Once upon a time, the New York Yankees simply making the playoffs was not regarded by fans as a mere formality. In fact, from 1982-1993, the Yankees were one of just four teams out of the 26 in baseball to fail their goal of October baseball in every season. Had it not been for the addition of the Wild Card in '95, they would been joined by only the Montreal Expos in continual regular season failure (not counting the '93 expansion teams).
'96 was a special season in the Bronx, though. They recovered from a devastating ALDS loss in '95 and the subsequent ousting of their popular manager/GM team of Buck Showalter and Gene Michael to record one of the most memorable seasons in their history. Their story has been well-documented over the years, and the catch below was a tremendous highlight--the end to an unthinkable road sweep in Atlanta during the World Series.
After riding the momentum of their first division title in 15 years to the American League pennant, the Yankees were, for once, the underdogs against the defending champion Atlanta Braves. Thanks to their unparalleled pitching staff led by Cy Young winners Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, the Braves were heavy favorites to repeat. It seemed inevitable when they won the first two games of the Fall Classic in New York, humiliating the Yanks by a combined score of 16-1. Aneurysm survivor David Cone outdueled Glavine in Game 3 to avoid a sweep, and the Yankees shocked the South with a rally from down 6-0 in the sixth to tie the series in Game 4. Although they regained momentum, the Game 5 matchup was exactly the same as the 12-1 Game 1 blowout: Smoltz vs. Andy Pettitte.
The 24-year-old southpaw from Louisiana was previously pounded by Atlanta, but he was on his game this time around. Pettitte had a great fastball that day, and he used it to shut the powerful Braves offense led by Fred McGriff and Chipper Jones out on four hits through eight innings. Smoltz was just as tough, also allowing zero earned runs on four hits through eight. However, the Yanks did tally an unearned run in the fourth when third baseman Charlie Hayes reached on a muffed fly to centerfield and DH Cecil Fielder doubled him home. It was not much of a lead, but it was a lead nonetheless that Pettitte carried into the ninth.
Chipper led off with a double down the line in left, immediately putting the tying run in scoring position and the winning run at the plate. A few batters and a pitching change later, the game came down to closer John Wetteland against a former teammate, Luis Polonia. Wetteland quickly got him to an 0-2 count, but Polonia had only struck out six times in 41 plate appearances with the Braves. He fought off four two-strike pitches, then made good contact on the seventh pitch, sending a line drive to the left of right fielder Paul O'Neill. Normally, O'Neill would likely have tracked it down without much fanfare, but he was hobbled by a pulled hamstring that had plagued him throughout the playoffs. Nonetheless, he ended the game with this terrific catch:
The Yankees completed their road sweep of Atlanta, and one game later, they wrapped up their first title in 18 years. Thank you, Paulie.