1996: The One That Started It All

(The story was originally published in Gotham Baseball Magazine)

Was it really 10 years ago?

That question has been asked by many a Yankee fan this season – especially after New York was unceremoniously dumped by the Detroit Tigers in first round of the postseason in October.

So, a look back at a happier memory seems apprpropriate, as the 2006 season marked the 10th anniversary of the 1996 team, a group that won the franchise’s first World Championship since the 1978 season.

Perhaps when the team you root for qualifies for the post season year after year, it feels like a natural occurrence. Things weren’t always that way, as the Yankees from 1979 to 1993 only made the postseason once over that entire span (1981).

However, since the Buck Showalter-led Yankees won the 1995 American League Wild Card, the Pinstripers have been perennial postseason party-goers.

The playoff streak, currently at 12 years, could have started a year earlier, as the Yankees were in first place when the 1994 player’s strike wiped out the postseason and World Series.

Nevertheless, the 1995 team was superb in its own right, despite losing the ALDS to the Seattle Mariners. Following that loss, however, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner shocked baseball by firing Showalter and hiring ex-Met, Braves and Cardinals skipper Joe Torre to replace him in the offseason.

What seemed like a questionable decision at the time – tabloids blared headlines like “CLUELESS JOE” — looks brilliant in retrospect.

Another big change on that club was Tino Martinez, acquired to replace the retiring Don Mattingly at first base. This team was loaded with players like Martinez, who avoided the Bronx Zoo escapades of Yankee teams past and established the team’s dignified professionalism that exists to this day.

Another change came in the middle infield, a group that was uncertain in Spring Training until an injury to Tony Fernandez. The vacancy at the shortstop spot was offered to a young rookie named Derek Jeter. While at second base, a mix of players young and old (headed by steady offensive veteran Mariano Duncan) played well enough to make the double-play combo a strength.

Holdovers from Showalter’s teams also shined in 1996.

Wade Boggs, cast aside by the Red Sox after the 1992 season, responded by making the All-Star team in all but one of his five years in pinstripes. In 1996, he remained a key contributor while sharing duties at third base with Charlie Hayes.

Though intially not pleased with the decision (nobody’s perfect) Boggs platoon with Hayes was a solid combination of solid gloves, work ethic, leadership, and hunger to win a championship.

Another twist of irony came when Sierra was dealt to the Tigers for Fielder that June. Clearly not happy in his first stint in pinstripes, complaining that “All they care about in New York (is) winning).”, he would later became one of Joe Torre’s “guys” when he returned to the team a few years later. While Sierra contributed early, his mid-season replacements Cecil Fielder and Darryl Strawberry combined for 24 HRs and 73 RBIs.

The outfield, led by Bernie Williams in center and Paul O’Neill in right, was a real strength; as those two everyday, all-around pros were assisted by the LF mix of Gerald Williams and Tim Raines, a fine mix of speed and veteran moxie.

In September, the Yankees captured their first division crown since 1981 with a 92-77 record, four games better than the Wild Card Baltimore Orioles.

In the ALDS, the Yankees defeated the AL West champion Texas Rangers three games to one, as Bernie Williams (.467 BA, 3 HRs, 5 RBIs) had a big series to help the Bombers move on. In their first ALCS since 1981, New York would face Baltimore, who had ousted the Cleveland Indians, also in four games.

The two AL East powerhouses squared off, and New York, helped by the Jeffrey Maier-assisted opposite field home run off of the bat of Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium, went on to face the heavily-favored Atlanta Braves in the World Series.

The Fall Classic did not start off very well for the Bombers, as the Braves pounded out a 12-1 shellacking of the home team in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium. Starting pitcher Andy Pettitte was ineffective against a strong Braves line-up, including two home runs from 19-year old center fielder Andruw Jones.

Greg Maddux threw a seven-hit shutout in the next game to give Atlanta a 2-0 edge heading home to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Braves were in control and it appeared that they would be on their way to being considered a dynasty.

However, the Yankees bounced back with a 5-2 victory in Game Three. David Cone and three relievers held down the Braves’ offense and the Yanks got to Tom Glavine enough for the series-saving win.

Game Four looked to be comfortably in the Braves’ hands when they built a six-run lead through the first five innings. The Bombers chipped away to cut the lead in half and headed to the eighth inning looking for more. They got the equalizer when replacement catcher Jim Leyritz took Braves closer Mark Wohlers deep for a three-run bomb that was the turning point in the series.
The Yankees eventually won the game to get even at two games a piece.

Game Five was a pitcher’s duel that was won by Pettitte over John Smoltz 1-0. The Yankees headed home after an improbable sweep on the road with a one-game lead, closing out an era in Fulton County Stadium.

In Game Six, Jimmy Key faced off against Greg Maddux. The Yanks put up a three spot in the bottom of the third inning, and the lead held. When Charlie Hayes gloved a foul pop-up for the 27th out, the Bombers beat Atlanta 3-2 in the clincher, and the team celebrated their first World Series win since 1978,. Fittingly, it was that same year that Graig Nettles made a similar put-out in Boston to propel the Yankees to the ALCS in a one-game playoff for the AL East.

Yankees closer John Wetteland received the series MVP award with saves in all four wins. The great Mariano Rivera, then baseball’s best setup man, was equally brilliant.

Although it was deemed an upset at the time, the Yankees established themselves as a powerhouse team quickly. They had a hiccup the following season in a playoff loss to Cleveland, but then won three consecutive World Series championships from 1998 to 2000.

Torre was the perfect manager for that veteran-laden 1996 team. Showalter, a popular skipper in his own right, had a completely different style than his laid-back successor.

His mannerisms dictated trust and belief in his team, especially the veteran leaders that took care of the locker room. There were plenty, with Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill, Strawberry, Raines, Wetteland and Cone amongst others. This was a team built to win and did just that.

Rivera, Williams, Jeter and Jorge Posada are the only remaining Yankees from the 1996 team. Each has played a big role in the Yankees’ run in the ’90’s and beyond.
Rivera and Jeter are first-ballot Hall of Famers, Williams (whose return in 2007 was still up in the air at press time) has had a wonderful career, and Jorge Posada has been steady and clutch behind the plate.

With youngsters like Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang and Melky Cabrera poised to become great Yankees in their own right, the core of the 1996 club is still around to help them start their own dynasty.

Joe Pietaro is Editor of New York Sportscene Magazine