By Peter Schwartz
» More Columns
With 56,375 fans roaring, John Wetteland stood on the Yankee Stadium mound just one strike away from closing out the Bombers’ first world championship in 18 years.
The righty closer was trying to get himself out of a self-created jam after entering Game 6 against the Atlanta Braves in the bottom of the ninth with the Yankees leading 3-1.
Wetteland struck out Andruw Jones to start the frame, but then gave up back to back singles to Ryan Klesko and Terry Pendleton.
After striking out Luis Polonia, Wetteland served up an RBI single to Marquis Grissom. Pesky Mark Lemke then strolled to the plate. He would work the count full before lifting a foul pop-up off of third base that went into the Braves’ dugout, just out of the reach of Charlie Hayes.
PHOTOS: John Wetteland 1996 Season
With a new baseball in hand, Wetteland knew exactly what he had to do.
“I said to myself that I need to Xerox that same pitch,” Wetteland recently told WFAN.com. “It’s not about what do I do now but this is what I need to execute and execute it.”
And execute he did as Wetteland got Lemke to pop up again, only this time the ball landed in Hayes’ glove in foul territory and the Yankees were celebrating their 23rd world title.
“That pitch was exactly the same as the one before except Lemke just served it a little bit better,” said Wetteland, who saved all four Yankees wins in the series and was named World Series MVP.
That final pitch of the 1996 World Series would turn out to be the final pitch of Wetteland’s two-year run in the Bronx. He left the Yankees as a free agent during the offseason, signing a lucrative four-year deal with the Texas Rangers. Wetteland retired after the 2000 season with 330 career saves, including 74 in pinstripes.
Earlier this season, Wetteland returned to the Bronx for his first Yankees Old Timers’ Game. With this being the 20th anniversary of that 1996 championship team, Wetteland reminisced about that season and some of the great moments he experienced.
He remembered how Frank Torre, the brother of Yankees manager Joe Torre, received a heart transplant during the World Series. He also recalled Andy Pettitte’s Game 5 gem, won by the Yankees, 1-0, as another moment that he won’t soon forget, thanks to its many twists and turns.
During a key July series against the Orioles in Baltimore, Wetteland saved all four games of a sweep that gave the Bombers a 10-game lead in the AL East. The lead dwindled to as little as 2½ games, but on Sept. 25 the Yankees clinched the division title with a 19-2 win over the Brewers in the opener of a doubleheader.
In the postseason, the Yankees beat the Rangers in four games in the ALDS, knocked off the Orioles in five in the LCS, and then dropped the first two games of the World Series to the Braves before winning four straight to return to the top of the baseball world.
“It was an emotional year. The World Series is the World Series. Obviously, that’s going to be a big moment. There were so many moments within that World Series like (Jim) Leyritz’s home run,” Wetteland said, referring to the backup catcher’s game-tying three-run shot in Game 4.
Wetteland spent the first three seasons of his career with the Dodgers, from 1989 to 1991. A pair of offseason trades saw him go from Los Angeles to Cincinnati and then to Montreal, where he spent three seasons with the Expos. After the lockout that wiped out the final third of the 1994 regular season and all of the postseason ended, the Expos traded Wetteland to the Yankees on April 5, 1995.
Wetteland notched 31 saves in his first season, helping the Bombers to the first-ever American League wild card. After taking a 2-0 lead over Seattle in the division series, the Yankees’ season shockingly ended as the Mariners rallied to win the series in five.
Joe Torre replaced Buck Showalter as Yankees skipper in 1996 and seemed to push all of the right buttons, especially in the Fall Classic against Atlanta.
“That’s why I’ve always said that Joe Torre won that World Series, because he flat out-managed (Braves manager) Bobby Cox,” Wetteland said. “I think their bench was 0-for-21 in the series. Joe always seemed to have the matchup at any part of the game that he wanted.”
Wetteland said he appreciated the fact that Torre was so calm and cool as a manager. He felt that Torre’s demeanor rubbed off on the whole team, including the veteran players. Even as an eight-year veteran, Wetteland saw himself coming of age under Torre.
“I wasn’t so much a veteran,” Wetteland recalled. “I was just a kid throwing hard, and it grew me up a lot.”
Later this season, the Yankees will honor that 1996 team with a weekend-long tribute that includes an Aug. 13th reunion. When he was back in the Bronx for Old Timers’ Day, Wetteland said he couldn’t help but realize just how special it was to be a Yankee.
“I’m just enjoying the moment, especially talking with some of the guard and hearing their stories about being a Yankee back then,” Wetteland said. “It’s about seeing the guys again. When you do get back together, it was kind of like we were just together yesterday.”
He was only a Yankee for two seasons, but Wetteland certainly earned his pinstripes in more ways than one. In 1996, he helped the Yankees win their first championship since 1978, but his bigger contribution didn’t actually take place on the mound, but rather in the bullpen and the clubhouse.
During his time in the Bronx, Wetteland helped mentor Mariano Rivera as a rookie in 1995 and then as the set-up man in 1996. Rivera has said he learned a lot about how to pitch from Wetteland, especially in the playoffs. After Wetteland departed for Texas, Rivera would take over the closer role in 1997.
The rest, as they say, is history.
For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.
Please follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan