Usually I start these articles off with a relatively lengthy introduction to set the stage for the season ahead, but I don’t think that’s necessary for the storied 1996 season. Let’s leave it at this: after an 18-year championship drought — a stretch that saw fans having to endure some of the worst teams in Yankees history and the heartbreak of both the 1994 strike and two crushing blown playoff series — one of the greatest dynasties of all-time, led by a bunch of baby-faced 20-somethings and complemented by a remarkable staff of veterans, was about to have its coming-out party.
Regular-season record: 92-70
Manager: Joe Torre
Top hitter by rWAR: Bernie Williams (4.0)
Top pitcher by rWAR: Andy Pettitte (5.6)
World Series result: Yankees defeat Atlanta Braves, 4-2
The Yankees had retooled after the 1995 ALDS loss under new GM Bob Watson and new skipper Joe Torre. Longtime captain Don Mattingly walked away from the game and the icon’s void was filled by one of the men who helped end his career, former Mariners first baseman Tino Martinez. Midseason acquisition David Cone was re-signed to anchor the pitching staff, catcher Joe Girardi replaced Mike Stanley, and a quartet of young stars were ready to step up: the near-prime Bernie Williams, top prospect Derek Jeter, promising southpaw Andy Pettitte, and then-unknown reliever Mariano Rivera.
Considering they won the World Series, the ‘96 Yankees got off to a fairly average start to the season. They posted a 13-10 record in April, with a run differential of just 11 runs (Martinez in particular looked feeble for most of the month). May was a little bit better, as they went 16-11 that month and increased their run differential to +23. The magic certainly seemed to begin bubbling up, as former Queens phenom Dwight Gooden — who hadn’t pitched at all in 1995 — tossed a stunning no-hitter against Seattle in just his seventh start outside of a Mets uniform:
By the end of May, the Yankees were leading the AL East, though by just a single game.
As soon as the calendar flipped over to June, though, things really started clicking for New York. Ripping off three wins in a row to start the month — and four in a row dating back to May — the Yankees would ride their hot offense to an 18-11 record. The Yankees then carried that success into July, as they started the month by winning nine out of ten games leading up to the All-Star break, including a five-game win streak in which they outscored the Red Sox and Brewers 27-9. All in all, the Yankees would finish the first half with a 52-33 record and a six-game lead in the AL East.
The Yankees made a splash at the trade deadline by acquiring Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder, but the second half saw its share of struggles. Despite a hot start after the All-Star break, the Yankees limped to a 40-37 second half record, including an August in which they went 13-17. To put into perspective just how bad August was for New York, all you have to do is look at their advantage in the AL East: At the start of play on August 1st, they had a 63-42 record and were 10 games up in the division. At the start of play on September 1st, they had a 76-60 record and were just four games ahead of a very competitive Orioles club.
The team rebounded in a huge way in September, though. In the final month of the season, New York went 16-11 and had a ridiculous +55 run differential for the month. Although their lead in the division was eventually cut to just 2.5 games with two weeks left in the season, the Yankees were able to rebound and claimed the AL East title by four games over the second-place Orioles.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Yankees had eight players with an OPS+ over 100 with a minimum of 200 at-bats. Martinez recovered from his slow start to hit 25 homers, Williams led the team with 29 dingers, Derek Jeter won AL Rookie of the Year, Paul O’Neill was a steady producer as always in right field, and Fielder combined with a resurgent Darryl Strawberry (picked up midseason from Indy ball) to provide serious second-half pop at DH.
As for the men on the mound, Pettitte broke out to lead the way with a 129 ERA+ in 222 innings, and his 21-6 record helped him to runner-up honors for the AL Cy Young Award. With the help of veteran Jimmy Key and an outstanding bullpen, the rest of the staff pitched well enough to keep the team afloat while Cone was shelved for most of the season with a life-threatening aneurysm. He returned in September, restoring a valued arm to the rotation as the team prepared for October.
