Few pundits had expected the Yankees to make it back to the World Series as quickly as they did. Yet there they were before Game 1, with venerable Yankee Stadium hosting a Fall Classic for the first time in 15 years, the longest wait the Bronx had ever endured. It would have been a challenge securing the championship anyway, but the 1996 Yankees faced an incredibly dangerous foe.
The World Series opponent
The Atlanta Braves were unquestionably the team of the '90s up to that point. After failing to win a single playoff game during their first 25 years in Atlanta since moving from Milwaukee in 1966 and finishing dead last in 1990, the Braves had won four out of the previous five National League pennant. They fell to the Twins and Blue Jays in '91 and '92, but when baseball returned to action in '95, manager Bobby Cox and company finally conquered their playoff demons to beat the Indians in the World Series.
Everyone knew the primary reason behind the Braves' success. Three names said it all: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. These future Hall of Famers provided Atlanta with perhaps the most dominant rotation in baseball history, making difficult to beat them in a short series. Glavine took home Cy Young Award honors in '91, Maddux won a record four straight Cy Youngs from '92 through '95 (the first with the Cubs), and in '96, it was Smoltz's turn.
Sure, Smoltz had a 24-8 record on his side, but he also led the league in innings (253 2/3), strikeouts (276), and FIP (2.64). His fastball and splitter never crackled better than they did in '96, and with typically strong years from Maddux and Glavine, the Braves looked as dominant as ever. The offense was no walk in the park either, with five hitters surpass 20 homers: sophomore sensation Chipper Jones, first baseman Fred McGriff, former Expo Marquis Grissom, home run leader Ryan Klesko, and eventual '96 NLCS MVP Javy Lopez.
Take all those factors, add in a bullpen led by 100-strikeout flamethrower Mark Wohlers, and the Braves were an easy favorite to repeat as champions. They won 96 games to blow by the NL East and swept away the Dodgers in the Division Series. The Cardinals stunned them in the NLCS by jumping ahead 3-1 and putting Atlanta in a do-or-die situation, but the Braves responded with fury. They staved off elimination in St. Louis with a 14-0 blowout, rode Maddux to a 3-1 victory in Game 6, and completed the comeback with a 15-0 shellacking in Game 7.
All told, the Braves outscored the once-menacing Cardinals by a score of 32-1 in the final three games. It was going to be tough to take them down.
The star of the World Series opener was not any of the Braves' great pitchers, the All-Star hitters, or even the Yankees' own Cy Young candidate, Andy Pettitte. In fact, he was a teenager who made it into 31 games during the regular season for Atlanta: outfielder Andruw Jones.
The Curacao native and top prospect in baseball broke into Atlanta's lineup and got the start against the lefty Pettitte. In his first at-bat, he became the youngest player in World Series history to hit a home run when he lifted a two-run blast to left, giving Smoltz a 2-0 lead. An inning later, Pettitte was lifted from the game after four hits, a walk, and only one out recorded in the third; the 2 1/3 inning dud a Fall Classic debut to forget.
The Braves already led 5-0 and threatened for more as Brian Boehringer entered to relieve Pettitte. He got Jermaine Dye to fly out, bringing the 19-year-old Jones up for his second World Series at-bat. Boehringer was one strike from escaping when Jones lifted another long drive into left field, this time into the netting above the retired numbers. Forget the age--he was just the second player ever to homer in his first two World Series at-bats.
Andruw's three-run bomb made it 8-0 and just about wrapped up Game 1. The Yankees had a fine offense, but they weren't about to drop nine runs on Smoltz. The final score was even worse at 12-1, the most lopsided loss in Yankees World Series history up to that point.
Owner George Steinbrenner was fuming after the game and ranted about it to manager Joe Torre. In a story that Torre likes to tell, he said to the Boss "You know, we're a little rusty, and with Maddux going tomorrow, we might lose. But don't worry--Atlanta's my town. (Torre had played and managed 12 years there.) We're going to win all three there, then come back to New York and win it for you on Saturday."
Joe Torre makes money on the side as a prophet.
Desperate to quickly wash away the misery of Game 1, the Yankees quickly understood the pain of National League hitters. Revenge was hard to come by against the Braves' pitching staff, particularly when they had to deal with Maddux the very next day.
Jimmy Key had a better outing than Pettitte, though still not one for the scrapbooks. He managed to scatter 10 hits, two walks, and a hit by pitch, but all those baserunners led to four runs in six innings anyway. That was more than enough for Maddux, who shut down the Yankees and only put a few runners in scoring position. They could do nothing with his pitches, managing 18 mostly weak groundouts during his eight superb innings of work.
Wohlers entered in the ninth to secure the 4-0 victory. He struck out the side, pushing the Yankees down 0-2 in the series. Only one team in World Series history had ever overcome an 0-2 deficit with the first two losses at home, and with the Braves demolishing opponents so convincingly in their past five games, no one gave them much of a shot. Some players admitted that they just wanted to avoid a sweep. It really looked like the Yankees' championship aspirations would die in Atlanta.
The Yankees were rewarded for losing the first two games to Smoltz and Maddux with the opportunity to face Glavine, the 1995 World Series MVP. The lefty had dominated one of the most powerful offenses in baseball history, defeating Cleveland in Game 2 and then throwing a one-hit shutout over eight innings to clinch the title. The Yankees clearly had a tough task ahead.
They countered Glavine with David Cone, who fought his way back from a life-threatening aneurysm in his arm to return to major league action in September. He was part of the Blue Jays club that took down Atlanta in '92 and was determined to do it again. A leadoff walk by Derek Jeter, a bunt, an RBI single from Bernie Williams gave Cone an early lead, and he went to work, tossing five scoreless innings.
Some sloppy Braves defense gave the Yankees a second run in the fourth, a tiny bit of insurance that Cone appreciated come the sixth. That inning, Cone somewhat embarrassingly walked Glavine to begin it and allowed a single to Grissom. A failed pop-up bunt froze the runners, but then Chipper Jones walked to load the bases. There was activity in the bullpen, and Torre went to the mound for a conversation with his ace:
Torre: How are you?
Cone: I'm fine.
Torre: You know how important this game is. I have to know the truth. Don't bullshit me.
Cone: I can get out of this. I'm fine.
Torre made the decision to trust him. He knew that Cone was probably lying and indeed tiring, but he answered with such conviction that he took the chance, even with a tough hitters ahead in McGriff and Klesko. Both easily had the potential to not only tie the game with a single but also give the Braves the lead with an extra base hit.
Cone got McGriff to pop up for the second out but narrowly missed strike three on Klesko, walking in the Braves' first run. With his pitch count approaching 100, Torre still stuck with Cone against the power-hitting Lopez, and he rewarded his faith by getting the catcher to foul out. The Yankees survived the threat.
Two innings later, Bernie cracked a two-run homer off reliever Greg McMichael to effectively seal the deal. Graeme Lloyd bailed Mariano Rivera out of trouble in the eighth, and John Wetteland closed out the 5-2 win. There would be no sweep, and this series was far from over.
The fourth game of the 1996 World Series will long live in Yankees lore. For there to be an incredible comeback though, there had to be failure first.
Starter Kenny Rogers obliged. He hadn't pitched well all postseason, and Game 4 would be no different. McGriff walloped a long homer to center to lead off the second, Rogers walked two batters in a row, and an infield single scored a second run. Then Grissom smacked a two-run to put Atlanta up 4-0. A groundout ended the inning, but Chipper Jones and McGriff started the third with back-to-back singles, ending the night for Rogers.
A sacrifice fly made it 5-0, and in the fifth, an RBI double by Andruw Jones off David Weather gave Atlanta a six-run lead. Fourth starter Denny Neagle had held the Yankees scoreless through five innings. A 3-1 series deficit seemed inevitable.
There were still a few more innings to go though, and Jeter began the sixth with a bit of providence, as right field umpire Tim Welke failed to get out of the way of Dye chasing an easy fly ball in foul territory. His at-bat prolonged, Jeter singled and moved to second on a walk to Williams. Cecil Fielder cracked a single to right that got under Dye's glove and rolled to the wall, scoring a pair of runs. Fielder then scored himself on a Charlie Hayes single.
It was suddenly a 6-3 game, so Cox pulled Neagle for Terrell Wade, who compounded matters by walking Darryl Strawberry. The Yankees had the tying run up with no one out against new reliever Mike Bielecki. The hard-throwing righty brought the crowd back to life by striking out the next three hitters in order to stop the rally dead in its tracks.
After another quiet frame from Bielecki, Wohlers entered in the eighth for a two-inning save. Hayes found some luck by hitting a swinging bunt dribbler up the third base line for an infield single. Strawberry followed with a hit of his own to bring the tying run to the plate again. Mariano Duncan hit into a fielder's choice that could have been a double play had it not been for an ironic drop by defensive replacement Rafael Belliard at shortstop.
