1996 World Series
The 1996 season witnessed what would eventually become the fourth installment of the New York Yankees dynasty. To date, the Bronx Bombers had already dominated three separate decades en route to thirty-three Fall Classics and twenty-two World Championship titles. This year's Yankees dominated the American League throughout the entire regular season on the arms of one of baseball's top pitching staffs that featured Andy Pettitte, David Cone and the league's best closer in John Wetteland. New York's newest skipper Joe Torre had also risen to a "folk-hero-like" status after returning the franchise to the Fall Classic after succeeding Buck Showalter who had repeatedly fell short. A true "hometown hero", Torre had grown up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and made his name as an All-Star catcher and infielder for both the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves. Both his experience and demeanor made him a natural for managing, and he was a good one, for the Mets, Braves and Cardinals. After being fired three times, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner offered him the job despite critical response from his colleagues. The daring decision would prove as one of Steinbrenner's best as Torre would later go on to become one of the most successful managers in baseball history.
The defending World Champion Atlanta Braves also boasted an equally dangerous rotation with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Denny Neagle and John Smoltz (some of who had controlled the previous Series with a combined 2.67 ERA). In capturing their fifth straight divisional crown, the Braves set a Major League record with five consecutive first-place seasons. Their pitching staff recorded several major league marks including most strikeouts (1,245) and fewest walks (451) and the '96 team also set several franchise records including most home wins (56), best team batting average (.270), third all-time in homeruns (197).
Despite the rich postseason history of New York victories, Atlanta still remained the heavy favorite. Later, the "upset" caused by the Yankee underdogs would lead to the uncovering of a major gambling scandal at Boston College after the University's athletes were forced to "go public" after being unable to pay off their wagers to illegal bookies.
Game 1 recalled the '95 opener with an astonishing ten separate pitchers making appearances on the mound with Smoltz and Pettitte starting. Fred McGriff mirrored his last debut as well with a homer and teammate Andruw Jones followed as the youngest player (nineteen) in World Series history to hit a home run. One inning later, he became only the second player in World Series history to hit a second homer (in his first two at bats) and Atlanta and its newest sensation sent the Yanks packing with a 12-1 massacre. The opening loss was especially devastating to Pettitte who was christened "Sigh Young" in the New York papers the following day.
The Braves continued their momentum in Game 2 as Maddux and company held New York to seven meaningless hits for a 4-0 win that put the National League champs up two-games-to-none. Despite their efforts, the injury plagued Yankees were falling fast and a sweep appeared on the horizon. David Cone set out to right the sinking ship for New York in the third outing and combined with relievers Rivera (the 95-mph set-up man), Graeme Lloyd and John Wetteland to deal Glavine his first loss with a clutch, 5-2 Game 3, decision.
Game 4 clearly belonged to the hitters and topped the opener with thirteen different arms taking the mound. Surprisingly, neither rotation performed well as both were battered for a combined twenty-one hits. Things clearly appeared to be in Atlanta's favor until Jim Leyritz stepped up to the plate and ignited a new era in New York Yankee baseball. Amazingly Leyritz, was sure that he wasn't going to play and spent much of the game working out in the weight room as the Braves built a 6-0 lead through five innings. A startled Leyritz finally entered the game as a defensive replacement for Joe Girardi in the sixth inning after New York had cut the deficit to 6-3. Despite surrendering eight homers during the regular season, closer Mark Wohlers was given the call in the eighth by Bobby Cox to finish the job for the Braves. After two runners reached base, Leyritz stepped into the box and worked the count to 2-2, fouling off two blistering fastballs in the process. The next swing sent a hanging slider over the wall for a 3 run homer and a Series-tying triumph. Most baseball analysts believe that single at-bat was the turning point of the Series while many Yankee fans believe it was the turning point of the franchise.
Now squared at two-games apiece, the Braves had blown a two game advantage and were winless in two consecutive meetings. Things didn't get any better the following day as the Yankees dealt a bitter 1-0 loss to the home team (in the last ballgame ever to be played at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium) and Pettitte finally had his revenge after shutting out the Braves with a five hit effort over Smoltz.
As the Series returned to "The House that Ruth Built", Atlanta had gone from two-up to down-one and were now on the brink of elimination. Maddux was the Braves' obvious choice in Game 6 but the future Hall Of Famer fell short after surrendering three early runs in a single inning. With the Braves still trailing 3-1, Gold Glove center fielder Marquis Grissom reached first on a one-out hit and broke for second when a pitch to Mark Lemke bounced a few feet away from Yankees catcher Joe Girardi. Television replays clearly showed Grissom beat the throw, but umpire Terry Tata called him out. Grissom understandably reacted in anger, coming close to bumping Tata before two Atlanta coaches pulled him away and an equally upset manager ran onto the field to continue the argument. Still screaming on his way back to the dugout, Cox was ejected by third-base umpire Tim Welke.
Despite the controversy and loss of their skipper, Atlanta managed to rally in the fourth when the Braves had their best chance to get back in the game. DH Terry Pendleton came to the plate with the bases loaded, one out and a run already in. He managed to work the count to 3-1 against Jimmy Key, and then hit a three-hopper right to Derek Jeter for an easy double play. That would be all the Braves could muster as the Yankees went on to win the game (and the Series) with a 3-2 victory.
The performances by both teams on the mound (throughout the contest) as well as the repeated one run differentials reinforced the modern theory that pitching had finally overpowered hitting as the deciding factor in World Series baseball. Over the years, hitters had become bigger, stronger and faster, but the pitchers that faced them had also evolved into an elite athlete capable of throwing 90+mph fastballs and a variety of specialty pitches with the precision of a surgeon. The New York Yankees had assembled a roster that fit both categories and they would continue to dominate the Fall Classic four out the next five years. The disappointing Atlanta Braves would also continue to dominate Divisional titles (but unfortunately, not much more).