I remember it as if it happened yesterday. Unfortunately, it was 17 long years ago, but that’s what makes the game of baseball so very special to me. I remember the heartbreak of the season prior, watching my childhood idol Don Mattingly fall short of getting to that elusive World Series. He retired as arguably the greatest Yankees player never to see the Series.
Being in the U.S. Army at the time, I really only followed the Yankees in passing during the 1996 season. I was still upset that both general manager Gene “Stick” Michael and manager Buck Showalter were out, and that retread Joe Torre and Bob Watson were running the operation now. I felt like George Steinbrenner was once again meddling, and not allowing his baseball people to rebuild the franchise. I remember how upset I was over the ’94 Player’s Strike, which ended the season with the Yankees easily the best team in the American League.
If the team was on television, of course I would watch them. There were several new players in the fold I was unfamiliar with, including a rookie at shortstop named Derek Jeter. I wasn’t a Tino Martinez fan because he had replaced “Donnie Baseball”, and the Yankees just weren’t the Yankees without their captain. It took me a couple of months into the season before I was fully on board with the new version of the Bronx Bombers.
A friend of mine who I was serving with, was also a huge Yankees fan, and he was from Brooklyn. He was a fourth generation Yankees fan, and there was no other team in his family. They lived and breathed pinstripes. We joked during the summer of ’96, that if somehow the Yankees made it back to the World Series, we were going to go no matter what.
Of course the Yankees rolled into the playoffs, took care of both the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles to advance to the World Series. My friend, whose name was Mike, began making calls back home in an attempt to snag us World Series tickets. He failed, as tickets were unavailable since it was the first time the Yankees had seen the World Series since 1981. We were both bummed out. I suggested that perhaps we try and get tickets for when they were in Atlanta, and wouldn’t you know it, they were for sale. We bought tickets for Games #3, #4, and #5. Mike and I had leave scheduled whether we went to any of the games or not, so that was taken care of. We flew into Atlanta the night before Game #3, and were in complete awe of the fact we were going to the World Series.
I’ll fast-forward to keep the story shorter. We know that the Yankees made a dent in the Braves’ series lead with a Game #3 win, 5-2. It was Game #4 where my favorite in person Yankees memory took place. Kenny Rogers turned in a steaming turd as the starter, and lasted all of two innings before Torre gave him the hook. Three innings later, the Bombers were on the short end of the stick, facing a 6-0 deficit at the end of 5. Mike and I looked at each other in disbelief, and felt that perhaps the Game #3 victory was all we were going to see of Yankees glory, and were in pretty somber moods at the point. The Braves fans around us were razzing us pretty good, and what could we say? The Yankees looked lifeless, and as if they didn’t even want to be there.
During the top half of the sixth inning, the Yankees began to show signs of life. Braves outfielder Jermaine Dye had been prevented from fielding a routine fly ball in foul territory by the umpire that allowed the at-bat by rookie Jeter to continue. He reached base, and after an error and a single by “Big Daddy” Cecil Fielder, followed by another RBI single by third baseman Charlie Hayes, the Yankees had cut the deficit in half. Mike and I were ecstatic that the Yankees were back in the game, but of course the Braves fans kept reminding us about Mark Wohlers.
The next inning went scoreless for both sides, and going into the eighth inning, that is where the magic happened. When Braves’ manager Bobby Cox brought in Wohlers for a two-inning save, the Braves fans began singing “Nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah, hey hey hey, good-bye” over and over again. In their minds, this game and most likely the series was over. The Yankees had the weaker part of their lineup coming to the dish. Hayes hit a strange ball that some how, some way stayed fair inside the third base line, and he reached base safely. The “Strawman”, Darryl Strawberry recorded another hit. Yanks’ second baseman Mariano Duncan grounded into a fielder’s choice that should’ve been a routine double-play ball, but Braves shortstop Rafael Belliard bobbled it trying to get out of his glove, and all Atlanta could get was Strawberry at second, while Duncan was safe at first.
Next up was Jim Leyritz. I had always enjoyed Leyritz as a player, and remembered the big home run he hit the season before in the Divisional Series against the Seattle Mariners. Mike and I had our fingers, toes, and anything else we could cross, crossed. We knew that a bomb would tie the game, but we said nothing. We were frozen, holding out hope that a Yankees miracle was possible. I remember thinking at the time, that Wohlers threw so hard, and that Leyritz could handle heat if left out over the plate. Wohlers didn’t disappoint, firing a first-pitch fastball that the scoreboard said was 98 mph. Leyritz had fouled it off, and while Mike and I were in the nosebleeder section of the right field stands, we were sure that Leyritz was shocked. Wohlers was one of the best closers in baseball, and hadn’t given anyone a reason to believe he wouldn’t slam the door again here.
The next couple of pitches were breaking balls, sliders according to the enraged Braves’ fans around us. “Stick with the heat!” one man yelled. With the count 2-2, and tensions growing high, Wohlers committed the biggest mistake of his career: he hung an eye-level slider over the plate that dropped right into the middle of the strike zone. As cliche as it sounds, I swear on my children’s lives that Leyritz’s swing was in slow motion, and as soon as he made contact, I heard nothing. I watched…the ball slowly rose into the air, and just kept carrying. At first it looked like it would be a warning track shot and might be catchable. When I saw Andruw Jones begin climbing the left field wall, I knew it had the distance, and without a word, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium went dead silent. You could hear the Yankees’ bench erupt from the dugout, as Leyritz had not only tied the game, but did so by taking it to the best closer in the National League, and had swung the momentum completely in the favor of the Yankees.
You know how the rest of the story went. The Yankees took Game #4 by the score of 8-6, Pettitte’s gem over John Smoltz in Game #5, 1-0, and then back to the Bronx for the ultimate coronation. After 18 seasons, the Yankees were back on top of the baseball world, and thus began the dynasty that was the Joe Torre-era in the Bronx.
To be honest, I got goosebumps reliving that moment with you today. That is why I love the game of baseball, and more importantly, the Yankees. It doesn’t matter how old I get, I can think back to moments like that and become a young man or a little boy again. There have been so many great memories for me as a Yankees fan, both from afar and in person, but the Leyritz home run, and just the experience of attending my first World Series games are something I will cherish for the rest of my life, and hope that one day I can share in a similar memory with my own children. Thanks for taking the time to read about my experience, and I want to wish each of you a very safe and happy holiday season!
Co-Editor, Billy Brost