That set the stage for backup catcher Jim Leyritz, who had entered in the sixth after Torre pinch-hit for Joe Girardi. He was looking for a fastball from Wohlers, who avoided his best pitch and kept turning to the slider. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Leyritz made Wohlers pay:
"In the air to left field... back, at the track, at the wall... we are TIED!" - Joe Buck
The six-run rally was complete. Jeff Nelson's two scoreless innings against Atlanta now loomed large. The Yankees' overpowering bullpen now controlled the game. Rivera covered an inning and a third, and Lloyd again bailed Mo out of a jam when he induced a double play grounder in the bottom of the ninth.
The Yankees had blown a chance to take the lead in top of the ninth when Dye made a nice running catch on a bases-loaded line drive from Duncan. Former phenom Steve Avery relieved Wohlers in the 10th and got two groundouts before issuing a walk to Tim Raines. Jeter singled through the left side, and Cox made the decision to intentionally walk Williams.
The choice backfired when Torre pinch-hit Hall of Famer Wade Boggs for Andy Fox. A well-fought walk gave the Yankees a 7-6 lead. Klesko then lost a pop-up in the lights to make it 8-6. Lloyd and Wetteland blanked the Braves in the 10th to win it. The series was tied.
Game 5 of the 1996 World Series would be the final contest in the history of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. It had been the Braves's home since their first game in 1966 and was to be closed after 30 years as they planned to move to the new ballpark built for the '96 Olympics, Turner Field. (The incredibly bold bet here is that Turner Field does not close with a World Series game in 2016.)
The place once called "The Launching Pad" for its tendency toward homers did not see a single one in its last game. In fact, only one run scored at all. Smoltz and Pettitte were both on the top of their games. Baserunners were hard to come by, and the Pettitte who faced the Braves in Game 5 was virtually unrecognizable from the one who wilted in the opener. He had a good fastball that day and rode almost exclusively that pitch for 8 1/3 brilliant innings on three days' rest.
Smoltz fanned 10 Yankees in his eight innings and did not allow an earned run. Unfortunately for him, one unearned run did score in the fourth. Dye crossed Grissom's eyesight as he positioned himself to catch the Hayes fly ball in right-center, partially causing him to drop it. Hayes went to second and scored on a line drive double by Fielder down the left field line.
That was all the pitching staff would get from the offense, but Pettitte and Wetteland made the 1-0 margin stand. A phenomenal catch by a hobbled O'Neill finished off the win. Had it dropped, the two baserunners would have probably scored to give the Braves a 2-1 win and a series lead. As it stood, the Yankees had improbably swept all three games in Atlanta and gone 8-0 on the road in the '96 playoffs.
The Bronx was roaring as the possibility of the Yankees clinching their first championship in 18 years took over the minds of everyone at Yankee Stadium. They faced Maddux, but even he did not seem to be able to stop this scorching hot run of baseball.
His old Cubs catcher Girardi delivered the most exciting blow of the night when he launched an RBI triple against him in the third, putting the Yankees on the board. It was so loud in Yankee Stadium that the FOX TV booth began to shake. Jeter drove him home with a single, and a hit by Bernie scored Jeter for the third run of the inning.
Key fared much better than in Game 2, doing his job by allowing the Braves just one run on five hits in 5 1/3 innings. It was his last game in pinstripes after a successful four-year contract that spanned the Yankees' rise from under-.500 to playoff glory, the fans gave him a nice ovation. Weathers and Lloyd stranded the one baserunner he left.
Rivera was tremendous in his appearance, retiring six Braves in a row after an uncharacteristic walk to start the seventh. The bridge to Wetteland was secured, and the eventual World Series MVP entered in the ninth to finish off Atlanta. A mini-rally emerged, as the Braves scored and had the tying run in scoring position for Mark Lemke, a playoff menace despite his stature.
Wetteland got Lemke to pop up to the third base side. Hayes moved over for it... and just missed it as the ball bounced into the Braves dugout (there might have been interference, but there was no way the umpires were going to let that decide a Fall Classic). Thankfully, Wetteland induced a second pop-up from Lemke to the left side. This time, it stayed fair:
The Yankees were World Series champions and the 1996 team etched its place in baseball history. Years and more championships have passed by since that fateful night in October 20 years ago, but perhaps no Yankees team has ever been quite as loved as the '96 squad.
1998 set records.
1999 met the sky-high expectations.
2000 completed a three-peat.
2009 brought another return to glory.
Teams don't break 18-year droughts all the time though. For team as successful as the Yankees, it was an anomaly to wait that long. The 1996 team accomplished that goal with an incredibly likable squad, completing remarkable comebacks all the way to the finish line. Thanks for following along with us during the off-season commemorating the 20th anniversary of this unforgettable team.
May the 2016 Yankees celebrate with number 28.