The Yankees also happened to have two of the best relievers in the game anchoring that bullpen: veteran closer John Wetteland and the aforementioned Rivera, a 26-year-old converted starter pitching out of the bullpen on a full-time basis for the first time in his career. Mo had a 240 ERA+ and 130 strikeouts in 107.2 innings, amazing everyone around the game enough that he actually finished right behind Pettitte in Cy voting — a remarkable showing for a setup man.
This was the first year of what would turn into one of the most powerful dynasties of all-time, led by a 22-year-old rookie shortstop, 27-year-old centre fielder, and 24-year-old ace, and they were already this good.
The playoffs were more of the same for the Yankees. The ALDS started poorly, as behind Juan González, the Texas Rangers tagged Cone for six runs in a 6-2 victory, their first postseason victory in franchise history. The Yankees quickly shut the door on their postseason aspirations, however, winning Games 2, 3, and 4, en route to a 3-1 series victory. Of note here was Game 2, in which the Yankees tied the game in the bottom of the eighth and eventually won when Jeter scored from second base after an error was made on what was supposed to be a sacrifice bunt.
Next up for the Yankees were the Orioles, who had just knocked off Cleveland, the league’s best team, in the ALDS. After splitting Games 1 and 2, the Yankees won the next three games to take the ALCS, four games to one.
Despite a dramatic 11-inning result in Game 1 that featured a Williams walk-off, most of the attention was paid to Jeffrey Maier, a 12-year-old fan who reached over the wall in the bottom of the eighth inning and interfered with a fly ball off the bat of Derek Jeter. The flyball was (unjustly) ruled a home run and tied the game at eight.
Despite the controversy surrounding the series, the Yankees still did their part, winning every single game in Baltimore. A 6-4 victory in Game 5 meant that they were World Series bound for the first time since 1981. Even more meaningful for Torre, it was his first Fall Classic after 4,110 games between his playing and managerial careers.
The big dance, however, did not go the Yankees’ way at first. The returning champion Braves’ bats came out guns blazing to start the series, dropping a combined 16 runs on the Yankees in Games 1 and 2. Unfortunately for New York, the Hall of Fame tandem of John Smoltz and Greg Maddux were just as good as their team’s bats, throwing 14 innings of one-run ball.
Despite being down 0-2 and going on the road to Atlanta, the Yankees stunned the baseball world to take four straight games. In keeping with their trend of playing close games throughout the playoffs, the margins of victory for the Yankees during the World Series were three runs, two runs, one run, and one run respectively. The real drama came in Game 4, when Atlanta took a 6-0 lead into the sixth inning. The Yankees struck for three runs in the sixth and three runs in the eighth off the bat of Jim Leyritz to tie the game:
The bullpen preserved the tie, and the Yankees plated two in the top of the 10th to win the game.
After a 1-0 masterpiece by Pettitte in Game 5 to outduel Smoltz, the Yankees beat Maddux in Game 6. Girardi’s triple off his former batterymate made Yankee Stadium shake, but not as much as it did when third baseman Charlie Hayes caught a pop-up in foul territory to seal the team’s 3-2 victory.
(I highly recommend you watch a certain player-turned-broadcaster take quite the tumble around the :21 mark)
Just like that, the Yankees were crowned champions for the first time since 1978.
My favourite historical tidbit about the 1996 World Series is the fact that it featured a whopping eight Hall of Fame players (Jeter, Rivera, Wade Boggs, Tim Raines, Maddux, Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Chipper Jones), two Hall of Fame managers (Torre and Bobby Cox), and one Hall of Fame GM (John Schuerholz). Although they didn’t have the best records in baseball that season, it’s hard to think of a more impressive modern World Series matchup.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, 1996 was the start of one of the most magical stretches in the storied history of the New York Yankees. They were once again champions, and were about to embark on one of the most celebrated runs in professional sports history. And, perhaps most impressively, the Core
Four Five (justice for Bernie) hadn’t even fully arrived yet.