The 1996 New York Yankees might be the most beloved team in its history; this title is quite an impressive feat considering how many World Series champions the franchise has produced since its very first in 1923. These Yankees ended the longest drought between championships in team history, an 18-year wait since the Ron Guidry-led Yankees won it all on October 17, 1978. Between '79 and '95, the Yankees endured disappointing season after disappointing season, bad trades, poor free agent signings, and 14 consecutive years without playoff baseball before the '95 Yankees returned to the playoffs. Under manager Buck Showalter, they took a 2-0 Division Series lead over the Seattle Mariners thanks to backup catcher Jim Leyritz's walk-off homer in Game 2, but they lost three in a row in the Kingdome to stunningly end the comeback season.
Despite the playoff berth, the off-season of '95-'96 turned out to be one of transition, as both Showalter and general manager Gene "Stick" Michael left their positions. Longtime captain Don Mattingly told the team to move on without him as he considered early retirement due to persistent back injuries, and slugging catcher Mike Stanley walked in free agency. Starters Jack McDowell and Sterling Hitchcock also were gone, and they started nearly 40% of the Yankees' games in '95. The Yankees had finally ended their playoff drought, but would they be heading toward another one with so many changes?
The answer was thankfully a definitive "no." Brooklyn-born Joe Torre took over as manager despite 14 mostly-losing seasons in his career as a skipper and proved to be a terrific choice by owner George Steinbrenner and new GM Bob Watson. Torre's easygoing and calm demeanor in the face of heavy criticism early on stabilized the team as they rallied around the laid back Torre after four years with the micromanaging Showalter. 21-year-old Derek Jeter got the job at shortstop (aided by another change due to incumbent Tony Fernandez's broken elbow), and he impressed everyone the game with a Rookie of the Year campaign. Rising stars Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte took big steps forward that year, and offseason acquisitions Tino Martinez, Joe Girardi, Mariano Duncan, and Tim Raines fortified a strong core that included veterans Paul O'Neill, Wade Boggs, David Cone, and Jimmy Key. The bullpen was exceptionally strong--the devastating duo of Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland basically ended the game after the sixth inning. Midseason moves to add "Big Daddy" (Cecil Fielder) and "Straw" (Darryl Strawberry) added power to the club as well. They won 92 games and their first AL East title since '81, then captured the pennant by defeating the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles in the playoffs on the road to the World Series.
That Yankee team had a great story behind it, but few expected them to put up much of a fight against the Atlanta Braves in the Fall Classic. he Braves were fresh off their first championship in Atlanta after a couple narrow misses at the title in '91 and '92. Led by the best starting pitching staff in baseball (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Denny Neagle), they romped to their fifth consecutive division title, swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series, and stormed back from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals to capture their fourth pennant of the decade. The Braves were already hailed as "The Team of the '90s," and a second consecutive title figured to be their coronation.
It sure looked like the Braves were well on their way to that goal when they dominated the Yankees in the first two games of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. They bombed Pettitte and reliever Brian Boehringer for 12 runs in the first game to win 12-1, the most lopsided World Series loss in Yankees history to that point, and Maddux threw eight shutout innings in a 4-0 victory over Key. The Fall Classic was heading down to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where the Braves had gone 7-2 in World Series games. The Yankees squeaked out a 5-2 win in Game 3 against Glavine with the help of six innings of one-run ball from Cone, who missed most of the season with a life-threatening shoulder aneurysm. A good portion of Yankee fans were simply happy that it meant they would not be swept.
Game 4 on October 23rd matched Neagle up with struggling starter Kenny Rogers, who had not fared well in his first two playoff starts. The Braves continued the trend by blasting the lefty for four runs in a little more than two innings, then tacked on two more runs against the bullpen to put the Yankees down 6-0 with four innings left. Unless the Yankees had a big rally in their bones, they would fall to a 3-1 series deficit and have to stave off elimination against Smoltz, the NL Cy Young Award winner. The outlook was bleak, especially since Neagle had shut the Yankees out for five innings.
Jeter led off the sixth with a foul fly ball toward Jermaine Dye in right field, but he could not catch it since umpire Tim Welke failed to get out of Dye's way. The rookie took advantage of this lucky break by blooping a single to start the frame. Williams walked, and Fielder drove them both in when the ball got by Dye. Third baseman Charlie Hayes, in the lineup for the slumping Boggs, came up and cut the score in half with yet another single. New pitcher Terrell Wade walked Strawberry to bring the tying run to the plate with no one out. Mike Bielecki bailed the Braves out with three straight strikeouts, whiffing Duncan, O'Neill, and Martinez. The lead was still intact, and the Yankees now had to put in a new catcher since they used O'Neill to pinch-hit for Girardi--Jim Leyritz.
