The 1996 Yankees remain perhaps the most beloved team in franchise history. In 2016, the team will celebrate the 20th anniversary of this likable group led by first-year skipper Joe Torre that won 92 games and ended an 18-year championship drought. It was the first World Series experienced by a generation of Yankees fans, and it launched a dynasty.
Every weekday until pitchers and catchers report to spring training on February 18th, a Pinstripe Alley writer will have a post up about the main members of the '96 Yankees. The series begins today in style with a Hall of Fame free agent acquisition who played so well that he was ranked among the site's Top 100 Yankees. Few players were as superstitious as third baseman Wade Boggs, but even fewer men rivaled his pure talent at the plate.
Boggs was already putting the finishing touches on his Hall of Fame career prior to the '96 season. He was under 500 hits away from the 3,000 Hit Club, and he had a lifetime batting line of .334/.424/.453, a staggeringly high average for a career. Originally a star with the rival Boston Red Sox, Boggs was one of the best hitters in the '80s, when he won five American League batting crowns, led the AL in OBP six times, and turned Fenway Park into his own pinball doubles machine. He was even named to the Springfield Nine before an argument over England's greatest prime minister ended up with him unconscious on the ballroom tile.
However, Boggs still had no World Series rings when he came to New York in 1993. The Tampa native came as close as a player could possibly get with the Red Sox one strike away from the championship in 1986, but that team, of course, infamously imploded. Although Boggs continued his excellence, after the first off-year of his career in 1992, he hit free agency and Boston let him walk. Yankees GM Gene Michael sought veteran leadership and a steady bat at third base, so he inked Boggs to a three-year, $11 million deal. It was a smashing success, as Boggs bounced back with some high-average seasons as the team snapped its playoff drought in 1995. The Yankees lost that Division Series to the Mariners, but it was through no fault of Boggs, who had an .890 OPS in the five-game set.
Results: 132 G, .311/.389/.389, 29 2B, 2 HR, 98 OPS+, 3.4 WAR (All-Star)
Re-signed to a two-year deal worth $4 million, new manager Torre counted on Boggs to be as steady as ever, given the numerous question marks on the diamond. The 38-year-old did end up with his 12th straight All-Star appearance, but that was more a result of the fans voting him in at third base. Boggs filled his role but was not quite as productive as years past. Whereas during his first three years in pinstripes, he hit .320/.404/.416, his numbers slipped a little closer to league average. To his chagrin, the Yankees even picked up Charlie Hayes from the Pirates in late August to help pick up Boggs's slack against lefties since he had a bad platoon split.
Fortunately, Boggs was still quite a useful player. He smashed righties with a .328 average and continued to put up terrific numbers at Yankee Stadium. While he did not win his third straight Gold Glove, he maintained his smooth work at the hot corner, showing surprising mobility for a player his age. He was a leader in the clubhouse and his batting approach was a master course for the team's younger hitters to observe. Boggs was nearly impossibly to strike out, finding ways to foul off pitch after pitch until he either found what he wanted or drew one of his 67 walks that year.
The playoffs were not especially kind to the veteran. Boggs doubled in his first at-bat in Game 1 of the Division Series and came around to score, but then inexplicably went 0-for-22 through the next two rounds. He couldn't snap the skid until a multi-hit game in Baltimore during the ALCS Game 5 clincher. Boggs did pick up three hits in the first two World Series games, but he was the only Yankee to drive in a run as the team dropped both by a combined score of 16-1. With southpaws Tom Glavine and Denny Neagle starting the next two games, Boggs took a seat on the bench.
Boggs still got to reach his pinnacle Yankee moment in Game 4. They had won the previous day and rallied from a 6-0 deficit to force extra innings on Jim Leyritz's three-run homer. The bases were loaded in the 10th with two outs and a tough lefty in Steve Avery on the mound. Torre countered with Boggs, the last threat on his bench to pinch-hit for infielder Andy Fox. What followed was a classic Boggs at-bat: he fell behind 0-2 but battled back to force a full count, and on the 3-2 pitch, Avery threw one high to walk Boggs, bringing the go-ahead run in from third base.
The Yankees won the game and a few days later wrapped up the championship, earning Boggs his coveted World Series ring. In an iconic image during the celebration, Boggs conquered a personal fear and circled the field with a policeman on horseback.
What did he do after?
After spending one more solid year with the Yankees platooning at third with Hayes and falling short of a repeat, Boggs went home. He was not retiring though; instead, he signed a two-year deal with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays to complete his march to 3,000 hits. That moment came on August 9, 1999, as he surprised fans at Tropicana Field by becoming the first player to homer for number 3,000 (his '96 teammate Derek Jeter followed suit 12 years later).
Boggs retired after the '99 season with 3,010 hits, 578 doubles, 91.1 WAR, and an impressive lifetime triple slash of .328/.415/.443 in 18 years. He was an easy first-ballot selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005 with 91.9% of the vote (yes, 42 BBWAA writers decided that Wade Boggs wasn't a Hall of Famer), and recently, the Red Sox finally announced that they would retire his number 26 at Fenway Park on May 26, 2016. His legacy may belong to a rival, but both Boggs and Yankees fans will fondly recall that his championship glory will forever be tied to the '96 champions.