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Remembering the impact of the Yankees 1996 championship run

This weekend’s festivities provide a time to look back on the team that started it all

World Series

Prior to Saturday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays, the feelings of disappointment and questions about prospects will briefly fade. Fans will be treated to a welcome visit from the past, as the 1996 team celebrates its 20th anniversary.

The team that kickstarted the dynasty is set to be honored on Saturday afternoon. It has been two decades (time goes too fast) since the ‘96 Yankees captured the hearts of New Yorkers on their way to an improbable championship run, sparking a string of success that nobody could have possibly fathomed.

It was also roughly 20 years ago that I was introduced to the sport, and the team I would grow to love unconditionally. Being only six years old, I can’t say I have many memories of the ‘96 regular season. In fact, my earliest and clearest memory was watching Derek Jeter fire a low throw from shortstop, which Tino Martinez dug out of the ground to nab a diving Cal Ripken Jr at first base. That play clinched the AL pennant and sent the Yanks to their first World Series in 15 years.

It was the perfect way to be introduced to baseball. My dad made sure I watched the World Series against the defending champion Atlanta Braves, who were supposed to be the dynasty that the Bombers would eventually become.

Part of me wishes I was slightly older than I was at the time, just so I could comprehend the magnitude of what was happening, like my dad. He suffered through the dark days of the eighties and the early nineties, capped off by a crushing defeat in the 1995 ALDS, which led to the departure of fan favorite Don Mattingly and manager Buck Showalter.

Much of what I remember of the early stages of the ‘96 World Series was my dad telling my brothers and me that the Yanks were in rough shape. Indeed they were. It is hard to find many traces of hope after dropping the first two games of the series by a combined score of 16-1, with the Yankees offense being put to sleep by one of the best starting rotations in history.

In fact, it was more than that. After facing a 3-1 NLCS deficit to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Braves steamrolled their way to victory, and carried it over to the first two games of the World Series. After shutting out the Yankees in game two, they had outscored their opponents 48-2 in their past five games. They appeared unstoppable.

We all know the rest. David Cone, who suffered what some feared would be a career-ending aneurysm in his right shoulder earlier in the year, pitched a beauty in the most important game of his life as the Yankees fought their way back into the series. After falling behind 6-0 in game four, momentum seemed to have swung right back to Atlanta, never to be returned. That was until Jim Leyritz capped off one of the greatest comebacks in series history, tying the series at two games apiece.

Andy Pettitte out-dueled John Smoltz in game five, in what still is the greatest pitcher’s duel I have ever watched. Back in the Bronx, the Yankees got to Greg Maddux and unleashed mayhem in Yankee Stadium when Charlie Hayes settled under a Mark Lemke popup to clinch the team’s first title in 18 years.

If I could pick any game in Yankees history to attend, it would have been that clinching game six, where I could be a part of that third inning rally highlighted by Joe Girardi’s RBI triple and feel the concrete of the old Stadium shaking beneath my feet. I settled for watching at home, and after that game, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to play baseball. I wanted to feel what my new heroes were feeling as they piled on top of John Wetteland at the pitcher’s mound.

Obviously, I settled for the next best thing, to write about baseball. Still, 1996 remains the cornerstone of my childhood. Most families have home movies to watch and remember their childhood fondly. I have the 1996 World Series video.

As a side note, the 1996 video is a must watch for fans during that magical series. It captures the tone of the series so well, and I would have to say I have watched it with my brother hundreds of times. We wore out the VHS version until it finally was released on DVD.

What is there not to love about that ‘96 team? It remains the only time in my life I watched the Yankees when they were considered an underdog. They represented the team that would erase almost two decades of disappointment. The Braves recorded more hits, homers, and runs in the series. Still, the Yankees scrapped their way to their 23rd title, which seemed destined to belong in New York.

The cast was incredibly likable. Youngsters Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte made an instant first impression. Troubled former stars Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry made the most out of another chance they were given by George Steinbrenner. Manager Joe Torre finally had his ring after a long playing and coaching career. Second baseman Mariano Duncan’s energy and battle cry set the tone for the season.

“We play today, we win today. Das it.”

They did play, and they did win. However, it was so much more than that. The 1996 Yankees brought championship baseball back to the Bronx. They laid the groundwork for over a decade’s worth of success, and started baseball’s last dynasty.

As I watch from the stands on Saturday afternoon, watching my childhood heroes reminisce while classic footage from the ‘96 season plays on the Jumbotron, I will likely feel a strong sense of gratitude that I was introduced to baseball in such a memorable way, with such a memorable team. I will also look on with hope that perhaps this new group of prospects for the Yankees can grow into anything like the core of 1996, and the kids of this generation can experience the magic that I was able to experience.