Sidearmer Jeff Nelson kept the Braves off the board with two scoreless innings, but the game moved to the eighth with the Yankees still trailing by three. Braves manager Bobby Cox decided to make an early call to his closer Mark Wohlers, who closed out the Braves' championship in '95 and had yet to allow a run in the '96 playoffs. Wohlers could bring the heat with a triple-digit fastball--the Yankees were again in dire straits. They received some more luck when Hayes led off the inning with a swinging bunt that somehow stayed fair up the third base line. Strawberry reached base on a single to left, but Wohlers got Duncan to hit an apparent double play grounder to shortstop Rafael Belliard. Recently inserted for his defense, he was normally smooth with the glove. This time, however, he kicked it and the Braves could only get one out. The tying run still came to the plate in the form of Leyritz.
Leyritz was a self-described "dead-red fastball hitter," and was probably one of the few Yankees on the team that could catch up to Wohlers. He fouled a pitch straight back early in the at-bat, and afterwards, Wohlers shied away from his best pitch. Wohlers turned to the slider. On the sixth pitch, Leyritz started his swing early anticipating the fastball, but got a hanging slider. He crushed it deep to left field, and over the wall for a game-tying three-run home run. The raucous Braves crowd was stunned.
The game was not over though--it was only tied. Wohlers stayed in the game for the rest of the eighth, then pitched a scoreless ninth inning assisted by Dye. He gave up three two-out singles before Duncan sent a sinking line drive to right that Dye caught just before needing to dive. The inning was over and the crisis was averted. Rivera kept the Braves off the board in the eighth, but surprisingly ran into trouble in the ninth. With one out, second baseman Mark Lemke singled, and Rivera walked Chipper Jones on five pitches. Torre tabbed Australian lefty Graeme Lloyd to pitch to slugging first baseman Fred McGriff with the winning run in scoring position and one out. Undeterred, Lloyd induced a grounder to Jeter that allowed the Yankees to turn a crucial double play and send the game into extra innings.
Cox brought fifth starter Steve Avery in from the bullpen to pitch the tenth. Avery had once been considered as highly as Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, but injuries reduced his effectiveness and Cox chose to start Neagle over his '91 NLCS MVP in the playoffs. He was still no slouch though, and he got two groundouts from Leyritz and Lloyd. A two-out walk put Raines on as the go-ahead run. Jeter followed with grounder toward shortstop that was hit much too slowly to retire either of the quick runners. The Yankees had Avery just where they wanted him--a runner in scoring position with their ALCS MVP at the plate in Williams. Cox chose to not let the Yankees' hottest hitter beat him by ordering an intentional walk to load the bases. This controversial decision brought Boggs into the game as a pinch-hitter for Andy Fox, who had pinch-run for Fielder in the ninth inning. Boggs was Torre's last bench player, so the skipper was going for it here. Boggs took a few strikes before working the count full. The sixth pitch was out of the zone, and the Yankees took their first lead of the game, 7-6. The veteran's experienced eyes had not failed him.
After adding another run, Lloyd struck out the lefty-swinging Ryan Klesko to start the tenth. Torre then called on Wetteland to seal the deal. In typical Wetteland nerve-wracking fashion, he surrendered a single to Game 1 hero Andruw Jones. Dye fought Wetteland for seven pitches as the tying run, but he succumbed to a fly ball to Raines in left. Terry Pendleton was the Braves' last chance. Alas, he also flew out to Raines in left, and not even Raines falling while catching it could dampen the Yankees' triumphant comeback. Rather than a 3-1 deficit, the series was now a best-of-three.
Pettitte outdueled Smoltz 1-0 the next day to finish a shocking road sweep in Atlanta and send the series back to New York. The four-time defending Cy Young winner Maddux could not stop the Yankees' momentum in Game 6, and it was all over. The Yankees beat the Braves 3-2 to clinch the franchise's first title since '78 and 23rd in its history. They went on to win four of the next five titles (beating Atlanta again in '99 with a four-game sweep) to perhaps steal Atlanta's claim to the title of "Team of the '90s." Leyritz's game-tying homer has been credited with kickstarting that Yankees dynasty.
Is it really so surprising that so many people loved this team? It should not be.