Wherever he goes the local media members do glowing features on him, the managers play him far too often, and he performs terribly." Ouch. But say what you like [and I doubt I'll ever be convinced Bloomquist should bat lead-off], Willie played a huge part in helping Arizona cover for the absence of Stephen Drew, then went 7-for-22 in the Division Series.

I love the Diamondbacks' fondness for late-inning heroics. We had 48 comeback wins, with only 28 blown leads - compare and contrast 2010, where the same mark was 34-43. Last year, we had only six wins where we were trailing after five frames; this year, we had twenty. Having experienced both sides of the final third, I can categorically state (again with the obvious!), that comeback wins are an awful lot better than blown leads. A solid bullpen and an offense that revels in producing the third time through the order, make for a very fan-friendly combination.

I love the accessibility of our players through resources like Twitter. As fans, we don't demand great eloquence or insight from players, but even the simple things provide a connection that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. For instrance,  I've never spoken to, say, Daniel Hudson, but knowing he's pumped for the upcoming Dark Knight movie, helps to make him infinitely more than a series of stats on the back of a baseball-card. But a memo to the players: we can tell the difference between when you're Tweeting, and when you're letting your agent, your wife or someone else do it for you!

I love an organization that seems to be as passionate about the team as the fans are. It was a shame that the crowds at Chase didn't quite match the performance on the field, despite a myriad of ticket offers available, that reduced the cost of attending some games to less than that of a movie (even a matinee!). If I wasn't working most evenings (and Mrs. SnakePit didn't get vertigo climbing the upper deck!), it's something of which I'd certainly have taken a lot more advantage. There was an indication of an uptick later in the year, so hopefully that will continue into 2012. It may make for its own issues e.g. parking, but the atmosphere of a packed house can't be beaten.

I love being the National League West champions. I don't think I've ever wanted the Diamondbacks to win the division as much as I did this year. In particular, I really wanted to beat the Giants, for a whole range of reasons, and they increased in number as the year went on. Brian Wilson's beard. Panda hats. Baby giraffes. The perfect storm and Moammar Al Gaddafi. Timmeh's hair. I could go on. That mission accomplished, there was a sense of let-down that we couldn't beat them all over again in the post-season, but it's just very fortunate my degree of investment in the D-backs coincided with their best regular-season record in almost a decade.

It's certainly been an excellent example, first-hand of sports-fan psychology. The team's success is something in which I had absolutely no actual significant role - but it feels like I did. Psychologists have named this "basking in reflected glory," and found that "more committed fans ride the same emotional roller coaster as the athletes," which would explain why it doesn't really seem to feel different from actual glory [not that glory is exactly something with which I'm familiar on an everyday basis![ But maybe i'm just a win junkie:

Researchers speculate that the act of gathering with a community of fans may activate the bonding hormone oxytocin. In the event of a win, the hypothalamus may chip in, too, with a feel-good dose of dopamine. "Evidence suggests that dopamine cells respond to a reward primarily when it occurs unpredictably, which is typical with sporting events," says [Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas]. "And because our brains want to repeat feelings of pleasure and euphoria, one win may produce a greater desire for the next."

I love being optimistic about the future. It's definitely been a while. Even after the 2007 season, I don't recall as much of a feeling that the team was on the rise, or the best yet to come [the three-year Byrnes extension was already looking questionable].  It seems much more so now, especially on the mound. In our last playoff season, 110 games were started by pitchers aged 28 or older; this year, the number was just 57. I'm truly excited to see what the likes of Trevor Bauer, Jarrod Parker and Tyler Skaggs can bring to the team in the next couple of years. Though who knows, maybe there's another Josh Collmenter down in the minors, lurking anonymously.

This optimism is what makes this winter different. By the end of the past couple of seasons, the sense has been "Thank God that's over." While we were still looking forward to the following year, it was more in vague hopes of a lower degree of suck, than genuine expectation, and I was happy to spend the winter attacking the unwatched movie pile. That's not the case now. The 2011 season has been finished for less than a week, and I'm already jonesing to see that marvelously self-deprecating invention of Miggy's, The Snake, wheeled out again.

For re-kindling my love of the game and turning it into a blazing inferno once more - that is why I love the 2011 Diamondbacks.